In the good old days when schools and libraries bought many children’s books, editors used to pop on over to Book Expo (where bookstore people saw new books) and to the annual conventions of the International Reading Association and the American Library Association. Most of the big NY publishers and a host of smaller publishers and other book people exhibit their new books for the thousands of bookstore folks and teachers and librarians who attend those conferences–and authors sign books–and it was a good place for authors to look their editors and agents in the eyes. I did it often.
Last Vermont College MFA residency, I was the moderator of a panel of editors, and it reminded me that it had been a while since I’d had a chance to talk with any of the editors of any of my books. Since my most recent novels were the Lanie books for American Girl, a publisher based in Madison, Wisconsin, I was feeling a hole in the middle of my artistic life. This fall, when a reasonable ticket for NYC crossed my desk (so to speak) I decided it was time for some in-person conversations. I also had Ethiopia Reads (www.ethiopiareads.org) supporters I wanted to have coffee with and talk and dream with.
Hurricane Sandy. Voting lines. Snow from a Nor’easter that tantrumed through the city for a day, bringing snow.
But, well, I already had the ticket. I left falling fall in Portland and headed east.
I’d been planning to stay in my agent’s guest room in Brooklyn, but he had flood refugees staying there, so I stayed with my writer and actor friend, Tigist Selam, in her new Harlem apartment…so new that books were piled on the floor and she didn’t yet have chairs.
The city. So different from the city where I live now. I thought I’d see Red Cross workers and the National Guard everywhere, as with the Grand Forks flood clean-up. But Harlem escaped Sandy’s wrath and I arrived there in the evening, so I had no sense of devastation except in the conversations…stories of people without heat, camped determindly and somewhat grimly in apartments and battered houses.
The evening of Election Day 2012, Tigist and I ate in an Ethiopian restaurant with a young Ethiopian American who arrived in New Jersey as a three-year-old and now volunteers for Ethiopia Reads. After that, we found a coffee shop down the street–one that had a television–and watched states turn blue and red and listened to the conversations rising and falling all around.
It was a sweet experience…thinking and talking about what makes communities strong and how people can be part of that. Or not.
The next day, though, some of the people I wanted to see were still without power or had no access to trains and I sat in Tigist’s apartment and mostly worked on my Vermont College packets and read a “powerful, honest, ruefully funny memoir” (so says the New York Times Book Review.)
It wasn’t until Thursday, the day I was scheduled to fly home, that I got to see some of the other people I’d hoped to see. Tigist helped me navigate the puddled city and then put me on the A subway and told me to listen to announcements.
“Excuse me, please,” a young man announced first. “I’m sorry to interrupt your ride”–and he proceeded to try to sell us goodies, proceeds to go to philanthropic efforts. Next was a young woman walking through with a baby and a cardboard sign…and then a Vietnam vet who protested to all of us that New York state has provisions for women and children but not for people like him…and he could really use our help.
The promised announcement came. If we were going to JFK, due to the devastation of the storm and Rockaway, we were to take the train to the last stop, walk to the front of the train, and take the Q-10 bus. Only I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to walk to the front of the train NOW or after I got off. My seatmate helped me figure it out (with a little amusement) and wished me luck on my trip.
The Q-10 bus was crammed. The young woman sitting next to me–with her boyfriend hanging on and swaying over us and asking questions about JFK–was missing her home in California and envious that I was heading to the West Coast. The old man next to her, with his walker in his lap, discovered that he’d gotten on the wrong bus and was going to have to walk through snow with his walker. On the train, I didn’t know what to do. This time, I did. I leaned over the young woman and asked if he would accept a little money for a taxi. He would. We creaky people have to stick together.
The bus stopped. A bunch of us stood up. The bus lurched forward and I would have flipped except for the California girl who caught me–she got her muscles swimming, she told me with pride. They were going to JFK to meet a friend. No gas for their car, so they’d spent all afternoon on the bus. The trees around their house fell away and not ON, she said. They’d be fine.
Across the aisle, a woman from somewhere in Africa with a baby on her back–an oxygen tube in its nose–fretted about catching her plane on time.
As we climbed off at JFK, a young Pakistani employee who’d been on the bus showed all of us where to walk, which elevator to get on, how to get to our terminals.
But we also saw community that springs up around shared disaster, the community that can form anywhere, any time, among the most unlikely of traveling companions.
I came home to messages from Stephanie about the Ethiopia Reads event she and her Grand Rapids, MI team worked so hard on this week to bring art and books to kids in Ethiopia, a place where she goes every year. We form community everywhere and anywhere with those who share our world and our dreams.
Sometimes, when we’re lucky, that’s the way the world bounces.