|Setting myself apart, with a magic wand|
I’ve always been odd. Happily accepted into my loving family, I didn’t feel rejected, but I did feel different. From my aspiration at age four to grow up to be a refrigerator (I reasoned I’d have my choice of food and drink) to my penchant for wearing half slips around my head as pretend straight hair, I was always weird.
I was also a bit prone to worry. The likelihood of the Viet Cong bombing our Florida house was so remote, it’s laughable now. Nevertheless, the evening news brought the war into our living rooms and into my six year old brain. I remember praying at night to keep their planes from buzzing overhead.
Add those two traits, high imagination and high anxiety,and you get a grown-up who isn’t eager to live in her body in the real world. I truly would rather read about a place than go there, especially if it involves plane travel. I am anxious about disrupting my routines, and even more worried that my daily desire to drink coffee the way I like it, when I like it, preferably alone, will be only one of many losses in an uncertain world outside my total domain.
This fear of leaving was much worse back in the year 2000, when my children were twelve and five. I was invited to go to Rome with my husband, to stay at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I wanted to go. I really did. Housing was free, food was free. I just had to get there. Nevertheless, I was, for week before the trip, a nervous wreck. Beyond anything I’d ever been. I could whip myself into a frenzy sometimes over leaving the kids with a sitter for two hours, much less a week.
I barely remember the three days before I left, except for a dear friend Charlotte Morrissey’s advice: Picture God’s hand on the small of your back. Picture the same hand on the backs of your little ones. Trust.
Thank heavens for my imagination and for my friend. Between such a lovely image and some pharmaceutical intervention, I made it to Rome.
That first night, two very famous authors were seated at our table. At the time, I was yet to be published except in magazines. A more pragmatic soul might have rehearsed something smart to say. I was too jet-lagged, and at the same time, exhilarated at having single-handedly kept our plane aloft, the whole way across the Atlantic Ocean, to be anything other than myself. So when the authors asked me how my flight had been, I said “Oh God, I hate to travel. I really do.”
For most audiences, this statement gets bemused tilts of the head. People aren’t sure they’ve heard me right. But there, in a crowd of creative people, for the first time ever, I got knowing nods. The affirmations began. “Isn’t it awful?” “Did you bring your white noise machine?” “I know just how you feel.”
For the first time ever, I thought, despite the fact that my companions were in the stratosphere of a group I’d never quite join, I felt so at home. I’d found my people! Or, as my writer friend Julianna Baggott says, “My peeps!”
Since that time, promoting each of my novels, I’ve been to several book festivals. Each time, I’d be nervous before going, for all the reasons mentioned above. Each time, once I got there, I’d find myself feeling that same moment of great relief: I was home, away from home.
Meeting another writer, trading stories, it’s different in real time and space. They become someone you know. You might spend an hour in a bar or fifteen minutes before a panel, but you can’t replace that experience. Which is why I tell myself, each time I resist pulling myself out of my comfortable world to travel “for no real reason,” that there actually is a reason. It’s just not tangible. It can’t be measured or monetized. You can’t bank on it. It’s the opposite of a market force. But none of us, if we were propelled forward by the bottom line, would be in this crazy business.
We are all speculators in the realm of the imagination, trading a boost in spirits or a tale of woe, feeling comfort and joy at the weird and the wild. Getting together allows us to grow in a way we wouldn’t otherwise, and sends us back to our predictable solitude with a pinch of fairy dust, or maybe just an image, that invisible hand at the small of our backs, to rise another day and begin again.
Sheila Curran is the author of Everyone She Loved, about a woman’s efforts to protect her own family even after her own expiration date has come and gone. Her first book, Diana Lively is Falling Down, was a romantic comedy Jodi Picoult called warm, funny, inventive and original and Booklist called ‘a gem.’ For more on dogs who stand on two feet, visit this video.