My birthday challenge
“Here she comes! Keep that applause going for our next storyteller! She’s almost here!”
Suddenly I am onstage, blinking into lights but seeing only the closest faces. They are waiting for me to begin. I swallow hard and remind myself I chose this moment.
Time to grow
Weeks before, when asked what I would like for my birthday, I didn’t hesitate: “I want to tell a story at The Moth.”
To celebrate my 64th trip around the sun I craved a challenge rather than a party. I had retired from teaching and done some writing but taken few risks. It was time to stretch.
One nagging worry – maybe all the participants will be young people. Will I feel out of place? Will people half my age be interested in my story?
No matter what happens, I told myself, I want to be able to say I did this once.
Youth vs. experience
I love listening to The Moth Podcast – true stories told without notes in front of a live audience. I attended a Moth Story Slam in Atlanta and learned that just two days after my 64th birthday, the topic would be Wisdom. My favorite story involves what I learned as a first-year teacher, so it seemed a perfect fit.
After writing and rewriting my story, I needed more help. I contacted a successful Moth storyteller to arrange a one-on-one session. It felt strange to ask someone decades younger for guidance but once our zoom call began, we were just two storytellers – one experienced and one hopeful.
He watched a video of my storytelling and offered counsel. Mostly, though, my young mentor simply encouraged me, as the best teachers do. The one piece of advice he repeated was, “Have fun. If you’re having fun up there, the audience will too.”
Practice brings confidence
Every time I thought of performing in front of others, I became visibly nervous. An anxious performer is torture to watch so I practiced until I felt completely comfortable with the words.
I rehearsed my story daily and took selfie videos to see and hear how I performed. If I failed, it wouldn’t be for lack of preparation!
I had been advised to give the audience time to laugh so I cut the story down to its core. It’s a humorous tale and I knew rushing it would compromise the experience.
Finally, my big night arrived. I’d chosen an outfit a teacher might wear at Christmastime – jeans and a holiday shirt.
My husband and I arrived early and walked around the city. Festive decorations hung from lampposts though the night was warm. My biggest supporter listened to my story for the umpteenth time as we strolled.
At the theater, I was comforted to have seen it all before. We chose seats in the center of the top row and talked about signals for slow down, smile or use bigger motion. It turned out that, once onstage, I couldn’t see him, but it calmed me to know he was there trying to help.
Jon, the host of The Moth Atlanta, is warm and enthusiastic. He has a gift for putting everyone at ease, so I wasn’t too nervous – at first.
I’m doing this!
At a story slam, anyone who wishes to tell a story puts their name in a bag and, one-by-one, ten storytellers are invited to the stage to share a tale. On this evening a Vietnam vet, a girl who met a strange man at a stop light, and a foster mom told their stories.
Jon asked how long people in the audience had been married. We were longest, at 45 years.
Five stories are told before intermission, and 5 after. When Jon called the 5th name and it wasn’t mine, I thought, “Darn, now I’ll have to wait until after the break!” Only then did it dawn on me that, after all my hard work, I might not get called at all!
Then the man whose name had been called said, “Oh. That was a mistake. I’m not telling a story.”
Jon reached back into the bag and announced, “Let’s have a big round of applause for our next storyteller – Cindy Shore Smith!” People had just seen me because of the marriage question. They smiled as I made my way to the front, and I felt welcomed.
Feeling the love
By the time I got to the stage though, I was nervous and even a little shaky. I started my story and got a laugh quickly. It became clear these people wanted me to succeed.
I remembered what I’d been told about having fun. Then I thought about what I had promised myself – to simply get through this is the goal – and I began to enjoy myself.
I ad-libbed a little and got laughs in all the right places. I heard the chime signaling five minutes and knew I would finish before the six-minute cutoff. My story was nearly done and every face I could see was smiling.
The room exploded with applause when I finished but I honestly didn’t care about winning. I had done what I set out to do and I felt amazing!
During intermission several people stopped to say they loved my story. My favorite compliment was from a woman who brought her 6th grader to the show. He told his mom my description of the cafeteria was spot-on, and the mother told me her son couldn’t stop laughing!
A very happy birthday
The second half of the show was great fun because I could relax. Well, that and the intermission wine.
There was a well-told story about a woman tossing funeral flowers out a car window and a hilarious tale about a car that brought nothing but trouble. The scores were on a white board, and I was figuring averages in my head.
My husband leaned close. “It’s going to be you,” he whispered, “You’re going to win.”
When my name was announced the winner, people turned toward me, clapping and cheering. I needn’t have worried about my age – stories connect people, as they always have.
I emailed my young mentor right away with the good news. Family and friends congratulated me. I was proud of my accomplishment but, even more, I felt grateful for the opportunity to pursue this post-retirement goal.
It had been the perfect birthday celebration and I’m already busy planning my next challenge. Hit me up with suggestions in the comments ; )
Want to come along for the ride? Check it out!
This is the original story . . .