Vic and I go see Catherine McCall read from her memoir, Lifeguarding, at Malaprop’s in BigCity, NC. I have not read the book but recognize the author as soon as we walk in and make a b-line for the podium where a stack of unsigned books sits, waiting to be purchased and scribbled in. I have a specific purpose in mind: When I’ve never met the author and haven’t read the book, I like to catch a first glimpse of her in person then immediately read her first sentence. It’s a flash one-two combo attempt to dig my heels into something right away. Sort of like cramming right before a test.
Catherine, however, is the one under pressure since it’s her art on the line and if anyone passes any tests, it’s her, hands down. She reads with persona and eagerness, the calmness of her complexion under the track lighting holding steady through the emotion of her reading. She’s good, I think to myself, then elbow Vic. We make eye contact and agree without words, Really good.
The author has short salt and pepper gray hair, youthful peach colored lips, and a smile that, when in full bloom, makes you smile back. I notice that Catherine furroughs her brow when she reads or when she is concentrating on providing a thoughtful answer to someone’s question. When she pauses, sometimes she closes her eyes to retreat into thought. In the end, her responses are intelligent, eloquent, and helfpul. While always answering the questions directly, she also manages to slip in occasional philosophical notations about life – “Willingness – that’s the same thing as love” and “Even when we get upset in my family we are honest. Honest.”
Immediately I am hooked into her analogy of lifeguarding and her life as a young competitive swimmer. She paralells this with “ghosts” of her grandparents and uncle, whom she never (or only once) met and weaves this atop the action of her upbringing. Suddenly, “life”-“guard”-ing takes on a new meaning, one that is closer to it’s opposite – death, in all senses of the word – than we can even imagine.
By the end of the event I am sold, and purchse the book even though it is hardcover, even though I already bought a ceramic mug today, and even though I have two cavities to fill next week. Vic, nudging me in the direction she knows she wants me to go, reminds me of the extra tips I earned this week from full-time work subbing at the coffeehouse, and before I know it I’m at the front of the line to get my book signed.
Several thousand pages will pass across my eyes before I can get to this book, but already I am eager to see how Catherine’s wave-shaped tension and analogies build throught. But really it is the combination of events – working too hard this week, dealing with an HR situation on top of that, forgetting to strech and care for my body at the end of the day, behind on my MFA reading for the first time, and blah blah blah wah. The point is this: The best kind of writing invites readers to get lost in themselves or lost in another world or both. And the best kind of writers inspire others, encourage creative thinking, and speak from the heart. All of this was demonstrated tonight, and the timing couldn’t have been better. This, I remind myself, is why I came.