Public radio has given us so many wonderful programs over the years. Whether you’re a fan of Garrison Keillor, Ira Glass, or Terry Gross, there’s something for everyone on America’s favorite liberal punching bag, musically and otherwise. One of my most recent favorite shows is The Moth Radio Hour, a storytelling symposium in which everyday people tell of episodes in their life, often revolving around a theme, such as “walk the line,” or “gratitude.”
The Moth started in New York, but it’s now a nationwide thing, with story slams in venues around the country. Here in Detroit they take place at Cliff Bell’s. But every now and then they do something called The Moth Mainstage, which takes place at a larger venue. They charge admission and place a cellist on stage to make it look oh-so-official. Last night, the Moth Mainstage was at the Fillmore Theater,* and a couple thousand of us crammed in to hear a diverse cross-section of the American public discuss events from their lives that kept us on the edge of our seats. Next door at the Fox Theater, they had to settle for Bob Dylan. The Fillmore had way more hipsters in attendance, and we were subject to a lot less harmonica and mumbling.
Being sponsored by WDET, you can bet the stage was a cornucopia of American melting pot ethnicities and races. The storytellers of the evening were Grace Lee Boggs, a 97-year-old Chinese-American activist and rabblerouser; Sherman O.T. Powell, an African-American ex-felon and reformed moonshine maker; Tamara Warren, a former battered wife and successful writer and blogger; Eleanor Brimmer, a Paralympic equestrian; and Dan Kennedy, the token white male. The evening’s emcee was Ophira Eisenberg, who told a wonderful story about going to a Haitian witch doctor to get her old boyfriend back. It worked—but not quite in the way she’d hoped (as is often the case with voodoo spells).
The stories these tellers told were all simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary, a reminder that each of us is living a unique narrative that has never been lived before, no matter how many elements may seem familiar or common to others. We are the storytellers of our own lives, and if we believe ourselves to be extraordinary, we are. If we believe our lives to be meaningless or dull, our narratives will reflect that. It’s up to each of us to spin the stories of our lives in a way that works for us.
The power of story is extraordinary. Who knew you could get people to pay $25 or more a ticket, pay $12 for parking, $7 for a beer to attend a show that is staged with nothing more than a single microphone and a cello accompanist? That’s how important stories are to a culture. We all want to be entertained, we are nothing more than our kindergarten selves, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, staring up at our teacher, waiting to be amused.
Some of us are born storytellers, raconteurs who command an audience at every family event, the center of attention, the font of all guffaws and laughter. Cherish these people in your life, even if you’ve heard their stories before. Better yet, learn how to tell your own story. It may take a bit of thinking beforehand. Remember, stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. Maybe come up with your theme first, to help build the framework around which you can hang certain events that add up to something—a lesson learned, a lesson NOT learned, a bittersweet account of love lost, a triumph over the odds, or perseverance that ended not quite how you expected.
The timing is good, too. Next week many of us will be gathered around the Thanksgiving table, and the stories will be bouncing off the walls. If you’re tired of hearing about Uncle Joe’s glory days, head off your boredom by weaving a captivating tale about the time you locked your keys in your car on prom night. With the gift of hindsight, was it as tragic as you thought at the time? How did it make you a better—or worse—person in the long run? Did the incident prove to be an omen? Did history repeat itself? Was the universe trying to tell you something? Remember, the story isn’t just the event itself, it’s the meaning you give that event. That’s what keeps people asking, “And then what happened?”
* The Fillmore, previously known as the State Theater, is a beloved destination for me. Back when I was a hip twenty-something, the theater loomed large in my courtship with Mr. Peacock. It’s an ancient movie palace, less grand than the Fox next door, but still beautiful in a grungy, time-worn way. In the early 1990s, it was threadbare and creaking, a concert venue for second- and third-tier acts. I would don my kinderwhore dress, he his black oxford shirt, and the two of us would attend concerts by the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain or Mazzy Star. The crowd was a beautiful, swirling mess, and we always steered clear of the mosh pit. Those shows were always a prelude to a bit of romance, and they gave us wonderful memories on which to build the solid foundation of our life together.
Fast forward a few years. The Internet was all the rage. Netscape was fast replacing Mosaic as everyone’s favorite browser. Our company held our annual meeting at the State Theater, and it seemed oh-so-odd to be there in my work clothes at 10:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, having the bartender serve me orange juice instead of beer. Little did I know, it was a harbinger of things to come. We were married. We were looking to buy a house. Within a year, our company would leave the city of Detroit in favor of a brand new office building in the bland suburbs. Our CEO, a diminutive woman who had risen from the editorial ranks to which I now belonged, and who now stood before us to say we were witnessing a cultural transformation as important as that of the printing press, would be summarily dismissed in favor of some yahoo cowboy from Utah who had never wielded a red editor’s pencil in his life.
The last time I was at the State Theater, I was seven months pregnant. I wanted one last night of glory before things changed forever, before I was chained to the unrelenting rhythm of family life. It was a Morrissey concert, and I had been a fan ever since the Smiths released The Queen Is Dead, back when I was in high school. We had nosebleed seats, but at least it kept my gigantic midsection safe from the frenzy near the stage. I did, however, wring my hands over the secondhand smoke that threatened to give my unborn child a hacking cough as soon as he gulped his first breath.
I was a shapeless, former blob of my once-cute self, my kinderwhore dress replaced by comfortable maternity wear. Morrissey was an aging omnisexual icon, ripping off his shirt and exposing a middle-aged paunch that deterred no one from rushing the stage. We were all growing up. I had tried to seize the dying embers of my youth, and only half succeeded. I guess I was ready for motherhood in the suburbs.
But now my son is old enough to babysit himself. Back downtown we went, enjoying a fabulous dinner before the show. The State is now the Fillmore, but that’s as it should be. Things change, evolve; we can’t go home again and now I know that I wouldn’t want to. I wore over-the-knee boots and drank wine. There was no mosh pit, but Mr. Peacock took some fun Instagrams. The romance is still there, but it’s mellowed. Our stomping ground is still our stomping ground, the Jesus and Mary Chain are still chugging along, and Morrissey is about to publish his autobiography. And Bob Dylan, whose best days (some say) were behind him before I was even born, is still selling out crowds and attracting itinerant hippies** wherever he goes. The moral of this story is that old chesnutt: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
** The hippes, all in their 20s, had their triple-decker, customized, mash-up bus parked in front of the Fox Theater and were allowing people on to promote their style of “intentional community.” (I wanted to smack the dreadlocked kid and tell him that I was doing the whole “intentional community” thing when he was still in diapers.***) I am always up for a tour of a customized anything on wheels, so I marvelled at their knotty pine woodwork, their sleeping loft (full of guitars), and a well-appointed kitchen in which a barefoot hippie was preparing bean burritos for the guys (let’s do the Time Warp again–had I fallen through a black hole and come out in the era before women’s lib?) The bus was dubbed “The Peacemaker,” and for that I admire them, these latter day Merry Pranksters, who all, I’ll bet you anything, worked as software designers during the day. How else could you fund such an elaborately hacked vehicle? They had chased a dream and made it come true, in true American way we are told we all can.
*** A story for another time.