The event last night cost me a lot in time, gas, and cookies. In every way but cookies, it came up short. Or did it?
The occasion was a reading of my book, The Dwindling, A Daughter’s Caregiving Journey to the Edge of Life, at the largest library in my area. Looking out the window of the cavernous room we’d booked for the occasion, was the picture perfect harbourside of Nanaimo BC. Looking out over the audience, there was one wizened lady with a big sun hat, a backpack and sensible shoes.
Here’s the back story of this nightmare.
It began with an idea that my author friend Carollyne and I hatched over a glass of chardonnay, that we could both tell our stories with their tough truths, and sell lots of books. The author circuit would be more pleasant in collaboration with a friend. How could we lose? That plan came to fruition last night. But it did bear fruit?
We called our dog and pony show, Adventures in Elder Land. Her novel’s theme is elder abuse, one edge of a family relationship where the elder’s vulnerability is misused by greedy children. I’m on the other edge. We stepped up to support our vulnerable parents.
Over several hours, Carollyne and I figured how to meld such different approaches in different genres into one compelling event. We chose three issues bound to trigger response: the onset of dementia, family consensus, and the tug of war of control. Our powerpoint tossed the presentational ball back and forth between us. We practiced reading with feeling. I bought the juice and cookies and Carollyne got the technology working. Then, in the last half hour before show time, we fortified ourselves in the cafe across the street with a pinot noir, speculating about how many people going into the library were our audience. Wiping our lips of tell tale stains, we were ready.
Our audience of one browsed our books table without reaching for her wallet. The librarian said it was silly to introduce us to an audience so small. She offered excuses for the debacle. “The day is too beautiful. Children are just out of school. It is the start of the long weekend. The topic is depressing."
Feeling a little ridiculous, though perhaps not as uncomfortable as our audience, Carollyne stepped up to the mike. Her voice echoed like a grinding vacuum cleaner in an empty cathedral. I couldn’t manage such artifice, even though it was our pact to call this a dry run. Instead, I sat backwards on a chair, leaning onto my audience who introduced herself as Rosemary. Fifteen minutes into our hour she sighed, reached for another cookie, and told us to please stop the presentation. It was boring and a little bleak.
Munching contentedly, she began her critique. Too long. Too stiff. And most of all, we had no rapport with our audience. “I don’t want to hear about your book,” she said, “not at least until I know more about you.” Like Socrates she pushed me. Every answer I gave about my motivations for writing the book led to another question. Why did you do that? How did you feel? What was really going on inside? There was a sheen of sweat on my forehead and I felt the prickle in my arm pits. I stammered, all pretence of smooth talk gone. At last my carapace cracked. Who cared about my masters degree in community based research anyway,?Rosemary snorted. Piffle! It was my story about sitting with African women under the acacia tree, digging for their truth about hauling water, keeping healthy, learning to read that really interested her. That was the fact that would convince her why I was compelled so many years later to collect every artifact of my parent’s dwindling and try to make sense of it all. Rosemary assured me that if that was my true credential, people would relate to my book. But I must limit the readings to a paragraph not a page. “People have the attention span of a flea”, she said, slurping juice. Carollyne had the same grilling. “I sound like a piece of fluff,” she whined.
“No, you sound like you have a right to write this book,” Rosemary replied, full of confidence as she took three more three cookies and wrapped them in a paper towel “for later”. She slung her backpack onto her shoulder, straightened her hat, and said she had do go.
But before she left, she made the big reveal. Rosemary was a retired teacher. All her career she had forced truth out of pose in thousands of students. “You’ll get there eventually,” she said as she stood to go. “Keep at it.”
Our thanks for her coming came from the soul. This stranger had offered more than any book or course or coach in presentation. ever could. And we needed her on this maiden voyage. From the perspective of our plans to ply an audience with talk and refreshments and then sell books, this was a failure. From the perspective of learning, we were winners beyond any expectation.
I have two goals as an author of The Dwindling. One is to sell it. The other is to use it to engage about important ideas about caregiving at the edge of life. Two audiences have different expectations, and need different approaches. So thank you, uninvited teacher! You left a gift of edgy honesty that was worth far more than the cookies you cost.
it's about the journey
Caregiving was my first and finest journey. Writing this book about it was the next. It lends support to other caregivers who say, "that happened to me too." I'm on another journey now, advocating for caregiving and an activist to bring on better ways of thriving as we age. It's all brought me purpose and meaning, Come along and get some of that too! I'd love to share your stories. Boldly speaking out about our experiences makes us all part of the change we want to see. So
Join me! Let's talk!