This past weekend I traveled to Baltimore for the BlogU Conference I impulsively signed up for months ago. As I was packing on Thursday, loading my suitcase with business cards, business casual attire, and an awkward middle school costume for the Saturday night party, I was cautiously optimistic. From the exchanges I had with a few of the attendees on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the conference, I had every reason to believe that new friends were on the horizon. I was looking forward to learning, networking, and growing my blog. I knew that masquerading as a successful blogger would be tough. Some of the attendees have readerships in the hundreds of thousands. Last time I checked, I had 1,549 followers. And that number seems shockingly high and inaccurate to me. Still, I was up for an adventure, so I boarded my flight and practiced my “I can be an outgoing introvert” mindset over and over for 1,500 aeronautical miles.
Upon landing in Baltimore, I learned a couple other attendees had arrived late after delayed flights and had missed their rides. Because I had a rental car reserved for myself, I offered to be their shuttle, figuring it would be a chance to make some friends before even getting my official name badge and conference schedule. One of my biggest reservations about attending the conference alone was an image I had of myself wandering around lost and friendless in the cafeteria like a middle school outcast. Perhaps offering a ride would keep me from that fate. Alas, that was not the case. When the three of us arrived and checked in, we went our separate ways. It’s okay, I told myself. There are a couple hundred folks here. My tribe is here somewhere. I shall find them eventually.
I went to dinner on Friday night alone. The cafeteria at Notre Dame of Maryland was packed when I got there midway through meal service, its large, round, communal tables filled with chattering ladies of all shapes and sizes. I grabbed a plate, threw together a Caesar salad, filled another plate with halfway overdone-halfway underdone roasted vegetables, and began the hunt for a place to sit. I was overwhelmed. It seemed every person at the conference was there and successfully friended. I began to feel the fingers on my right hand forming the L-shape I knew belonged on my forehead. Conspicuously unfriended, I hastened to a nearby table where three women were engaged in animated conversation while a fourth woman sat to the side. Here’s another lonely soul just waiting to be my tribe, I imagined. We introduced ourselves and struck up polite conversation. Because she had finished her meal, she carried the lion’s share of the exchange while I scarfed down my veggies. As mealtime began to wind down, I realized I hadn’t had much opportunity to share about my blog. I was out of time, though, so I excused myself to prepare for the evening session. I kept telling myself that the introductions would become easier and my next meal would be at a table filled with new friends. It was early. There was plenty of time.
That night the conference hosted a pep rally. Writers who had won the submissions contest got to read their poignant and emotional pieces. During the break, I had the opportunity to touch base with a couple more bloggers. It felt good to share mom and writing experiences with women who could relate. When the program ended, I headed back to the dorm for the Open Mic session where we would put our names into a bowl and take turns reading our work. By the time I got to the lounge where we were meeting, though, it was standing room only and women were already sharing. The bowl to add your name to was at the front of the room through a maze of women seated in chairs and on the floor, placed on the floor directly in front of the gal at the mic. I didn’t want to be remembered as the rude woman who interrupted the speaker by stepping over other people to drop my name in the bowl, so I stood at the back sandwiched between a wall and a table for a while, just listening, before finally accepting that I had missed the boat on this event. I went back to my dorm room, mentally exhausted and ready for some introvert, alone time.
After a restless and wretched night of sleep on a squishy dorm bed, I hauled myself into the bathroom I was sharing. The other gal had left her Sonicare, her empty coffee cups, and a gob of chocolate-tinted toothpaste spit in the sink for me. I chose to assume this was because she didn’t realize it was a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. I locked the door, donned my shower shoes, and washed the dorm room off of me before driving to Starbucks for the most highly caffeinated latte imaginable. As I sat through the first two lectures of the morning, I eyed my fellow classmates looking for a like-minded soul. I suppose that would have come in the form of a carefully hidden yawn or a surreptitious glance at an iPhone. I saw none of that. Everyone was engaged, taking notes, and asking questions. The classes offered useful tips and I hastily scribbled just-barely-legible notes into my notebook, but the feeling that I was way out of my league persisted. I began to wonder if perhaps this wasn’t the best conference for me.
I stumbled into lunch in a state somewhere between dread and resignation. I once again wandered around alone, looking for a friendly face to welcome me to a table. No such luck. After sauntering casually with my food for a minute that seemed to be ten, I found an empty table and settled in alone. I checked my flesh for signs of leprosy and found none. Still, I had to wonder. I sniffed my armpits. Yes. There was deodorant there. I finished lunch and went back to the dorm room to freshen up just in case. On my way back to the classrooms for afternoon sessions, I set off a fire alarm on a poorly marked emergency exit. As I sped up my pace, praying no one would realize I was the goof who caused the ruckus, I decided my transformation from middle age nobody to middle school loser was complete.
I finished the next two sessions in a daze. In the 24 hours I was there, I made zero new friends despite putting myself out there as much as my reserved self could. The thought of sleeping in the dorm bed and sharing the bathroom again depressed me. I pulled up Expedia on my smartphone and booked a hotel room 15 minutes away. I didn’t need a Middle School To The Max party to feel any more unpopular than I already felt. Some takeout, a bottle of wine, and a private bath were all I needed to remind myself I was a grown adult and not a middle school reject.
That night while I was relaxing at the hotel and finishing up a blog post, against all odds, another attendee (one whom I hadn’t even met yet) reached out to me on the conference Facebook page wondering where I was. I was shocked. You know that scene in Pretty in Pink where the cute girl at prom motions to Duckie and he turns around to see if she’s talking to him? That’s how I felt. I quickly responded, telling her only that I was “out of sorts” and offering to meet up at the closing session the next morning. That’s what we did. As the conference drew to a close, my new friend, Martha, another blogger about mindfulness and zen, and I decided to drive into Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium and consume a crab cake lunch. The conversation was effortless and affirming and exactly what I needed. I pulled the thumb and forefinger L away from my forehead. I had found my tribe. That it was a tribe of one seemed perfectly fitting for this introvert.
My experiences at the conference were, I’m sure, vastly different from most of the attendees. Most of them are successful and gifted writers, humorists, and mommy bloggers on a mission. The conference, while not quite my milieu, offered loads of helpful information I will be able to incorporate into my publishing experience going forward. My blog may never have hundreds of thousands of followers. I may never make a living from it. What I realize now, though, is that those things don’t matter to me and they never really have. My plan from the start was to use writing to learn more about myself, to share what I experience with others to prove our common connections, and to find greater peace and stillness in my present. In those ways, I’m already a successful blogger.