I gave one of my May talks in New Hampshire in exchange for gas money to get there. The librarian asked me to volunteer, but I told her I couldn’t pay to travel when I’m not earning enough to pay for my basic expenses. Since she asked again, clearly interested, I agreed. Maybe something else could come from it in the future.
A good sized audience came that night. One man stood for a long time, clapping for me immediately following the slideshow. During the questions, and following the presentation, I received many compliments from the audience members. One told me that my photographs allowed him to experience what it was like to be in the desert and other environments on the PCT. Another woman had tears in her eyes and later related it to soldiers coming back with PTSD. After everyone had left, the librarian said to me, “Was that good for you? It was good for us.”
Several days later, I wrote to her asking if she would be willing to write me a testimonial to the other NH libraries, as so many of them had done in Massachusetts. So far, the Massachusetts libraries have been much more receptive to me than the NH ones, despite the closer proximity to the mountains. (One even said, “I don’t think our community would be interested”). I received her reply as soon as I got into my car after my Athol talk, where I had received so many compliments. In the e-mail, she said, ” I thought a lot about the presentation and feel that it would be better served with an audience that is dealing with personal struggles.” My first thought was -Yes! Exactly! It is meant for everyone! We all have personal struggles! But I realized she believed that a library is not a place that people with struggles come to. I wondered what such a place would be. Did she think the general public did not have struggles? She went on to say that, “One patron left, because it wasn’t about the nuts and bolts of hiking.” I found this interesting for a few reasons. The first is that I have never ever advertised or described my talk as the “nuts and bolts” of hiking. If it were designed for people interested in learning how to hike long distances, my audiences would be tiny. There would be no demand. I also found it interesting that she focused on one person, who came in halfway through my talk, dressed in hiking clothes, and left before my talk was over. She saw less than a quarter of the presentation. The librarian did not seem to see the reaction of the man standing for me, or hear all of the compliments that I received.
My mind kept churning through her words on the way home, despite the nice interactions I had just experienced.
At the end of my talk in early June, I mentioned this woman’s comments to the hosting librarian. She said that the one thing librarians are most against is censorship. She said “that woman was wrong”.
My next talk was in a week. It had been rescheduled from the previous month due to the town meeting date. I had had tremendous difficulty in getting anyone at the library to communicate with me about the time of the event, despite numerous e-mails and phone calls. The night before the event, I received a phone call from the woman who had asked me to speak. She said she had a question about my presentation. (I wondered why she was asking me the night before). When I called her back, she asked, “Did you speak at the Topsfield library recently?”. It was a neighboring town and I thought she was worried there would be a low attendance because of the proximity of the dates.
“Yes. I did.”
“Is there something about ‘abuse’ in your talk?”.
Oh… Now I see the reason for the call…
“Yes, there is a small part…”
“Well can you eliminate that from your talk and only discuss the trail?”
I told her that it was an important part and not easy to eliminate. She again asked me to cut it from my talk or at least shorten it.
She went on to say that a friend of the librarian at Topsfield had called her that afternoon, telling her that she found it “depressing.”
I told her that I’ve given this presentation over 55 times and that I have received so many compliments and so many people have told me that it was inspiring. I said that I was sorry that woman did not like it, but that it is impossible to please everyone.
(In my mind, I was saying to myself that it is not my job to protect everyone from pain).
I later asked her if this woman would be at this talk, as well. (If she was, she clearly didn’t dislike it, and if she wasn’t, why is this even relevant?).
Here was a true request for censorship. I wondered why it was coming at this time. Before my first presentation, I was worried about what people would think of it. I knew it wouldn’t be what anyone was expecting. But from the very first delivery, I received SO many compliments. Why was I only being asked to shut myself down after so many presentations? I believed it was a small test from the universe to find out how true I was to myself. A younger version of me might have capitulated to such a request, but one of the biggest lessons I have learned from my yoga practice these past few years is to stand my ground. I know for a fact that sharing my truths are helping other people.
For the rest of the evening, this woman’s request lingered in my mind. The night before a presentation is certainly not the time to ask someone to completely change it. This slideshow took me over 3 months to make, and I have spent days and days and days memorizing my talk. If someone would like me to speak only about the specifics of the trail, they have to give me ample time to come up with a completely new presentation.
That evening, I wished that I had just one person who could assure me that there was nothing wrong with what I was offering. I wondered who I could call or ask. I couldn’t think of anyone.
Maybe an hour later, a woman who came to my Fitchburg talk “liked” an article I had previously posted on Facebook. She was clearly seeing it for the first time. And then she wrote a comment, “Keep telling your story, Wendy. You are helping others!”
I couldn’t believe it! I hadn’t even asked anyone for validation and yet here it was, coming to me at the time I most needed it!
I thanked her right away and told her that I was being asked to cut out parts of it for my presentation the next evening. She responded, “People need to hear…and it is YOUR story to tell, not for others to “edit”….you go girl!”. And then, “No coincidences….will pray for all your listeners, that what you share will touch their hearts. We’re all broken in places, some without even knowing it. Truth heals.”
Yes. Yes, it does.
Thank you, Carlene!
And then this article appeared in my feed:
Here’s Some Solid Life Advice: Forget About Being ‘Likable’
“If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likability….you don’t need to twist yourself into shapes.”- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Do not twist yourself.
I was resolved to change nothing.
The next evening, the janitor and I set up the room in record time while the early crowd waited. I gave my presentation and a nice woman smiled at me in the audience. The host listened intently and watched my slideshow with interest. She slipped away without any acknowledgement about halfway through the questions. I never heard from her again.
I later thought about Cheryl Strayed’s book and the reasons why so many of us hike long trails. We don’t do something that requires so much resilience and determination and effort and time and planning for fun. Almost all of us have found the trail as a way to heal, or at the very least, a search for something we have not yet found. “Wild” is not about the “nuts and bolts” of hiking the trail. It is about a woman’s grief and sorrow and pain and how she found her way back to herself. It wouldn’t be an interesting story if it was about the specifics of hiking.
I feel sorry for the woman who got stuck in the part of my story that is “depressing” and heard no more after that. Most people hear the opposite. They hear the story of a girl who triumphed over tremendous odds, and by hearing it, they know that it is possible for them, as well.
A few nights later in yoga class, my teacher closed by asking us to place our hands in prayer over our lips to remind us “to always speak our truths and allow our voices to be heard in this world”, to the third eye “to walk the path that we are most aligned with that allows us to share these truths and find joy and contentment” and to our hearts “to ground ourselves in speaking our truths and walking our unique paths through wholehearted courage and vulnerability.”
Yes, yes, and yes. The affirmations are all around me.
I am committed.