I try to go into situations with the proper education. If I don’t know a thing, I try to research the thing and come up to a speed I can manage. The internet is very helpful. Sometimes. Just last week, I used Google Images to discover what somebody famous looked like. So I’d be ready when I saw them. I prepared myself for success.
It was a disaster.
Let me back up a little.
Sometime last year, I started following the accounts of Madeleine L’Engle on Twitter and Instagram. These are not run by her. She’s been dead since September of 2007. Her granddaughter runs her social media accounts and keeps her legacy fresh in the minds of fans, both old and new. It is through this channel that I first heard about the conference I attended last week.
It was called Walking on Water. It was to be held in the church Madeleine attended toward the end of her life. In New York City. What’s not to like about any of that?
When I first read about the conference and the details of what and when and where it would be, I attempted to dismiss it from my mind. It’s not going to work. It will be impossible to pull off. It will be too expensive. But I kept going back to the posts and rereading them. The words kept finding little chinks in my armor to settle and take root. I couldn’t let it go.
Finally, I bought a ticket to the conference.
And then a ticket to fly.
And then secured a place to stay on the Upper West Side, 3 blocks from the church building where the event would take place.
The closer I got to November 15, the more nervous I became about traveling alone. As it turned out, a friend decided to come along for the ride and hang out on her own in the city while I was learning at the feet of folks that are smarter and more gifted than I am.
When it finally came time for me to walk to the conference, I did so with a nasty grilled cheese and last week’s blueberry scone in my belly. We had stopped into a NY grocery to eat breakfast. In a city as food-rich as NYC, it is a blubbering shame to eat a bad meal. You shouldn’t even have to eat a bad snack. But this food was bad. Good only to keep my stomach from announcing itself to other attendees of the conference. And so I entered the heavy wooden doors with a sour stomach and a pocketful of awkwardness.
I registered. I sat around at tables designed for mingling. I am terrible at mingling. I speak junior high and under. I have been casting around for my place in the writing world since I was 9. I haven’t found it yet. I doubt I’m going to find it here and now in New York amongst such obvious genius.
I texted my friend, who was sitting 3 blocks away in the Airbnb reading magazines.
“I am so awkward. How did I not know I was this awkward?”
“You’re not awkward, and if you were awkward, it would all be part of your charm. Relax and have fun.”
“I just pulled a Failing at Life that I’m not sure I can share.”
“That’s partly why you came. Embrace the awkward or embarrassing and do tell. You’ll never see these people again. I say play up the crazy and see how far you can take it.”
My friend had told me to find an old lady and introduce myself. I had decided to think on a grander scale. I wanted to find not just any old lady at the conference. I wanted to find THE old lady at the conference: Katherine Paterson herself.
For some reason, I thought getting to her would be easy. And I thought I had found her.
The opening session was everything I had hoped it would be. It was entertaining and inspiring. Sitting on the front row was a subset of speakers and organizers. To the immediate right of Charlotte Voiklis (L’Engle’s granddaughter) was an older woman. I had looked up Katherine Paterson. I knew what she looked like. This was her. The only difference was that now she had a more modern hairstyle than the picture I had seen on the internet.
I waited a couple of minutes after the closing of the first general session. No one was around Mrs. Paterson. That should have been a pretty large, flapping red flag. Emboldened by the empty praise of my friend in the Airbnb, I approached the award winning author with confidence. I moved down a row of chairs, touched her on the arm, and said,
“You are such a blessing to young people everywhere.”
I mean, if you’re going to go, go big, right? She scooped me up in a squeeze hug and said, “Well thank you, honey, but why would you say that?”
Oh, dear. I didn’t know what I was dealing with, but I already knew I was in flailing territory. I don’t recall my exact words as I attempted to answer her question. Probably because they weren’t English. I think I jumbled up some consonants and spit out the phrase, “Bridge to Terabithia.”
“Oh, honey,” she said again. “I’m not Katherine Paterson.” She released me from the hug. “I’m just a retired librarian from Connecticut.”
I think she knew at this point that I felt far dumber than she did.
“I love librarians,” I said.
Really, Missy? I love librarians? That’s the best you can do?
The best I could do.
Because I had dug a trench no one could emerge from. I had dug the trench where I would die. Alone.
“I did check Bridge to Terabithia out to a lot of young people,” she said.
The conversation settled floor-level, like dust in the sunlight and eventually we both walked away. I spent the rest of the day avoiding librarians and vowing not to falsely identify anyone else.
When the real Katherine Paterson walked through the door a bit later, there truly was no mistaking her. She looked exactly like the last picture I had seen of her, haircut and all. She is 87 years old and full of life and wisdom. She is funny and poignant and humble. She claims that after finishing every book, she would announce that it was her last one, because she couldn’t imagine ever having another fresh idea. She wrote most of her books by typing 2 pages a day. “Just 2 pages today, sweetie,” she would say to herself. “Even if you have to widen the margins.” She wrote 40 books in 30 years and somehow, I am fairly ashamed to say, I had not read a one of them.
I started Bridge to Terabithia on the plane ride home and finished it in bed that night, between sobs. I have since also read The Great Gilly Hopkins, which felt like a shift in my life’s thinking. This book contains such incredibly rich and endearing characters.
And though I royally mistook one librarian from CT for a bestselling author, I have no confusion in the lessons I took away from that day:
1) Pride goes before a fall.
2) Haste makes waste.
3) Books are written in 2 pages a day.