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What now?

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

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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.


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