Tuesday, February 14, 2017

February in D.C.

I love trips that have everything in them: professional and creative growth and enrichment, connections and re-connections with friends new and old, chances to walk in beautiful places, and hot chocolate to drink. I'm just back from a trip to Washington, D.C., that offered all of these.

My official reason for the trip was the huge and amazing AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference, which filled up the Washington Convention Center and nearby Marriott Hotel with some 12,000 (!) writers and poets for three days of panel discussions, keynote talks by world-famous writers, and a massive exhibit hall of displays by MFA programs, small literary journals, writing retreats and residences, and more. (Maybe I should sign up for the retreat in Reykjavik, Iceland?)

I had been asked to be on a panel of children's authors who are also university professors, titled "Children's Authors in the Academy." I have a policy of saying yes to all invitations - it's been a pretty good life strategy, all in all - but I did have a pang of worry when our panel was actually accepted for presentation. These days, when I no longer have a university salary or university-provided travel funds, I would have to pay for the whole trip myself: conference registration fee, airfare, lodging, meals, all of it. I prefer trips where I get paid to trips where I have to pay. What if I paid all that money and traveled all that distance, and only three or four people attended our panel?(Once I was on a panel with only ONE non-panel-member present as audience.)

But I had said I'd do it, so I did. And it was a totally wonderful trip.

Some two dozen people did show up to hear me and my two co-presenters, Virginia Zimmerman of Bucknell University and Anne Nesbet of the University of California at Berkeley. Afterward several of the younger women in the audience came up to tell us how glad they were to consider this kind of template for their future careers.

I sat in the enormous, gratifyingly crowded ballroom to hear (among others) Karen Joy Fowler, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates read and converse.

Because I posted my presence at the conference on Facebook, I met up with two new new friends: poet and children's book author Jacqueline Jules and philosopher Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, who teaches at Gallaudet and is now working on an MFA in poetry (I always feel such a bond with philosophers who write something other than philosophy).

I walked past the Capitol Building on a wintry morning.
I channeled Mr. Smith and made a pilgrimage to the statue of Mr. Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about living in a country deeply divided:

I wandered through the National Gallery, thankful that so many beautiful things exist in the world.
I met up with a librarian friend who now works as book buyer in the children's room of the fabulous bookstore Politics and Prose. In their cafe I treated myself to hot chocolate with strawberry whipped cream (with bits of real strawberries in it), as well as avocado and cucumber toast. (The cup was overflowing with whipped cream but I drank some before I remembered to take a picture of it in all its glory - but aren't those curled slices of cucumber glorious?)
I stayed with two dear friends (splitting my time between them): Robin and Lori, who both worked with me in the early 1980s at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. A third dear friend of those days, Rachel, drove up from Roanoke to join us. As Robin, Rachel, and I walked together through Brookside Gardens, near Silver Spring, early daffodils were starting to bloom, and the park's greenhouse offered azaleas at their peak of beauty. In my Maryland years I lived in the small town of Takoma Park, Maryland, which calls itself the City of Azaleas (others call it the People's Republic of Takoma).
On our final night together, we organized a reunion of the philosophers from the Institute, hosted by Lori at her beautiful house. Some of us hadn't seen each other for over thirty years. How young we were then! How much older we are now! And how grateful I am that we could all be together once again. The older I get, the more I crave a sense of continuity with my younger self, and the more it means to me to reach out across the years to her - especially on a trip rich with writing inspiration, Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh, daffodils and azaleas, and hot chocolate with strawberry whipped cream.

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