I'm back home but behind my eyelids videos of conference room carpets and pug dogs named Bruce Almighty keep playing on repeat. Streets freckled with rainbow umbrellas, and women hugging me tight. I'm home, but I think my cells are swirling in another galaxy somewhere, not lost, just not ready to touch back down. Everything is different now.
It is only fitting that this all happened in a city most famous for a river.
Three years ago, I had a mentor who, whenever I'd be extra thirsty for logic and reason, would say to me, "When pilots are flying, all they can see is this tiny window in front of them. But there is such a giant universe of sky all around them. You don't know all the possibilities available to you. Trust the things that haven't come into view, yet." Her name was Liz and she had the best long white hair, and she'd also photograph animal meaning cards and send them in manilla envelopes with no card. When I was a freshman in high school her son asked me to the prom, and I went, and was the worst prom date ever. I wouldn't dance with him, and my dress was blue sequins. Years later, I sent him an apology letter in a manilla envelope. I never heard back.
It was Liz who encouraged me to take the leap with the Airstream, even when there was no money or plan or rational thought, in sight. "I just have a feeling," she'd say, while I tried suggesting, instead, that I scrap the ridiculous idea and apply to law school. "I just think it's time to listen to that little voice inside, even when it doesn't many any sense."
We jumped. Sold everything and took a million risks. We almost died, but we didn't. And sometimes, I guess that's all that matters.
But when that whole chapter was all over; when we came crashing head-first into Austin's city limits, I'm not sure any of us would have said it was worth it. We were immeasurably exhausted with bones shattered and hearts bruised. This wasn't a finish line, it was a surrender flag, waving with a whisper through the thick Texas air.
Of all the possibilities I had dreamed, of all the crazy scenarios I'd conjured up late at night when everyone else was fast asleep, settling down and selling out in Austin was never on my radar.
It's never been a secret that I didn't really have a choice in the matter. And it didn't feel like the good kind of ending.
"If this was the way the story is going to end, then everything was a horrible mistake," I wrote in my journal.
I had boxes of unsold books piled under the desk in my bedroom. The old cardboard smelled not-so-faintly like failure.
I gave myself the time and space I needed to grieve. I apologized to Thomas ten billion times, and cursed Liz. She was wrong, I decided. We took a leap of faith and fell flat on our faces. T has the souvenir of a broken collarbone scar hiding just under his t-shirt, to remind us of the impact.
I tried every solution that I could see out of my little pilot's window but nothing worked, and, for whatever reason, completely forgot about the moon and the stars just out of sight.
So, when my dear friend Amy Grace called and asked me to fill-in for her as a conference speaker at Click Away, I was totally taken off guard. What could I possibly say that hasn't already be said. And how could my story of defeat inspire anyone? I hadn't yet risen from the ashes. I wasn't even sure I wanted to.
I've seen enough TED talks to know you don't inspire anyone with your story until after the bandages have been removed and the scars have all healed. You have a best-seller. You have more answers than questions. When you take a deep breath, you should not have a mountain of dusty books taking up space in your chest.
Only afters give talks. Very few want to see a before, and certainly no one is interested in the completely forgotten and always invisible, during.
When Amy and I chatted, my son's tuition payment reminder popped up on my phone. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't the real reason I said, yes. "I'll go in, collect my check, and leave."
I had no idea what was about to unfold.
The days leading up to the conference were ridiculous. I got a horrible virus with a fever, and of course, fever blisters on my lips and inside my nose. I tried to write my speech, but every time I'd sit to do it, nothing happened. I ended up making no less than 10 bowls on the wheel, instead.
The night before, I made a packing list in my journal and at the very bottom I wrote, "A few books to show?" Question mark. Would anyone even want to see it?
I woke up at 4am the morning of, and my fever was 103. I took a bath, but was too dizzy to stand in the shower, so my hair was an unwashed tangled mess in a knot on my head. I wore fuzzy socks with bright yellow campground-store flip flops. I just wanted to make it there and then worry about my appearance. I'd get there, sign in, and then turn myself into whatever it is that a conference speaker looks like.
