I have known my share of beautiful people. They’ve existed in nearly every town I’ve ever lived in. I’ve seen glimpses of thoughtfulness and sincerity behind shining blue eyes and in the depths of almond brown. Sometimes the beautiful people I’ve met are exuberant and bubbly; other times, they’ve been more of the observant type. Some have been hidden beneath a devil-may-care attitude; others have been more soft-spoken. Wherever I’ve seen them, though, they’ve demonstrated by both word and deed genuine appreciation and respect for their fellow human being. Compassion, empathy, care and concern have all been shared characteristics for these beautiful people. They exist everywhere—-even within the boundaries of a totally dysfunctional, borderline chemically insane, family such as my own. They exist despite having endured the very same things I survived as a child. They cross all financial boundaries—some of them are rather wealthy; others have been homeless. Some of them have known me since I was born; others never even knew my name. My life would not be the same without Aaron, the boy from sixth grade who was the very first to ask me to be his girlfriend and then proceed to be my “boyfriend” by the bold act of holding my hand. My life would not be the same without the homeless man, Joey. My life would not be the same without Rain, the girl in college who somehow instinctively knew I needed help and reached out, giving me her phone number and promising me that, if I asked her to, she would find me help. My life would not be the same without the musician at a local synagogue who took me under his wing at a time when I was most vulnerable. My life would not be the same without the stranger who held the door open for me, or the gas station clerk that took the time to tell me she always enjoyed seeing me because I was “so happy.” My life would not be the same without beautiful people who made me feel beautiful and princess-like. My life would not be the same without people like my daughters’ pediatrician, upon whom I know I can rely and trust. My life would not be the same without my mother or sister, both of whom have always supported me without question. My life would not be the same without having known Mama O. Beautiful people: they exist. I know this because they have deposited huge sums of confidence and hope into my often dry well.
Despite the sure knowledge that they co-exist with me on the planet, sometimes I forget. Sometimes, I find myself fearing rejection or criticism or judgement from everyone I meet. Not because I think they’re “bad”, necessarily, but because I think they’re people. And so, sometimes interacting with other humans scares the beejesus out of me. Sometimes I am so sure that who I am is so far out in left field that the only reasonable thing for others to do is reject me. That’s not a “why me” complaint; it’s what I genuinely find myself expecting. The funny thing is, it’s when I most expect to be criticized that I am usually stirred and overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the beauty within others.
Take today, for example.
Today was the day I participated in the Author’s Circle Franklin Festival of Books. Some twenty-six authors are participating this year and we all gathered in the meeting room of the Williamson County Library to promote and discuss our books. We each had around ten minutes to speak. Speaking is not something that frightens me. It is something I -do-. I have spoken in front of large groups for up to thirty minutes. I am not afraid of crowds. I am not intimidated, either. Actually, it’s something I rather enjoy and which I find immensely healing. Uncharacteristically, however, I was pretty much terrified of this particular event—-primarily because I knew the room was going to be full of other authors. All kidding aside, this intimidated the heck right out of me. The other “author communities” in which I have participated and invested myself in have been competitive fields in which the participants spend vast amounts of time destroying each other by nit-picking the small stuff and, basically, fighting over whose work of art was the best. I eventually backed away from this group because they were changing my writing—-something I swore would never happen. Unfortunately, my heart was wounded by some of the more critical members of this group. I questioned whether I was a “real writer” or not, based on their critiques. I am rather stinky at grammar (I like commas quite a lot) and was told that, if I really cared about my “craft”, I would learn how to correctly use it. The bottom line is that based on the sole experience I had had with “writer’s groups” and things of that nature, I was convinced that, whenever writers gathered, it must be a comparative, competitive war during which I would have to defend my writing. Today, there was to be a Q & A at the end of each panel; I expected questions like “If it’s your life you’re talking about, why do you use fiction to tell it?” The sheer thought of having to defend my work like that is so painful and hits such deep and raw nerves that I literally could not breathe. I have spent the past two weeks stressing out. I wrote a speech, and then re-wrote it, and then repeated that cycle about half a dozen times. I memorized it. I was scared. For the first time in a long, long time, I was scared to deliberately and consciously expose myself, and the most vulnerable parts of my core, to a group that would include other writers, writers who could undoubtedly beat me in grammar matches and/or eloquence.
But instead of facing a war, I’d like to tell you what happened in that room today.
