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We’re 10 days into June and the books are flowing – which is just how I like it. Here’s what I have been reading:

City of Flickering Light, Juliette Fay
Desperate to escape a cruel employment situation, three young people jump off a moving train and make their way to Hollywood. Fay’s novel follows sensible Irene, guileless but thoughtful Millie, and dependable Henry as they navigate the sparkle and grit of 1920s Tinseltown. I flew through this in two days – it was captivating.

Dear Martin, Nic Stone
Justyce McAllister is a top student at a tony Atlanta prep school. But none of that matters when he encounters a police officer, or when his best friend gets shot – the police (and most of the public) only care that they’re Black. A thoughtful, compelling YA novel about race, first love and navigating friendships, with some parallels to The Hate U Give.

An Old, Cold Grave, Iona Whishaw
It’s early spring and the Hughes ladies are cleaning out their root cellar when they stumble on a child’s skeleton. Who was the child, and how did he/she get buried there? The local police ask Lane Winslow to help investigate. This third mystery digs into the complex relationships in King’s Cove, and delves into the mutual attraction between Lane and Inspector Darling. So thoughtful and well plotted.

The Queen Bee and Me, Gillian McDunn
Shy Meg has always been happy to live in her best friend Beatrix’s shadow. But both girls are changing as they go through middle school. When Meg takes a science elective on her own and makes friends with a quirky new girl, Beatrix is not pleased. A warm, honest middle-grade story of tricky friendships and learning to stand up for yourself.

Fortune Favors the Dead, Stephen Spotswood
Willowjean “Will” Parker is a circus girl working a side gig when she meets intrepid investigator Lillian Pentecost. Will becomes Lillian’s apprentice, and together the two crack some tough cases in 1940s New York City. A smart, hard-boiled noirish mystery with a sassy, slangy narrator. Lots of fun.

Dial A for Aunties, Jesse Q. Sutanto
When photographer Meddelin “Meddy” Chan accidentally kills her blind date, she calls her mother and three aunts to help her move the body. Unfortunately, all five women are in the middle of a big wedding weekend, which could be huge for their family business. A hilarious, zany story featuring complex Chinese-Indonesian family dynamics, a sweet love story and some insight about claiming your own independence. An impulse buy at Target and totally worth it.

Lookout: Love, Solitude, and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest, Trina Moyles
Writer and development worker Trina Moyles loved her childhood in rural Canada, but she never expected to find herself spending summers as a fire lookout. This is the story of Moyles’ journey deep into the woods, her first few summers there, and the challenges and beauty she found. Gorgeous, insightful writing and vivid characters – I loved Holly the tower dog and Trina’s lookout neighbors. One of my faves of 2021. Found at the wonderful Sundog Books in Seaside, FL.

The Memory Keeper, Jennifer Camiccia
Lulu Carter, almost 13, has a highly unusual memory: she can remember specific details from every day in her life. As Lulu’s memory sharpens, her beloved Gram seems to be losing hers, so Lulu and her friends dig into Gram’s past to see if they can help. Funny and sweet, with tons of information about the brain and a sensitive handling of tough family stories. Also found at Sundog Books.

The Paris Connection, Lorraine Brown
Hannah and her boyfriend Si are traveling from Venice to Si’s sister’s wedding in Amsterdam, when the train uncouples in the middle of the night and takes Hannah to Paris. She spends the day with Leo, a handsome but irritating (aren’t they always?) French guy who is also stranded. The day, and Leo, prompt her to rethink her life. A sweet rom-com with some deep introspection on Hannah’s part and lots of lovely Paris details. To review for Shelf Awareness out Aug. 24).

All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot
In this third volume of his memoirs, Herriot has signed up for the RAF and spends a lot of his time in training immersed in thoughts of Yorkshire. I remembered a few moments in this book from reading it 20 years ago, but most of it was fresh to me. Witty, warm and so comforting.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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iris gumption kate winslet the holiday

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw The Holiday, but I remember the text my sister sent me after she saw it, with our mom: We found your dream house.

