This beautiful photograph is by Anne Simone.
Today we’re going to take a break from all the terrible things happening in the world and I’m going to tell you a story about something wonderful that happened a few weeks ago.
I was in California, attending a workshop led by Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed at 1440 Multiversity. We were nestled under redwoods, suitcases stowed in our little sleeping pods, and I was still carsick from my overly exciting journey over the mountain. I had arrived late, and I just had time to grab dinner before the first talk.
Everywhere I looked, I saw groups of women– friends, obviously– in deep and excited conversation. They howled, sharing old inside jokes. They cackled, throwing their heads back in that exuberant way of mothers who have three whole nights away from their beloved spawn. They furrowed their brows, talking about the current political situation and deeply personal things.
I had come alone, you see.
So very, very alone.
On purpose, though! Alone was what I needed! I wanted the anonymity and quiet cocoon of solitude that you can sometimes get in a hall full of 800 people who are all enthralled by the same books. I went because I wanted to jolt myself out of my own mental, emotional, and conversational grooves, and rendezvous with myself with no obligations to anyone else.
But at dinner, wolfed down alone at a long communal table, I surely did wish that I had brought at least ONE friend.
I bolted from the cafeteria to the big hall, just in time to catch the opening night’s big event– an armchair conversation with me, my buddies Cheryl and Liz, and 799 other kindred spirits.
I eyed an empty seat next to a woman with actual fairy flaxen hair. “Can I sit here?”
“Oh sure,” said the golden fairy. She was deep in conversation with her friend, who had immensely kind eyes, but after a few minutes I screwed up my courage and said to them, “So what do you think– does everyone here want to be a writer?”
Hahaha! Little icebreaker joke! Good one, right?
But the fairy with the flaxen hair looked uncomfortably at her friend. “Well, um….we actually…we both already ARE writers.”
And it turned out that they were both REAL writers. Writers with books. Writers who write in tiny little publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times.
I died, dearheart. Right there. I just melted into my shoes, which were clearly STUPID shoes, FAKER shoes, WANNABE shoes, just like me. (Which is ridiculous, incidentally, because some of my most beloved clients are also Real Life Writers, and I never feel mortified by my own existence with them. But anyhoo.)
These Real Live Writers smiled tenderly at me and asked me friendly and generous questions, and I pretended to be an adult right up until they said, “And so what brings you here? You want to….?”
What I wish had happened next was that then I said something witty and profound and humble and hilarious.
NOPE. Instead, this.
I went bright red. I said, “Well, basically I want to– be you, I guess.”
NO game, guys. I have no game.
So then I died some more and pretended to look at my phone and vowed that just as soon as I could get out of that crowded hall, I’d go repack my bags, escape from my little sleeping pod, call a Lyft, and go back to the airport where I’d find a room in the scuzziest airport motel I could find, because that was clearly where I belonged, and maybe I’d watch old TV reruns for the next couple of days instead.
After about 45 minutes, my face faded from stoplight red to just bright pink.
By that point I’d already laughed and cried copiously, because it turns out that my buddies Liz and Cheryl are hilarious, and it was either before that or after that (I can’t remember because of my mortification blackout) that someone asked the group an extraordinary question.
“How many of you came here with a friend?”
Only about 20% of the room raised a hand.
I braced for the next question, which obviously was going to be, “How many of you came here with your Real Live Writer Secret Society Of Actual Real Nonfaker Writers?”
But that wasn’t the question. Instead:
“How many of you came here– bravely– alone?”
AND YOU GUYS. ALMOST EVERYONE IN THE ROOM RAISED THEIR HAND.
And all over the hall, people turned and gaped at each other. And then they grinned. Half sheepishly.
Because then we knew.
We knew that that group of women waving their hands over glasses of wine had just met.
We knew that the circle of people around the firepit had only just introduced themselves.
We knew that we could sit down at ANY dinner conversation that looked inviting.
I’ve never experienced such a remarkable weekend.
People joined and left tables, folks popped into conversations and out again, things ebbed and flowed, and I had some of the best conversations of my whole life. I met some of the most dear and interesting people.
And it was all because of that question. If on that first night, no one had asked the question, “Who came alone?” we all would have thought that we were the only one.
The only one looking in from the outside.
The only one drifting around the edges.
The only one feeling like a wannabe, a faker, a dreamer, a mortified fraud filled with longing.
But it turns out, we all came alone.
So imagine me asking the question, in my big cosmic voice:
“How many of you, dear readers, feel like you came alone? Like– to this planet?”
[Secret: Every single reader of this missive, and there are thousands of you and you are all over the globe, WILL RAISE HER HAND.]
We all came alone.
It’s the human condition.
Even the sparkly ones, even the ones telling jokes at the center of the group, even the ones who have the house and the job and the Instagram feed you want.
They all came alone too.
They’ve all sat down and mortified themselves next to perfect strangers who are cooler than they ever hoped to be.
And some of them have the tenderest hearts and the most wicked senses of humor and the very best stories.
So try this. Smile. Say, “Hi, you look like an interesting person, can I join you?”
And if a conversation turns dull, simply pick up your tray, say “It was so lovely to meet you!” and move on.
Because they sell wine over by the firepit. And we are cackling and talking about sex. And there is plenty of room. And when we run out of Adirondack chairs, we’ll pull up a stool for you.
Because we all came alone.
But together is how we’re going to carry on.