For the past few weeks I’ve been in the good company of more than 200 million people around the world, all of us still hearing the lingering echoes of John B. McLemore and Brian Reed, seeing ghost images of clocks and sundials and tattoos, and a maze….
As you know either very well or not at all, approximately five years ago, sometime in 2012, McLemore, an eccentric Alabama horologist, sent an email to Reed, producer of This American Life, requesting an investigation into a murder cover-up. The result, eventually, was the S-(shit)Town podcast, a devastatingly magnificent bit of storytelling that begs many questions, among them one of my favorites:
Who’s to say what constitutes a meaningful life?
Exactly 30 years ago, to the week, I was sitting cross-legged on a futon in my dorm room in Edwards Hall, listening to Keith Jarrett and talking on the phone to Martha, a stranger who over the following two years would goad me into coaching 7th grade lacrosse, teach me how to change a bicycle tire, and become a life-long friend. Martha, a fellow visual arts program major, had graduated two years ahead of me and was, at the time she called, teaching ceramics at Noble & Greenough school in Dedham, Massachusetts.
The Nobles photography teacher, she explained, was planning a sabbatical, a bicycle trip across New Zealand, and he was looking for a one-year teaching intern who would be willing to stay a second year and cover for him while he and his family traveled abroad. So Martha called her visual arts program teaching assistant friend Sue, who was also my friend Sue, and Sue suggested that Martha call me. That is, I know now (but didn’t then), how the world works.
At the time of Martha’s call, I had not a single thing scheduled post-graduation. All of my friends, in contrast, knew what they wanted to do with their lives and had plans for getting there: law school, medical school, business school; magazine internships, banking jobs, ESL teaching tours in Asia. Having no clear life’s calling, no set expectation for the future, and being, generally, a procrastinator, I had no such plans.
Like the rest of my lucky classmates, I had spent four years studying Flaubert, Paine and Aeschylus. I could read, write, and think. I could play, from memory, not just the trite adagio but all three movements of the Pathétique, though not well enough that anyone would chose to listen. I had babysitting experience but didn’t want to be a nanny. I had retail experience but no interest in the world of sales. I could type, sew, alphabetize, draw, cook, paint, diagram sentences, arrange flowers, “do” photography, and speak in public without fainting. This was, more or less, the full extent of my skills. Also, I could do complex multiplication in my head, but I never once considered that ability either desirable or marketable, which I now regret.
Being that I was 21, I had – as many 21 year olds do – a vague idea that I should try to save the world. So, having no specific plan and believing the world to be saveable (most readily through access to birth control), I thought I might work for Planned Parenthood. In early May 1987, I called to apply for a statewide advocacy position, based in the Trenton office. The program coordinator drove up to Princeton, met me for breakfast at a local diner, and spent the better part of an hour talking about her work and listening to me ramble about my interests and ideals.
Toward the end of our breakfast she said, “You understand you’d be working with teenagers who are ignorant of biology and have no idea how they got pregnant, right?” This was her way of saying, as kindly as possible, that the job and I were not a good fit.
When Martha called, not long after this breakfast meeting, to ask if I would be interested in a photography teaching internship, becoming a teacher seemed as reasonable a thing to do as any other. Plus, it solved the irritating problem of not having an answer to, “what are you doing after graduation?” I said yes and agreed to move, come September, to Dedham, where I would be given room and board and a stipend of $6,000 in exchange for teaching 7th grade drama, introductory photography, and general studies art.
For two years, the second at a full teacher’s salary of something like $18,000, I lived in the middle unit of an un-air-conditioned triplex with two other teachers, ate meals in a building called the Castle and roamed the beautiful 187-acre campus along the Charles River, sometime accompanied by Kim and Binnie’s white German Shepherd named Jessica. To supplement the relatively low pay, I catered small, weekend dinner parties when school was in session and worked as a typist during the summers.
Critics of liberal arts education might be quick to say that this – what I’ve just described – is a clear example of the folly of liberal arts education. And they might be right. Though, also, they might not. Perhaps it’s like conservation of mass: for every super-focused, natural captain of industry, another of us must be a wanderer.
In either event, this early adulthood juncture – Erikson’s sixth stage of development – is typically the start of something, the point at which the metaphorical clock starts ticking. If we are lucky we’ll have about 60 good years after the graduation launching point. The sooner we get going, whether industrious or wandering, the more we can extract from this relatively short allotment of time.
For my 10th college reunion, I took the train down to Princeton from Newark, where I had been meeting with our lobbyist and PR firm. I was working as marketing director – reading, writing and thinking – for an Omaha-based telecommunications company. Our New Jersey-based subsidiary built intelligent transportation systems (e.g. EZPass), so I was often in New Jersey for work. As I rationalized at the time, we were saving the world by providing infrastructure for remote learning and tele-medicine, systems to speed up work commutes and reduce emissions from idle time in traffic jams.