She was talking, of course, about the cozy book-filled English cottage belonging to Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), set among fields outside a quiet village near London. It has a spacious kitchen and a fireplace and so many sweet details, and those shelves lined with books. I instantly fell in love with the cottage, and also with Iris herself: smart, spunky, kindhearted and struggling to fully believe in her own brilliance. Perhaps it is no surprise that I saw myself in her.

I watch this film at least once a year, and I love Iris more every time: her romantic’s heart, her willingness to try new things (though she’s been stuck in the same loop for a while), her genuine curiosity about people. I especially love watching her pull away from the unhealthy patterns – including the toxic man – she’s been clinging to for a long time.

She has some help with this, in true rom-com fashion: a charming film composer (who knew Jack Black could be charming?) who brings her Starbucks and entertains her with his renditions of movie scores, and her elderly neighbor, Arthur (Eli Wallach), who tells her bluntly that she’s a “leading lady” but is behaving like a cinematic best friend. In short: Iris is way more brilliant and worthy than she believes she is, and she needs to dig deep to find the gumption to move forward with her life. (Arthur also gives her a long list of movies to watch, all featuring “powerhouse women” – he knows as well as anyone that we all need heroines and role models.)

Gradually, Iris begins to believe in herself again: finding her way around a new place, helping Arthur get into better shape, even throwing a party or two. I always want to stand up and cheer when she finally tells off her smarmy ex, Jasper (Rufus Sewell), toward the end of the film. “What has got into you?” he asks her, baffled. “I don’t know!” she says joyfully. “But I think what I’ve got is something slightly resembling – gumption!”

Gumption, largely inspired by Iris, was my word for the year in 2016. I had no idea how much I would need it, in a year that included two job changes, a move, and an election whose effects are still echoing in some ways. It is still an attribute I keep reaching for, in this lingering pandemic which includes (for me) another job hunt, continuing to heal from my divorce, and more solitude (and loneliness) than I ever thought possible.

I don’t for a moment believe that Iris’ new self-belief, or the new romance that came with it, solved all her problems. But I believe she’s on her way, and on the days when I emulate her and reach for my own gumption, it’s easier to believe that I am too.

As the job hunt drags on (and despite several interviews lately, it seems endless), I keep turning this question over in my mind.

I am a firm believer in Joan Didion’s famous assertion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – often without even realizing it. Over the last year, I have found myself telling a lot of stories about unemployment and the job hunt, to myself and other people. They range widely, from the socially acceptable (I’m grateful for unemployment benefits) to the plucky and determined (I’m sure I’ll find something soon) to the truly painful (there must be something wrong with me). I have tried and tried to make sense of not only my most recent layoff – which, frankly, is a little easier because the pandemic upended everything – but also of my struggle to find a stable, low-drama, creatively fulfilling communications job where I can stay for a while.

Here are a couple of facts: I have done communications work for almost 15 years. I have worked at four different universities, and never stayed in any one job for more than a couple of years (sometimes by choice, sometimes not). There are lots of stories to be told about this, too: massive shifts in the higher education industry; a couple of better opportunities that came along; a few toxic work situations I needed to get out of; a couple of temp gigs that always had an end date. And, of course, a couple of endings (including the latest one) that I did not choose.

I know so many people – in my industry and out of it – who have held the same jobs or done the same kind of work for many years. I keep thinking there must be something I’m missing, that I can’t seem to find a similar situation. I have always chased (and been taught to value) stability, and I have always believed (perhaps wrongly, it turns out) that hard work and dedication would get me there.

Earlier in my career, I worried less about moving around a lot, and expected to find a more stable situation eventually. But my mid-career years have coincided with several departmental reorgs, leadership changes at my workplaces, my divorce, and a global health crisis. That is a lot of upheaval, and sometimes I think it’s no wonder I have bounced around like a tennis ball for several years now. Other days I think the story must have something to do with me: some fundamental lack that makes me dispensable.

I don’t know, of course, how this latest chapter in my career saga is going to turn out. I have done a lot of wrestling and crying, writing and running, venting to friends (and here on the blog) along with a lot of combing job boards and writing cover letters and interviewing. I don’t know if the chapter will end with me finding a similar gig to the ones I’ve had in the past, or something similar in a different industry, or something out of left field that I never could have expected.

