This past Saturday I attended an event featuring two of my absolute favorite authors, Ann Patchett and Liz Gilbert. Before heading out the door, I went to say good-bye to my 12 year old daughter who was reading in bed. She asked where I was off to and I told her I was going to meet “my J.K. Rowling — actually, two of them.” “No fair!” she replied, because meeting J.K. Rowling is at the top of my daughter’s list of “musts” in her lifetime. I walked away beaming; both in anticipation of my day and in utter gratitude that my dyslexic daughter has not only overcome her learning differences but has a passion for reading that rivals my own.
As I drove to the auditorium on a beautiful sunny Fall morning in Nashville, I was giddy. These two women, their careers and their stories have left an indelible mark on my life. I was, on this day, an unabashed fan.
It reminded me of my years in the music industry when the biggest joy I got out of any given night on any given tour was to wait until the show was just about to start and then walk to the back of the arena or amphitheater to seek out the fan, far, far away from the stage. The one I was looking for was always easy to spot: on the edge of their seat with an irrepressible grin, eagerly awaiting the start of the show with anticipation that was palpable. They would turn to their parent or their partner or their friend and nod and whisper, their eyes never leaving the stage in an almost sacred reverence. When I found them, I would quietly ask them if they would like to follow me to better seats. They would stare back at me, stunned. Then they would turn to look at each other as if to say, “is she kidding?” When I told them I had front row tickets for them I was met with total disbelief and sometimes tears. As we walked toward the stage I would tell them that I would come to get them after the show to take them to a VIP party where they would meet the artist and have their picture taken with them. It was always the best part of my night.
Years later I got the chance to do that for my parents, too, who for as long as I could remember had a friendly rivalry about who was better, Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. The pictures from those nights were priceless and no matter what else I would go on to accomplish in my career — to them, meeting Frank and Tony simply couldn’t be topped.
When the doors to the auditorium opened I headed towards the stage hoping for a seat down front, but finding only reserved signs. As I pondered my next best option, I heard my name and turned to find my dear friend Gretchen who offered me the seat next to her because her friend couldn’t make it. I sat down in the front row and grinned big. Clearly, the universe was conspiring to bring me closer to my literary heroines.
Ann interviewed Liz on everything from moving to love to writing. They were poised and lovely and their conversation touched me deeply, most especially when Liz spoke about how her priorities shifted when her partner Rayya Elias was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In her words, “death — or the prospect of death — has a way of clearing away everything that is not real.”
The hour passed far too quickly and as they left the stage, my friend turned to me causally to let me know me that there was a VIP reception and she couldn’t go and would I like her pass? I grinned even bigger at the magic of this day and how it was all unfolding.
As I was entering the room Rayya was making her way out with Chunky, who most likely needed to find a patch of grass. We were caught in a bit of a throng, so I stopped and introduced myself. She offered her hand, which I held in both of mine. I searched her deep brown eyes until I found words that went something along the lines of how beautiful her spirit is, how courageous her will and that my heart is with her, wishing her strength. She squeezed my hand tighter and said thank you before she and Chunky made their exit.
I saw Liz in the middle of the room chatting with a few people. I took my place just outside the circle that surrounded her and waited for the chance to say hello. I had thought to bring two of my favorite books, Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, which I held to my chest. Now I felt and looked every bit a fan. I struck up a conversation with two younger women next to me, offering to take their picture if they would take mine and just as we had it all figured out, I turned around to see Liz smiling at me, eyes expectant. It was my turn. Suddenly, I felt like an awkward schoolgirl who’s been asked to come to the front of the room to speak. I’ll never forget what happened next. It went something like this:
We shook hands and she took notice of my perfume, leaning in closer. She asked what it was — Jo Malone Red Roses, I shared. Of course, Jo Malone! she replied. And then as I looked into her steady and sincere gaze I blurted out:You are one of the reasons I write…only I couldn’t go on because tears suddenly filled my eyes and I choked up. I took a breath and then I’m fairly certain I had one long run on sentence during which I confessed to feeling like a complete “gh-erm” (an old-school music industry term for “overzealous fan,” spelled like germ but with a hard g — which I actually took the time to explain to her) and I kept going on nonsensically until I think I ran out of air at which point I took a big breath and she graciously offered to sign the books I was clutching. She was the epitome of poise and professionalism and I was floundering on every level. I had thought to bring out my card so she could read how to spell my name and she asked about kindred and said, Can I keep this card? I had wanted to share with her that they were made from recycled t-shirts and how cool is that? But instead I blurted out again, this time overly exuberant, Of course! Signatures done, the generous volunteer took our picture and then suddenly my moment was over and there was nothing left to do but walk away.
I gathered my things in a daze. I was feeling slightly stunned and entirely embarrassed. And what I wanted more than anything at that moment was a do-over.
Anxious to redeem myself as a normal person and not a bumbling idiot, I walked up and introduced myself to Ann Patchett. Somehow everything went smoothly: I opened with gratitude for her bookstore, which my daughter and I frequent. I moved on to praise for her books, which I absolutely adore and devour. And then I segued effortlessly into her role as an interviewer and how impressive she was. I mentioned I had been in the audience at our Symphony Hall when she interviewed Shirley MacLaine and we shared a laugh about the questions that were asked of her by the audience and awe about the film that was shown which provided a stunning summary of Shirley’s achievements. Then I confessed that I had stood and asked the last question that night. She asked what it was and I repeated it and Shirley’s answer and we paused to take in that bit of wisdom. We took a picture, something she said we could do any day at her shop, but we both agreed it would be better to do today because we had makeup on. I took one last look around the room, cementing the memory in my mind, and slipped out the door, still hugging my books to my chest.
Later when I regaled my husband and daughter with the details of the day, we talked about what it is that causes us to lose our composure when we meet someone we admire so much. We shared a good laugh about the many times I had arranged an introduction for my husband with one of his musical idols and the silly things that were said. But you, he said, you never falter. You can talk to anyone. Anyone, it seems, but Liz Gilbert.
I really wanted to understand what came over me and I think I’ve got it figured out. And best as I can tell, here’s what it is:
It is when someone is able to put what we are feeling into words in a way that not only moves us, but remains unforgettable to us — something we return to time and time again and it never loses its power. When someone has the courage to share their vulnerability with us and plays such a pivotal or memorable part in our own lives that, unbeknownst to them, we can never be the same again — changed irreparably for better or for worse — this is what makes us so emotional. If we ever have the chance to meet, it’s as if we’ve known you all along because you saw us. And all we really want to say is: Thank you. Your words moved me. Thanks for being willing to share your truth with us all. I’m a fan, Liz Gilbert, I’m a fan.
I held onto my secrets for years. Decades, actually. And there are many reasons why. Reasons that anyone who has endured it — lived it — will understand. But only those who have endured it — lived it — will.
I’m writing this for everyone else.
I love you, but I’ve got to let you go.
Each time our paths cross I open my heart with renewed hope that it will be different somehow. And each time I walk away feeling empty.
My dear (____________), I realize now that at some point, I gave away my power to you. I was rebuilding my life, creating it piece by piece, and in all of its uncertainty and tender roots, I shyly let a chosen few in to tread softly and take a peek. I wanted to share my trepidation and fear and doubt and exhilaration and sheer anticipation with you. So I gave you permission to validate me. In no small way I longed for it. But it never came.