Twenty years ago this fall, I was starting college. Hoping (obsessively) to finally feel like I found my people, running cross country (also, unsurprisingly, obsessively), and having the earliest, distant notions of what my adult life would be like. I thought I would have mismatching bowls from Anthropologie and live in San Fransisco and then later New York.
There are lots of times when I’m walking down the street noticing how the autumn light is beautiful in the way it always is in New England, or obsessing over some of the same things I’ve obsessed over most of my life, when I’ll be particularly struck by how I never could have imagined this year. Not just the pandemic, but the Trump presidency (that Trump would be someone whose name I’d even know—had I heard of him? Probably just from buildings I’d passed in Manhattan and the cameo in Home Alone II?), pocket-sized computers, social media, GPS watches, having a kindergartener. Dropping my kindergartener off for school in a face mask. Did hand sanitizer even exist in 2000? I’d never seen it.
In the fall of 1999 I was reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. My very grouchy AP English teacher assigned the book with little—or maybe even no—direction. Here’s this book, read it by next week, then write a 3-5 page paper about it. I didn’t understand very much about the book; the paper I wrote was about how I felt embarrassed to identify with Mr. Ramsay more than Mrs. Ramsay (this was a weird paper to write, but my grouchy non-direction-giving teacher actually liked it, and perhaps this was the beginning of me writing weird essays about books that were also essays about myself).
At graduation, I smuggled my school-issued copy of the book back out of the classroom and took it with me to college. I was assigned to read it again there, and again, loved, but did not understand it. In graduate school, I took a Woolf and Faulkner seminar with a smart, kind woman and finally started to make some sense of what was going on, or at least what Woolf was doing. Windows, light, time, art, beauty. In high school we’d talked so much about the truth and beauty (we read Joyce in that class too, even more incomprehensibly, and although I’m not Catholic, that sermon scene in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man elicited the strongest and strangest panic I’ve ever experienced in response to a book)), but in all those conversations it had never really been clear what these abstract notions had to do with the characters in the novel. Finally, in that grad class I started to see a little of this, and in my book—the same one I smuggled out of AP English more than 20 years ago—the annotations grow more useful, the handwriting messier, as readings go on.
I assigned the novel to my own high school students and felt irrationally enraged when it was clear they were not reading it. I was teaching four different classes, three of them (including this AP class) for the first time and barely had time to stay a day ahead of them. I can’t imagine I introduced the novel any more meaningfully than the grouchy teacher had to me.
But now! I’m reading it now in this awful, strange, hard, exhausting, intimate year. And it’s as much about failure and disappointment and marriage and compromise and loneliness and incompatibility and legacy as it is about Art and Beauty and Truth. Or: Art and Beauty and Truth are not only relevant to the painting Lily Briscoe finally finishes at the end of the book, but to the knitting Mrs. Ramsay’s doing, to the way she’s raising her children.
Now there are five sets of annotations in my book:
1999: I am 17, think I want to be a writer and must escape suburbia and Truth and Beauty are Very Important.
2001: I am 18, more concerned with who I might kiss at the parties my college track team hosts than my To the Lighthouse paper, but in some visceral, distorted, incoherent place, I love this book.
2007: I am in a relationship that is not right but unwilling to admit that, and as a result able to hear every word of my professor’s lectures and carefully annotate every critical essay on Woolf.
2014: I am exhausted, 6 months pregnant, newly married, and overwhelmed. I’m teaching a book to high school students that I barely understand.
2020: The world is burning, literally and figuratively. I am tired and sad and I love my family and writing in a way that finally makes clear why it was so embarrassing to identify with Mr. Ramsay.