More broadly, I don’t know what kind of story this is: is it the kind where the heroine slogs along for a while and her hard work is rewarded? Or the kind where something or someone swoops in sideways to introduce an entirely new storyline? Or a different kind I haven’t thought of yet?

Humans are meaning-makers, as one of my college professors (a jovial redheaded man with a passion for medieval literature and an equal passion for mobile technology) used to remind us. I think readers, writers and storytellers – and I am all three – are especially inclined that way. So it’s no wonder I am spending so much time trying to wrest some meaning out of this story. But it’s not over yet – we haven’t even reached the next stopping place, or the next chapter climax. And of course, there’s often no way to tell you’ve reached the turning point until much later.

For now, I will keep doing the things: networking, interviewing, cover-letter-writing, requesting the unemployment benefits I still need. I will keep living the story, because that’s the other thing: you only get to know what kind of a story it is if you stick with it.

Back from a beach vacation with my family – I did not read much on the actual beach, but squeezed in a few pages at night and a lot of plane reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Rehearsals, Annette Christie
Megan Givens and Tom Prescott are gathering their (difficult) families on San Juan Island to tie the knot. But after a disastrous rehearsal dinner, both Megan and Tom keep waking up on the morning of that day. They’ve got to figure out two things: how to get out of the time loop, and whether they really want to be together. A warm, funny, surprisingly insightful rom-com with a Groundhog Day twist. I expected to like it, but I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 13).

Death in a Darkening Mist, Iona Whishaw
Lane Winslow’s second adventure finds her stumbling over the dead body of a Russian at a hot spring. Her Russian language skills make her a valuable asset to the case. I love Lane and her supporting cast of characters in rural postwar British Columbia; I’m especially fond of young, good-hearted Constable Ames.

All the Little Hopes, Leah Weiss
In 1943, Lucy Brown’s family in eastern North Carolina gets a government contract to produce beeswax. They also get a new addition: Allie Bert Tucker, who arrives from the mountains to care for her pregnant aunt but ends up becoming part of the Brown clan. The girls (age 13-14) narrate their story in alternating chapters. It’s got mystery (Lucy fancies herself a Nancy Drew) and plenty of heartbreak, but it’s really a story about family and growing up. So good. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 27).

The Windsor Knot, S.J. Bennett
After an evening of entertainment at Windsor Castle, a young pianist is found strangled in his room. MI5 suspect the Kremlin, but the Queen has other ideas, and enlists her secretary, Rozie, to help her pursue them. A smart, charming mystery featuring Her Majesty’s sleuthing skills and lots of palace intrigue. Rozie – a whip-smart British-Nigerian army veteran – is a fantastic character. More, please.

In All Good Faith, Liza Nash Taylor
Virginia, 1932: May Marshall is struggling to run her family’s market and care for two young children when tragedy strikes her husband’s family. In Boston, shy Dorrit Sykes struggles to cope after the loss of her mother, eventually heading to Washington with her father for a veterans’ march. The women’s two stories (eventually) intertwine, to fascinating effect. Richly detailed, engaging historical fiction; I loved May’s head for business and the way Dorrit eventually grows in confidence. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 10).

Caterpillar Summer, Gillian McDunn
Cat is the best at taking care of her brother, Chicken – especially since their dad died. But when they end up spending time with their estranged grandparents one summer, Cat gets to be a kid for a while. She learns to fish and digs into the reasons why her mom has been avoiding her own parents. Lovely, warm and insightful; a sensitive portrait of a biracial family that includes a neurodivergent child.

Shadow of the Batgirl, Sarah Kuhn et al.
Cassandra Cain is a trained assassin, and that’s all she knows how to be – until she breaks away from her father and his gang. With the help of a kind noodle-shop owner and a librarian named Barbara Gordon, Cass begins to step into her own powers and figure out how to use them for good. I loved this YA graphic take on Batgirl, found at Million Year Picnic.

