published Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Shavin: Bracing for a public appearance

Dana Shavin

When I was in the fifth grade, I got invited to my first boy/girl party. It was at Selena Coleman’s house, and while I liked her, I did not want to go to her party. I was a recluse, a loner, never happier than when I was at home on my bed, pondering my lack of friendships.

“No thanks,” I told Selena. “Parties just aren’t my thing.”

Fast-forward 40 years. This past March I received an invitation to be a panelist at Keystone College’s literature conference, The Gathering. The invitation was from my friend Suzanne Fisher Staples, writer-in-residence. The title of the conference is, “Believing, Unbelieving and the Moral Compass.” Arsalan Iftikhar, who is a National Public Radio commentator, and Whitney Stewart, a Buddhist and author of several books for young adults, and I would be discussing how our spiritual beliefs — or lack thereof — influence our writing. Would I do it, Suzanne wanted to know?

What could I say? Tremendous opportunities just aren’t my thing?

I haven’t slept through the night since I accepted the invitation. On the bright side, I have kept a number of people — most notably my therapist, my life coach and my writing teacher — busy trying to help me manage a mountain of panic, exhilaration and horror, all centered on the momentous hour and a half in July when I will be called upon to speak intelligently about my Jewishness and writing and how the two meet up in me.

I haven’t slept because I’ve been busy becoming a Jewish scholar. First, I bought some whole-wheat matzoh crackers at Greenlife. Then I bought Nathan Englander’s book of short stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” My plan was to eat the crackers while I read the book. This would spur deep, scholarly thoughts about my Jewish upbringing, after which I would move on to Torah study.

But the crackers were dry, and frankly it’s hard for me to get a lot of reading done after 7 p.m. I realized fairly quickly there was no way I was going to become a Jewish scholar by July.

“Of course not,’ ” said my therapist (as if she’d already thought of it herself). “This isn’t about what you have to teach your audience, it’s about your own growing edge.”

“Of course not,” said my life coach. “This is about showing up authentically, bringing who you are to the panel.”

“Of course not,” said my writing teacher. “This is about the knowledge you have that is uniquely yours.”

“Of course not,” said my husband. “The other two are the scholars. All you have to do is show up and not fall down.” (Granted, his vision for me is slightly less than grand.)

It all seemed so much less scary when they put it like that. So I took the collective wisdom of these, my trusted advisers, and thought again about Selena and her fifth-grade party. About how all I had wanted to do was what I’d always done: spend my weekend alone, lonely but safe, bored but unchallenged. I had gotten my wish, but at a price. The Monday after her party, it was obvious that clear lines had been drawn. There were those kids who were moving bravely ahead into tweenhood, then there was me, clinging to my own less-than-grand vision of myself, so afraid of sinking I refused to learn how to swim.

Yes, I am historically terrified of taking my place at the table. And yes, that is an authentic part of me as well. But come July, I will be on that panel, because while large get-togethers still aren’t my thing, I don’t want to wake up the Monday after the conference to find that another significant, possibly game-changing opportunity has passed me by.

A Jewish scholar I won’t be. But I like to think Selena, wherever she is, would say mazel tov.

Email Dana Shavin at danalise@juno.com.

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