The 90-minute drive went fast, but I was cold sweating the entire way, and my BO could have seriously rivaled any of Braedon's 13 year old friends. I was, by literal definition, a hot mess.
The first thing I saw when the elevator doors opened was a little girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, dressed up like she just stepped out of an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras. She was drinking out of a Starbucks cup and her Mom kept reminding her not to smudge her lipstick. "You have to model for all those photographers in an hour!"
Up two stories of escalator, and then BAM, class got out the exact moment I flipped my flops onto the third floor to check-in and all I can relate it to is what used to happen when I was little and poured water over ant hills. They'd all spill out and scatter in a million directions, a little carpet of frenetic chaos. This was like that.
I still had my reindeer socks pulled up to my knees.
I saw Jesh de Rox and his man bun in the speakers' suite. He was hugging lots of people and smiling with his eyes.
He's the type of guy who walks up to strangers with his arms outstretched and his bottom lip kind of pouty, inviting a deep-breath-eyes-closed-tighter-than-average, hug. I think he has a song permanently playing in his head that I've heard a few times in fabric softener commercials. I waved when our eyes met and he walked over and asked what I was speaking about.
"I don't know. I haven't written it yet."
The soundtrack stopped in his brain. I saw it instantly in his eyes.
"Oh," he said, quite seriously. That's all he said about it. And then he was back to beaming.
It was weird because I'd heard he had just been through a break up, but he didn't seem sad. I traced his face looking for signs of heartbreak, maybe some puffy eyes from crying, but the guy seriously looked like a million dollars floating on a cloud. It confused me, and I decided I should avoid him for the rest of the time because I was afraid I'd say something else that might stop the happy birds from chirping around his head in concentric circles.
They gave me a big white box with presents inside. Lily squealed like it was her Birthday, Braedon pretended to be excited about the t-shirt, and I handed the bottle of champagne back to the sweet check-in lady. There was an awesome Fuji instant camera that Lily instantly fell in love with. Presents are always fun. I felt important and grateful, and, at the same time, guilty for all of the people there who didn't get presents. Was this my first pang of speaker guilt? Is that even a thing?
Next I found my dear friend/conference doula, Jote. We laughed about my fever, the way you laugh about things when you really want to cry. She helped me find a cozy chair away from the crowds to get it together. She helped me not run, screaming, out the front door.
It was time to gather my thoughts and write my speech. I mean, it was time weeks ago to do this, but..
Just as I finished writing, "1. Tell them your name," I looked up to see Jenny Solar. She was also there to present, and had texted me earlier that morning to meet up for lunch. I packed a hardboiled egg in a ziplock. I'm not sure that's what she had in mind. My first thought when I saw her walk off the escalator was, "Oh man, she's so pretty. And clean. And she's wearing an actual blouse. Maybe I need to buy blouses. Do they have blouse stores? Is that where speakers shop? Her hair is shiny." I was getting nervous. Really, really, nervous.
I love Jenny Solar. Let me just get that out of the way. There are some Moms that I instantly and easily love and she is definitely one of them. Within ten minutes we were talking about our biggest failures, as you do when you just meet someone, and I said to her, "Maybe I should say all of this in my speech," and without hesitation she said, "Yes, I think you should," and so it was decided.
I wouldn't go fix myself up. I wouldn't shower first, or put on a dress. I wouldn't run around town to buy some drug-store blush to make me look less, well, sick. I was going to stand in front of a crowd, just as I am, and tell the truth.
Thomas told me I might fall down if I wore the flops on stage, so I threw on some moccasins. I tripped anyway. Because, it turns out, that's what I was there to do. More on that later.
About ten minutes before my call time, I went into Salon I, where it would all go down. I sat in the back of the room and watched a line of women, about 50-deep, wait to hug Sue Bryce. I know because I asked the lady next to me what was going on and she said, "What do you mean? That's SUE BRYCE!" I now know what the real-life version of the heart-eyes emoji looks like. This adorable woman actually had giant hearts on her face, where her eyes belonged.
