Beautiful Distractions

After celebrating successful book launches in Greenville and Charleston, I breathed a satisfying sigh of relief and headed for my next stop—Beaufort and the Pat Conroy Literary Festival. I had it all planned out. After preparing for months for the book to come out, it was time for my reward—to get on Savannah Highway and drive away from all the distractions. Lately, everything to me was feeling like a distraction. There was always something pulling me away or diverting my attention from what I wanted to do most. I just wanted to sit somewhere quietly and feel inspired and write. I told my family I had a book signing in Beaufort, which was true, and I told them it was absolutely fine if they had other things on their busy schedules and couldn’t travel with me (really, it was fine). But, what I didn’t tell them was I simply needed to be by myself so that I could experience this new part of my journey without any distractions. I didn’t want to answer the phone or emails; I didn’t want to give any advice or share an opinion with anyone; I didn’t want to make any important decisions or look at the clock or the calendar. So, the plan was to step away from it all for a few glorious days, gather up some inspiration from Pat Conroy-land, and write.

From the minute I found out about the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, I knew I had to be there. It might not sound like Mecca to others—no wanderings though the romantic, winding streets and canals of Venice, no big cathedrals with ceiling masterpieces and Bach cantatas reaching out into the night air, no snowy climbs to the Alpine mountain peak to discover the meaning of life. My pilgrimage, my escape, my obsession was to get to the Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort and be with other writers and those celebrating his legacy. I adored Pat Conroy’s writing from the very beginning starting with The Boo and The Water is Wide and The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline, and I clung to the vivid late-night memories of Mike and I reading passages of his books aloud to each other. We were like that back then—lying in a pile of rumpled sheets with stacks of books around us that competed selfishly for our attention and not caring what time it was or what unrealistic expectation waited for us at daybreak.  We couldn’t be bothered with distractions. Mike and I had our individual favorite writers, but together we had Pat Conroy. We went willingly and knowingly into the places he took us, nodding our heads in recognition and somehow understanding the complicated, resolute pain and beauty and gratitude behind the words. The literary world, the Lowcountry, Mike and me… we all lost Pat Conroy last March, and it felt deeply personal. Still does. But I also understood his own words, which come from My Losing Season – a Memoir. “There is no teacher more discriminating or transforming than loss.” He was a great teacher and mentor to other writers, and even in our own losing season—the one where we lost Pat Conroy—we continue to learn from him and benefit from his bold insight and his abundant generosity. That was particularly evident to all of us attending the festival and visiting the new Pat Conroy Literary Center.

But something else also happened while I was there. I kept getting distracted. On the way to Beaufort, I stopped by my childhood home in the town of Hollywood. One country road led to another country road, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of Dora, the proud oak tree I loved as a child, the one by the river’s edge that my best friend and I would sit under while we sang songs, the one I would tell my secrets to, the one I ran to when my grandmother died, and the one who became a symbol of strength for me for years to come. When I touched her, I felt that same strength again.

I finally got to Beaufort, but when I did, I noticed it was interesting how the Spanish moss on the trees seemed thicker and hung lower here than it did in Charleston—so low that it touched the tops of the old tombstones in an historic cemetery downtown. So, I ended up walking through that cemetery and reading the names on the old, broken stones. “Tell me a story,” Pat might say to them, and then I said that famous quote of his out loud, and I felt a rush of their stories coming at me. That detour made me late to a festival panel discussion. The next day, I took my writing notebook to the waterfront park where I finally had that inspirational view I’d been looking for, but as I walked along the Beaufort River, a woman came up and asked if I was here for the festival. Sensing my search for inspiration was surely coming to a halt, I became immediately drawn to the vibrant spirit of this festival volunteer who had come from Atlanta to contribute her part in supporting the mission of the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Effortlessly, enthusiastically, she talked about Pat’s dedication to helping writers and his love of literature and how the Center would continue his work. She was a stranger and yet not a stranger at all.  And then, all of a sudden, after I met her, I felt like there were no strangers anywhere. I felt as if I knew them all, and at the book signings, we held other’s place in line, we sat at author luncheons together; we exchanged email addresses; we congratulated each other for writing a book, or being in the process of writing a book, or for just thinking about writing a book.

Before I left, I couldn’t help but get emotional. I saw the true depth of love on Cassandra King’s face when she spoke of Pat and when she stood on that porch of the Literary Center on opening night, looking out all of us standing under those twinkly white lights. At the closing, I looked into the eyes of Margaret Evans, and I saw the genuineness and kindness of a wonderful writer and editor, and I was grateful to her for extending it to me.  And then, on the last day, as I raced to get ready for the final author luncheon, I found Marguerite. I had learned she lived in Beaufort now, but with such busy schedules, the best we could do was meet quickly in the parking lot at Walgreens on my way to the event. That was good enough for us. After 47 years, I hugged my very first best friend, and it felt like yesterday, when we were sitting along the river’s edge under Dora singing Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” 

At the hotel, the last thing I packed was my empty notebook. While I was there, I never wrote a word. Thank you, Pat Conroy. Thank you for the beautiful distractions.