What now?

In “What now?” a commencement address becomes a charming essay on confronting the unknown.

What Now? By Ann Patchett Harper 97 pp., $14.95

If you're wondering about what comes next in your life story, Ann Patchett (“Bel Canto” and “Run”) has some words to smooth your worry lines. What now?, an extended version of a commencement address she gave at her alma mater Sarah Lawrence College in 2006, has all the kindness of a good friend patting your hand saying, “There, there.”

Drawing from her experiences, Patchett delves into this question that shadows all of us – even though wearing a mortarboard cap and fluttering gown seems to be the only time we are allowed to acknowledge it openly.

Some people charge into the perpetual unknown yawping, “Yahoo!” For deeply ponderous folk, such as Patchett, “What’s next?” is an annoying drumbeat that awakens one from an otherwise blissful reverie.

The pressure behind the question – even though it stems from the loving curiosity of family and friends – can stir loneliness, doubt, and indecision. Patchett has stumbled through them all.

But how she responds to those moments of feeling utterly lost is what makes “What now?” a volume of charming wisdom.

Throughout life, Patchett hasn’t rebelled against the lessons of her Roman Catholic-school upbringing. Instead, she has embraced them. To fight her loneliness as a college freshman, she used “do unto others” as the impetus to bake cookies for her adviser. A broken dorm oven led her to naively knock on the new president’s mansion door with the edge of a pan full of unbaked cookes. This led to baby-sitting for the president’s daughter and later catering dinners at the president’s house. That experience in food service enabled her to stay afloat as a T.G.I. Friday’s waitress armed with a graduate degree. Her advice: Stay graceful and brave in the face of change. A sense of humor can only help.

“Soon after I started working, the district manager came from Memphis to present me with a tiny gold-toned pin in front of the entire assembled waitstaff. WOW, it said. I was the first waitress to score a perfect 100 on her waitressing exam. My six years of higher education had finally paid off.”

Through the waiting and wondering of “What now?” Patchett learned how to become an observer, a skill that transformed the ordinary job of dishwashing into “clouds of steam smoothing everything around me into a perfect field of gray” and tellingly laid the foundation for what she would become: an award-winning novelist.

She also uses the lessons from these quieter, humbler moments to challenge the traditional commencement address command of “go forth and lead”:

“It is senseless to think that at every moment of our lives we should all be the team captain, the class president, the general, the CEO, and yet so often this is what we’re being prepared for.... It turns out that most positions in life, even the big ones, aren’t really so much about leadership.... For the most part we travel in groups – you’re ahead of somebody for a while, then somebody’s ahead of you, a lot of people are beside you all the way. It’s what the nuns had always taught us: sing together, eat together, pray together.”

In a hard-edged world shouting, go! go! go!, sometimes that’s just what we need to hear.

Kendra Nordin is a Monitor staff editor.

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