I went to Chicago not really knowing what I was looking for. I knew there were people I wanted to meet and connect with "IRL." I knew there were things I wanted to learn from the sessions. I knew that I wanted to get a little break from my kids, and do something that was about me for a change.
But, as the saying goes, what I didn't know about what I would learn could fill a book.
The thing about bloggers is that we live our lives transparently. There is artifice, sure, as evidenced by my agonizing for weeks (months) over what I was going to wear. But most of us reveal ourselves every day on the internet, where it will be available to read indefinitely - probably forever. So saying, "This is me, this is how I'm different, this is how I struggle, this is my real life," is easier for bloggers, I think, than for the general population.
I met women who are struggling with infertility, and I heard their stories and remembered the pain of not being able to conceive, and I felt so lucky to have my two precious kids. I saw women with babies and kids in tow, and my heart cried out for Mary Grace and Claire. (I have to admit that I sniffed more than a few tiny heads, and teared up just a little bit, missing my kids' smell - all sunshine and sugar and home, and I breathed them in when I returned to them like I'd been walking through the desert since Thursday, and their smell was water).
I met women whose choice of partner is not socially accepted, and who are denied many rights that I enjoy automatically as a straight woman. I learned about their struggle for equality, their desire for acceptance, and I admired their strength. I learned that I am lucky to have fallen in love with someone who is "ok" for me to love, in the eyes of society.
I met people who are struggling with the loss of their parents and in-laws, whether quickly by accident or slowly by agonizing inches toward death, and I felt so lucky that our parents are still living and healthy and able to take care of themselves.
I met single mothers, who struggle every day to make ends meet. They struggle to do the right thing by their kids, even as they watch their ex-husbands do the wrong thing and get away with it. I learned that I am lucky to have a husband who is not only here and supporting our family, but doing so cheerfully - with humor and grace. I learned that I am lucky to be happily married to a wonderful dad.
I met people who struggle physically, emotionally, and financially with chronic illness. I listened to them talk about their frustration with doctors and "the system." I heard them talk about being incapable of getting out of bed for days and weeks at a time, and how the internet has saved them from a life of complete isolation. I listened to a woman talk about being wheelchair bound in a non-accessible world, and I felt so lucky for my sore feet, my working body, my good health. I'm lucky to have health insurance, and doctors who listen to me and really care about me and my small, infrequent health problems.
I met mothers whose children have chronic illnesses, whose lives can go from mundane to dramatic at the slightest fever or infection. I felt so very lucky to have two healthy kids, a healthy husband, and to be healthy myself. And I learned that the moms with sick kids feel lucky that they have children with medical concerns to struggle with and care for and hug through hospitalizations and procedures, because we met women whose children have died. And their grief broke all of our hearts.
I met people who are so smart they made my head spin (and I hang out with rocket scientists). People who can speak so eloquently and effortlessly, and with such passion, that I felt very small and foolish by comparison. I met people who are so funny that they could keep 1500 people in side-splitting, tears-running-down-the-face laughter. I felt very boring and silly by comparison. But then those same people were interested in me, they listened to what I had to say, they laughed at my jokes. And I stopped feeling like a tiny fish in a huge pond. I realized that blogging is a democracy - and regardless of traffic or hits or stats or comments, we're all equal in the strength of our voices. All we can do is bring our best work to every post, and hope that in the end, somebody learns, somebody smiles, somebody understands.
I learned that underneath it all - underneath our differences - we're really all the same. We all love our kids and our partners and our families. We all have bad days. We all have insecurities. We all have good days. We all work, whether for pay or not. We all struggle. We all dream. We all want a book deal.
I learned that at its core, blogging is about community and connections, and about learning to really express ourselves and hear each others' voices, and I felt very lucky to have been there.