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Posts Tagged ‘conferences’

Last Thursday, I got up extra early, put on a snazzy wrap dress and my favorite boots, and headed downtown for a work conference at an elegant hotel. I was on the planning committee, so I’d known about the conference for months, and had spent the last few weeks attending to many last-minute details. I knew where to go and which sessions I was scheduled to introduce.

But as I rode the escalator up to the fourth floor, I was terrified.

starbucks chai table journal sunshine

My roots, and work experience, are in the world of higher education, at small, friendly liberal arts schools with modest budgets. I am a bit awed by the slick world of corporate sponsorships, glossy banners and well-appointed conference rooms. I’d agreed to serve on this planning committee only if I didn’t have to chair a subcommittee, because I’d never attended a conference this large before, much less helped plan one. I am young and petite and introverted and still an outsider in this part of the country, and as such, I felt a bit like a kid among the grown-ups, like the wide-eyed wallflower who didn’t quite belong.

I kept thinking about the time, several years ago, when my husband flew to Nashville for a conference with a group of his co-workers. Several flight delays eventually resulted in them getting upgraded to first class. My husband, the youngest member of the group, who hadn’t done much flying, was dazzled by the experience. It must have shown on his face, because Gina, his supervisor, elbowed him and whispered, “Act like you’ve been here before.”

I got through the first day of the conference largely by repeating Gina’s phrase to myself, over and over again. I smiled and shook hands with fellow committee members and session presenters. I double-checked my program for the right times and rooms. During the lunch break, I pulled one of my classic self-care moves: escaping for a solitary burrito and a few chapters of the latest Flavia de Luce mystery. Armed with snacks, I then returned to the hotel to introduce my afternoon session and attend a keynote speech, then headed home to collapse.

The next day felt infinitely calmer. Part of it was my reduced assignment load: only one session (instead of three) to attend and introduce. But the unknown factor was wiped away. I didn’t have to act like I’d been there before, because I had. I was able to walk more confidently into the main room, spot people I knew, sit down next to them, make conversation. I knew what I was doing that day; I could handle it. I didn’t have to fake it any more.

Sometimes the only way to handle a situation is to bluff your way through. I am not good at bluffing; I prefer honesty and openness, even vulnerability. But faking it can sometimes hold you over until you’ve figured out what to expect. Sometimes acting like you’ve been there before provides a stopgap, until you’ve mapped out the lay of the land, until you can navigate it with relative ease.

I haven’t seen Gina for a couple of years, and I doubt she remembers that incident so long ago. But her advice helped me survive that nerve-racking first day. And next time (I hope), it won’t be so intimidating. Because I have been there before.

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I spent last week on a green quiet campus in western Massachusetts. I spent hours curled up on a narrow bed in a monastic, light-filled dorm room with a window onto a lake, writing and reading and relishing the quiet. And I spent many more hours sitting around tables with fellow writers and artists, talking, writing, wrestling with big questions, laughing, singing, even crying a little.

mt holyoke college lake glen east

I left with a dozen or more new ideas for the book I’ve been trying to write for four years, a mile-long list of poets and novelists and other writers to look up and try, a new band to listen to and love. I left with a series of heartfelt bear hugs and a collection of email addresses and Twitter handles and phone numbers. I left with the unmistakable feeling of having been among my people.

glen east workshop 2012 worship

Listening on the last night

This is a rare tribe: a group of Christians with diverse denominational roots, many with painful stories of having been hurt by the church. Some of them have left church and come back. All of us have wrestled, continued to wrestle, with the God who grappled with Jacob, and with the way His story gets played out in the world by groups of fearful, imperfect people.

They are also – let it be said – a heck of a lot of fun. From the opening wine-and-cheese reception (at which I had a glass of wine with Kathleen Norris, one of my heroes) to the closing dance party, from late nights in the lounge telling stories to a fun free day exploring nearby towns, we had a ball. I haven’t laughed so hard in weeks.

glen east dance party chalkboard

The inimitable Lauren Winner taught our memoir workshop class, by which I mean she led discussion of the manuscripts we had all submitted beforehand, and asked so many good questions that my brain is still spinning. She is wry, quirky, thoughtful and brilliant, and our group of memoirists shares those traits. They are kind, generous, respectful and intelligent, and the level of discourse – about writing and life – was consistently high.

Kristin (my roommate/workshop-mate) and me

I’ve dreamed about going to the Glen Workshop for years, since I discovered Image and its excellent Good Letters blog as a college student, thanks to a creative writing professor who pointed me to both (and to the MFA in Creative Writing that shares a birthplace and a lot of the same excellent people with the Glen). All the pieces – time, cost, location, faculty, emotional impetus – never fell into place until this year. But when they did, they fell into place perfectly.

I’ll be sharing more specifics in the days to come. But for now I want to say: what a nourishing community. And I am so grateful to be part of it.

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Taken from my journal yesterday:

There is poetry in the way this man [Samuel Twumasi-Ankrah, from Accra, Ghana] holds himself, standing tall and straight on a stage decked with white flowers and tall green plants. He is dressed in white and gold robes with a geometric pattern on the front, in a room where most people are wearing business suits. His skin is the color of dark chocolate and his accent carries a halting lilt – like raw silk to the ears instead of ordinary, department-store cotton.

To a gathering of mostly white, North American Church of Christ preachers and teachers: yet another manifestation of the truth that wisdom doesn’t always come in an expected form.

Praise God for ACU Lectureship.

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