Last night I accidentally wound up at "The Free State Forum" an ACLU event held every 18 months that includes, music, drinks, awards, fundraising, dinner, speakers. It's a gala as it turns out.
A friend who regularly sends me email notices about social actions like marches and sit-ins in the offices of elected officials called me a couple of days ago and invited me to join a group that was driving to Overland Park for "an ACLU thing" on Friday afternoon. I mistakenly thought it was a town hall type thing.
I don't really know why I said "yes". It may have looked like a lifeline to me on that day, a distraction from the familial conflicts and financial struggles that have consumed my energy and darkened my outlook for the last few weeks.
On the 35-minute drive, my friend told me more about the event. I heard the words "fundraiser" and "keynote" and "dinner," noticed my friend's attire and makeup, and realized I was seriously underdressed in my ski cap, sweatshirt, jeans, and moccasins. "Oh, you always look elegant," she told me as we approached the wide, shiny entrance of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel. "Right," I said. "Being tall helps. Hope it works tonight."
Two steps into the building, memory of a stay in a different DoubleTree hotel sprang up. I was attending a massive, international social justice convention a decade ago. On that occasion, I slept for the first and only time (to date) in a king-size bed. The linens felt to be milled in heaven. I said then and continue to claim it was the best sleep I've ever had in a hotel.
It is a fond memory -- beds and sleeping have long ranked high as "a few of my favorite things" -- so I was smiling as we strode into the lavish lobby of the DoubleTree by Hilton where the pre-dinner mingling was to happen. Someone was playing "When I Fall in Love" on a gleaming baby grand piano and a well-dressed, mostly-white crowd of people wandered around inside the wide hallway, meeting and greeting each other.
My friend and I were part of a carpool of five people from Lawrence but she was the only one of them I'd ever laid eyes on before yesterday. The five convened at the registration table and were each given a small, paper-clipped packet containing a peel-and-stick name badge (not my name but that of someone whose place I was taking at Table #22); a card entitling the bearer to a complimentary autographed copy of The Soul of The First Amendment, a book by Floyd Abrams, the keynote speaker for the evening; and a pair of cards that could be exchanged for free drinks at one of three temporary bars stations. "Oh, good. I'll have a drink. Then I won't care how I'm dressed." Ha. Me making a joke. Not funny, I guess. No one in the group even smiled.
Somehow this put me at ease. The unfunny mismatch interloper is a role and a psychic space I know pretty well.
On my way to a conversation pit I spotted near the edge of the room, I picked up Abrams' book from a long table stacked high with them. "Lost in a book" is another space I know pretty well. I could just hang out in a book until time to enter the dining hall. "Thanks," I said to the two, pretty young women staffing the table where I surrendered my gift card. "Have you read it?" Both of them became very fluttery then -- talking and giggling and fidgeting without ever actually answering the question. I think they thought the correct answer was "yes" but neither of them had read the book so the question discombobulated them.
I sat down as the pianist launched into a bossa nova tune that sounded like a polka as she misplaced the primary beats of accent. Wonder how she got this gig? I thought to myself. I could do that...
To my surprise, the others in the carpool followed me from the registration desk and took the other chairs in the pit. With everyone seated, my hostess, teacher, and performer personae took over. Smiling, asking open-ended questions, and encouraging people to interact. I stoke conversation like building a campfire sometimes. Like I need the warmth of free-flowing conversation to feel at ease in social situations. Once the flame caught, I slipped away to retrieve my free drink.
The pace of arrivals quickened and the temperature at our end of the hallway grew steadily cooler in the draught from the three pairs of gilt doorways. Some of us were hungry enough now to mention it. Dinner was to have begun at 6 but at 6:10 we were still mingling in the lush lobby listening to lounge music. I'd had my drink. I led a small contingent into the dining room. "All they can do is say 'not yet' and throw us out," I said. They did not throw us out and within minutes the other doors to the dining hall were opened and guests began to file in and sit down at their assigned tables.
I kinda like when that happens. When I end up at the front end of a trend. I like following my gut and I like having company on the way.
The agenda brochures at each place setting boasted a hefty program: at least 6 speakers in addition to a keynote address and two award presentations. I groaned inwardly and allowed that I might have to use the other drink ticket.
As it turned out, I did not use the other ticket. I left the event feeling nostalgic, a little sad, and surprisingly inspired. Despite varying degrees of competency as public speakers, each of the people who spoke revealed passion and a rigorous commitment to the work of the ACLU and the survival of American democracy. The audience received their remarks with warmth and solidarity. I felt myself in the company of kindred spirits. I was surprised to feel optimism surging through me for the first time since the presidential election of 2016.
One of the speakers stressed that the ACLU is not a bi-partisan project but a non-partisan project. His comment made me aware that having lost faith in both major political parties of the U.S., my social activism has dwindled. I have been unable to latch on and join in the Resistance. After an initial enthusiastic diligence, writing and calling elected representatives, met by unanswered calls...jammed voicemail boxes....voting however the fuck they wanted on whatever I was calling about...noting the disappointing instances where money trumps everything else and democrats and republicans do group hugs...
I like the ACLU a lot right now. Just signed to Follow them on Twitter.
I also like hanging around
- people who read
- people who are interested in the law, and justice
- people who drink
- people who get an idea and run run run with it
Last night I hung out with the cool nerds while wearing the wrong clothes but it didn't matter at all in the end.