A gift from a former student, The Opposite of Loneliness sat on my night stand for several weeks before I could find the right time to open it. The book is a collection of stories and essays by Marina Keegan, a Magna Cum Laude 2012 Yale graduate who was killed in a car crash a few days after receiving her diploma. She was 22. And already a published, award-winning author of multiple genres. She was set to begin a job at The New Yorker. I needed to wait for the right time because it was already so sad, and I wanted to read her work without feeling rushed to get my requisite 8 hours of sleep or distracted by piles of student essays. And now that I’m finished, I want to go back and reread–to appreciate how she could produce stories and essays with the insight of someone twice her age, someone who has lived through so much more of life than 16 years of schooling.
She writes stories about the death of a boyfriend, about a 60-ish woman who reads to a young blind man while taking off her clothes, about a boyfriend who cheats at Yahtzee and thus can never be trusted, and about a guy in the Coalition Provisional Authority inside the Green Zone in Afghanistan. And about shopping at the Unclaimed Baggage Center where all lost luggage ends up after 90 days with no owner, and about a 42 year old woman who adopts a baby after having given up her own at age 23. An in all of these stories, she seems to understand–truly understand–the range of emotions that each character feels: guilt, jealousy, doubt, fear, etc. How does someone take on that range of plot and emotion at an age when most people are just dabbing their toes in the complexity of life? And these are just her fiction pieces. Add to this her collection of essays, the two most powerful being “Against the Grain,” a piece detailing life with Celiac Disease, and “The Opposite of Loneliness,” her final piece in the Yale Daily News. The number of times she references life’s possibilities and death’s inevitably is haunting, though never morbid. In “The Opposite” she says “We’re so young…we have so much time..what we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can still change our minds.” And in “Against the Grain” she writes, “On my deathbed I will instruct the nurse to bring me the following.” Next comes a list of junk food in all varieties, from Oreos to a Big Mac Supreme. And in her fictional piece “Winter Break” she’s back to possibility, writing from her main character, Addie: “My Professional ambitions were still switching with the channels of my illegal downloads. Wide-eyes and coiled in bed, Sam and I would be convinced by the dramas of forty-six minutes–idealizing the pursuits of doctors, politicians, and astronauts in space…cuddling away our apathy until we were reminded that all we really wanted was to lie in bed.”
This book is a keeper. I feel privileged to own a copy signed by Marina’s parents and Marina’s college professor, Anne Fadiman, an author I’ve admired my whole adult life. I hope its contents will continue to inspire me as a writing teacher and my students as they strive to realize the power of the written word.