You know the old saying, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.” Or perhaps you don’t, and the quote serves only to date me. It happened frequently in my Comp classes; I would quote some pithy, well-known saying that I had at some point in my life taken to heart only to receive thirty blank stares. At any rate, I believe this one comes from a movie about a European tour on a cruise ship, although I could easily be wrong. I never saw the movie.
In my life, the first day of the paperback release tour for Running the Rift, today is Saturday, and I am at the kitchen table at my cousin’s condo in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, watching the elephantine backs of the mountains shake themselves free of the dark. Lights blink like a field of misplaced stars nestled in the slopes. From here, it looks as if the world sleeps and I am the only one awake, my in and out breaths rippling through the stillness of the chilled pre-dawn air.
I am fortunate to have this space of calm amid the frantic storm that a book tour can easily become if you’re not careful. I can’t claim to be an old hand at this—it’s only my second tour—but I am attempting to steer my emotional state in a slightly different direction, based on Tour Part I. Entropy, a measure of disorder, always increases if left to its own devices, and for a person such as myself, one with a sensitive and reactive temperament, this means clothes strewn about hotel rooms, breakdowns in airport bathrooms, nights spent open-eyed, counting worries like sheep, and days spent trying to keep my stomach from trying out every rope configuration in The Ashley Book of Knots. And so this time, I will collect and cherish these moments of calm as I collected and cherished seashells on the beaches of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, the place of my fondest childhood memories. I will hold them to my ear and listen for the sound of the sea.
Steamboat Springs is a wonderful town with an impressive library and a cozy, well-stocked independent book store, Off the Beaten Path. It is also a very literary town, and every year, the library hosts The Literary Sojourn, “an annual festival of authors and readers celebrating the power of the book.” Hillary Jordan, fellow Bellwether Prize winner and author of Mudbound and When She Woke, is a Sojourn author. She is also on tour for the paperback release of her novel, and I am fortunate to have several events with her, conversations on the Bellwether Prize and writing on topics of social justice, the sub-genre of fiction, if you will, for which the prize is awarded. The first of those conversations was at Appalachian State University, and I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have had our editor, Kathy Pories, and Barbara Kingsolver herself on the panel. The event was a blast; the conversation was alive and inspiring, and time flew by. Dare I say it? It felt like the antithesis of a recent “debate” which you may have watched on October 3rd. I digress. Tomorrow, I will have my second Bellwether Conversation with Hillary, but today, I have nothing to do but shmooze with six accomplished authors and 500 literary enthusiasts and eat a delicious lunch. When the event is over, I will turn it into a seashell and tuck it into my pocket. In moments of chaos, I will hold it to my ear and listen for the sea.
I have two more seashells for my journey, both given to me by a fellow author and friend. They are photographs from Cambodia, accompanied by poems she wrote. The first is of a pyramid of monks in their vividly orange robes. Some are seated on a plank that is held high by the other monks as they proceed down a path. The gist of the poem is that reaching the journey’s end is not important; what matters is the steps along the way. The second photograph is of a man with bright yellow boots resting on a bed of lushly green grasses piled high on a wooden cart. The cart is pushed by another man down a road teeming with traffic and life. The lesson I take from the accompanying poem is to enjoy a moment’s pause amidst the bustling hurry that has become our modern lives. To sink into the cool green of the grass and breathe deeply its fresh, verdant scent. “Why are we in such a hurry?” my friend asks. Indeed, I have no good answer.
In the next busy weeks, when I find myself rushing to catch a plane, buffeted here and there by fellow hurrying travelers, I will pause for a moment and close my eyes. I will be warmed by the scents of saffron and grass. I will see the bright splashes of color my friend has given me—oranges, yellows, greens, her own rainbow—and I will be comforted. I will think about each step of the journey. I will put my hand in my pocket and feel each of the seashells there that I have gathered from this journey’s steps—new friends, inspiring conversations, wonderful bookstores—and I will hear the whisper of the sea, a sound that has been with me since early childhood walks along the shores of a beach on Cape Cod, a sound that is inextricably woven into the fabric of my soul.
Naomi Benaron earned an MFA from Antioch University and an MS in earth sciences from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She teaches for UCLA Writers’ Program and is a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. An advocate for African refugees in her community, she has worked extensively with genocide survivors. Her novel Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for a work addressing issues of social justice. She is also an Ironman triathlete.