I’ve been trying to learn French. I’ve wanted to do it ever since I was a kid—not just to speak a foreign language, but to speak French. It seemed glamorous to me, worldly and elegant in a way I longed to be. It still does. So a couple of months ago, after my husband and I finished watching every season of the glorious show, Call My Agent!, I downloaded a couple of language apps on my phone and diligently applied myself to learning French.
The trouble is, I’m terrible at it. I can read it well enough, but speaking it feels nearly impossible to me. The words don’t roll off my tongue the way Spanish does. Every sound or absence of it strikes me as counterintuitive. When I attempt to say a sentence in French it’s like there’s something physically wrong with my mouth. I’ve had to accept that it may be a bust, that French and I are perhaps not to be.
I thought about my daily struggle to gracefully say je veux tous les croissants s’il te plait as I pondered the letter I’ll be answering in this month’s Dear Sugar Letter. It’s from a woman who wonders what happens if a dream is too big to achieve. What do we do, she asks, if we try and try and ultimately fail? What if we never manage to get all the croissants, or even figure out how to properly ask for them?
As always, subscribers will receive the letter in their inbox on the last day of the month, but I want to remind you that if yours goes to spam or otherwise disappears, you can access all the letters—both current and past—on my Substack page, so long as you’re logged in with the email address you used to subscribe.
I chose to answer a letter about career dreams this month because in addition to my own flawed Fun With French, I’ve spent some time reflecting on the ways we measure success. A couple weeks ago I gave a (virtual) commencement address and I realized afterwards that I’d said nothing about attaining or achieving anything. Instead, I talked about the importance of trusting yourself and finding beauty, about cultivating courage and risking vulnerability, about forging ahead with love and kindness and a sense of optimism, no matter what.
The last one has been particularly on my mind. Forging ahead. It’s not been the best year of my life. In fact, it’s been a downright awful one, but I’ve held fast to the belief that there is light ahead and that I (and we) are always wandering in the direction of that light at every moment, even if it’s impossible to see it during any given step or stage. I’m an optimist, but a melancholy one—the sort who doesn’t believe that everything is great, but knows it isn’t and believes that it’ll be okay anyway. Maybe a better word for that is faith.
“You’re a seeker,” my mother said to me a couple of days before she died. It’s among the last sentences she spoke to me; the final thing she said I was. A seeker. She said it after I told her that I’d signed up for the support group the hospital offered for those whose loved ones were dying—a group I’d never in fact be part of because when it met the next day I was the only person who showed up. At the time that my mom called me a seeker, I bristled. I don’t know why I felt insulted by her observation, but I was at an age when a lot of things she said felt like something I had to oppose or deny.
Later, my insides collapsed with the knowledge that she was right. I sought. I seek. Everything I’ve ever wanted to do in my life and my work is find a way to the light. That’s my big dream.
Several years ago, when I was writing the Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus, I received a letter from a man who taught English and creative writing at a university. Many of his students were graduating soon and he asked me to write them a commencement speech, so I did. It’s called “The Future Has an Ancient Heart” and you can find it at the end of this letter (and also in my book Tiny Beautiful Things).
But before you get there, I have some things to tell you about:
In June I’ll begin leading a book club for Literati (but you can sign up now). Together, we’ll read one book a month—a mix of contemporary novels, memoirs, story, and essay collections that all have one thing in common: I love them. You can either sign up for a premium membership and have the books sent directly to you each month or you can do a standard membership and bring your own book. We’ll discuss the book each month on the Literati app. More information can be found here.
In August I’ll be doing my first in-person event since early March of 2020 (thank you vaccine!). I’ll be giving a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in New York as part of their week of events focused on the question of how we build a culture of empathy. You can find out more about it here.
In October I’ll be teaching a weekend writing workshop with the amazing and wonderful Roda Ahmed at the Art of Living Retreat Center in North Carolina. It’s a workshop for writers at all levels, so if you’re at all curious, check it out here.
