“If you could have dinner with anyone at all, who would it be?” Penny asked Sheldon this question on a recent Big Bang Theory episode. After the show, I pressed Kevin for his answer and he didn’t even blink. “My lovely wife, of course!” Pause. There was a moment of silence. He realized that my brain was racing with options of exciting potential dinner guests spanning all ages, races, and personalities. “I’m guessing that your answer is not dinner with me?”
It’s not that my husband isn’t my most important dining companion, it’s just that I was intrigued by how problematic it would be to glean one person out of countless options. The question was not about how I would spend my last meal, or who is my all-time favorite person. The way I interpreted it, we were summoned to select one individual in order to share some meaningful facetime. At worst, it would make for a cool story, which is something I constantly seek. At best, the experience could be life-changing. Should I dine with someone important or famous or engaging or entertaining? The Dalai Lama, perhaps? The President? Elizabeth Gilbert? David Sedaris? Morgan Freeman? Kathy Griffin? Jim Carrey? Once the query had been posed, I couldn’t get it out of my head, because I couldn’t figure out who my person would be.
A few names bubbled to the surface that I immediately discarded because I could probably make those occasions happen on my own. The fiercely intelligent Nadia Butler, an inspiring local success story, would likely accept my invitation if I had the nerve to call and request some of her time. I would also love to see Ben Holstein, my dear friend from college, but again, I know I could swing it myself if I would just schedule some time to fly to Kansas City. Other names include people with whom I’ve lost touch: my best friend from high school, Donna Lewis, as well as my mentor and former boss during the Clinique years, Katherine Cripps. It was just too difficult to choose.
Waiting to board a plane in the O’Hare airport, I had plenty of time to ponder this conundrum. One thing I did decide is that I disliked the airport, which is much older and less organized than my “home” airport in Atlanta. In Chicago, the ceilings are much lower, making an already claustrophobic environment even more oppressive. I moved from gate to gate, trying to find a less conjested space. I distracted myself with a Chicago hotdog, then a slice of pizza, and finally some local flavored popcorn called “Chicago mix”. Schlepping down the corridor, burdened with my luggage and food, I stopped frozen in my tracks when I saw the title of a book for sale in the sundries store: “The Opposite of Loneliness”. I immediatly thought it was the best book title ever; I purchased it on the spot.
Back at my dingy blue gate, I started reading what I learned was a collection of essays and short stories by Marina Keegan, a writer of astonishing talent. The introduction, written by her former writing professor Anne Fadiman, brought me to tears. Apparently Ms. Keegan had penned the “Opposite of Loneliness” essay shortly before she perished in a violent car crash. She died just five days after she graduated from Yale. The piece went viral, as people everywhere related to her poignant plea to live fully and embrace the beautiful uncertainty of youth. The essay was lyrically engaging, and was ultimately combined with other pieces she wrote, including short stories, and published into a book. Had I not traveled to Chicago, I may not have discovered it.
Delta agents called for pre-boarding, and because I had splurged on an upgraded ticket, I was soon settled into my comfy seat in the first row and began to watch the flight attendants bustle about. I would watch a bit, munch a bit, read a bit. The two-hour flight zipped by as if it were no more significant than preview time at the movies. The attendants visited our section often to offer amenities. While my fellow passengers were liberally partaking of the free flow of alcohol, I sat there engrossed in my own world.
It occurred to me, in that moment, that Ms. Keegan would have made an excellent choice for a dinner companion. Her voice was in my head now, and to be able to hear that voice in person would have been, I have no doubt, a transformative experience. The authenticity of her writing and the immensity of her thinking was exactly the kind of inspiration I was pining for. The point of hypothetical conversations, in the end, is to force us to consider what are the most true aspects of our lives. I was essentially having dinner with my person of choice. I was contemplating her extraordinary vision and felt inspired to live more fully in a way a writer hasn’t challenged me to do since I studied Rilke in college:
Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe;
perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.
Like Ms. Keegan, Rilke challenged us that life is more than the mundane details which consume us; it is something more lovely and engimatic. As Ms. Keegan’s friend Luke Vargas explains in this tribute video: “She led with what what was most personal and I think the places she went in her writing will give other people hope that they can find something at the end of their journey also.” The life we live every day is not life. We must strive to have an impact on the world, and we do that by pursuing what is honest and essential. This eloquent message was presented most poetically from a once-in-a-lifetime dinner companion, and I’m grateful for it.