The Most Important Thing I Learned at Northern Voice Wasn’t Part of Any Session

If Northern Voice was only to be measured by the quality of its sessions, that would be enough. Hopefully they will post the recordings soon so that people who weren’t there can hear some of them, but it’s rare to go to a conference with so few duds.

If Northern Voice was only to be measured by the quality of the conversations had with others, friends old and new, that would be enough. It was so easy to ignore the A-listers, the B-listers and all the silly internecine drama they bring with them because the number of deep, engaging conversations to be had was simply astonishing.

But when a conference presents you with the chance for epiphany, all these other considerations seem to fade.

Sitting in a session on the Saturday morning, admittedly still slightly raw from the previous evenings’ festivities chez Casa Lamb-McPhee, I was browsing the conference aggregator page when I came across the first of a number of posts that triggered something in me (in the interests of these people’s privacy, I am not going to link directly to their sites; while they are on the open web, time and again at NV stories came up of people from different contexts linking to personal conversations and upsetting the blog owners. If you’re that interested, dig them out of my links).

The first was a woman who had endured much personal tragedy in her life over the last year and was using her blog as a space for recovery. The second was a site created by a husband and wife to document their love for each other and their children. It was this second that really set me off; maybe it’s because I also cry at weddings, but I found myself sitting in a room full of a hundred people with tears streaming down my face. Must have been odd if anyone was watching – typically wikis (the topic of the session) don’t evoke that kind of reaction. But I wasn’t in that space; instead, these pages had set off a landslide of emotion.

I’ve long been an advocate for blogs and social software, argued that they allow people more authentic expressions of self and engagement. But that’s still largely been in the realm of the edublogoshpere and teaching and learning; I rarely read blogs for non-work reasons and while I feel I’ve made many social connections in addition to the intellectual ones, very few of them are what I would call deep emotional ones. It has always been a somewhat intellectual endeavor for me. Reading these pages blew that apart in a way little else had done; the love this couple felt for each other was tangible, palpable, visceral, and honest in a way that could not be denied. The other woman’s struggle to recover was honest and true, you could see how putting it on a blog was helping her to bypass the traps of self-deception. Any lingering doubts I had harbored about the potential depths of authentic expression held by blogs and the social web in general were blown to pieces.Even now, writing this, I am intellectualizing it when the truth is this caused me to feel in a way few things on the net ever had.

At this point I tried to pull myself together, but I fear I didn’t do much of a job; seeing the couple who had authored one of the sites sitting right in front of me I felt compelled to share with them how much it had moved me, which of course I wasn’t able to do without being overcome again! Hopefully I didn’t freak them out too much, though I won’t be too surprised when the restraining order barring me from future NV conferences shows up 😉

Lunch, immediately after this, brought a long walk to the restaurant during which I was lucky to talk this through with Keira, who helped me to process this “opening of my heart” as she called it, that had just occurred. Her help, along with another of many deep talks with Chris Lott, led me back in time for Nancy White’s afternoon session on communities, which in my newly “opened” state seemed to offer gift after gift. I will write more on this latter.

But it’s also the exact moment I got sick. Yes, I am now home with another bad cold. But are you surprised? I am not. There are no shortcuts to satori, and temporary awakenings, unearned, inevitably lead the pendulum to swing back, hard, the other way. There is no way to do the work without doing the work. But receiving these glimpses can’t hurt, and has left me (although fighting a cold) recharged and renewed both for my personal “work” and to integrating it further and further into my “job.” (Having now written this, I am trying hard not to imagine the sound of ‘unsubscribe’ buttons clicking in aggregators everywhere, but honesty is as honesty does.)SWL