Book Passage 2013: Notes on living with an open heart.
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
It’s a Saturday night in Corte Madera, California, and National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow is wrapping up her presentation at the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference.
She has just spent the evening enchanting the audience with her images of traditional junk boats in Halong Bay, Vietnam, the ever-impressive tiffin wallas of Mumbai, India, and Prince Charles striding across one of his properties in slick black gumboots – all while illuminating what it is that draws her to her art:
“Photography opens up everything. It’s a passport, it’s an excuse.”
Not one hour later, the projector screen has been put away – in its place, a karaoke machine and two mics.
Soon the air is filled with belted renditions of “Love Shack,” “Summer of ’69,” “Last Friday Night,” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Backup dancers assemble behind the singers, their hips a shakin’ and hands a rollin’. Long-established editors and first-time conference attendees alike throw their arms around each other.
Any sense of division – between faculty and student, work and play – is entirely absent.
It isn’t often that you come across such a place in life – a place where poetic images and pop songs can share the same stage – where the profound and the playful not only coexist, but even complement each other.
But this, my friends, is the magic of Book Passage.
* * *
Although Book Passage is currently in its 22nd year, this was only my second time attending the conference, which brings together the best of the best in travel writing and travel photography, and lets people like yours truly pick their brains for four days.
Naturally, I’ve spent much of the weekend thinking over what it is I most wanted to say in this post. Did I want to set about convincing writers thinking of coming to the conference in the future to sign up? (because seriously, you need to be there.)
Did I want to do a round up of my favorite quotes from speakers? (which would no doubt include Jeff Greenwald saying: “You can’t take notes on a zip line; trust me, the jungle floor is littered with my notebooks.”)
Or did I want to talk about the many full-circle moments the weekend held for me? (Because lord knows I don’t talk about those enough here…)
But what it comes down to is this: Book Passage is a touchstone for what it means to be a human being engaged in our world.
Yes, the conference will teach you how to be a better writer and put you in a place to meet editors and agents you wouldn’t have otherwise, but its biggest strength – in my humble opinion, that is – is that it will inspire you to live a life of no divisions or distinctions; to live with an open heart, connect with people, and hear their stories, whether you’re in your backyard or in the furthest corners of the globe.
On Sunday morning, I was lucky enough to eat breakfast with Elizabeth Harryman, travel editor of WestWays magazine as well as several other AAA publications.
There were a million things we could have talked about over our ham and spinach quiche and bowls of thick Greek yogurt, but what our conversation centered on was how important it is to take what we’ve learned while traveling and incorporate that into our daily lives back home.
“There’s no difference between our real life and our travel life,” Elizabeth said – and it was all I could do not to cry from connecting with such an esteemed editor on such a beautiful level.
* * *
It’s now Sunday afternoon and the conference is minutes away from ending. The last panel session has finished, the writing contest winner announced (congrats, Gigi!!!), and champagne is being poured as conference co-chair extraordinaire Don George begins his final speech.
“The risk-tasking that you put out into the world comes back to you 100%. The world rewards you… You have a fear, and the more you deny it, the more you empower it. If you face it, you empower yourself. We have the ability to create a fear and let it grow, or we can deflate it. Journey into your discomfort zone and it will open up magical things for you.
“This is our one chance to live life as fully and graciously as possible. The more that you infuse every moment of your path with love, the bigger and better and richer you become. That goes for travel, writing, photography, dish washing, laundry, life. This conference is about travel writing and photography, but it is also about life – just like the best travel stories.”
I’m fairly certain the only reason my eyes are dry at the end of his speech has something to do with how much sleep I haven’t gotten during the conference. In my fatigue-addled state, my heart can’t handle much more emotion, but still I race to write down my favorite lines, knowing they’re something I’ll return to again and again in the future.
Just like Book Passage itself.
* * *
I don’t have a huge moment to end this post with (nothing compared to last year, at least!). Instead, it was a weekend of quiet victories, of taking small but steady steps towards seeing my dreams become reality.
Carrying me through each step was the gift that Book Passage gave me, as I’m sure it gave many students: assurance that we are on the right path. That all those days that find us banging our heads against the wall are maybe worth it – that every page written, every risk taken, and every dream believed are actually leading somewhere.
And, as I look towards basing myself more in the US next year, I’m also left with the belief that who I’ve grown into and become on foreign soil can find her place in the world closer to home, too. That these two realities aren’t as separate as they seem in my mind – just like those pictures and pop songs carrying equal weight on the conference schedule.
To everyone who made this year’s Book Passage possible – the faculty, co-chairs Don and Bob Holmes, bookstore staff including Kathryn, Karen, and Dana, and all the students who made for fantastically inspiring company and even more brilliant karaoke companions – thank you.
Thank you for the courage to live with an open heart, no matter where we are in the world.