This particular reunion weekend, I had to be in D.C. on Sunday for a trade show, so making the stop in between Friday meetings in Newark and Sunday booth set-up in Washington was easy – meaning, it was as convenient to attend as not to attend Reunions, an annual weekend event of epic proportion that once held (and may still hold) the distinction of being the second-largest beer consumption event in the U.S.
I stayed on campus, in a dorm room furnished with bunk beds, wondering how that had ever seemed comfortable. What I remember most clearly from that weekend is that some of my highly focused, clearly directed classmates had continued to follow along their post-graduation paths while others had not.
The next check-in with my college crew was not at Reunions, or at a standard five-year interval, but at a 2001 wedding in Montreal, just shy of our 15-year mark. I was six months pregnant, living in Memphis, running the Memphis office for a Nashville-based statewide public relations and lobbying firm working to bring an NBA team to Memphis. I owned a house, had a dog, drove a dark green Saab, and was saving the world only through active paper-recycling and my make-shift compost heap. I remember telling all of this to a friend who lived in Hong Kong. His sad reaction – “I just thought you’d be the first one to make it as artist” – hasn’t fully faded from my mind.
Exactly five years ago, to the week, I was sitting in my kitchen, where I sit now, creating the first posts on what I decided, without much forethought, to call Jenny’s Lark ( for Jennifer S. Larkey), a site manufactured in the space of a few hours to satisfy what I believed, at the time, to be an immediate practical need. My 25th reunion was fast approaching, and although I hadn’t given up entirely on finding a last-minute ticket and flying up for the weekend, I was fairly certain that I would participate only through the class directory. My listing in that catalog led to an outdated website, a carryover from a short stint of independent consulting during which I thought I might read, write, think and take pictures for hire.
Well, I thought to myself (as I’ve written before, as each year has ticked by), I’ll swap that website for a blog, which I expected to take little or no time, because I had no excess time to spare. I was working to save the world, one blood donor at a time, while also raising two young children, hoping only that they would grow to be decent and kind humans who might help make the world worth saving.
It it now weeks before my 30th reunion, halfway around the clock face. The desk where I often write is stacked with graduation cards and invitations, side-by-side pictures of kindergarten snaggle-tooth smiles and cap-and-gown grins, the portraits of children ready to launch out on their own.
Having run out of enthusiasm for recruiting blood donors, I now work for an organization that helps restore victims of violence to themselves and to the community. It’s messy and complicated work, which means it’s an almost perfect fit.
I am slowly relinquishing the idea of perfect, that sworn enemy of happiness and fulfillment. Across all channels of my life, in fact – work, parenting, marriage, house-keeping, my creative endeavors – “perfect” is a receding tide. As it moves farther and farther away, the messy beach it leaves behind becomes all the more interesting, at least to me, the only human for whom I am entirely responsible.
Over these past five years of reading, writing and thinking, I’ve come to the liberating realization that the world isn’t mine to save, not mine alone anyway. Do what’s in front of you to do, I say: cook, write, paint, help, drive, walk, love, cry, read, think, fuck, cuddle, nurture, fight, share, laugh, wonder… wander….
So here I sit, writing at my kitchen table, next to a bouquet of gardenia and hydrangea blooms, a few sprigs of mint added for color, all from our garden. This is a term I use loosely, “garden,” because I am no gardener, nor do I aspire to be one. The flowers and herbs that somehow thrive in our front yard are tiny miracles of benign neglect, planted decades ago by the eccentric Southern portrait photographer, real estate broker and raucous party-thrower who lived here before.
I wish I had known her, because the tales I’ve heard are delightful, frightening and outrageous – not entirely unlike the story of John B. McLemore, to whom I suppose we should return, going out the way we came in.
The maze that McLemore built on his Shitown, Alabama property has, according to John’s own account, an almost incalculable number of paths leading from entry to exit. It is the image of this maze, more than any picture of clocks or sundials, that stays with me.
I like to imagine John meandering through the fully grown maze, which he never got to see. In my mind, he takes a different route each time, willing to get lost in the creation of his own making. And when he reads the sundial inscription, “Tedious and Brief,” there is an alternative, make-believe ending to his story, one in which he finds a valve to alleviate the dull pressure of tedium, where he keeps wandering until the beauty of ordinary things becomes enough to sustain him.
Food | Week of May 22, 2017
Chopped Herb Salad with Farro
(I will top ours with fried eggs)
Dutch Baby with Berries
(and probably a side of turkey sausage or bacon)