• Evan Wolkenstein

The last day before my dream comes true. Sort of.

Updated: May 4

How it was supposed to go:

The actual brie at my actual book signing.

It was going to be at a bookstore. There would be rows and rows of chairs. There might be brie. If so, there would also be fig preserves. Fancy olives. Little crackers.

There would be wine. Mostly red. Some white.


There would be a display with my name and photo, the cover of my book. I knew all this long before there was a book. When being a published writer was a dream.


Most importantly, there would be people. Lots of people: family and friends, (though the cluster of faces aged a bit, through the decades) other writers deep in their projects, and strangers -- curious book-browsers who would amble over to see what the hubbub was about. New fans who'd heard about my book and would want to listen to me read a chapter, and (the ultimate in writers' arrival), would get my sharpied signature on the cover page.


Over twenty-five years, this went from dream to imminent reality - early reviews were coming in and I was scouting out my venue, even selecting the bottle of champagne we'd pop to launch my first book on its voyage.


Then came unprecedented.


Unprecedented cancellations at work and at home, unprecedented isolation, unprecedented long-distance Passover seders, unprecedented hours spent strategizing how to acquire food and supplies, and hour after hour spent staring at that damn Zoom grid of faces.

With Turtle Boy's publication date a mere two days away, the most common question I've been receiving is: how will the pandemic affect publicity? Meanwhile, the most common question I ask myself is: how am I supposed to feel right now?


The answer to both is: I have no idea. On a daily basis, I experience the fog of anhedonia, reading headlines, worrying about the future, weighing the best way to help those in need, refreshing social media like a joyless digital junkie. This weekend, Covid-19 cases in the US rose above one million. 66,000 people in this county have died. And I'm supposed to be excited about my book?


On the other hand, allowing a multi-decade dream simply to drift into reality, attenuated and celebrated, seems like a cruelty to my younger, dreaming self.


How is a debut writer to navigate these waters?

Turtle Boy is about an unlikely friendship between two isolated kids - one, an introvert, stuck in a shell of his own creation, the other, an extrovert, holed up in a hospital room. The latter, RJ, has a terminal illness but also a list of experiences he'd like to have before it's too late. His only hope is the protagonist: Will.


Without giving too much away, the magic that needs to happen as Will attempts to fulfill RJ's bucket list will have to do with the suspension of disbelief, a mutual commitment to the process, and the affirmation of joy -- not to cover up suffering but as an existential response to it. To be sure, Will pushes forth into the world to experience the things RJ wishes he could, requiring a great deal of fortitude, but RJ will contribute just as much to the alchemy of the shared experience. As WIll describes or provides relics of his adventures, RJ will have to lean into the experience. He must choose to embark on each journey along with Will, though only in his imagination. He must learn to accept that the joyful encounters and adventures are both "all he gets" and "everything he needs."


We've all been training for this. We've been in quarantine long enough that each of us has celebrated or grieved through a screen. My heart breaks for those who've needed to say goodbye to a loved one over the phone or in a tiny Zoom grid. And I've seen pictures of weddings and bar mitzvahs where the smiles of the beloveds are clearly not virtual, where the naches of the parents is so clearly true and real and beaming, with well-wishers streaming their Mazal Tovs through the wifi like prayers through the firmament.

We pray because we believe it can arrive to the heavenly realm, and we join in these virtual celebrations because we commit to being fully together, even though we're not at all.

My daughter Anna celebrated her second birthday in front of a screen. We were supposed to have a room full of loving adults, rambunctious kids, and a few sugar-addled toddlers with dirty hands roaming ominously around the upholstery - and we didn't. We had 25 minutes on a laptop, and if you look at it that way, then that's all it was. And the sun doesn't rise, the earth simply turns, and the universe is devoid of meaning.


No, in fact, Anna's loving people all came together to shove into a grid to show her we adore her, to take part in a true celebration, and to drink from a moving fountain, one whose waters can twist into new nourishments, never before tasted.


We do these twisty emotional asanas because we have no choice, but we also do them because, well, what a miracle it is to be able to do them.

On Tuesday, Turtle Boy will be born. I won't be able to stroll over to my local bookstore and pick up a copy and say "that's me!" I won't be able to get in front of an auditorium full of middle schoolers, read into a microphone, and ask myself, "how did I get here?" I won't be able to hug my friends who've come to be with me as I pass through a really important life gateway.


That's my list. Every one of us has our own, unique list of I-won’t-be-able-tos. And yet, each of us has something significant in common: we have no choice. Like RJ, life has thrust a set of extraordinarily challenging circumstances on us, and our preferences, no matter how powerful, are simply not the priority right now as we attempt to combat a public health crisis together.


But we can change the story we're telling about the meaning of what we're doing right now--and even what we're not doing. Every Zoom we enter is a space for real, actual, powerful connection, and likewise, every in-person event we don't attend is a commitment to collective wellbeing, a future free of this plague.


So Tuesday, I'll try to take a page out of RJ and Will's book (which, after all, is my book). I will embrace the virtual, look people in the eye from thousands of miles away, say a toast with my friends and family, and celebrate the very real thing that's happening, in reality, all around me.


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