Magic Moments with Pat Conroy

I had a few magic encounters that can only be described as “Pat moments” at the 2015 “Pat Conroy at 70” celebration” in Beaufort, South Carolina. And there I was a complete stranger to Pat, but by the end of the three day festival, you wouldn’t have thought this. Sometimes in life you just flat connect with someone through mysterious forces, and when you do, it feels something like recognition. I felt this way the first time I locked eyes with Pat Conroy, and although I was decidedly star-struck, he wasn’t having any of it.

I was late to the screening of “The Great Santini.” Most everyone was seated in the auditorium, and the film was set to begin any minute. I rushed into the scantily populated lobby of the USCB’s Center for the Arts, flustered and apologetic to the nice woman behind the table, who took my name and handed me my event tickets for the following two days. As I turned to head for the auditorium, there was Pat, wearing a red t-shirt, a big smile, and walking straight towards me. His face was aglow with child-like delight and his blue eyes beamed with the kind of enthusiasm you’d jump to upon spotting a friend. Now, mind you, I’d rushed to the conference all the way from California, and in that moment I had yet to find my bearings. I’d hoped at some point during the conference I’d be lucky enough to exchange a few words with Pat, get it off my chest how much his writing affects me, tell him that he’d singlehandedly shown me what is possible with the written word, and illustrate his impact upon me by saying if I were a musician, he’d be my Mick Jagger. I didn’t expect to walk through the door and find him there like a one man welcoming committee. In that destabilizing moment that caught me off-guard, I was so startled to see my literary hero in the flesh that my text book Southern manners flew out the window and speech completely failed me. So I did what anybody would do: I looked Pat Conroy straight in his Irish eyes and said, “I love you.” To which he threw back his head and laughed.

“I flew all the way from California to see you, “I gushed, and without skipping a beat, Pat said, “You’re crazy,” to which I replied, “I know.”

“My daughter lives in California, let me go get her,” Pat said, then he walked away and returned with his daughter, Megan. As Megan and I stood talking about California, Pat sauntered off then reappeared with his brother, Tim. I couldn’t tell you now if Tim wondered who I was or why Pat found me worthy of introduction, but all three Conroy’s stood friendly and smiling, as if they were legitimately thrilled to see me.

“Let me ask you something,” Pat said. He spoke haltingly, searchingly, as if he were thinking something through, though he gave me a look that shot straight through me as if willing the power of his steady gaze to sear something into me. “Can you remember this street address? I want you to come over to the house for a drink or something.”

“When?” I said. It was all I could think to ask.

“Sometime during all this,” he said, waving his hand. “Whenever there’s downtime,” he said, as if it’d be obvious, as if I’d know when there’d be a lull in the conference and could just mosey on over to find him lounging around.

“Oh, wait, they’re telling me it’s time to go in,” Pat said, “Let’s go.” I trailed behind Pat into the auditorium, and when the room rose to its feet in reverence at the sight of him, I ducked discretely out of the way and made for the auditorium’s back row, dumbfounded and lit by the fire of Pat’s personal attention.

Another of my “Pat moments” occurred while standing in line, holding my copy of “The Prince of Tides” in the creeping queue that snaked along in slow motion. Nobody seemed to mind that it took forever to reach Pat; we were all so animated to be in his jurisdiction, we didn’t begrudge a soul their moment in his sun. The air was charged with Pat fever. We were a chatting, laughing, fraternizing assembly linked by a warm inner knowing that we were all members of a secret society, waiting our turn for a moment in Pat Conroy’s sphere of luminosity. Eventually, the line progressed, and I got within clear sight of Pat. There were only three people ahead of me when I spied a regal, chestnut haired woman rounding the banquet table to stand beside him. She held a drink in her hand as she leaned down to say something, and I saw Pat rear back in blindsided astonishment at her appearance. His face flushed adolescent pink, there was glee in his smile and joy in his eyes, which cast around excitedly as if looking for someone to say something to, and I knew in that moment Pat Conroy was bursting with story. I looked around to see if anyone else was paying attention then leaned forward to say, “What is it, Pat?” and he spilled forth with, “You’re not going to believe this story!”

Never before have I been a more willing audience than I was as Pat launched into his story, which was a humorous take on unrequited love.

“Twenty five letters I wrote to this woman when I was in college, and not once, not once did she ever respond,” he shared, as the object of this story shook her head and protested. It was then I pulled out my camera. I ran into her much later, at the catered party the festival had on the last night of the weekend. Her name was Terry, and she felt moved to straighten me out with the facts.

