By the second day of the conference my new Dansko Professional clogs are scuffed beyond recognition and I’m annoyed. I should be grateful that I found a conference geographically close to Z that work would pay for, but all I can focus on are the angry-looking scuffs across both toes and the fact that I do not want to be listening to anymore motivational speaking about writing, but would rather be back at the gorgeous little almost-beach-front carriage house that Z and I have rented for three nights while I’m at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. He is back there in relaxi-pants, sitting on the balcony, watching the revelry of Coupeland’s Penn Cove Mussel Festival, and I am stuck with a chirpy woman who pulls plastic swords and giant eyeglasses from a bag and commands me to be a brave and observant conference goer.
I attend conferences alone. I like this. Not being there with friends and colleagues gives me the freedom to be the bad student I am at heart. For instance, on the first day of the conference, I answered work emails while editors and agents talked about what they do and don’t like. I listened to them, but some I had already rejected as having pinched faces or liking only cookbooks, which meant during their talks I was free to do work I should have done before I ever got on the plane headed for the Pacific Northwest. I realize this is the faulty logic my students use when they text during lectures they’ve already decided are beneath them, and it’s probably going to bring a heap of bad karma on my head.
The conference is nice. I’ve been to Aspen’s Summer Words a few times, and since that is the Sundance Film Festival of writing conferences, I am perhaps a bit too judgmental of this one. For instance, I feel mildly annoyed that day one is in a church and that the pastor speaks and that his music minister comes out with a guitar to lead a sing. I’m not anti-church, but I do have a tendency to get mentally oppositional when I’m inside of one. Also, I’m put off by one of two featured speakers, a story teller in a long, multi-colored coat and white gloves, who tells a long story about a grandfather and a grandson and fishing net and I’m bored and lost and feel cynical because I’m a writer but storytellers always seem like they need way more attention than any human person should need.
I’m also critical of the motivational speaker they’ve brought in who is the one with the big bag of props to encourage us to be better conference attendees. Also, the older man with braids all over his head. And the woman in the strange teapot-shaped hat. Who ARE these people? Also, what am I supposed to do with the very thin directions I’ve received to the afternoon “chat house,” which is in someone’s actual home—and I imagine it will be a small home with lots of cats and soup-whiff. Would it be wrong to escape so early into a conference that my university has paid for me to attend? Could I maybe justify the positive spin my writing and teaching will take if I get to spend more time with Z? I think about how he stood on the balcony, waving me off this morning, and I just want to be with him. This is not a professional attitude.
I find it mysterious and comforting that despite my aloneness at any conference, I am never alone for long. Somebody, usually someone who is more socially gregarious than I am, finds me after the first session—almost as if we already had an arranged appointment—and then I spend the rest of the day with them, hearing their stories. Frequently, they are people who need an empty vessel to pour their own stories into. Other times, they end up being friends. On the first day when I sit down alone in the cafeteria, I think, “Well, I wonder when she’ll be here.” She has no first name, but I know she’ll come. Sure enough, within two minutes a woman in her thirties and what can only be described as pirate boots, sits down and starts talking. I like her instantly and am happy later when she acts as my navigator to the “chat house” where various writers visit us. And chat.
I need a navigator. The house is located in the back of beyond. Pirate Girl and I drive and drive and drive, and as we drive we speculate about what kind of house we’ve been sent to. At first, we think a bungalow near town, but then the further out we go into the pines, we assume a cabin. And then we turn into a subdivision reminiscent of The Brady Bunch and our romantic hopes are dashed. Between direction announcements, Pirate Girl tells me the story of her life. It’s an interesting one and actually does involve life on sea-going vessels as a ship’s cook. I have no doubt that the book she was pitching at the conference will get picked up and we’ll all be talking about it next year. She and I drive some more and see tsunami warning signs and finally, our destination: a gorgeous, expensive-looking house with two walls of windows overlooking Puget Sound, a mere three feet away from the house. The waves crash.
We kick off our shoes at the door, and settle in to listen. Erik Larson, the author of one of my favorite non-fiction, non-memoir books—Devil in the White City--is the keynote speaker at this chat house. He is funny and humble and inspiring. He has a house on Whidbey Island, and I like the way his jeans and cotton shirt make it seem like he’s just popped in to hang out with us and be friends.
The authors who follow him are fine—one offers depressing information about our prospects of being able to make a living from writing, and another is a resident hippy who has gorgeous illustrated journals and who is living out of the back of her truck. I’m sure they are both lovely people, but the views compete for my attention, the sofa I am sitting on is that kind you get enveloped in, and I’m beginning to champ at the bit to get back to Z. When we are released, Pirate Girl and I cram our feet into our footwear, hop into the car, and follow the Tsunami Escape Route signs to higher ground. We say goodbye when I drop her at her car and promise to meet up the next day, though I’m fairly certain we’ll never see each other again. She is newly pregnant and tired and the temptations of Z coupled with my own rebellious streak will likely mean the few sessions we do attend the next day will not be at the same time. We don’t exchange last names or email, so unless Oprah picks her book and it does become a bestseller, I have no hope of ever talking to Pirate Girl again.
I return to Z and we stroll around the town, have a drink in a bar that promises a clientele of crusty fishermen, and then we go back to our carriage house and play a card game. Z is used to living without electricity and the distractions of the internet or television. I, on the other hand, have to warm to our low-tech evening. I’ve been plugged in too long.
At some point between the chat house and going to bed, I come to a horrible realization: the shoes on my feet do not belong to me. They are black. They are Danskos. They are the correct size. But they wobble the wrong way. My feet slip in them more than they should. Also, there is no way my new pair of shoes could be so scuffed and worn.
I’m horrified. There is something so inherently personal about shoes that I am as icked out as if I’d accidentally come home in someone else’s underpants. I begin to obsess about how I can get my pristine new shoes back and then my thoughts turn dark and I harbor paranoid thoughts about the person who stole my shoes. My money is on the woman living in the truck. Clearly her shoes have been on her feet for a decade. I even, momentarily, blame Pirate Girl for distracting me at a crucial shoe-collecting moment from my own footwear because of my fascination with hers. This is irrational. I was likely the culprit. I live in a land where no one wears comfortable Danish shoes, and I have probably jammed my feet into the first pair of Danskos available. Z tries to console me. They are just shoes. Nobody is going to keep a pair of shoes that are not their own, he says. I can collect mine the next day. Somehow, his words soothe me.
Only the next day, no one has returned my shoes. Because Z had me convinced, I’ve worn the offending clogs so sure am I that I can make an easy trade at the reception desk. I have even imagined the laughter I will share with the other person as we slip out of each other’s shoes and into our own. I sit dejectedly thru Christopher Vogler’s talk on the writer and the hero’s journey, and I wonder what journey my shoes are now on. Somehow, it is this idea—my shoes not as things but as entities with a their own lives to lead—that suddenly makes this mishap okay. In fact, I start to suspect the shoes are going to be living a more interesting life than I could ever have given them. I even kind of hope they are living with the woman in the truck.