A few years ago a friend invited me to Lake Tahoe, and while I was swimming in that cold water, I learned a lesson about kindness and audiences that I've never forgotten. Here's the story:
I went up to Tahoe to lose my hair. Really! I had just started chemo, and it was the end of the summer, and the experienced oncology nurses had pointed at a date on the calendar and said, "Hair should start coming out about then." My attitude was a mixture of horror and curiosity. I had never had all my hair fall out before! My friend Linda (who had been through this sort of thing herself) said, "Anne, come stay with us up at Tahoe. It'll be a great place to lose your hair!"
And she was right. It was healing, after all the first-round-of-chemo nausea, to be up in a place where the air felt practically newborn, it was so crisp and clear. And to be able to go walking in mountains and under lovely trees! And to have someone around whose attitude was as crisp and refreshing as the air: "Okay, Anne!" she said every morning. "Making progress? How's that hair coming along?"
And every day I took my battle-scarred, strange-looking, hair-shedding self down to the dock to swim (euphemism for "jump in, paddle about for a second, and climb back out") in the cold, bracing, wonderful water of Lake Tahoe. It was wonderful!
And then one afternoon, I went down to the dock, and there were other people on it. Not just "other people": a group of teenagers, all boys. For a moment I froze. Perhaps you can understand: I had had a lot of surgery, not that long before. My swimsuit fit very strangely, and there were scars showing, and there was that weird lump that was the chemo port, and--and of course I was losing my hair. My head looked like it had just lost several big fights with an angry cat.
Well, I saw all those boys on the dock, and part of me was suddenly in 7th grade all over again--just wanting to take this battered body and obviously balding head of mine and hide. But I also didn't want to miss my dip into the magic water! So I forced myself to be brave--to march down that dock like I belonged there--to whip off my fleece and step onto the ladder, ignoring what I assumed were the staring, possibly mocking eyes of my audience--
and then one of those very scary people spoke out, just as I reached for the ladder (he was older than the others--it turned out I hadn't looked at them very closely). And what he said was,
"You know what, my wife did this, what you're doing now. Their mother did this. Seven years ago now." He made a funny little sound in his throat and added, "I just wanted you to know--she's doing really well now. Their mother."
And I looked up at them, finally, and saw what I had missed by not really looking before: not judgment, but kindness. Not some scary imagined other ("teenage boys"!), but human beings. (Then of course I couldn't see much at all, because of tears followed promptly by lake water!)
I learned something on that dock, and it occurs to me now that what I learned can be phrased in terms of writers and readers, books and audiences.
Let me count the ways:
1. When a book goes out into the world, it is exciting and frightening, both at once. It can feel like all your secret scars are going out on parade. It is as scary as walking out onto a crowded dock when your hair is coming out in clumps.
2. Fear makes us bad readers--in particular, bad readers of our audience. Here's a bit of irony: I misjudged these people because I was so clamped up in my own anxiety that they might be judging me. When we write, it is our solemn duty to be less afraid. We have to open up for our audiences, whoever they may turn out to be. Almost certainly they are more complicated and more human than we may think at first.
3. Our readers carry many stories in them. That is amazing and something a writer can't forget. Our stories reach out to theirs. All of these things are wonderfully plural, too: the stories people carry inside them; the stories they are ready or need or long to hear.
4. And finally, that father did what a good writer does: he told me a story that touched my heart and opened the world to me so that I saw it in a different way. A good story tells us that life may be hard, but we are not alone. It must have taken courage to speak up, in the face of all my determined shyness. But what a gift his story was! Let's all be as brave in our story-telling as that father was that day.
|Under this hat, progress toward baldness was being made!|