Third in a three-part series. Part I here; Part II here. Above photo by Brittany Hammer.
I felt the charge in the air rising, sitting on the sidelines with my co-conspirators Jacqueline and Tom. Editor and designer and me, hiding in plain sight: we partners in crime, feeling the hush that lay underneath the noise, anticipatory, the blood-run high of knowing and not knowing all at once. Every moment of my not surveying the crowd was a decision; I knew you were there, wanted to talk to you, but I needed to let the swirling thoughts settle.
I saw myself at sixteen, standing in line to talk to Michael Crichton. I was by far the youngest person there, and I remember being the only person he stood up and shook hands with. Why, I wondered. I'll never know. I had asked him about first and second-person voice in writing decisions.
Seeing the book, my name and title, Tom's design, a thing we had built in private now on display, not once or twice but prominently, in key placements throughout the store, in the Bestsellers, the Staff Picks, in the window. All this, and I'm supposed to be poised enough to answer questions!
The size of this crowd. The room, bulging to capacity. Being told Springsteen was just on this stage. Someone bringing out more chairs. The walls filling with standing figures. Don't think about it, Nathan, the enormity of the fact of their having came, don't think the thought, and let it throw you completely off the rails–
They came here for you.
Don't think about that or you'll be frozen stiff, too grateful to speak. Stay focused. Turn it around: I came here for them. "It's a kind crowd," a passenger had told me the night before, when I shared my trepidatious anticipation of tonight. David; that was his name. There he was now, in the audience.
Things made sense as they make sense in dreams– too much and not enough, pleasantly, something other than logic organizing the magic of this night. How did every part of this happen, in this uncertain universe? We got the perfect parking spot, directly across from the main doors... on Capitol Hill in the evening. What? I miraculously got the day off, and almost didn't. How much of life is Just Barely, and we don't even know?
At some point you have to stop thinking so much and just react, trusting yourself. The Summit was the shape of being up there with Tom, and sitting behind the desk afterwards, looking at that long line that once had me in it, waiting patiently to ask about first and second person.
I've switched places.
The thought sent me reeling. In the age of cynicism we confuse pessimism with truth, and we become practiced at doubting reality when it is beautiful. Was this really happening? I felt outside of myself, the moment too surreal to process, too incredible. As I age I learn the world is more terrible, but also more beautiful, much more beautiful than I ever knew it could be. Let me not lose the magic of having eyes for beauty, goodness, the simple miracles I write about on this blog and the massive ones too, like tonight.
I remember specific faces. My man Doug, representing in uniform. His mere presence was a gesture, giving truth to the time he'd spent driving clear down here from North Base. Others too from the furthest reaches of geography and time; Liz, who knew me when I was this tall, who encouraged me to explore bus driving in the first place. Here's a boy looking at his girlfriend, checking to make sure she's having a good time. Intensely beautiful people, attentive. Thoughtful expressions. A face here and there, jotting down notes, humbling me more than they know.
Jacqueline, the eagle-eyed editorial genius who knows my book better than anyone in the room, absorbed in the front sidelines. I looked at her and I looked at Tom, my co-collaborators in arms, and understood I was in the presence of giants. That these skilled craftspeople wanted to have anything to do with creating something with me?
I noticed all this but it aside because questions and thoughts move faster than light, and you didn't come here to see me stumble. I prepared for this. I rode the high-wire wave of improvised concentration, public speaking that's directly engaged with a live audience: every second a gamble in the dark, only moreso.
Adrian and Angela, faces from long ago. The way we used to kick the soccer ball together, the fraught and dusty weekends of childhood. Did we know it would lead to this?
You had brown hair and a friendly name. What is it about a half-smile walking out the door, that contains such multitudes? Or the fellow with the checkerboard grey slacks and discerning eyes. Faces I wanted to talk with further, but for the buzzing chaos of the room and that line, the long line that felt like it still had me in it, the shy junior-high youngster who went to his favourite author events alone.
These were the highlights of the night from my view– not me. I was not the star of this show. The star of this show was an idea we all believed in.
That was why it felt like a summit, good and complete and real. In our troubled and ridiculous times, this dark, sharp-edged period that historians won't realize even we didn't understand... We came out together, came because we believed in something possible, exciting even, the idea that respect and love are more than just platitudes. That my work and art to a small degree give texture and example to our hopes, notice of a goodness we know exists, but sometimes need a reminder for how to see.
You got through to me. Thank you.