I got there right as the library opened. I wanted to be extra prepared and I wanted to have the luxury of choosing which table to set up at. I wanted time to gather my thoughts and relax before the first panel of authors took place at ten this morning. So I walked in and the organizer of the event was in the room, moving chairs and tables and the like, with the help of two librarians. Smiling brightly, I introduced myself and then cheerfully added, “Put me to work. What can I do to help?” Together, it took all of ten minutes to get the chairs and tables in place. I asked if I could set up my easel and poster; I was given my choice of tables. To keep my easel out of the way, I sat up at a corner table. Before long, a few others began trickling in. We all said hello and traveled around the room, introducing ourselves and giving brief summaries of our books to one another. Everyone was being super beautiful. Still, the breath was lodged somewhere high in my throat. When I get nervous or scared, I put on this brave, happy, professional appearance that pretty much exudes a fake confidence. I don’t do it deliberately; it is how I have survived in crowds of my peers since I was in elementary school. If you are good enough at faking confidence, you can avoid all sorts of things. I smiled, I shook hands, I took a few pictures with others. But I also found myself retreating to the women’s bathroom three times, for no other reason than to give myself a minute to steady the quaking in my bones. I was going to have to speak in front of this group and, big or small, this was terrifying. My speeches are not for the faint of heart. Frankly, they are for a particular audience. I always hesitate when others ask me what they are about and feel the need to preface a summary with something along the lines of “Well, they’re pretty, you know, serious topics” before giving specifics. If you don’t have a need for my testimony and story, then you can easily find it difficult to swallow. You might even find it “graphic” or “intrusive.” You may not want to listen to ten minutes of it. And yet, here I was, prepared (sort of) to spill my guts to a group of strangers who, by accounts and purposes, didn’t really need it. As far as I knew, none of these people had personal experience with abuse. And I was about to have to say some of the most exposing and difficult things a person can say out loud; things that can totally make me like I’m standing naked in front of strangers. And these were not just any strangers—they were writers. And, although there were guests also present, it was my peers, the other writers, by whom I was intimidated. I didn’t want a war. I didn’t want to compete. I just wanted to do what I feel God has told me to do—-share my story, and showcase books about which I am passionate.
Five minutes before it was time for me and the other two authors on the same panel as I to begin, I was chatting with the fellow writer, Michael (you -totally- should check him out here), from the table beside me. He and I were having a very fun conversation about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of outlines and how fun it is to fully follow and develop a character. It was like talking to a version of myself and I was thoroughly enjoying myself when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a girl who had not been there previously. She stood a few feet away, holding the schedule and listening to our conversation. I eased myself out of the conversation with Michael and waved at her. When she waved back, I scooted over and urged her to come forward. She did and, for the next five minutes, I was captured by this obviously bright girl. She asked me when I would be speaking, I told her, laughingly, “In about five minutes.” She expressed regret that she could not stay and her eyes were bright—-but moistened. Regrettably, I did not think to ask how she knew me but I got the impression she did. She mentioned that it was hard for her to find time to read but I wanted to give her something because I knew she needed it. So I gave her a bookmark and encouraged her to e-mail me; she asked if I would be back tomorrow and I told her I probably would come by to sign books and chat. She left. She hadn’t been gone for longer than a minute and my heart pounded. It was such a brief few minutes—-but there was something there, there was a depth and a need, and I felt at a loss. How do you approach sensitive topics with a perfect stranger? She’d mentioned that she and her father had been estranged; I expressed sorrow over that and over her loss. But I regretted that I had not at least offered a book to her. I walked forward and chatted with someone else and, when I turned back to my table, my mother and sister, who had come to support me, whispered: “She’s back.”
I whipped around and, sure enough, the same young lady was sitting in the audience, her head bent, waiting patiently. Without thinking further, I followed my heart. I grabbed a copy of “Broken” and a copy of “The Character” and approached her. Sitting on the edge of the chair beside her, I said hello. She smiled: “I thought I could stay for a few minutes,” she said. Smiling, I nodded and patted the books on my lap. “I’m so glad you did. I’m glad you came back because I wanted to offer you a copy of one of the books.” Her eyes grew large and she smiled tentatively. “Really? Because I was thinking about how much I wanted one but I only have five dollars.” I shook my head, “No, I’ll give you a copy for free. I thought maybe you could choose between one of these.” She replied: “Wow.” Me: “W–would you like me to tell you what they are about, would that help to decide?” She nodded: “Sure.” So I gave a brief, or two sentence summary of both books. As I did, another guy in the audience turned around to listen to our conversation. At the end of the summaries, she said: “It’s a big decision, maybe I could think about it for a minute?” I nodded: “Sure, absolutely.” Just then, the organizer called for the start of my panel. So I went up. As I sat there with the microphone, the nerves came back. My speech opened with a passage from “Broken” and I explained that to the audience and then flipped open the book. As I did, I stared at the words on the page and found myself unable to begin. Finally, I breathed out a breath and dove right in. The girl, I noticed, sat there crying. At the conclusion of the panel, I went back to my table. The truth of these writers would now be revealed, I thought to myself. The first one, Michael, the author I had been chatting with before, patted me on the back and said, “You are an excellent speaker, that was wonderful.” Finally, after two weeks, I started to relax under the compassionate eyes of a beautiful person. The author at the table on my other side also came up for the sole purpose to thank me for sharing. A third writer came over and -gave- me one of her books. The weight of such an overflowing of kindness melted the last shred of reserve I had. I was not going to be berated. I was not going to be judged. I was not going to be criticized. Not only was I being openly welcomed but the respect in their eyes that had been there when all they had known about me was that I was a writer actually seemed to increase, not diminish. My value, and right to stand with them, had not shrunk; if anything, it seemed to grow.