The Bookshop of Second Chances, Jackie Fraser
In the same week, Thea Mottram loses her job and her husband tells her he’s leaving. Then her great-uncle Andrew dies and leaves her his house in Scotland, plus his extensive book collection, so Thea heads there to sort out his estate and collect herself. Soon, she begins to make friends and even (possibly) fall in love. Sweet, though sort of problematic – the main love interest and his brother had a very strange feud – but I liked Thea and her new community.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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I rewatched While You Were Sleeping around Christmastime – which is when I usually watch it, since it takes place during Christmas week. I cracked up at all the best lines – “These mashed potatoes are so creamy!” “New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Guy Lombardo died!” “I got Ice Capades!” – and reveled in the happy cacophony of the Callaghan family’s holiday celebrations. But this time, I was focused on a different aspect of the story: the loneliness.

When the movie opens, Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock’s character) sits all day in a CTA booth taking subway tokens from strangers. She’s single, childless, without family since her dad’s passing, and her boss is asking her (again) to work on Christmas. Although she spends a lot of the movie interacting with the Callaghans (and trying to figure out how to tell them she’s not actually engaged to their comatose son), there are a number of scenes where she’s alone in her apartment, with her cat and the Christmas tree that broke the window early in the film. She’s so desperate for connection that she goes along with a lie, and nearly ends up marrying the wrong man just so she can be part of a family.

I read an article this winter about how While You Were Sleeping is the perfect movie for a pandemic: many of us, like Lucy, have spent the past year missing the communities we used to have (or wanted to have, or thought we were supposed to have). Lucy has never been part of a big family, but she’s thrilled to be welcomed into the Callaghan clan. She accepts hugs, chokes on Christmas eggnog, and cradles her wrapped present as the others tear into theirs; having spent years starved for community, she doesn’t want to miss savoring even a moment of it.

That scene made me well up: after I’ve spent so much of the past 14-ish months alone in my apartment, Lucy’s loneliness hit much closer to home. I have been grateful for every scrap of community I’ve found this year, including my online writing class, the few neighborhood friends I’ve been seeing, and in-person time with my sweet guy. But I have missed other connections: time with my family; in-person interactions with coworkers and other friends; the chance to build on new neighborhood relationships I had just started forming when the pandemic hit.

Ultimately, Lucy – and I – must make some choices about the kind of community that’s really worth pursuing. She decides, in the end, to tell the truth rather than end up married to a man she doesn’t love (and barely knows), even if that means losing the family she’s recently gained. As I continue to navigate life post-divorce (and as we all emerge slowly from the pandemic), I have to make choices, too. Which relationships are worth continuing to foster, and which ones do I need to let go? Was I hanging onto some connections – or the idea of them – long past their sell-by date? Where I can I find, or continue to seek, community that lets me be seen and loved?

After New Year’s, Lucy gets her happy ending – including a honeymoon to Florence with her beloved Jack. I’m hopeful, these days, that more connection is coming for me, too. But I think it’s worth remembering that loneliness isn’t limited to times of great isolation, and that we can all work to provide (and ask for) connections to those we love or those we encounter. (It is also, of course, worth remembering that Argentina has great beef, that Guy Lombardo didn’t play the clarinet, and that John Wayne was tall.)

Hello, friends. It’s been a year this week since I was furloughed (which seems both impossible and about right). The first few months were a different kind of limbo than the one I find myself in now, mostly because I was hoping to go back to my job at Berklee eventually.

As you know, that didn’t work out, so I’ve been hitting the job hunt hard every week (or what feels like all the time) for months now. And it’s exhausting.

I’ve always appreciated the boundaries of the 9-to-5 office job: I want to have a job where I can work hard, even occasionally go above and beyond, but then I want to leave work at work. I’ve never wanted a high-powered communications director job, because I’ve worked for those folks and I’ve seen what it entails: they are always on call, nights and weekends, especially in times of crisis. Similarly, I never really wanted an all-freelance life, because of the constant hustle it requires. You’re always looking for your next gig, even while you’re juggling the ones you’ve got. And if you swap applications and interviews for projects, the job hunt can feel exactly like that.

