I’ll be hitting the road in a few minutes, headed to Denver tonight and flying to Miami tomorrow for a week of reading submissions to the annual Young Arts program. Over the coming week, my fellow writing panelists, poet David Lee and novelist Dianne Nelson-Oberhansly, plus our terrific Coordinator, sculptor Mary Lee Adler, will evaluate 200 or so 20-page manuscripts from outstanding 17- and 18-year-old writers all around the country. (The other writing panelist, poet Gailmarie Pahmeier, can’t join us this week.)
Our task: select the top 25 young writers to attend Arts Week in January, where they’ll take workshops and master classes (last year master class teachers included Robert Redford; this year, Bobby McFerrin is on tap, plus novelists Rob Van Waggoner and Beth Kephart). They’ll see performances and shows by other young artists in dance, music, theater and visual arts, and prepare for a gala public reading of their work.
Arts Week is an intense and inspiring gathering; these talented kids take home a renewed passion for their work, lasting friendships and mentors, plus scholarships for college. And a handful–the best of the best–are honored as Presidential Scholars in the Arts in a ceremony at the White House. Heady stuff at any age, stratospheric for 17- and 18-year-olds.
I’m excited about discovering this year’s crop of submissions, even though I know it’ll be serious work. I’m excited about simply going to Miami, even though the most I’ll see of it will be the twice-daily walk between our hotel on the shores of Biscayne Bay and the new Young Arts campus. Still, South Florida in November is not a shabby place to be holed up inside reading!
Before I hit the road, I want to share a story from my long New Mexico-Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas road trip.
I stopped at the Starbucks in Enid, Oklahoma, a regular stop for Richard and me on the drive between south-central Colorado and northwest Arkansas. (It offers free wifi and great hot drinks, both of which are in short supply on that 800-mile trip.)
The last time I stopped there was a year ago, on the way home from that rushed trip to take Richard to see his Arkansas family while his failing body (barely) allowed him to travel with dignity.
Richard had gone back to the car to get something, then had wandered into the home healthcare office next door, thinking it connected to the Starbucks. The staff, he told me later, very kindly redirected him next door and turned his confusion into a gentle joke. (Later, a staffer came to the Starbucks to check on him. She took me aside and asked if he was okay. “No,” I said. I told her he had brain cancer and was in hospice care. “I’m a hospice nurse,” she said. “Just come next door if you need help.”)
This trip, I remembered that small incident of kindness and on impulse, stepped into the Carter Healthcare office to thank them for being so kind to my love. I said that a year ago my husband had gotten confused thinking he could get to the Starbucks through their office and I wanted to say thank you for how kind they had been to him.
“I was there!” said the woman sitting at the desk. “That was me!” I thanked her and explained that he had brain cancer and his tumor had given him spatial confusion. She asked how he was. My eyes filled. I told her that he had died a month later, and that hospice had been a huge gift for us.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” she said. “That’s why I do this work. It’s an honor to help people at the end of their lives.”
I thanked her and left without even getting her name, tears in my eyes, focused on the long drive ahead. That brief encounter warms me still as an example of the power of simple, everyday kindness.
Kindness is basic to being human. As I walk this path I never imagined, my intention is to spread the kindness I’ve received, sending it rippling outward across a world that needs it more than ever.