Saturday, March 18, 2017
Last night, my partner Ann and I went to a Moth Story Slam in Seattle. I know about The Moth from the radio hour on KUOW, our favorite National Public Radio station. On the radio, people tell short stories on a theme. It’s lovely.
When I learned that The Moth sponsors performances in Seattle, I decided to attend. When I read on the website that people could sign up to tell their stories on a selected theme to an audience, I decided to try.
Public speaking isn’t generally my forte. In my early twenties, I gave a sermonette at my Southern Baptist Church and fainted in front of 400 people. In the three decades since then, I’ve presented mostly to small crowds, generally 7 (in a private school) to 42 (in a public school) high school students in my classes. Sometimes I've summoned the courage to speak to 70-100 people at church.
Even in those classes and when I've given sermons or other talks, I always had notes, but now many Sundays I speak a short welcome to all at the end of a service. Tonight I’d have to speak without notes. I worried that the pressure might make me faint.
I had imagined that there might be forty people sitting at round tables with low lighting, so I invited some friends to come. I thought it would be nice to see the supportive faces of people I know in the audience. Though some part of me knew this would be a contest, I didn’t think about the contest, and I certainly didn’t think about winning. I figured not fainting would be a success. Being well-received would be a bonus.
As it turned out, the venue was a large room on the St. Mark’s Cathedral property. The space was used by a Waldorf school during the week. As we drove into the parking lot, 45 minutes before the show, there were a lot of cars. We could see a stream of people moving swiftly through the dark rain, going in the door that I thought must be ours.
I figured there must have been some other event nearby, but when we found “Skinner Hall” we entered a large room with rows of folding chairs. A third of the seats were already full. Six people had already put their names in the cloth shopping bag to read, and I knew they’d only choose ten people to read by drawing names randomly out of the bag. I had hoped not to faint. Now I just hoped to tell my story.
At 8:00 pm, the people in charge flashed the florescent overhead lights, and about two hundred people took their seats, some on the floor along the wall because there were no more folding chairs. Our friends Susan, Rod, and Pea sat with us. A local comedian joked that they (not a grammar error, an indication that the person identifies as “non-binary gender”)…anyway, that they would draw five names out of the bag, one after each storyteller. Then there would be an intermission, and then there would be five more names.
Mine was the fourth name chosen. With a bright spot light, I could not see Ann or my friends, none of whom were in the first row, the only row I could see. I told my story, and I did not faint. It went something like this:
Picture this: I am at a corner on 1st Avenue about half a mile north of Pike Place Market. It’s a beautifully sunny Seattle day. This is the first day since my brain surgery that I have traveled alone. I’m leaning on my hospital issued walker: metal with two tennis ball feet. [some chuckles] I wear a black patch over my left eye to help me manage double-vision. This is the patch that makes young kids ask, “Are you a pirate?” (I always say yes.) [more chuckles]
So I am downtown, leaning on my walker and hesitating on a corner to get my bearings and to figure out where to find the bus stop that will lead me home. I look across the street to my left, but I don’t see a bus stop, so I look to my right where I spot the bus stop. Two men who may be in their sixties, may be homeless, walk towards me, between me and the bus stop. I don’t think much about them. When they reach me, they offer to help me across the street. Because I don’t need to cross the street, I say no thank you. They really want to help me, and they insist, I again say no thank you. [chuckles] They persist again, so finally I go with them, crossing a street I do not want to cross. [laughter]
One performs the wild gesticulations of Frosty the Snowman’s traffic cop [more laughter] as I cross the street, so no car hits me. The other walks protectively by my side, pointing out potholes. [more laughter and nodding from heads in the front row] When we arrive safely on the other side, I say thanks and watch them continue down the block. About half way down, they give one another high fives. [more laugher] I wait for them to get small in the distance before I cross back. [chuckles]
The kindness of these strangers reminds me that, along with my losses, there are gifts in this new life. [nodding from heads in the front row]
Sometimes these kind strangers are physically helpful—and sometimes they aren’t—but they always lift my spirit. [more nodding from heads in the front row]. Though I have not made peace with my disabilities, I see in these kind strangers the truth that with my disabilities I have many losses, but I also have experiences I would not have without these tumors. So in some ways, these tumors have been a gift: I get to live two lives in this one. [more nodding from heads in the front row]
A few months later, my partner Ann and I were walking through the park near our home. I was again leaning on my walker with the tennis ball feet and wearing my pirate patch. A woman with light brown skin that was slightly green stopped me. The scarf covering her head and the flatness in her eyes suggested she was a chemotherapy patient. “Can I pray for you?” she asked. I nodded and gave my name.
I have learned since my tumors that when someone asks me if they can pray for me, they don’t mean quietly or back at their homes. They mean right now. [chuckles] Out loud. [laughter] This caring stranger put her hand on my shoulder, and delivered a graceful prayer: “Oh my Lord, bless Mary on this difficult journey. As she wanders in this desert, let her know that you walk beside her. When she is weary, let her know that you will carry her. In the name of your compassionate son, I pray.” [ahhh.] I said thank you and continued, blessed, through the park.
The kindness of these strangers and many like them help me to make peace with my new disabled life. Just to be clear, I have not made peace. This is not a done deal. Every day, I am making peace.
Amen. [applause—everyone gets applause by the way. It’s a kind audience.]
Ann helped me descend the two steps from the stage and told me I was great. I had practiced with her earlier in the day, and she had given me some helpful feedback about just relaxing and talking normally, and she said this telling was my best one. Overwhelmed by the telling and safely descending the stairs, I forgot to draw the next name, so the comedian did that. As I headed down the side aisle, Megan rose from the floor to hug me. "I'm so proud to know you," she said. Wow. Just wow.
After I took my seat and the comedian said some funny things, she asked the three scoring teams for their scores. I hadn’t thought about this part. Too focused on grades in my early education, I have avoided anything with scores, but at this point there was no avoiding this. So the teams gave their scores, and I was in the lead at intermission. A pediatric oncologist who had told a story about coming to peace with the parent of a three year-old with a brain tumor, squatted beside and told me how much he’d liked not just the story, but also the performance. He asked about my brain tumors, and I told him that I’d had ependymomas. His jaw dropped, “That’s really, really rare in an adult,” he said.
He also said that he’s now a research scientist in a biotech company at South Lake Union, a pricey area for techies in Seattle. He said that he thinks he’s found a drug for ependymomas. This time, my jaw dropped.
As he and I talked, Ann bought a beer for us to share, a gift which I welcomed. When the light flickered, he and I shook hands, and we all took our seats. During the second act, a woman outscored me, which disappointed me because I’d gotten my hopes up.
On the way home, I confessed my disappointment to Ann and told her I didn’t think I’d learned anything that would help me the next time, but reflecting on the experience in my hour from waking to rising this morning, I realize I did.
As I reflected, I realized that I had given a personal essay—or even a sermon—instead of telling a story with a resolution. (I even ended this time with “Amen,” which I had neither done nor considered doing before.) I learned that having friends there was important to me. I also learned that this was fun, that talking without notes was okay, and that I neither fainted nor felt woozy.
I will try this again. Next time, I’ll wait for a theme that matches a story I have to tell without needing an explanation. Again, I’ll invite friends to come. I’ll have an idea of the size of the crowd.
I just hope my name will get drawn. And I hope to God I will not faint.