There is a man I met through his words three years ago, and ever since, I have wanted him to be a close uncle, a pull-that-chair-up-to-the-fire kind of friend. He has written twenty books, taught thousand of students, won dozens of awards, and met with important people about important things, so I know it's not only me that has felt this way. Still: I thought if I could just meet him, if I could just shake his hand, perhaps my appreciation would ring clear to him even in the wake of so much praise.
This last weekend, I spent the early minutes of an 8:00 Saturday morning hiking through the north woods at the Audubon Center. I had on a too-thin coat, no gloves, and my camera slung around my neck. The air was tight with a chill I hadn't felt for half a year, and the light was brilliant with it. It streaked through the pines, caught on the maple leaves already a vibrant red. I paused and looked, kneeled, scrambled up on rocks, tilted my ears toward the sound of birds. Took deep breaths. It is good--deep down bone good--to wake up like that.
I remembered this man, my hoped-for friend, once saying something similar in a book.
I was thinking of that book, the light, of gratitude, and of the paper and pen in my pack--how there is so much I want to do, but time, time, time, the turning of the world, its bigness, my smallness, its troubles, its beauty, and my inability to say sometimes what it is that I actually accurately feel, and how some people can, and how I have so much to learn, and want to, SO MUCH do I want to, because what is life if it's not learning and growing, and changing, even when that's scary, even when I doubt if I'm brave enough to reach in and find the truth and offer it up--its as I was thinking these things that I turned back down the winding, leaf-strewn trail, and found myself one minute later walking step for step with warm-faced, kind-eyed Scott Russell Sanders.
"Beautiful morning for a walk," he said. "A good way to greet the day."
And I said yes, I said beautiful, and then I shook his hand.
In thirty minutes, he would give his keynote address at the conference we were both there for. In two hours, after his talk, the rest of the conference-attendees and myself would rise to our feet in a standing ovation. It is not everyday you hear someone speak about the power of the imagination. It is not every morning that you feel you're in the presence of a true, gentle champion of--in my inability to put it any other way--the things that are right. "We can be hopeful," he said, "because the imagination exists, and with it, the power to vision ourselves out of the situations that otherwise make us slaves to money, to prestige, and the voices that arise from outside our true selves."
Later still, I would reach for the book I had brought for him to sign--the one I read first, three years ago, that set me thinking about place and about home and our responsibility to the spaces that sustain us--and I would realize that in my rush I had grabbed the wrong one. I would feel sheepish, a little angry at myself, and wouldn't quite find the gusto to walk up to him again and have him sign the inside of this other book anyway.
But before that, before he gave his words to the lot of us, he took a walk with me. Yellow leaves slipped down around us in the wind. I said thank you. He asked my name. We talked about teaching. About place. About his granddaughters. My baby. We stood outside of the conference room for some time, talking over a good several things. I know it's unhelpful to hold people on pedestals. He is just a man, this Sanders, a man who has lived almost forty more years than I have. And if it hadn't been his book, perhaps it would have been someone else's. But it was his. And I am writing these words, sharing this experience with all of you, thanking God that I live in a time and in a place where experiences like this--the walking and the writing and the thinking--are possible. And it makes me want to be more brave.