Sunday, December 21, 2008

Meeting Warren... And Wally Lamb

Why did it have to be so cold, I thought, as I hunched over and made my way towards the subway. It wasn't snowing, but the frigid air was damp and seemed to penetrate my layers of clothes and sink into my skin. Despite my eagerness to get home, I stopped in at the Starbucks down the street and bought myself a coffee. At least I was done for the day. Five clients in a row wasn't much for some trainers, but it always wiped me out. The barista had filled my cup a bit high, and even with the lid snapped on tight, it sloshed over my hand as I stepped back onto the sidewalk. Damn! The coffee was hot. I slurped it, willing myself to relax after five continuous hours of human interaction. As cold as it was, it was nice to be silent for a few minutes. I paused outside the entrance to the subway to get my token ready and in the process glanced over at the large Indigo across the street. The past week I'd met one of my literary heroes, Wally Lamb, at a book signing. His new book was about the collateral damage of anger, specifically the aftermath of the Columbine shootings. Although the subject matter in his books was often grim (though laced with hope), he was a storyteller par excellence and a truly great writer. It'd been quite a moment for me.

I opened the door to the subway and nearly tripped on the man inside the door. He was sitting up, with a cup in front of him for change. I'd seen him here before, but usually he was passed out. I pulled some change out and put it in his cup.

"How're you doing?" I asked him.

"It's pretty cold out there." He slurred his words, so that 'there' sounded like 'thar'. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.

"Where are you going to sleep tonight?"

"Probably here." He said, motioning to the hard red tile at the top of a stairwell.

For a moment, I was at a loss at what to say.

"I'm Steve." I said, offering my hand.

He lifted his right arm to reveal a cast beneath his weathered coat.

"What happened?"

"I'm not really sure (shhurr). I think I fell down these steps." He paused. "I'm Warren."

I held out my left hand and he took it in his own, gripping it tight, as if unwilling to let it go. Finally, he released it.

"Have a good night." I said, not quite knowing what else to say.

He nodded, working hard to focus on me. I'd started down the stairs when he called out.

"If I don't see you before Christmas, have a good holidays, Steve."

I swallowed a lump in my throat.

"You too, my friend. You too."

The subway ride was especially long that night. I thought about Warren the whole way home. Just five nights earlier, I'd met one of my heroes, yet it was my meeting with Warren that stayed with me for the next week.

It was snowing when I woke up. The kind of snow I liked too, fluffy and thick and falling softly, the stuff that brought to mind other worlds and dreams yet unfulfilled. I stood on the stoop with my coffee, the steam rising from the mug, staring across the snowdrifts and wind that whipped across the street. It was a good day to be home, I thought. Although it was a Friday, I suspected that quite a few people wouldn't be working today. A good day to write and read and perhaps watch a movie. As I stared out into the whitened world however, my mind drifted to Warren. I wondered where he would be sleeping. Back on the subway steps or perhaps a shelter somewhere. I tried to convince myself that he was in a shelter. I'm not sure why it made me feel better, but it did. For the moment, at least.

I headed back inside to work on my book. After an hour or so, I stretched, made another coffee and decided to spend some time on the stoop. It wasn't an exaggeration to say that a day like this -- the way the snow was falling -- was my favourite weather. There was something in watching the snow fall that spoke to me, a whispered assurance of the world's gentler side. Or a covering perhaps, I wasn't sure. I found it helpful for my writing, which had received a boost after meeting Wally Lamb.

I sipped my coffee and thought about what it'd been like in that stuffy room at the bookstore. Wooden chairs wedged together, about sixty people in a cramped space, sweltering because some employee must have thought the author would be cold. (I guess they didn't realize he was from Connecticut) I'd had to hurry when I arrived at the bookstore; most of the people were already seated. I bumped into the woman sitting across the narrow aisle as I pulled off my parka, apologizing even as I tried to scrunch my large frame into the last seat on the second row. I glanced around, somewhat nervous and excited. Despite having written for a decade, I'd never been to an authour reading before. The faces around me were mostly those of women in their thirties and forties, and one man who looked like a college professor. No other sweating weightlifters with shaved heads however, none that I could see. I fidgeted and squirmed in my tiny seat. When Wally Lamb finally came forward, I was nearly exhausted from the heat and attempting to hold my body upright in the rickety chair.

