Thursday night, The Moth came to Portland. I have to say that I didn’t know anything about it before my friends invited me to the sold-out show. The week was a busy one, and I had just enough time to scan the description on the show’s website before I left for the evening. I came prepared for some kind of serious literary engagement— several formal, dramatic readings of polished short stories or novel excerpts. Something scripted and, in a word, mediated.
I wasn’t prepared for the raw edges of the true stories I heard instead. I wasn’t prepared to see the brave art of storytelling in its finest form. I wasn’t prepared to feel so connected to the experience of the people on stage, from the pounding of my own heart to the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.
That’s how a start-up show becomes a national phenomenon, 14 years in the running.
The Moth started in 1997, in the living room of novelist George Dawes Green, who “wanted to recreate in New York the feeling of sultry summer evenings in his native Georgia, when moths were attracted to the light on the porch where he and his friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales.”
Here’s a scrap from The Moth’s history :
…George and his friends found that the characters in their best stories would often find themselves drawn to some bright light—of adventure, ambition, knowledge—but then find themselves burned or trapped, leaving them with some essential conflict to face before the story could reach its conclusion. So George and his original group of storytellers called themselves “The Moths”. George took the name with him to New York, where he hoped that New Yorkers, too, would find themselves drawn to storytelling as moths to a flame. They did. With no advertising, through sheer word of mouth, every show to date has sold out in 48 hours or less.
At the Portland show, we heard from Texas sweetheart Faye Lane, a performer and flight attendant for Jet Blue; our very own Bridge Lady, Sharon Wood Wortman; comedian Rudy Rush; Jose Eduardo Gonzalez, owner of the Milagro theater; and Ed Gavagan, a New Yorker whose life was turned upside down when he was stabbed nearly to death in an act of random violence.
In each of the stories, there was a line or a moment that made me lean forward in my seat. I could feel the people around me lean in, too, with our bodies but also with our sudden silences, murmurs, belly laughs.
In Lane’s story, it was when a simple question, posed to a passenger on a particularly draining flight, opened a door into the man’s story that utterly changed the way Lane thought about her role as a flight attendant. She began to see how as a performer, she took a singular experience, and made it collective; while as a flight attendant, it was her job to take a collective experience, and return to each passenger a sense of personal and private dignity. Everyone, she said, has a story.
I haven’t yet read Sharon Wood Wortman’s book, but I want to now. Of course, I’m curious about Portland’s bridges, but mostly I’m impressed by the way this brave woman let the bridges change and shape her life. From a troubled past, she followed an initial mild curiosity about Portland’s bridges into a full-fledged career leading walking tours of the bridges, and gave her community the gift of a well-researched book. “Well-researched” is an understatement; Wortman opened Thursday’s story with a description of climbing the Fremont bridge to lend credibility and intrigue to a story for the Oregonian (which printed the 11 installments leading to the book.) 175 feet above the water, straddling one of the flag poles, she saw how she had something in common with the bridge. Both had broken, and both had been put back together again. Her deadpan comic delivery and courage (“I’m having a moment here,” she said at one point, pausing to recover from unexpected tears) endeared her and her project to my heart.
But it was Gavagan who surprised me most, through the simplicity and passion of his story. He told us about what it took, following the stabbing that nearly killed him, for him to fully grieve the loss of the life he once had, and start again. It’s an incredible journey, and Gavagan did it great justice through his brutal honesty. What really spoke to me was the moment he was walking through the park– homeless, unemployed, bereft of hope– and passing a man nicely dressed in a Hermes suit, felt himself consumed by rage. He wanted to tackle the man and strangle him, he said, and shout at him, you know, you’re not special, man. You’re just lucky.
That message was powerful to me, because it was as if that was what he wanted to say to his former self, the self that didn’t realize how lucky he was– to be privileged, employed, and above all, alive. To him, the moment was revelatory because it brought him face-to-face with his current self.
He didn’t strangle the stranger. But the fact that he had even had those thoughts scared him and saddened him. Suddenly he clearly saw the road he was headed down– one filled with darkness and bitterness, a road to hell. And he knew that if he kept walking around with this rage, it would make him no better than his assailants, and his assailants would have won. They would have succeeded in taking his life from him, taking away the man he used to be. That was the moment he picked up the pieces left to him, and went home to his best friend and future wife, to start building a new life with her.
Oregon Public Broadcasting covered the event, so at some point (I think) you should be able to listen to Gavagan’s Thursday reading online.
It’s not up yet. So here’s a clip of Gavagan reading at a Moth show in New York. Whereas what I heard was a narrative spanning several years, the story of his journey to acceptance, this clip tells a different narrative from his life, describing events that happened not long after the attack. Like most stories we tell about our own lives, his has multiple layers and different epiphanies. It’s a good clip to close with, because you can hear the reactions of everyone in the audience, and so it gives a feel for what a Moth reading is like.