I chose a seat beside the window overlooking the parking lot outside Mittie’s Cafe & Tea Room. From my vantage point I hoped to spot Mari Ann Stefanelli as she arrived. We’d met a couple of weeks earlier, briefly and in low light at a local book event. She had been surrounded by friends—some old, some new—and was all eyes and smiles as she drifted toward me and then effortlessly away through the crowd.
I wondered whether I’d recognize her in broad daylight. Distracted for a moment by the waitress, I turned back to the window in time to see a woman approach but too late to glimpse her face. Head down, the woman hurried up the steps and through the door, hurrying because she was late, or because she was anxious, or because as I soon learned Mari Ann is always in a hurry. She extends her arm and offers a warm hug, and her auburn locks flow behind her head and around her face as if she she’d come from sitting for Botticelli.
It was Mari Ann. Definitely Mari Ann. I could not have mistaken her.
Mari Ann takes her seat and offers an instant apology for keeping me waiting, though I’d only just arrived, a genuine thanks for agreeing to meet on short notice, and a warning that she might have to take a call, and gosh it’s so nice to get to know each other, and…
In minutes, it is as if I’ve known Mari Ann all my life.
She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in public relations. Her subsequent career led her to meet, interview, and write about people; and her clients ranged from local politicians to those in cancer prevention, and others in the pharmaceutical industry. Mari Ann married, had, and raised two children. Though life was good, like a character in a novel she was dealt her fair share of obstacles. First came the loss of her beloved mother and later an almost fatal illness that Mari Ann believes was triggered at least in part by her mother’s passing and her inability to grieve at the time.
She struggled for years to overcome these demons, nearly losing everything before pulling her life together piece by piece. And when things were their darkest, a mentor and later friend helped Mari Ann discover or rediscover writing. Her first inclination was to use her skills to help other authors in small ways, editing, advising, and coaching.
In 2014, Mari Ann applied what she knew and what she’d learned to create the business she calls The Writer’s High through which she provides, as her website says, “editorial services for writers at all stages of their creative journeys.” She also holds writers retreats each year under the same name. As we talk, I learn the events are much more than a simple respite from daily life, they are a coming together of like-minded individuals to inspire and sustain each other.
While developing the agenda and inviting the right featured authors and workshop leads consume much of the time she spends on retreat planning, Mari Ann says finding, explaining, and advising interested retreat participants is the most challenging part. Attendees need to be comfortable in each other’s company and to feel part of a larger and ongoing community of inspiration and support. Belonging and trust are key to retreat members being able to share their often buried thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams.
And now, stronger for having experienced the ups and downs of life and having spawned something she is passionate about, Mari Ann has returned to her own writing. In the few spare moments of her days, she is hard at work on a memoir she hasn’t been able to write, a memoir of facing down dark memories, enduring loss and being unable to grieve, then learning how and when to grieve,and finally to pull yourself up as only you can.
As if I needed proof of who she is, Mari Ann’s magic worked right before my eyes. By the time we’d finished our lunch of Mittie’s famous chicken salad and sipped copious amounts of tea and lemon-laced water, our tête à tête had expanded to include a woman dining alone at the next table. We discovered the three of us had much in common, and when the woman left she was no longer a stranger. In her hand, she held business cards, bookmarks, and phone numbers for advice for her daughter who is a budding journalist.
I am quite certain similar situations happen to Mari Ann wherever she goes and whatever room she enters. I remember that little cloud of people surrounding her when we first met and realize it was simply Mari Ann gathering a room full of disparate souls and making friends of them all.
Delighted to count myself as one of Mari Ann’s friends, I’m checking my calendar for an opportunity for another lunch.
– – – – –
For more information on Mari Ann Stefanelli, visit her website, thewritershigh.com, where you can also learn about plans for The Writer’s High Retreat in March 2017.