I get job alerts from several places in my inbox, so I see them at least once a day during the week. I’m always combing job boards, talking to friends and connections about the kind of work I want, working on cover letters, trying to imagine a different life. I’ve had several interviews lately (yay!) and those require both prep and follow-up, both of which I’m happy to do (and sometimes it’s even fun). But the cumulative effect feels like a lot of hustle for (so far) not much payoff.

Several of you readers have advised treating the job hunt like a 9-to-5, and I’m doing my best to limit the hours it dominates both my time and my brain. I generally take breaks on the weekends, and during the week when I need it or when there’s something special going on. I’m trying to remember that more effort doesn’t always equal more results. But I know I’ve got to keep hustling until I find my next gig.

I’m willing to put in the work, but for today I just wanted to say: the hustle is constant. And it can be tiring.

I watched Runaway Bride a few weeks ago, because I desperately needed to laugh and feel like part of a community, and a visit to Hale, Maryland, sounded just right. The community there – the women at the hair salon, the bakery where people buy muffins and trade gossip, the multigenerational town softball game – is one of my favorite parts of this sweet film. Peggy Flemming (not the ice skater!), played by Joan Cusack, is my favorite character: she’s hilarious and wise, and such a good friend.

As with You’ve Got Mail, there is a love story here, but I find it less important (and, frankly, a little more troubling) the more times I watch this movie. Richard Gere’s character, New York journalist Ike Graham, is so convinced of his own importance that it’s refreshing to watch multiple women – including his editor and ex-wife, played by Rita Wilson – take him down a peg (or smack him with his own newspaper). But the main character, and the one in whose journey I’m most interested, is Maggie Carpenter, played by Julia Roberts.

When we meet Maggie, she’s running the family hardware store; she clearly enjoys her work and her customers, though we find out later that she’s also there because of her dad’s drinking problem. She’s also getting ready – for the fourth time – to get married. She has never been able to go through with it, and later in the film, as Ike Graham predicts, we see her run again (this time from him).

Her fifth failed wedding finally prompts some much-needed introspection: who is Maggie Carpenter, and what does she actually want? I love the scene where she’s prepared about ten different kinds of eggs to try, since she’s been ordering whatever her current guy wanted for years now. She goes for long solo runs, finally confronts her father about his drinking, and places her lamps made of industrial parts up for sale in New York stores. She doesn’t blow up her life entirely, but tries to figure out if it’s actually the one she wants – or if she has simply been living by everyone else’s expectations for far too long.

Maggie didn’t grow up in the Bible Belt, like I did, but her rush to the altar – not because she necessarily wants a wedding but because that’s what everyone expects – rings true for me. I went to a small Christian college in Texas where “ring by spring” was not just a catchy phrase but a real phenomenon. (My ex and I, at 24, were actually the last couple in one of our groups of friends to get married.) There is so much pressure for women to conform to the cultural norm – in this case, a big white wedding to a handsome man – that there’s not always a lot of space to figure out what you might want instead.

At the end of the film, Maggie comes to New York, having figured out what she wants – namely, eggs Benedict, and Ike – and made the decision on her own terms for the first time. I love that she quotes his proposal speech from earlier in the movie, but I love even more her admission that she didn’t know herself, not really, and that she needed to before she could commit to another person. (The journey is often longer in real life, of course, but this is still the movies, and we know these characters are heading for a happy ending.)

When Maggie ran away from the altar all those times, she was instinctively backing away from the wrong men, but I think she was also running from a deeper truth: knowing, and liking, yourself can be much harder than meeting all of society’s expectations for you. I never ran from a wedding, but I did get divorced after more than a decade of marriage, and the last two years have been (among other things) an exercise in getting to know myself and the kind of life I actually want.

I’m not sure if Maggie is still running the hardware store, working full-time as a lighting designer in Manhattan, or doing something else altogether. I hope her marriage to Ike brought her years of happiness; they make each other laugh and keep each other honest, which I think is important for love. But most of all, I hope she kept following her own inner compass, wherever it led. And as with Kathleen Kelly, my hopes for Maggie are also, ultimately, my hopes for myself.

