Sometimes a Tragic Tale Can Offer Inspiration…

Have you ever had a book land in your lap at just the right moment? As if the universe is saying, “Here, kid, I saw this and thought of you”?

The Opposite of Loneliness was exactly that sort of book for me. It may, I suspect, be that sort for a lot of us.

And to think I put off reading it. The book—new this year—is a collection of essays and stories by Marina Keegan, who died in a car crash in 2012, days after graduating from college. A smart friend gave it to me. But should I bother with a book by such an unseasoned writer? I had frittered away much of the past two weeks, after all. On a “working vacation” in the woods with family, I had promised myself to rise early each morning and crank out poems. Instead, I had mostly risen late and cranked my mouth open for French toast. Maybe—who knew?—my productive days were over. I felt tired and crabby and wondered if, in the 40 or so years I theoretically had left, I could accomplish anything of note beyond consuming record amounts of maple syrup. The Opposite of Loneliness sat untouched all weekend.

Luckily my better instincts prevailed. Writers sometimes blossom crazy-early, of course—including some I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. And from Page 1, it became clear that Keegan wasn’t just an early bloomer; she was an early kick-in-the-pants giver.

Here she is in her title essay, one originally published in the Yale Daily News that went viral after her death: “When we came to Yale, there was this sense of possibility. This immense and indefinable potential energy—and it’s easy to feel like that’s slipped away.… What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over.”

And here she is in “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” which questions the knee-jerk decision by many new grads to take jobs in consulting or finance: “To me, there’s something sad about so many of us entering a line of work in which we’re not (for the most part) producing something, or helping someone, or engaging in something that we’re explicitly passionate about.… I feel like we can do something really cool to this world.”

Yes, Keegan was addressing college students—and it’s obviously easier to feel you can “do anything” when you’re 22. Even so, her words resonated right to my middle-aged core. How could I doubt my ability to get things done, how could I see 40 years as anything but plump with potential, when Keegan accomplished so much in half that time? Heck, her senior year is a résumé unto itself.

In the book’s intro, writer and professor Anne Fadiman recalls that when Keegan failed to be tapped by Yale’s senior social clubs (Skull and Bones, Book and Snake, and so on), she promptly vowed to write for 12 extra hours a week.

“If I was willing to devote that much time [to a club],” Keegan emailed Fadiman, “I should be willing to devote it to writing!”

Declares Fadiman: “If she’d been tapped by Book and Snake, this book would not exist.” And maybe Keegan wouldn’t have done so many other things that year: writing a play and acting in two, doing research for professor Harold Bloom, heading a political club, interning at the Paris Review.

As if all this weren’t inspiring enough, there’s the style and substance of Keegan’s work. Her short stories—often about young adults—are as honed as a chef’s knife, proof of what talent plus determination can do. Her essays show a fierce curiosity about the world and compassion for her fellow students, strangers in India, whales, an exterminator, her own parents. Speaking of whom: Tracy and Kevin Keegan are every bit as heartening as their daughter.

When Keegan was a baby, she relates in her essay “Against the Grain,” few doctors knew about celiac disease. It was her non-physician mother who combed libraries until she figured out what was wrong with her scrawny little girl. Who endlessly baked wheat-free cookies and breads for Keegan after her official diagnosis. Who founded Boston Children’s Hospital’s Celiac Support group and, later, helped “transform Yale’s food-allergy plan.”

After Keegan died, you might have expected her parents to take out their grief on the boyfriend who caused the fatal crash. (He fell asleep at the wheel.) Yet, as Fadiman writes, “Marina’s parents invited him to their house the next day and embraced him. They wrote the state police to ask that no charges of vehicular homicide be brought because ‘it would break [Marina’s] heart to know her boyfriend would have to suffer more than he already is.’ ”

As I turned the last page of The Opposite of Loneliness, I felt, inevitably, shaken by Keegan’s death. But my tiredness and crabbiness were gone. In their place was a renewed zeal to get going—to write more, help my loved ones and community more, find more time for simple kindness. If Marina Keegan and her family could do something really cool to this world, why couldn’t I?

How do you keep going when life knocks you down? Find the inspiration you need to get back up.

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