In an open air market, somewhere in central Mexico, renown author, Gail Sheehy stood a few feet away. With her back to me, she didn’t see me gazing at her reflection in the mirror she held. It looked like she was deciding whether or not she would buy the earrings dangling from her lobes.
Sheehy had been a keynote speaker at the annual writer’s conference held in San Miguel de Allende, a town in Mexico that has kept it’s colonial drama while being a distinct retirement destination for thousands of citizens from north and even way north of the Mexican border. There is enough of an English speaking base in San Miguel that a writer’s conference focused on American and Canadian authors can attract hundreds of attendees, mostly Americans, to this outpost a few hours north of Mexico City.
To someone like me, Sheehy has been everywhere and spoken to everyone. Her book, Passages, is cited as one of the most influential of recent times. Though Petite, she seems like a giant to me.
I had a chance to glimpse this giant simply as a woman wondering if something looked good on her. This is a woman who has interviewed Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill and Hillary Clinton and so many others that it seems silly to single any out.
There are deeper questions hidden in this moment. When we are looking at ourselves, what does our reflection reveal to the unnoticed observer? Would we be surprised? Or, what if no one sees our reflection except for ourselves. Worse yet, what if we don’t take a minute to look closely at what is in that mirror. Ignoring what is before our eyes when the truth tries to reveal itself.
I turned away. It isn’t polite to stare. A few minutes later, we passed each other going in opposite directions. I blurted out, “Did you like them?” She didn’t hear me or she had no idea what I was talking about. She didn’t respond. I wondered why I opened my mouth at all, slapping an imaginary hand to my forehead. And what a weird thing to say. Maybe that is why I have not made a career for myself sitting down and chatting with world figures.
Two days later, I listened to Joyce Carol Oates give her own keynote at this same conference. Gail Sheehy was in the front row and asked Oates a question when the microphone was opened up to the audience. I don’t remember what she asked, but I realized that Sheehy looked up to Oates. In that moment, Sheehy was a fan. Just like me.
As I’m working on my memoir, I spend most of my time reflecting, but without a mirror. I try to sense when I’m avoiding deep excavation of the truth, instead focusing on the good story resting on the surface. I guess it is a balance. I do want to make sure the story is good. But, it also has to penetrate some greater truth.
When I am in the company of titans of modern writing like Sheehy and Oates, I’m tempted to look at them instead of myself. I think this is common for writers who are finding their way. Letting fear of never shining as brightly as the great ones get in the way of ever shining at all.