We’re halfway through May (!) and the lilacs, cherry blossoms and tulips are glorious lately. So are the books. Here’s what I have been reading:

The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, Charlotte Donlon
I struggle with loneliness, especially (but not only) since my divorce. Donlon writes thoughtfully about her own experiences with loneliness and mental illness (they are not the same but can sometimes be linked). I liked her honest, compassionate approach. Recommended on Instagram by Devi.

The Rose Code, Kate Quinn
During World War II, the codebreakers of Bletchley Park played a vital but little-known role in stopping Hitler’s advance. This propulsive novel follows three women – a whip-smart socialite, an East End girl determined to better herself, and a shy but brilliant puzzle-lover – who spend their war years at BP, and are torn apart by mutual betrayal. They come back together in 1947 to crack one last code. Quinn is a genius at compelling historical fiction featuring badass women. I loved it.

Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics, Heather Lende
I love Lende’s wise, practical memoirs about living (and writing obituaries) in tiny Haines, Alaska. This, her fourth, tells the story of her decision to run for the local assembly in the wake of Trump’s election, and the triumphs and struggles of her three-year term. Thoughtful, funny and thought-provoking, and a reminder that we can all pitch in (though it will rarely be easy), wherever we are.

The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice, Cara Meredith
Like me, Meredith is a white Christian woman who grew up surrounded by “colorblind” rhetoric, which did not give her a good foundation for conversations about race. Also like me, her world changed – both overnight and little by little – when she fell in love with a Black man. This memoir charts her wrestling with her own privilege, her first years of mothering biracial sons, and her complicated relationship with her father-in-law, James Meredith. Her writing style is quippy at times, but I saw myself so often in her experiences.

The Consequences of Fear, Jacqueline Winspear
October 1941: Maisie Dobbs is juggling top-secret government work with family obligations when a messenger boy tells her he’s witnessed a murder. Determined to keep the boy and his family safe, Maisie is shocked when her intelligence work brings her face-to-face with the killer. I adore this series and this 16th entry was complex and satisfying; Maisie’s personal life has also taken some interesting turns lately. So good.

A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars, Hakeem Oluseyi and Joshua Horwitz
Growing up poor and Black in Mississippi, James Plummer Jr. knew he loved science, but he never thought he’d become a renowned astrophysicist. But that’s where he is today, and his memoir tells that story: his peripatetic childhood, his contradictory persona of “gangsta nerd,” the addiction to crack cocaine that almost pulled him all the way down. Honest, vulnerable storytelling and lots of great science. Hard to read at times, but compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 15).

The Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan
As World War II drags on, along with rationing, the BBC holds a contest to find a female presenter for a popular cooking show. Four very different women, each with their own reasons for competing, decide to enter. A really fun story of wartime cooking and female friendship (shades of Downton Abbey/Home Fires).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
I pick up this book nearly every spring when the world starts blooming – or when it’s rainy and raw and I need a little hope. I adore kind, practical Jane and I love watching her blossom on PEI and build a relationship with her dad and her new community. So good.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

computer tulips hpac

It’s the question at the heart of every application process: what if I get rejected?

What if I do all this work on a cover letter and my resume, and the HR person or hiring manager tosses aside my carefully polished materials? What if they pass me over without a second thought, or – almost worse – what if they take the time to interview me, and then decide I’m not who they are looking for?

It happens, of course – often multiple times in every job hunt. It happens in our lives, too: not getting picked for the team, getting dumped or brushed off by a potential partner, drifting apart from or being excluded by our friends. It’s easy for others, especially those we love, to say “it’s not about you” when a person or organization rejects you, and most of the time there’s some truth to that. But no matter the type of rejection, it still stings – even if you know there were other factors at work.

Real talk: some days the fear of rejection is enough to make me want to slam my laptop closed and just stop putting myself out there for employers to dismiss. Some days the form rejections from application portals slide off my back (this is rare; I’m a sponge, not a duck), but more often, they have a bite. And it’s always disappointing when you’ve made a connection with a real person or group of people and you get an email or a phone call beginning with, “I’m sorry…”

I’ve had to work hard (and am still working) to really believe – and remember – that while rejection stinks, getting turned down for a job doesn’t mean I am not qualified or experienced. It especially doesn’t reflect on my worth as a person (more on that in a future post). It’s also not the end of the world, as my mother would say, and it definitely is a signal that I need to keep going. Sometimes, repeated rejections or disappointments have even nudged me to consider new possibilities: as a girlfriend noted last week, rejection can be redirection. (Case in point: my string of layoffs and struggles working in higher ed communications are part of what prompted me to cast my job-search net wider this time around.)

