Readers in the flesh

I hadn’t had much time to practice my reading, just about twenty minutes in the dark, whispering while my toddler watched old Disney episodes (seven minutes each–one was always winding down just as I was finishing) on my hostess’s iPad. Marking up books in pen has never felt good to me. I love everything to be pristine, perfect, unblemished, but ironically enough, I like looking at other people’s markups because it makes their books seem more real, more representative of a reader. In this case, I had no choice because my essay, read, runs about twelve minutes and I would only have eight minutes to read in California, my first reading, and three in Portland, my second.

With my pen, I marked passages I would read, trying to find ones that would run seamlessly together and sound like an essay, like a story. By my third run-through, I had just under eight minutes. It caught a little of how I first found out about my stepmother, my father’s character, my stepmother’s once she became a regular fixture in our home, and our relationship now that I am an adult with my own child.

As I started driving across the bridge towards Corte Madera, the nervousness hit me like a brick in the stomach. Oliver was a thankful diversion from myself–I could look into his eyes through the rear-view mirror, grab his belly with my fingertips, hear him laugh. I was still me. I was still his mother. And I would stand and I would read and it would be over and I would do it again in another week.

Everything went perfectly. Oliver loved the sitter I had arranged to keep him company. We got a decent crowd for a Sunday afternoon. Samantha, my editor, read, then we all took our turns as instructed, speaking our allotted times. The order she had chosen worked beautifully. The sun came in through the windows and I looked out at the faces of the listeners, who would become my readers once they took their copies home with them. These complete strangers had the kindest faces, more open than many audience members that I can remember. It was like we were all sitting around a campfire just telling each other about ourselves, even if I was the only one speaking. When I got to the end of my essay, where I talk about the wonderful role model of wife and mother my stepmother has been, I had to grit my teeth to keep from crying. I couldn’t lift my eyes. This was my life that I was sharing, this was the woman who has been so much for me, so much for my father. It felt good to be saying it out loud, what had meant so much in my life, what had even saved me a time or two.

In Portland, my favorite city, twelve of us spoke to a crowd of over eighty. I had only five minutes to speak, a little longer than I anticipated, so I marked up my book a second time in the car while my husband said goodbye to his sister. We had spent the weekend with her family in Bend, just three hours away from Portland. My husband had surprised me by showing up unannounced.

When we got into Portland, we met a friend of mine for an early dinner, then Richard dropped Oliver off with our hostess in Portland, a fellow writer who was kind enough to offer to watch him. It would be the first time Richard would see me read.

When it was my turn, he moved up to the front row to record me. Because it was at night and darker in the room, it was harder to connect with the faces as I read to them, but after contributors in attendance had read a part of our stories, a couple rushed up to me to have me sign their copies. “Yours was our favorite,” they gushed. “Tears, it brought tears to our eyes.” I recognized the look on their faces. It was the same expression I wore when I truly admired a writer and got a moment to speak to them. I went to the back to chat with my husband, and listeners would find me, ask me to sign their books, tell me how wonderful my story was, how well-written, how touching.

I was connecting, in real life, with my readers. It was a great feeling.

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