And in July of 2022—a year out and yet just around the corner—I’ll be cruising on the Danube River through Hungary, Austria, and Germany, serving as the resident “storyteller” of an eight-day journey hosted by Avalon Waterways. I’m SO looking forward to this, as I have missed traveling terribly. When the folks at Avalon Waterways first asked me if I’d be interested in doing this, I was a bit reluctant because I don’t think of myself as a lover of cruises, as I don’t like the idea of being trapped on a boat. Then I read more and realized we’ll get to walk around and have other active adventures at the various cities and towns we’ll be stopping at each day, so I said yes. If you’re interested in joining me, you can read more about it here.
That’s it for now (though scroll on down for that Dear Sugar letter from the archives). Thank you for reading my newsletter and thanks to those of you who’ve left so many wonderful, deep, kind, brave comments in response to the Dear Sugar Letters. I read every one of them. If you want to submit a letter for use in the Dear Sugar Letters, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please feel free to share this newsletter with anyone you think would like to read it.
Keep on walking, dear hearts. There’s light ahead.
From the Dear Sugar archives, “The Future Has An Ancient Heart,” published inTiny Beautiful Things.
I teach creative writing at the University of Alabama where the majority of my students are seniors graduating soon. Most of them are English and Creative Writing majors/minors who are feeling a great deal of dread and anxiety about their expulsion from academia and their entry into "the real world." Many of their friends in other disciplines have already lined up post-graduate jobs, and many of my students are tired of the "being an English major prepares you for law school" comments being made by friends and family alike, who are pressuring them towards a career in law despite having little or no interest in it. I’ve been reading your columns to my students in an attempt to pep them up and let them know that everything is going to be all right.
Our school has decided to forgo a graduation speaker for the last five years or so, and even when we did have a graduation speaker, often they were leaders in business or former athletes, and so their message was lost on the ears of the majority of 21 and 22-year-olds. So Sugar, I am asking you to deliver a graduation speech for our little class of writers. While we might have difficulty obtaining you an honorary PhD, believe me when I say that among us are some extremely talented writers, bakers, musicians, editors, designers, and video game players who will gladly write you a lyric essay, bake you a pie, write you a song, and perform countless other acts of kindness in exchange for your advice.
Cupcake & Team 408
Dear Cupcake & Team 408,
There’s a line by the Italian writer Carlo Levi that I think is apt here: “The future has an ancient heart.” I love it because it expresses with such grace and economy what is certainly true—that who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives. I think it’s a useful sentiment for you to reflect upon now, sweet peas, at this moment when the future likely feels the opposite of ancient, when instead it feels like a Lamborghini that’s pulled up to the curb while every voice around demands you get in and drive.
I’m here to tell you it’s okay to travel by foot. In fact, I recommend it. There is so much ahead that’s worth seeing; so much behind you can’t identify at top speed. Your teacher is correct: You’re going to be all right. And you’re going to be all right not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way.
I know. I fucked up some things. I was an English major too. As it happens, I lied for six years about having an English degree, though I didn’t exactly mean to lie. I had gone to college and participated in a graduation ceremony. I’d walked across the stage and collected a paper baton. On that paper it said a bachelor’s degree would be mine once I finished one final class. It seemed like such an easy thing to do, but it wasn’t. And so I didn’t do it and the years slipped past, each one making it seem more unlikely that I’d ever get my degree. I’d done all the coursework except that one class. I’d gotten good grades. To claim that I had an English degree was truer than not, I told myself. But that didn’t make it true.
You have to do what you have to do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer. You can’t take a class if taking a class feels like it’s going to kill you. Faking it never works. If you don’t believe me, read Richard Wright. Read Charlotte Brontë. Read Joy Harjo. Read Toni Morrison. Read William Trevor. Read the entire Western canon.
Or just close your eyes and remember everything you already know. Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits. Trust that all you learned during your college years was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what use it is. Know that all those stories, poems, plays, and novels are a part of you now and that they are bigger than you and they will always be.