Some days, though, as my friend Stephanie noted recently, rejection just sucks and there’s no silver lining. I think it’s important to name that, too. Rejection may push us in new directions, make us stronger or simply remind us that we can get through hard things. But sometimes it’s just that: hard.

upper west side view

Of all the late-nineties rom-coms featuring plucky heroines, adorable New York apartments and lives full of utter charm, You’ve Got Mail might be my favorite.

I saw it in the theater as a teenager, and have watched it countless times since – with my family, my girlfriends, by myself. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and the magic of finding new friends online before social media, though I am about 15 years younger than Kathleen Kelly. I once spent a weekend on the Upper West Side visiting some of the movie’s iconic locations: Cafe Lalo, Zabar’s, Gray’s Papaya, the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. (I did not see Joe and Brinkley, but you can bet I looked.) I still have the soundtrack on CD, and New York in the fall definitely makes me want to buy school supplies.

You’ve Got Mail continues to charm me for so many reasons: the witty, perfectly timed dialogue; the cozy bookshop packed with beloved children’s classics and kind employees; the epistolary love story (though I have thoughts, these days, about Joe Fox and his personal ethics). But the more time I spend with it, the more clearly I see what my friend Kari noted years ago: in addition to a classic romantic comedy, it is (in Kari’s words) “a moving portrait of a woman who is going through a crisis of vocation.”

Kathleen has always known she’d run The Shop Around the Corner; she started helping her mother there after school at age six, and never left. We don’t even know if she went to college, or entertained other dreams for her life. She has grown up shaped by this bookstore and this neighborhood, and she would happily go on selling children’s books there forever. But she is not given that choice: Fox Books moves in across the way, and its big-box appeal (coupled, no doubt, with rising rents and the lurking shadow of Amazon) forces Kathleen to make a decision she never foresaw: “Close. We’re going to close.”

I’ve thought about Kathleen a lot this past year, as the pandemic has upended so many of the jobs most of us believed would bring us stability and security. I was furloughed from my higher ed job last May, then finally laid off in January after months of waiting. This wasn’t the first time, though: my last few years in higher ed have been marked by uncertainty and change, including two previous layoffs and a few temp gigs. The thing I have been chasing – meaningful work that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance in an industry I thought was stable – has turned out not to be so reliable after all.

“What are you going to do now?” a customer asks Kathleen as she rings up books (and stuffs in a box of Kleenex) at the closing sale. She gives a vague but honest answer: she’s going to take some time. We see her doing just that in the last third of the movie: reading a thick novel at a coffee shop, buying plants and produce with Joe Fox, heating up a bowl of soup and sitting on the floor in her apartment to eat it and bask in the sunshine. I suspect she also must have done some grieving. She must have wondered – what now? Earlier in the film, she had wondered in an email if her life’s smallness meant it didn’t have value, or that she lacked courage. Now, that life is no longer available to her, and she has to figure out the next step on a road she never saw coming.

We don’t get a tidy resolution of Kathleen’s career story; we don’t get to see her take her next professional step, though she hints that she’s working on a children’s book. I hope that whatever she does next, it is rich and satisfying and allows her to use all that experience from decades of working at the store. I hope her previous life leads, in both good and surprising ways, to her next one. I hope she realizes how brave she truly is – as Birdie tells her, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” I hope she’s happy with Joe, of course, but more than that I hope she is fulfilled in her own skin and satisfied with the way she gets to spend her days.

My hopes for Kathleen, of course, are also my hopes for myself. (Isn’t that what we do with our heroines – see ourselves in them, and then project our own hopes onto them?) In the wake of an extremely difficult year, I am hoping – and searching – for a steady paycheck, for sure. But I am also hoping for work that gives me a rich, satisfying, joyful way to spend my days. I think Kathleen would approve.