Afternoon Tea, Willa Cather, and Old Plantations


A lovely historical brick building near our inn.

“Well, crap,” I thought, looking at the list of accepted papers to the Sigma Tau Delta 2014 International Convention. “I’m not on the list. I guess my paper was awful.” I sighed, notified my fellow Sigma Tau members—for any who do not know, Sigma Tau Delta is the international English honor society, and I’m the vice president of my school’s chapter—that I had not been accepted and, with a self-flagellating heart, tried to forget about my failure.

Weeks later, in early January, I sat on the couch at my parent’s home in Arizona. My husband and I were there babysitting my dog (who lives with them right now because we can’t have dogs in our cottage in California) while my parents celebrated their 25th anniversary with a Hawaii vacation, and I had not paid attention to email for days. But I ran to my laptop to do something on Facebook and glanced at my emails. I had one new email, and I looked at it. It’s probably just junk, I thought.

It wasn’t. It was an email from Sigma Tau Delta, letting me know that my paper, which I titled “Commercialized Catholicism: Frontier Life Recedes,” had been accepted for the convention. I shrieked and ran into the living room, startling both my husband and my dog. “I’m going to Savannah, Georgia!” I said as I danced around the room. I have driven through Georgia before but never stopped to enjoy the state, and aside from Georgia, the only other Southern state I’ve visited is Tennessee (unless Florida counts).

The convention happened this past weekend, and I am grateful to my school’s College of Arts and Sciences and English Department for providing the necessary funds for me to travel all the way to Georgia with our chapter’s sponsor and a graduate student whose paper also received acceptance. We left on Wednesday night and endured a red-eye flight to Atlanta and a shorter jaunt to lovely Savannah. After we took naps and showers, we walked through the streets, which are peppered with tree-filled squares from colonial times, and had tea at the Gryphon tea house. I relaxed as we sat, sipped, munched, and chatted for at least two hours, trying not to think about the dreaded thing I had actually gone to Georgia to do: present my paper in front of other English enthusiasts from all over the United States and the world.

My pot of vanilla tea at the Gryphon tea house.

My pot of vanilla tea at the Gryphon tea house.

A glimpse of the Savannah River.

A glimpse of the Savannah River.

The next day inevitably crept into being, and at 9:30 in the morning I stood in Suite 404 on the 4th floor of the Marriott Savannah Riverfront and delivered my words on catholicism as presented in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I wrote for a Southwest Literature class I took last school year. Death Comes is one of my top five favorite books, and I tried to remember that as I trembled and sweated my way through reading the paper with as clear a voice as I could muster.

About halfway through, the symptoms began. My face started to tingle, my breath became quick and shallow, and heat spread through my skin like those forest fires Smokey Bear says only YOU can prevent. I could do nothing about this fire of nerves. I had thought I was fine—nervous, but fine. I wondered, as I continued to speak about Cather’s beloved Father Latour and his gentle ministrations to Southwestern Natives, Mexicans, and untamed white people, what would happen next. Would I explode? Would I fall over? Would I simply cease to breathe? My red Nalgene water bottle mocked me from its place on the desk where I had been sitting. You should have brought me to the podium with you, it whispered. I cursed my forgetfulness and prayed for the discomfort to dissipate.

And it did, for reasons I do not know. My breath became regular once more, and my voice stopped shuddering. I put extra pomp and circumstance into my last pages to make up for any deficiencies from the part of the paper in which nerves had engulfed me, smiled, and sat down again. It’s over! My brain squealed. Now I can enjoy Savannah! 

I listened to various panels during the rest of the day—a Jane Austen panel full of arguments over whether film adaptations of her books are adequate, a relationship poetry panel stuffed with sensual stanzas and dripping with drama and depression, and a panel on Victorian literature centered largely on Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors. I enjoyed the following day even more, for we went to the Wormsloe Plantation, built in the 1700s, and saw a stunning driveway lined with 400 live oak trees and a languishing marsh that reminded me of Western prairies. Later we took an after-hours tour (led by a regular Southern belle) of the Victorian-era Bonaventure Cemetery.

The entrance to Wormsloe Plantation.

The entrance to Wormsloe Plantation.

I would return to Savannah in an instant if I could, and I’d bring my husband with me. The city boasts drowsy blue skies, brilliant brick and wood buildings, and a wide, lazy brown river—and myriad tasty restaurants filled with sweet tea, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, and other not-Southern delights. I am glad that writing leads to opportunities like travel to a new region and city, but I desperately wish I could give presentations without that mid-speech nerve-punch. If anyone has tips on how to remain calm in stressful situations, please share them with me in the comments section! I’ve delivered at least forty presentations during my undergraduate years of college, and I still get this nervous. And my next presentation happens to be my Honors Scholarship Project which is, as you know, And the Blackbirds Mock. That’s in less than two weeks. YIKES! Keep this nervous, happy, refreshed-but-busy student writer in your thoughts and prayers.


<em>Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant’s group that meets each week to tell their Not So (Small) Stories. In this fifth edition, the prompt is ‘Word. Speech. Language’ and the goal is to develop our voice. If you’d like to join us, the link is <a title=”Not So (Small) Stories: fifth edition” href=”; target=”_blank”>here</a> (the link up is open until Thursday evening).</em> <center><a href=”; target=”_blank”><img alt=”I STILL HATE PICKLES” src=”; /></a></center><em> </em>


17 thoughts on “Afternoon Tea, Willa Cather, and Old Plantations

  1. I will be praying for you! You can do it! You’ll probably have everyone crying over your story, and need not worry…take a box of tissues to hand out before you start ;).

  2. I can tell you that after 20 years in the classroom I still get tongue-tied and knock-kneed at random moments during lectures. Not sure if that is exactly what you want to hear, but I just ‘prayer power’ through it and it passes – eventually.

  3. Oddly enough, I’m much more comfortable in front of a group of people presenting an official speech or training or presentation, than I am trying to make small talk at a party! There’s one brand of introversion for you, I guess! Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad it ended up well and wish you the best on your next presentation. Lovely pictures, too.

  4. I can so relate to your mid-speech nerve punch, only mine is worse at the beginning. It started when I played the flute and could hardly breathe during the first few measures of my song, which is not a good thing for a wind instrument. One time, a little old lady told me how very blessed she was by my song, and by the fact that I could conquer my notable fear and play such a beautiful song for God’s glory. Since that time, my prayer, before playing or speaking, is that my presentation brings God glory, and if it takes a mistake or embarrassing moment to bring Him glory, then I choose to be okay with that. Somehow, it’s made me less nervous. I do my best, and the rest He can handle for me. You’re going through some amazing times, I will definitely pray for your continued success!

    • Thank you so much, Carol! I’ve been trying to see it that way–to harness my thoughts and convince myself that I am doing it for God’s glory–and I do believe it is true and it will help! Thank you for sharing your story with me. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Not So (Small) Stories: Sixth Edition - Kirsten Oliphant

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