“Already he could write better than anyone else, how in the world could I ever respond?” she insisted.

My Pat moments didn’t end there, nowhere near it. During what turned out to be a three-day love fest in honor of Pat Conroy, it seemed every time I turned around, he was there exuberant and smiling. We were friends now and he wanted my story; he wanted to know what I thought about the poetry panel, and he told me the panel discussions by the authors of “Story River Books” would be right up my alley. And they were, and it all was. Every moment of each day during the “Pat Conroy at 70” celebration was a gift that keeps on giving for many reasons, but mostly because of my magic moments with Pat.

I understand the USC Press and the USCB Center for the Arts will hold its first annual literary conference this October in honor of Pat Conroy, where his spirit, no doubt, will be hovering. To this I have one thing to say:

I’m looking forward.

Notes on Pat Conroy’s 70th Birthday Celebration in Beaufort, South Carolina

It’s a long way from Southern California to Beaufort, South Carolina, but there was only one way to attend my favorite author’s 70th birthday celebration. In my mind, Pat Conroy is the king of American literary letters; his gift of lyrical language and sense of place is unparalleled, and I’d have rather flown across the country to meet him than anyone else in the world. Oh, I hemmed and hawed and weighed and measured to exhaustive degrees before I remembered life is short and I should grab onto its once in a lifetime opportunities with both fists. So I booked my passage and accommodation, bought my event tickets online, and attended what was billed as the University of South Carolina’s “Pat Conroy at 70” celebration. It was a three day celebration of Conroy’s work, beginning with the movie screening of “The Great Santini” followed by two days of panel discussions from writers touched and influenced by Conroy’s rarified way with language and prose, and ending with a birthday cake the shape of the shrimp boat “The Miss Lila,” featured in Conroy’s masterpiece, “The Prince of Tides.”
As a writer who hails from the South, I was in my element, yet hadn’t expected to feel this way. All around me were vibrant, chatty book lovers and Southern writers so lit with joy and enthusiasm at the thrill of simply being in this literary icon’s presence that it was like being in an ecstatic beehive with a jury of my peers. In this day and age of instant gratification and technological immediacy, book lovers are an esoteric lot, but you wouldn’t have thought this in the crowd assembled to celebrate Pat Conroy; it wouldn’t have crossed your mind that there was anything else going on in the world outside of the event, and if it had, it wouldn’t have mattered. Within the walls of the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts, an overarching spirit of what I can only describe as pure love radiated from pillar to post, connecting each person one to the next in an inclusive, tribal embrace. And there in the midst sauntered Pat Conroy, humble, bemused, self-effacing, and accessible, comporting himself as if three hundred of his closest friends had gathered in his living room.
The thing about book people is nothing else lights their fire in quite the same way as a good book. A good book opens interior doors, calls things by name, and grants permission for the reader to take the risk of feeling outside of the parameters of self-consciousness and vulnerability. A good book tells us we are not alone in this world, that it’s okay to be human, and that there is safety in numbers. I think this is why so many flocked to bask in the glow of Conroy: to many he is the bearer of the cross; the keeper of the literary flame; the way shower who has mastered the art of storytelling in such a way that it suggests there is rhyme and reason to this business of living.
What struck me the most about Pat Conroy is his humility. He is the kind of guy who is baffled by his own impact. He possessed a kind of wide-eyed, child-like wonder at the realization that so many came to attend a three-day conference in his honor. And because he is sincerely interested in writers and what they have to say, he sat in the audience of every panel discussion with rapt attention, as if it were he who had something to learn from the authors who read from their works and expounded on his virtues.
I can’t recall what I expected from the weekend celebration of Pat Conroy’s life, for it has now been supplanted by what actually transpired. All I remember was the demanding, inexplicable lure of wanting to be a part of it because I sensed, in some dramatic fashion, that there would be something for me to take away, to pocket in the archives of my own literary journey that I would value forever. And I will. I will value forever the fact that Pat Conroy has not only shown me what is possible with the written word, but what is possible should one find themselves with the distinction of wearing the mantle of fame and acclaim. Pat Conroy exudes docile grace and a generosity of spirit that takes him outside of himself and into the arena of an inclusive, generous camaraderie with all people. He stands not only as an example of how to comport oneself as a writer, but as an example of dignity and decency in how to be a human being.…