Sometimes there are books that just change your life. For me, it was “Touch the Dragon” by Karen Connelly, which won the 1993 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. It tells the story of a year spent in Thailand on a student exchange, sponsored by the Rotary Club. I was 14 when I first found this book on my parents’ shelf and picked it up as a quick cure for my boredom. I loved it so much that I read it again at 15.
Then I mused aloud to my mother, wondering if the Rotary Club still had an exchange program. Immediately she answered, “Yes! In fact, my friend’s son is in Italy this year and I believe he’s with Rotary.” The wheels in my head started turning. I was a fiercely independent 15-year-old, chafing at the harness of home life and aching to venture out into the world, so I called up the local Rotary club. To make a long story short, the following year I found myself living on the island of Sardinia, off the western coast of Italy in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. My wildest dream had come true and, of course, “Touch the Dragon” went with me.
It’s understandable that I felt a strong and special connection to Connelly, even though she continued through life unaware of my existence. (But why else do writers write books like that, if not to influence and change people’s lives?) I read another book of hers, “One Room in a Castle,” which also thrilled me to the core. “I understand you! I am so like you!” I wanted to shriek aloud as I read her phenomenally poetic and beautiful descriptions of life throughout Spain, France, and Greece. Okay, maybe I was developing a rather intense platonic crush!!
So you can imagine my joy mixed with fear when I saw a notice in the hallway of my university: “Karen Connelly will giving a talk tomorrow afternoon in the West Hall.” For the first time in my life I was going to see this woman who had spurred me on to explore the world, which had in turn shaped me tremendously as an individual. It was terrifying! She turned out to be marvelous, just as fascinating in person as she was on paper. But the story gets even better…
We met up for a writing workshop, which was being sponsored by the university, and she gave me pointers on where and how to start. Then, she invited me home for dinner. I think she felt sorry for me – 5 months pregnant in third year, carrying a massive backpack – and we lived in the very same neighbourhood. Thank god I didn’t swoon as I walked into her beautifully sunny apartment; that would’ve been supremely embarrassing. I shared a delicious meal with her husband and young son before getting a ride home. I floated through the next week in a dreamlike state.
Karen, or “Kaz” as she said, and I met up a few more times. She invited us for dinner again when my baby was only 4 weeks old. He spent the evening rocking in a swing as we talked about Burmese politics, exotic love affairs, and architecture. (In retrospect, I was probably too starstruck to say anything intelligent on any topic.) She even came to my apartment for tea one afternoon! That was the last time I saw her. I ended up leaving Toronto shortly after and we just never connected again. I still have her number stored in my phone, though, and it’s not going anywhere!
I often think about her and wonder how she’s doing. Occasionally I stop and send her mental messages of gratitude for the influence she’s had in my life. This story reminds me of the importance of books and the power of the written word. I can only hope that someday I’ll be able to inspire another young girl to take on the world with an open, exuberant heart, as she did for me.