Two posts ago I wrote about how, in waiting until the last minute to make lodging arrangements for a conference (The Wake Up Festival), I stumbled upon a solution to what, until then, had been a conundrum: finding affordable accommodation that did not involve multiple roommates.
Pleased to be renting a room in a private home and unconfined by the group meal plan, I filled my cooler with several containers of vegetable stir fry, snacks and drinks. That contentment lasted until I registered at the conference venue, the YMCA of the Rockies, and saw the vista. My heart sank as I realized that I would not be waking up to the peak-filled panorama. Within seconds, I could hear my inner critic kvetching that if I hadn’t been ambivalent (more on that below) or frugal, I could have been cradled by the mountains for four days. To shut it up, I reminded myself that I would absorb what I needed from the conference, that the mountains were always there, just 90-minutes away. At that point, I hadn’t seen the home I would be staying at; it, too, had a majestic view.
The next day, before the first presentation, I chose an empty aisle seat towards the front. To my right sat a bespectacled fellow whose gray hair sprung from his scalp like wild antennae. In chatting, I told him I was staying offsite and asked him about the YMCA food. He paused as if searching for the right word.
“It’s OK,” he finally said. The lack of a ringing endorsement made me feel better.
“I’m trying to decide whether to buy meal passes,” I said. Conversations and connections happen around tables, even if the food is meh. Still, my inner gourmand protested spending upwards of $30/day for mediocre lunches and dinners. Again, the inner conflict appeared intractable.
“I’m here with a group, we’ve been here a few days already and some have skipped meals, so we have extras I could give you,” he said.
“Really?” I perked up at this possible solution to my dilemma.
“I’ll look for you tomorrow,” he said.
“Thanks! That’s great.”
The next day I saw him and waved. He waved back. That was it. Reminding him of our conversation felt greedy, so I said nothing and let it go. But the following morning he came over and, smiling widely, presented me with four colorful tickets.
“The Universe is giving you three lunches and a dinner.”
“Wow!” I grinned, too. Now it felt like a surprise, and the timing was perfect. I had settled in and was ready to connect with more people. Plus, I was getting bored with my food.
At one lunch I sat with three others. Since this was the inaugural Wake Up Festival, one person (a therapist) asked us how we heard of it and what prompted us to come. A woman from Alaska had been on the fence until the death of a younger colleague reminded her that life is short. She balked at the cost but her tax refund sealed the deal. A television journalist from Alabama said she was a customer of Sounds True, the organizer, and registered without hesitation. I said I was also a buyer of CDs from Sounds True and had signed up early. But doubts had clouded my initial inspiration.
Would the event be well organized? First time conferences typically suffer from kinks and chaos, resolved only in subsequent years. Would it be conducive to introspection and healing? The gathering seemed like a hybrid of conference and spiritual retreat, and I wondered if networking and kibitzing would dominate the contemplative aspects. That was one reason I preferred to stay offsite, in case the event turned out to be a buzzing hive of extroverts. I explained this to my lunch-mates.
“But, I made it here in spite of myself,” I said. The Alabaman couldn’t relate.
“I spent two years planning a trip to Paris!” she exclaimed. I nearly spit out the so-so food.
“If I had two years I’d torture myself,” I said. “I’d probably change my mind dozens of times. I’d rather hop on a plane.” (which I did in 2004).
“I loved planning,” she said. I wondered if she meant reading and anticipating, rather than nailing down the day and hour that she’d visit the Louvre (which I skipped), but I didn’t get a chance to ask.
“I had some resistance, too,” the therapist chimed in. “I wondered if it would run smoothly but felt I had to be here since I’m friends with folks at Sounds True.” He took a bite of salad. “Part of coming to a gathering like this is ceding control.”
I nodded. Most of my mishegas was about control.
It turned out the conference logistics were choreographed with exquisite attention to detail, rare even for established gatherings. My inner critic, unable to find fault, slunk off into a corner, allowing me to be present. There were opportunities for silence, contemplative connection and exuberant celebration. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who brought food or stayed offsite; others, tired of the cafeteria, pinned unused meal passes on a communal bulletin board. And it turned out that it didn’t matter if we arrived with a carry-on bag of commitment, a suitcase stuffed with doubts or a cooler crammed with comfort food. What mattered is that we all showed up, exactly as we are now, so that together we could begin to wake up to the possibility of who we might become.