I was a waitress during most of the years that I didn’t have my English degree. My mother had been a waitress for many of the years that she was raising my siblings and me. She loved to read. She always wanted to go to college. One time she took a night class when I was very young and my father became enraged with her and cut her textbook into pieces with a pair of scissors. She dropped the class. I think it was Biology.
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.
I got married when I was in college. I got divorced during the years that I was lying about having an English degree. When I met the man to whom I am now married he said, “You know, I really think you should finish your degree, not because I want you to, but I can tell that you want to.” I thought he was sort of being an asshole. We didn’t bring up the subject again for a year.
I understand what you’re afraid of. I understand what your parents fear. There are practical concerns. One needs money to live. And then there is a deep longing to feel legitimate in the world, to feel that others hold us in regard. I felt intermittently ashamed during my years as a waitress. In my family, I was supposed to be the one who “made it.” At times it seemed instead I had squandered my education and dishonored my dead mother by becoming a waitress like her. Sometimes I would think of this as I went from table to table with my tray and I’d have to think of something else so I wouldn’t cry.
Years after I no longer worked at the last restaurant where I waited tables, my first novel was published. The man who’d been my manager at the restaurant read about me in the newspaper and came to my reading. He’d often been rude and snappish with me and I’d despised him on occasion, but I was touched to see him in the bookstore that night. “All those years ago, who would’ve guessed we’d be here celebrating the publication of your novel?” he asked when we embraced.
“I would have,” I replied.
And it was true. I always would have guessed it, even all the time that I feared it would never happen. Being there that night was the meaning of my life. Getting there had been my every intention. When I say you don’t have to explain what you’re going to do with your life I’m not suggesting you lounge around whining about how difficult it is. I’m suggesting you apply yourself in directions for which we have no accurate measurement. I’m talking about work. And love.
It’s really condescending to tell you how young you are. It’s even inaccurate. Some of you who are graduating from college are not young. Some of you are older than me. But to those of you new college graduates who are indeed young, the old new college graduates will back me up on this: you are so goddamned young. Which means about eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false.
The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.
My mother was young too, but not like those of you who are so goddamned young. She was forty when she finally went to college. She spent the last years of her life as a college student, though she didn’t know they were her last years. She thought she was at the beginning of the next era of her life. She died a couple of months before we were both supposed to graduate from different schools. At her memorial service, my mother’s favorite professor stood up and granted her an honorary PhD.
The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.
I have learned this over and over and over again.
There came a day when I decided to stop lying. I called the college from which I did not have an English degree and asked the woman who answered the phone what I needed to do to get one. She told me I had only to take one class. It could be any class. I chose Latin. I’d never studied Latin, but I wanted to know, at last, where so many of our words come from. I had a romantic idea of what it would be like to study Latin—the Romance languages are, after all, descended from it—but it wasn’t romantic. It was a lot of confusion and memorization and attempting to decipher bizarre stories about soldiers marching around ancient lands. In spite of my best efforts, I got a B.
One thing I never forgot from my Latin class is that a language that is descended from another language is called a daughter language.
It was the beginning of the next era of my life, like this is of yours.
Years after I no longer lived in the state where my mother and I went to college, I traveled to that state to give a reading from my first novel. Just as my former boss had done in a different city mere weeks before, the professor who’d granted my mother a PhD at her memorial service read about me in the newspaper and came to the bookstore to hear me read. “All those years ago, who would’ve guessed we’d be here celebrating the publication of your novel?” she asked when we embraced.
“Not me,” I replied. “Not me.”
And it was true. I meant it as sincerely as I’d meant that I always would’ve guessed it when I’d been speaking to my boss. That both things could be true at once—my disbelief as well as my certainty—was the unification of the ancient and the future parts of me. It was everything I intended and yet still I was surprised by what I got.
I hope you will be surprised and knowing at once. I hope you’ll always have love. I hope you’ll have days of ease and a good sense of humor. I hope one of you really will bake me a pie (banana cream, please). I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.
And then smile very serenely until they say oh.
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