A week ago, I returned from my first AWP Conference, a massive writing and publishing event, which took place this year in Washington, DC. While there, I found out that a triple celestial confluence had occurred: a simultaneous full moon, lunar eclipse and comet appeared in the sky that Friday night, which, despite my reticence to accept such woo-woo reasoning, may help explain why so many poignant connections occurred.
I knew that my former-MFA professor/now-friend Suzanne would be attending, but I had no idea she would be on the same plane until we ran into each other while boarding. We gaped at each other happily upon the discovery. Southwest Airline’s sometimes-annoying lack of seat reservations paid off this time, as we were able to sit together and go through all the panels and readings and author-signings that we wanted to attend, surely annoying the guy in the aisle seat who had hoped for a quiet nap. Like two kids salivating over 101 delightful Baskin Robbins flavors of ice cream and able to choose just a few, we talked through the many sessions and presenters, while she gave me tips and insights and encouragement.
Because we had run into each other this way, it also meant we were able to find our way by bus, train and Metro together, check in at registration with each other and even share an Uber. In between these stops, like teenagers, we took numerous selfies, giggled and posted them. An excited, yet nervous, first-time AWPer, flyer and navigator, I was deeply reassured by the surprise gift of my lovely silver-haired mentor to keep me company the entire way. Though we joked we should never travel without each other again, we knew our return plans differed.
At the three-day conference, I met for the first time in person the guy I’ve interned with for over a year, reconnected with professors from grad school, ran into a friend’s daughter I hadn’t seen in years, caught up with her mom and another local friend I didn’t know would be there. I sat through many sessions presented by writers I admired whom I had only imagined living on pages, not in real life. I said “thank you!” to an editor from the first journal to publish my work and “hello!” many others who swore they needed more nonfiction submissions (even though I’m sure they were just being nice to me).
I had the great fortune of meeting (nervously and sweatily, after pumping myself up like a boxer entering a ring) Jill Bialosky and Roger Rosenblatt, two of my literary heroes who had penned memoirs about loss that meant a great deal to me as I worked on my manuscript about losing my brother. I look up to both like they are rock stars, and both were so kind to me that I was in tears after our brief encounters.
A third writer in the same camp was brought to my attention by my roommate for the weekend, who had attended a panel I missed. “You HAVE to have his book,” Heidi said, “I’m going to buy it for you.” She practically dragged me to the Trinity University Press table to pick up a copy of Kim Stafford’s book about his brother’s death.
In the middle of the enormous book fair, I glanced down at one exhibitor’s table (one of 800) and my eyes landed on a book by a woman I used to be in a writing group with, aptly titled, What is Amazing. Exhausted, I slumped in a chair at a table covered with dozens of bookmarks, brochures, and postcards from journals, schools and publishers. Out popped one with a quote about Barton Springs at the very same moment my friend in Austin texted me out of the blue. Wow!! What a coincidence! We’ll be plunging in next month! She wrote when I told her.
Then I received an email from a former boss about some freelance work she had thrown my way because she is currently going through chemo. I ended my note back to her: are you doing OK, considering? I’m thinking about you… And she responded: Yes! I’ve been reading Suzanne Strempek Shea’s book about her breast cancer journey. I looked up from my iPhone, wide-eyed. You just gave me chills. She is sitting across from me right now. She calmly typed back: The universe connects us in common and meaningful ways…
Late Saturday, I dragged my suitcase, laptop and conference bag — weighed down with purchased books — to the Metro stop at the convention center, heading home tired and a little sad, but chock full of inspiration. Alone, I reflected on the many amazing moments, the happenstances, the things that occurred seemingly for no reason, or because, you know, The Universe.
When I presented my ID at Union Station, the clerk selling me a ticket paused. “Pinkerton?” She said. “I’ve never heard that name before, but that’s a character on my daughter’s reading app.” For the next ten minutes, she searched for it while we chatted, the wifi connection sluggish on her iPhone underground. I was glad for the connection, and for the new app “Endless Reader,” to recommend to my friends with kids.
I trudged down the platform of the train station, past car after car of the seemingly endless train, finally settling into a seat and getting out my own phone, looking for the app, then checking email. There was one from Suzanne from the other day, I’ll never forget our adventure of arriving… I began to type back, Traveling with you was the BEST! It’s not that thrilling finding my way back alone… And moments later I heard a voice from behind me, “Anne? Is that you?”
Due to an impending snowstorm, Suzanne had changed her plane reservation to the one I just happened to be taking. She had also taken the same train. And walked into the same car. And sat right behind me.
Four days later – trying to keep my AWP glow on – I had dinner with Melanie Brooks before she did a reading in town for her new book called Writing Hard Stories, a collection she penned while working on her own memoir. Between bites of salad, she said, “You absolutely HAVE to read Kim Stafford’s book.”