Last week, as I scrolled through my feeds on Twitter and Facebook, I came across a flurry of posts with links to lists of the best commencement speeches from the last three decades. One that appeared more than once, that I had heard of, (having found it in book form a few years back), but had not actually ever heard, was David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address to Kenyon College titled “This is Water.”
Having been curious as to what it was about since thumbing quickly through the hardcover version, I decided one night after settling under the covers before bed, to listen to the twenty-two minute video of it on YouTube. When it was finished, beyond feeling disappointment that it hadn’t been the speech at my own graduation, I wished that somehow it could become required listening—or the transcript, required reading—something that every human being, in order to move along, onto adulthood was required to ingest. The speech begins with Wallace bringing up the cliché that a liberal arts education is about teaching students how to think, and from there he moves on to talk about how, how to think translates in what to think about. He talks about how in order not to be ‘dead’ while here on this earth, we need to redirect our thoughts from being focused on ourselves and be aware of the people and the world around us; need to veer away from the automatic tendency to see everything as being about us and thus be bothered or irritated when things are a way we don’t like, or an inconvenience to us.
I was tempted to play it again, it was that compelling, and though Mr. Wallace starts out by saying he is not a wise old fish, his are words of wisdom. With my eyes falling shut, I decided that instead of listening again right then, I might schedule a monthly recurring appointment to play it, so to always have it in mind, and because it’s probably one of those things that every time you hear it, you get a little something different out of it. My take-away that night was recognizing that yes, living in this crazy, non-stop, crowded city, I am constantly irritable and maybe, it would be worth my while to try to not be. I would actually love to become good at walking into an annoying situation (hmmm, let me think of one) and not be bothered by it… to maybe even find some morsel of joy in it.
So I decided that the next morning, I would start practicing. I would try, as Mr. Wallace said, to take the focus away from myself and really be aware of my surroundings. And I would make a conscious effort to reprogram my automatic reaction to whatever it was I was confronted with, and maybe look at it a different way. So I started with a situation that on a daily basis drives me almost to the point of insanity. And that is my commute.
I have written about life on the L before. Of all the trains that have been part of my quotidian ritual throughout my nearly two decades of living in New York City, I think, in terms of the morning rush hour, it just may be the worst. This is no exaggeration. The morning L train commute was one of the first cons on my list years ago, when I was struggling with the decision of whether or not to finally make the move to Brooklyn. The early-morning crowd is almost always near intolerable, with people clogging up the doorways, unwilling to move so that others can board. And the bikes and backpacks! Let us not forget the bikes and backpacks.
So there I was waiting on the platform. When the train pulled up and the doors opened, I did as I normally do and pushed my way into the car in search of an empty patch of floor. Once in place, I rearranged my bags, taking one from my shoulder and positioning it in between my calves so to make room for the surrounding bodies. And as others behind me did the same—pushing to get in too—I noticed one area that appeared empty and had me thinking “Why isn’t anyone filling up all of that space?” I realized soon after, that it was occupied by two small people who didn’t stand tall enough to immediately be seen. It was a pair of little girls, the older one probably nine, the little one maybe six. Their mother stood a few inches away.
I guessed from their attire that they were Orthodox Jews, the mother with no visible hair on her head, wearing a turban and the girls dressed, not in neon jeans and sparkly sneakers like most of the mini-gals I see in the city, but sweetly—or conservatively—in long skirts, tights and Mary Jane-style shoes, and blouses with cardigan sweaters. They both wore glasses and had their fuzzy, wheat-colored curls, pulled back in short ponytails.
When the train leaves the Bedford Avenue station in Williamsburg, it traverses the East River to Manhattan and does so underwater, which makes for a rather bumpy ride that lasts a solid two minutes at least. As I always make sure to before this long stretch, I reached for what empty space there was on the pole next to me and held on with a strained grip. The mother, standing right beside me, was barely secure, at the same pole but instead of holding onto it, leaning against it with her shoulder. We took off and soon the car was shaking turbulently as the train barreled through the tunnel. I saw that neither of the girls was holding onto anything. I wasn’t sure if this was out of comfort or fearlessness, the two of them—little New Yorkers—likely accustomed to riding the subway, or if it was them simply being aloof. I thought immediately upon seeing the three of them, that they sort of looked to be in a world all to themselves.
We rode along. And about midway through the river, I noticed the mother reach into her bag and begin digging around. Of course! Her daughters were hungry. After a few seconds of rummaging, she pulled out and handed to each of them, a peeled and ready-to-eat hard-boiled egg. A pungent, sulfurous odor entered the airspace. Faces winced as the waft hit them. But not one of the three so much as batted a lash. So with eggs in hand—as if it they were microphones, because that’s how kids hold hard-boiled eggs—the girls simultaneously sunk their teeth into the soft whites.
The ride through the tunnel was beginning to feel eternal what with some stranger’s pillowy backside resting too comfortably on my hip, and my hunger intensifying at an uncomfortable rate as it often does at this hour of the morning. As we sped on, the older girl continued to eat slowly. She looked to be enjoying the snack, or at least that she was satisfied by every bite and eager for the next one. But she was captivated by something else within her view, not paying attention the dry, 13-minute yolk that crumbled onto her hand and down to the floor that I, or one of my fellow passengers might later step on and track across the train car. The younger girl, though still holding onto her egg, had given up on it and was instead, half a finger deep into her nose, digging like it was the bottom of a frosting can, trying to scoop out the last of the sugary goodness. And then, just as I expected, though I will never understand why they do this—kids again—she pulled it from her nose and stuck it in her mouth and began to suck, as if it were a lollipop direct from Candyland. And then, as if she hadn’t quite gotten her fill, she repeated the whole thing in the other nostril.
Finally, I felt the train’s deceleration underfoot as we approached First Avenue. The mother lifted her shoulder from the pole and signaled to the girls that this was their stop. The little one was stuck in la-la land excavating. The older one was still munching on her egg, but as the train transitioned from the dark tunnel into the illuminated station, recognizing that break time was in fact up, she pushed what remained of it into her mouth with an open palm, where it settled into one cheek, producing a comical bulge from underneath her paperwhite skin. And concerned perhaps, by how far from ladylike this emergency act was, she moved a delicate hand in front of her face as she worked to finish chewing.
As the mother ushered her daughters out of the train at First Avenue and the new batch of commuters stepped in to merge with the rest of us, I made eye contact with a guy who I had noticed earlier, who had witnessed the whole thing alongside me. He smiled and then we quietly chuckled.
There I was on the L, not annoyed, but actually smiling. I made an effort to look at the situation differently and managed to find a morsel of joy. And really, it wasn’t so difficult.
So…Thank you Mr. Wallace for your thoughts. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that you are missed. Likewise, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that you were, whether you ever thought it or not, indeed, a wise old fish.