Even though I hardly knew her, she pushed me in the right direction, right when I needed it.
Back when I was a recent college graduate, with an English degree and nothing in the world to do to make a living, I ended up working for a housing company attached to a local university.
It was a boring job, in a beautiful location. Outside my window, there were blocks of city park, stretching down a lightly sloping hill. In the winter, when it stayed dark until I started work, and when it was dark before I left, I spent a lot of time staring out that window.
I also started to write a lot. It was what I was trained to do, and while I did get to write for work, it was mostly meeting notes and notices to residents of one of the many apartment buildings we managed. It wasn't satisfying, and it wasn't even remotely cathartic. I needed catharsis.
When I was in college, I remember running up against a website called Chunk that didn't seem to do anything. It was just this big colored blob. No links, no text, no nothing, except the word "c h u n k" and color. I remember very clearly wondering, "what the hell is this," and then wandering off elsewhere.
Well, in this new job, sitting and staring out that window, I remembered Chunk. I looked it up and it looked just the same, but there were links there now that led me other places. I know now that I probably just had the wrong browser (remember those days?), but whatever the reason, I suddenly was stumbling around all of these wonderful websites, pages and pages of rich text. I found myself reading all of these sites, and I remember feeling like I knew Alexis, Lance, Derek, Maggy, and Leslie--five people who were connected somehow by this invisible strand of data that ran from link to link, and story to story.
Later on, I found all kinds of other people--people a lot of you probably know, like Jason, Maura, Shauna, Paul, and countless others. This was back when everyone had online journals, and either they were hard coding the HTML, or they built their own dynamic CMS. No blogger, no wordpress, no movabletype, no facebook. These guys were the pioneers.
I loved it. So I got myself a geocities site, I read the design-o-rama (thanks, Lance), and I started writing.
After a little while, I got my gumption up, and I started emailing these folks. Alexis was the first to respond. She threw a link up to my site, and some other folks found me, and I was on the very edges of the same community I loved participating in as a reader. But now I was writing, and a few people were reading. It was heady stuff.
Other folks corresponded with me a bit, too, but there was really only one person back then who took the time to push me in the right direction. It was Leslie Harpold, who published Smug and Hoopla.
I wrote her an email, I guess, and she responded. And I responded to her reply, and so on, until we exchanged IM accounts, and chatted about lots of stuff. She was my first real online friend. Someone I never met in person, though I spent hours chatting with her about everything in the world.
I remember at one point she told me how much she loved Annie Dillard. I told her that Holy the Firm was probably my favorite book of all time, and she told me she'd never read it. So I got the book out and typed it--every word of the first two chapters--in little blocks small enough to make it through the chat engine. She loved it. I remember very clearly what her last note was that evening, as I was leaving work:
"Thanks for sharing that with me. It really was beautiful, and now I'm starting to feel like I really know you."
I built out my personal site a bit more, and at some point created a resume, and Leslie was the first person to critique it (she critiqued the hell out of it, which those of you who knew her will understand). She was always honest with me, which meant that she wasn't always nice. But she also never stopped being supportive.
At some point in the whole process, she gave me her phone number and asked me to call her. I remember her telling me, in that very forward and open-vowelled midwestern-ish voice of hers, that New Yorkers aren't as mean as everyone thinks they are. She told me that everyone in her neighborhood knew her, that they looked out for her, for each other.
This all started somewhere in 1998. In 2000, we worked together a bit, and then I lost touch with her. When she finally got back in touch with me, she was pissed (and rightly so) that the work we had started wasn't finished. I can't even remember how long she was gone, but it was months. I know now that she had surgery of some kind and something had gone horribly wrong.
Whatever the case, whatever happened, our friendship was over. I never did anything more than brush against the edge of her life, but I can tell you that she was one of the most amazing people I've ever known. I wish I'd somehow been able to reconnect with her, but I don't think there was space for me in her world after that. Considering all of the people she knew, I'm glad there was time and space when there was, even for a season.
She was the most private person I know who put everything in the world on the Web. She gave herself away in little pieces, finely crafted, carefully controlled. But for that short season when she took me under her wing, she gave me every bit of encouragement I needed to get on with my life--to stretch for something bigger and better than I had at the time. Jason Kottke said it, but it's true of me, too:
. . . like most people who knew her, she did me a favor I didn't know I needed precisely when I needed it.