Lamb was in his late fifties, and reminded me of Sean Connery, what with the glasses and last bit of snow speckled hair receding from a lean, unmarked face. He read first from his updated bio, and then a bit from his new book. He told us how he'd searched for a story after writing his last number one selling book ten years ago, and how it had come to him in a New Orleans cathedral shortly after Katrina. He took questions, of which I asked the first, and when he signed my book, he was gracious and encouraging. What struck me the most, I think, was how much he had inspired me.

"Steve, one more thing," he said to me as I was walking away, "Writing is more about perseverance than ability. Keep at it. You'll get there."

When I called Bethany, shortly thereafter, I was a bit giddy. Soon enough I was on the subway, planning my writing schedule for the next week. I bumped into three people at alternate places along the ride and exit, lost as I was in my plans for the future. I had literally ached the past twelve years for a word of hope about my passion, fretted and cried and laughed in my attempts to break through as a writer. I'd had some limited success, just enough to push me forward. Mostly however, I'd experienced too little recognition to think that I would ever really make it. Maybe this time, things would be different, I thought. Maybe Wally Lamb would push me past the finish line.

I interrupted my reverie to shovel the stoop, but it was still slippery even after I'd cleared it, and I walked carefully down the steps to put the shovel away. I'd fallen on these stairs before. Once safely at the bottom, I sipped my coffee, which was now lukewarm, and watched the snow fall. One thing bothered me. If writing was so important, why had I spent more time thinking about my meeting with Warren than the one with my literary hero?

We've all read stories of people who'd made it and their lives afterward. Part of the reason Wally Lamb had so appealed to me was his work with a women's correctional facility. Oprah's law, he'd said at the reading, when it came to success, was to take what you needed and pass on the rest. Collateral goodness, I thought. I wasn't sure where I'd heard the phrase, but it certainly applied here.

I liked Oprah. It was easy to be cynical about successful people, but she always struck me as someone who modeled what she believed. Here yet, was another example of her generosity. (Her Book Club had propelled Lamb to literary superstardom.) And here was Lamb, doing the same to give back.

I realized that my fingers had gone cold. I kicked the snow off my boots and headed inside to warm up. We all have ideas about ultimate success and what that looks like. Whether it's having our own business or being published or promoted or putting out a CD or making a movie or starring in one, it's hard to remember sometimes that the dreams we have are never less than the journey itself. That it is the journey towards the dream that must yield the fruit of a purposed and passionate life. Dreams provided hope and direction, but the more our dreams reflected egocentric ideals (this will be good for me), the less fulfilling they became.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that as much as I would love to have both the ability and career that Wally Lamb had forged for himself, a great success by any measure, my life would always be my own. Gifted, as we all are, with our unique set of talents and abilities, I realized that no matter how many books I sold, my life would always point to Warren. That the measure of my life would never be my literary status, but my willingness to speak to and for those who could not speak for themselves.

It is hard sometimes, to keep our eyes on those around us in the blinding light of our dreams, and harder still to keep our eyes on the finish line when life becomes difficult.

Dreams come cheap these days, don't they, especially at this time of year, when we are swarmed with requests and wants and needs. Through all the shopping dilemmas and packed parking lots and crowded malls, it is easy to lose sight of why we're here. My prayer this week -- this Christmas -- is that you will remember the dreams of your youth, not the small ones we rented as we got older, but the big booming ridiculous ones that once called to us to change the world. Lost in the great Wally Lamb of a dream, but aware that the true value of any dream was in the way it propelled us to help Warren.

Blessings, my friends, as you set the course for this next year. Don't be afraid to embrace your giftings and step towards what God has called you to do. Just remember that along the way, if you could, to provide the collateral goodness necessary to make both your dream, and your journey, a success.

Merry Christmas everyone.