My first BlogHer conference was in New York City in 2010.
I almost didn't go. The tickets were purchased and the rooms booked. My baby wasn't even a year old, though. I was still nursing him, and I thought he would be very uncomfortable without me. Truth, of course, being that I was going to be uncomfortable without him. I received an e-mail the very day I planned on canceling my travel arrangements that informed me that I would be a Voice of the Year and had also been selected to read at the Community Keynote.
The invitation to read my post at the Keynote made me assume naively that being a Voice of the Year was going to ensure that I would be welcomed with big, warm hugs as soon as I arrived at the Hilton. This was not the case. Everyone who has gone to a blogging conference will agree with me: your first one is a mass of people looking for people and it always seems that they're looking for everyone other than you. Being lonely is terrifying and depressing. It is only exceeded in misery by being lonely in a room full of people. Of course, many people insist in response to these sentiments that every conference is "what you make of it".
I agree… mostly.
When a new person enters a space, it's very difficult to break into existing groups. Ideally, we would walk towards a group, make eye contact with a member of the group, smile, say hi and introductions would be made fluidly and easily. Even though ideals are the measuring stick for evaluation, they are almost always a description of exceptionality. The majority of the time, our hearts lurch into our throats and we can't imagine walking up to a group of strangers and inserting ourselves into a conversation that is already in full swing. Also, nobody is making eye contact with us. Nobody is talking to us and we are standing RIGHT HERE, I mean, COME ON.
This state of separation is not only the responsibility of the new person in the space. And the separateness doesn't have to be overcome only by them. Newbies don't always have to step outside of their conference comfort zones, and, frankly, I'm tired of people judging them for not doing it. The people who are part of the group are also basking in their comfort zone. They are also not taking the time to introduce themselves to new people… so, you know, lay off already, people.
Three years ago this month, I met Peter and Anissa Mayhew. Interestingly, Anissa and I also went to high school. She worked at an after hours coffee shop next to a night club that I practically lived at between 1995-97, too. Seriously, I think I may have paid them rent at some point. We met, however, on the Internet in 2009. She e-mailed me because we were on a group e-mail together and Adam mentioned something about high school. After a few exchanges, we figured out that we'd both attended the same high school at the same time. Unfortunately, she was a slacker and I was nerd queen, so never the paths shall cross.
I was pregnant when Anissa and I met on the Internet. She sent me a baby shower gift even though we'd never met in person. I'll never forget that. It was such a kind thing to do. It was sort of like that thing I was talking about earlier. I'd only been blogging about a year, I was standing on the outside of a group and one of the people in the group gave me a smile. Except it wasn't a group, it was the internet and it wasn't a smile, but an ill thought out nursing cover up that I never really used because after all the weight I'd gained it made me look like a five foot four giant baby in a paisley bib. But, it was a nice gift. It meant a lot. It still does.
A few months after that, Anissa had a stroke and was in a coma for several days. Her road to recovery was long and it is still not, in apparent ways, a full recovery. She was different than before, most notably she was in a wheelchair. But she started blogging again. She continued to amaze people, be popular, to own her imperfections with grace and, wow, be followed by, like, everyone.
She showed up at BlogHer three years ago this month to do a panel. It was then that I met Anissa's husband, Peter, and he mentioned how he was nervous about speaking at a panel they had the next day about grief and loss. I told him I'd show up if he thought it would help and plus I wanted to finally meet Anissa in person. After their panel ended, I quickly introduced myself and gave her a hug. There were a lot of people wanting to meet her, so I let her move on to being gushed over by them.
Later that night, the CheeseburgHer party was in full swing. CheeseburgHer is my favorite party -- the vibe of it is laid back and fun and everyone knows each other a little better by then. It's more relaxed. Anissa's stroke had left her sensitive to noise and light, so she was in a wheelchair at right outside the front door of the party with Pete when I arrived. At that moment, I didn't care about going into the party. At that moment, I remembered the woman who had sent me that large baby bib-slash-nursing cover and all I wanted to do was stand outside of the party with her. I wanted to be near this person even though she was on the outside because when I was on the outside of the party, she noticed me.
Three years later, my new friend is one of my dearest friends. We work together, we worry together, and, goodness, we laugh together. Anissa is the reason that I try to smile and say hi to every person I walk by at a conference. She's the reason I introduce new people to the people I know. Because you never know when you're about to start something beautiful and you never will if you don't try.
I know the traditional BlogHer post is supposed to be a recap, but this is what BlogHer and blogging is about to me. It's about people taking a genuine interest in one another. It's getting out of your own way - your expectations, your hopes, your fears, your arrogance -- and taking a chance on a new friendship.
And completely succeeding.