I was supposed to be closing my eyes and meditating. Calling in my spirit guides and angels, and getting my feet firmly planted on the ground. But instead I grabbed my phone and looked Sue up on instagram.
Staring back at me on my phone screen was this tall, perfectly manicured Goddess. Impeccable wardrobe and perfect makeup. She has about ten gabillion followers, and no children. Her couch does not have popsicle stains from middle of the night toddler fevers and her hair is shiny.
At this point I was so nervous I could not move. Who the hell was I to even think I could pull this off?
"You should go!" I thought, "Save these poor people from the train wreck you are about to bring!" And I think if it wasn't for my frozen state of extreme fear, I would have actually left in that moment.
When Sue left, she walked by me and I smelled her. It was like angels mixed with success. And she has an endearing Australian accent.
Ugh. I had realllly gotten myself in deep this time.
When I lifted my arms up to stretch, the smell of my own armpits made me legit gag.
"Beautiful people like Sue and Jesh were meant for beautiful things like this. Stinky messy people like me, are not."
If I pretended to pass out from my fever nobody would judge me. They'd whisk me off to a fancy room and feed my grapes, probably. Thomas and the kids would still get a fun trip out of it. Maybe Jesh would appear from a cloud of pink smoke and shower me in positive healing vibes.
But then I wouldn't get paid. The tuition reminder. I have to do this.
I can not tell you what happened next. Not because I don't want to but because I have absolutely no idea. Somehow, I landed on the stage, and somehow people sat in chairs. Somehow the doors closed, and somehow, I opened my mouth, and words came flying out.
Somehow, in that instant, everything made sense.
I knew why I was there.
I was there to make Miguel, the sweetest Marriott worker ever, blush when he put my mic on my yoga pants, only to realize I wasn't wearing any underwear. Oops.
I was there to stutter, and burp, and say Fuck, and sweat. To be sick, and makeup-less. Braless and brave.
I was there to, if nothing else, be an example of someone who doesn't have it all figured out, but is still kicking. To be a speaker who speaks her own truth.
To grant myself the courage to change the rules. To burn down all the shoulds. To share about vomit-eating-raccoons, because, why the fuck not?
I didn't record my talks, so I can't really say what was said. But I can tell you that afterwards, when my tunnel vision stopped, and I felt the tips of my fingers come back to life, I looked up and saw all these beautiful people crying. I saw them laughing. I saw them not hating me.
Oh. My. God.
Did I maybe just do something good?
I was so ready for the pitch forks. For the hate mail and the embarrassing hashtags. I was ready to shrug my shoulders at my kids as we walked back to car, explaining to them, "Welp. You can't win 'em all."
But that's not at all what happened.
Those beautiful people who were in their chairs while I was talking waited in line to buy my book and give me hugs. They bought the books I thought nobody wanted.
In fact, when the Click Away organizer came to check on me just before my first talk, she asked how many books she needed to put on the table.
"Just five," I said, "Because then it's less embarrassing when everyone just walks by."
I sold out of every book I brought, and then sold out of another box the next day.
And I know for a fact there is a thing called speaker's guilt because I am having it even typing that last sentence.
But, I have to share it because if I had never ended up in Austin against my will, I would have never been so close to the conference, and Amy would have never thought to ask me to fill in for her, because she knows I don't fly. If Amy would have never asked me to fill in for her, I would have never said yes, and I would have never learned, once and for all, that it's ok to show up in the world as Michelle Gardella. And, it turns out, the more of me I share, the more I know I am exactly right where I need to be.
Click Away San Antonio was never within view from where I sat all those months, calculating my failures. And yet, look what happened.
I found myself thinking so much about sweet Liz on the drive back to our Austin apartment. Maybe I'll try writing her another letter, only this time, I'll say thank you, instead of I'm sorry.
I'm going to do that with a lot of things moving forward, I think.
I have no idea what will happen from here, and I think I now fully understand that I don't need to.
All I have to do is keep believing in the moon and the stars, and trust that somehow, someway, even without any makeup or fancy clothes, as long as I listen to that little voice inside, everything is going to be fucking awesome.
You just watch, and see.