Then she was there again, that girl. Smiling brightly, I asked: “So…. have you decided which one you would like?” Without hesitation, she replied: “Broken.” I nodded, signed the book and then came around the table to talk to her rather than keeping the barrier between us. In my speech, I mentioned how a happy video of a father and daughter dancing hurt me and this girl said: “I worried about who was going to give me away. My brother can do it but then who would dance with me?” My eyes softening, I nodded. Knowing all too well how sometimes, powerful as they are, words still fall short, I simply leaned forward and hugged her. We chatted a moment more and I encouraged her to keep in touch, and then she was gone. She didn’t go around to the other tables. I did not see her talk to anyone else there. But she was beautiful. And she touched my heart. She reminded me of myself when I was eighteen. And, more than that even, I recognized the sense of loss that was written on her face. She was the reason I was there today. She thought I gave her a gift by offering her a free copy of a book I’d written. But she was the one who really gave me the greater gift—that of beauty, of being reminded how fragile and delicate we are. I did not know her. And yet…. I did. We were connected by a sense of loss that can’t be replaced, and we both knew it.
Well…. fast forward awhile….
Once again, I moved around the room, chatting with different people. When, out of nowhere, a man came up to me. He did not tell me his name and he was not an author there. I had not seen him in the audience of my speech. But he must have been there because he said, “That was a powerful speech.” Smiling, I accepted the praise with a nod of my head. “Thank you.” He replied: “So… do all of your books talk about it?” I gave my stock answer that, while they were each unique in their plots, abuse of some format plays a vital part in each of my books. He asked more. Then, out of the clear blue sky, he said quietly: “You know what you said up there, about still believing good men exist….” I nodded. When he hesitated, I added, “I’ve known several great men.” He kind of laughed a little and said, “I just think you’re very brave, putting yourself out there like that. You know, there are people in the audience who maybe can’t…. can’t verbalize it. But when it’s said like that out loud…. it just…. it validates things.” Once again, time froze. Staring into the face of this man who was taller than me and undoubtedly stronger, who looked capable of handling the world, my mind saw instead a little boy. I did not know his story. But I knew it without his having to say another word. Still, I was caught off guard. Taking a deep breath, I replied tentatively, “I hope so. You’re absolutely right about how sometimes we’re not ready. Without the gift of writing, I don’t know if I would be capable of speaking at all–” and he interrupted me to ask: “Do you really believe in good men? Do you really, really believe in good at all?” The lump got wedged in my throat. I nodded. “Yes. Yes I do. My life has been essentially saved by good men. First a stranger who held a door open for me; his simple act of ordinary polite behavior convinced me some men were still good. I met a homeless man who was happy and who showed me what real joy looks like. I’ve—men have been the ones who have made me feel…. loved. And every day my daughters assure me that goodness is just as real as the bad.” When he dropped his head and shook it, my heart broke. I wanted to hug him like I had done the girl….but there was an invisible barrier between us; he was a man and that simple fact prevented me from reaching out. I wish now it hadn’t. But it did. So instead, I touched his arm and offered him a book for free. He chose “The Character,” which says a lot. I signed his book but, as I did, I wrote: “To one of the good ones…..” And then he left the room entirely. I stared after him, humbled and touched. Men are the ones who are usually trying to offer -me- solace. But that man needed it and was beautiful and honest enough not to hide that from me. He did not tell me his history—but I knew it nonetheless. He’d lost, too.
