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Humility, Three Lessons, and a Birthday

There are few things more awkward than sitting in a bookstore by yourself with a row of empty chairs in front of you. As people approach, you hope they’re coming to say hi … until they head to the Gardening section.

Other people walk by with bags that look like they might contain cupcakes, and your heart lifts for a brief moment. At dozens of cities in the weeks prior to this evening, people drove for hours to come and cupcakes were brought by the bakers dozens. But tonight, you’re in a shopping mall bookstore with the empty chairs, the (very nice) staff smiling and offering to bring you water or coffee.

This, you slowly begin to remember, is where the work is actually made. You think about the book signing you stumbled on two years ago, where a lone author stood by himself, trying to smile and awkwardly displaying his stack of books. You went over to talk to him about his book and tried to make him feel better without being too obvious. And as you said farewell and wished him good luck, you resolved this would never happen to you.

But here you sit, looking out at empty chairs. It matters not how many Twitter followers you have around the world, since apparently none of them live in this small town. You ask yourself: Would you still do this work if no one cared?

It’s a hard question, but eventually you answer, Yes. I would. So you sit there and write these notes, determining to express gratitude for the chance to be alone and write. That’s what a writer does, yes?

And then someone shows up, who has in fact driven in from another small town an hour away. You ambush him and make sure he sits down in a chair as quickly as possible. “So glad you’re here!” you say, and the statement has never been more true. A meetup with one attendee is a lot better than a meetup with zero. Then someone else arrives with several children in tow. “I love large families!” you say for the first time in your life. The kids are occupied with iPod and Nintendo DS games, but you’re thrilled to see that each small child takes her own chair, thus improving the visual effect to passersby.

A couple of other people wander in, trying to decide whether to stay or leave, and then they stay. It’s not a big crowd by any measure, or even a medium one, but hey, people showed up. You enlist the kids in helping to color in the map you have been lugging around all across the continent. You talk for a while with everyone. Some of them even buy books, and you sign them. You say goodnight, you say thank you to the kind store managers, and then you go “home” to the hotel.

It’s now past 9pm, so all the nearby restaurants are closed. (Small towns may be known for many good things, but nightlife is not usually one of them.) You find a small pizza place run by a Chinese family. It’s closed too, but you brazenly approach the counter anyway, spying two pieces of mushroom pizza on the warming rack. Bad news: the pizza is cold. “No more oven,” the man explains. Good news: he’ll give you the two cold slices for the price of one. “You pay for only one slice,” he says again, to make sure you understand this valuable offer.

You pick up the two slices (paying only for one) and walk through the snow back to your hotel, an establishment chosen strictly for its close proximity to the bookstore. You shake off the blizzard outside and get out your secret stash of vodka to enjoy with your cold pizza.

The next day you go to a Big City, and the day after to another one. There you have no difficulties drawing a crowd. People come from all over. The store employees scramble to find more chairs. “We had no idea so many people would come!” they say, as you smile and remember the other night with far too many chairs. Cupcakes are brought and consumed. A good time is had by all, and you prepare to advance to a new stage of adventures.

But before you move on, you reflect back on the contrast between events and ask: what’s the lesson here? You decide on three things:

1. Embrace humility. Sometimes you’ll fail. And while failure is overrated (having known them both intimately, you’re fairly certain that success is much better), you know you can still learn something from every experience. It’s always good to keep it real.

2. An artist makes art. As lovely and exciting as everything else can be, never forget to focus on the source. A painter paints; a musician makes music; a writer writes. Wander from the source at your own peril.

3. When you ask for adventure, you don’t always know what you’ll get. That’s how adventure works. You could choose the safe route and avoid the risk of disappointment, but a good adventurer would never do that.

And for all these things are more, you are glad and grateful. You recall the sensation that every traveler knows well: the odd sense of déjà vu and wonderment of being in yet another place. You have been to so many places already, and you’ll go to so many more. Who knows what the future holds? If you’ve learned nothing else through your quest of joy and two-for-one pizza, you’ve learned it’s better not to know.

Far too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. But you know better, so you’ll keep pursuing adventure, to big cities and small towns alike. This, you believe with all your heart, is the only option worth choosing.


P.S. Today is the third birthday of AONC, and we’ve come a long way since the old days of 2008. Whether you’ve been around for a while or are just dropping in for the first time today, thanks for being a big part of everything.


Photo by Ksenia