Saturday, September 14, 2013

On Meeting One of my Favorite Writers, Functional Insanity, and Baptists. Sort of.

I met Rachel Held Evans last night!

I may have mentioned her before. Well, she came to Clemson to speak and after a series of semi-unfortunate events, I had the fortunate event of the time Friday evening opening up. I love meeting authors who have written books I like! It's rare that I am anywhere near where a writer is going to be, and I try to take advantage when it does happen.

In fact, the first thing I said to Rachel upon meeting her was, "I met Neil Gaiman when I was 14, and I'm 27 now meeting you, and I haven't gotten any more articulate since then. I may babble."



Look at that adorable face. I am such a cute little baby goth.

Ah, and that unfortunate haircut. At least you can't see the unfortunate eyeliner... or my hands shaking because Neil Gaiman is touching me!

Anyway... back on track.

She laughed and signed my books anyway, and I did babble.

I was actually worried; Rachel is a religiously-focused writer and blogger, so her speaking event was hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina, at a huge Baptist church in downtown Clemson. Honestly, while I knew the neighborhood I mostly know it because of a specific bar a friend of mine who lives in town really likes nearby.

But it helped me know where I was! So I'm calling it all good.

Anyway, I went straight there from work. My worry was mostly that I'm not Baptist and never have been, so I wasn't sure exactly how all this was going to work. When I called to reserve my spot for the dinner, the incredibly nice lady on the phone asked what church I'm with.

I panicked.

I may have stammered something about not having one yet and we're still looking and I've found one I think is promising I'm going to this weekend but I wouldn't say that I'm with it yet, and do I need to be part of a church yet to go? I didn't know that and and and...

"That's alright, dear," She said, with that exceedingly comforting genteel Southern accent, the same one my in-laws have. "You can just say 'none'. We just don't put it on your name tag. You're a little bit nervous, huh?"

"Yes ma'am." When did I start saying yes ma'am and no ma'am? Something about this state did that to me.

"I thought so," She said. There was a pause, and then she added, "bless your heart."

Well, that's the Southern Kiss of Death and Pity right there.

So anyway, fast forward to last night.

I arrived about twenty minutes before dinner-and-a-speech was about to start. I walked into a room where I saw about 50 people milling together and talking, people who seemed to all clearly know each other very well. I have never felt so conspicuous in my life.

I am terrified of large gatherings of people I don't know. It's all a part of that magical tapestry I like to call Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I tell most people I'm "nervous" in large crowds, but the word hardly begins to describe the delightful neuroses that make up my everyday life.

I went to one of the tables, set my things down, and pulled out a book. I always have a book or two with me, and reading is my best way to calm myself down. It's what meditation is for other people; the ability to transport my entire brain away from fear and into calm, if only for a little while.

It wasn't really working, though. I could feel my face burning bright red with embarrassment as yet more people came in and yet more people were all previously acquainted. I had never felt like such a sore not-Baptist thumb in my life. I want to really emphasize that I wasn't being left out or anything. I could easily have walked up to a group and made new friends. Anyone in the room would have been perfectly happy to make my acquaintance. But I was too terrified of not being liked to do that.

Because, you know, nothing fixes up an anxiety disorder like wallowing in it.

I texted my sister to try to alleviate some of it, and kept reading.

Then, right as I was starting to wonder if I shouldn't just leave rather than deal with the indignity of sitting at a table by myself all through dinner, a voice popped up from my left. A woman leaned over to look at my name tag. "Are you by yourself, honey? Do you have any of your people comin'?"

"No, it's just me," I said, trying to sound light-hearted.

"Well, good, then you won't mind if I just sit with you," She said, plopping her purse down. We started to talk, and she had gone to graduate school at a college just an hour of where I was born and raised, and we laughed about flatlands, and within about five minutes my table was full of people who came and sat down with us.

It was me, the lady, an older couple who had been married for forty years and they were the most adorable people I've ever seen getting coffee for each other and she grabbed some dessert for him because he'd forgotten and wow. And then there was a second couple, who it turned out often pop up to the mill that my museum operates just outside our town and we knew a lot of the same people.

From then on, it was fine. I learned quite a lot about their lives and they learned quite a bit about mine. A couple of people from the church I was in introduced themselves to me, asked about where I had grown up (the number one rule of gatherings in South Carolina is that someone will talk to me for five minutes and immediately ask 'where are you from'), and the moral of the whole story is that all it takes is just starting a conversation with a stranger.

Rachel herself came up and spoke after dinner. I made jokes about how only silly people would be taking notes and then I totally took notes. Because nerd.

Her speech was a really good one, about the necessity of disconnection in a seriously overconnected world. I fall prey to that in a huge way; I love having Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and everything at the tips of my fingers, all day long. I have apps on my phone that make sure I don't ever have to be more than two clicks away from whatever mundane thing I want to tell the world I am doing. There are more photos of my dog on the internet than there ever should be.

Her main points were about listening to God, yourself, the stories of others, and your critics, and how each of those things helps us to be more fully engaged in our way of changing the world without just trying to be the loudest voice shouting the angriest things on TV. Actually, one of the best points she made that really resonated with me was the difference between a good opportunity and the right opportunity, and how we tend to think those are the same thing and they can be, but not always.

I came home with a placemat covered in notes and two signed books. I was one of the early ones in line for the signing afterwards, and when I came up to her I said the thing about articulate and babbling and then I babbled at her, and she recognized my name from my comments on her blog and then I melted into the floor from a mix of shame and a writer I like recognized me!


Then she took a picture with me.

I left probably faster than I should have; I should have stayed around and talked to more people and introduced myself. I just kind of felt this urge to get home to Jason, though, and our dog and cat and most importantly, my pajamas and ability to swear without feeling bad.

Also, when I came I was one of the last ones to get the parallel parking spots outside the church. I was proud of myself for snagging it, and managed to get a spot where no one had yet parked on either side. I went in all content and proud, and it only occurred to me a few minutes later that I don't actually know how to parallel park.

I mean, I do in theory. I was taught how to parallel park when I was sixteen by a tired drivers' ed teacher who had me do it in an empty block with no cars for miles around. So I have a notion of how it's supposed to happen, but if parallel parking is a necessity in life I usually park the car and make Jason get in the driver's seat to do it while I stand by nervously jumping every time I think he's within three feet of another car.

Which, if you've ever parallel parked, you always are.

So, while sitting at dinner, I realized that I wasn't entirely sure I would be able to leave, if the people parked on either side of me stayed 'til the bitter end. I would just have to sit on the steps outside or go to one of the bars to wait 'em out or something.

It did not occur to me that I could just go back inside and talk to people. Oh no. Once you leave a place, you can't just go back in. The floor becomes lava, or something.

Instead, I sat in the car and stared morosely at the car in my rearview mirror, and the car out in front of me. Back and forth, willing something to happen. I decided to call Jason to let him know I was about to try to leave and we may need to call insurance in the morning when I inevitably destroy something.

Then, lights came on in my rearview mirror. The people behind me had come out to leave!

I turned my own headlights back off to signal I wasn't going anywhere. They didn't move at first, and I realized they were waiting for me. I just waved through the back windshield, trying to sort of sign to them that I was omgjustsobusy on the phone I couldn't possibly go yet, and after about thirty seconds they very, very, very carefully maneuvered out of their own spot and left.

Success!

I backed up as far as I wanted to (nearly but not quite still managing to hit the car two spots behind me), made my way back onto the road, and drove home.

They may say fortune favors the bold, but I say fortune favors the anxious.

Or it did last night.

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