By this time, it was time for me to go. I had to get the girls and we had plans for the evening. So I packed up. But I was so moved by everyone in that room that I did not want to just walk out. So I went around to each one and told them thank you. Ironically, it was here that I teared up. I was standing in front of these two women, these two authors, and the beauty of the day just crashed down on me. I was honest and I told them what I had expected; I told them that I had been more nervous about this experience than I had been at my previous speaking engagements. I told them why; that my only other experience with authors’ groups had been very hurtful and critical. And these women, these authors, hugged me. One invited me to come to an author’s meeting that happens regularly. One told me to keep in touch with her. It was as if we were long time friends. And, in a way, I suppose we are. After all, we all love the written word. We all love creating stories and watching the birth of characters; no one laughed at me when I confessed to laying in bed and pretending my characters were in the room with me in order to fall asleep. No one thought I was “bad,” either.
And then…. when I thought it was over…. my mother tapped me on the shoulder and said that a woman would like to talk to me.
I turned around and, indeed, there stood a woman. I asked her if she would like a book and she said she would. Probably because I was so emotionally tied in knots, I did not recognize her as being one of the other authors. I simply saw her as a woman waiting for a chance to speak. She told me I was brave. She told me she really admired me for being able to speak about things like that. And then she said, “I just…. if there was one thing in this world that I could eradicate….” She bought “The Character” and only when I laid the book on the table in order to sign it did I see -her- bookmark lying beside it and realized she was an author herself. Stunned for a moment, and embarrassed because I had not said hello to her side of the room earlier, I stood up and asked what her book was about. She told me and, as she stood there detailing her book for a moment, something in me broke. This woman was an author. She has a published book; she’s won awards for her work. And yet, here she was, buying mine. What?? There for a few moments, we connected. She volunteers at CASA, an organization that I, too, volunteered at once upon a time. And she was beautiful.
I’ve learned a couple of valuable things today and been reminded of several more.
First, writers are wonderful people. They are not out to condemn me; there was absolutely no competition in that room, only encouragement and support. Being able to chat with others who speak my language, who understand what I’m talking about when I say I “see” my characters, and totally get how much in love I am with fictional people, is a gift. I’m not sure that there is a higher honor that a writer can receive than having another writer voluntarily buy her book. But that happened to me today. It was rather healing for me to see friends; it was as if we had gathered together for the sole purpose of being excited about each other’s work while also being given the room to share how excited we were about our own. The success of one was a success for all. And isn’t that the way we should treat people in general? Compassionately and kindly, without judgement or condemnation? I tell you the truth, I can’t remember when I have last been in a space in which I felt as safe as I did in that room today. I was free to be…. me; vulnerable, sensitive and impressionable me.
But it went beyond the writers.
Though the room wasn’t packed, the guests that did come were ones that needed to be there. I shared my story and testimony to the room but a few shared theirs to me one-on-one and that is twice as hard. Whether or not they find the time in this busy life to read my book isn’t as important to me as the fact that they took a moment to reach out. My heart was touched not only by the writers but by the individuals for whom I signed a book and the ones who just needed to talk. We aren’t meant to be alone. We are meant to communicate with one another and we do that through the written word, through the spoken word, through our actions and through our body language. The core of who we are as human beings is expressed when we allow ourselves to be open, honest and vulnerable. The truth is, we’ve all been hurt. The truth is, we’ve all lost. The truth is, very few of us had the luxury of living a stress-free, Mayberry-type childhood. I have several scars which are the result of surgery, the most visible of which is on my neck. It is the result of the surgery that removed cancerous nodules in my thyroid. On my most emotionally vulnerable days, when I’m stretched bare, I wear a scarf over it to avoid questions I don’t want to answer. But some days, I leave the scarf at home and face whatever questions come my way. It is when we don’t wear the scarf over our emotional scars that we show how utterly beautiful we are. It is when we speak out, or reach out, even though doing so makes us cry and feel exposed. Being beautiful has nothing whatsoever to do with the color of our hair, eyes, skin or BMI value; it has everything to do with the courage, compassion and human decency we display when we face the monsters under the bed by engaging in communication with those to whom we are more similar than we want to admit. It is when we show respect for others, when we appreciate the work another has done in order to share—this is when the light pours through us, moistens our eyes, and makes us glow from pure beauty. I was in a room full of people who made that room shine like the Sun.
So… should I ever be accused of not being a “real writer” again or should I have a nightmare tonight that makes me awaken in a cold sweat or should I experience again the isolating feel of feeling like an alien when around others, whenever I cannot bear to wear the cordial smile one second more, I will re-read this post and remember…. good, beautiful people still exist.
Below is a list of some of the authors I met today who showcased more than their talented work: they showcased their inner strength and beauty.