I knew Listen To Your Mother was coming. It’s a nationwide show, and surely one of the productions would settle somewhere near San Diego. I’d tried out before – in Los Angeles in 2011 – but had read something funny, which if you knew me in person, was an unwise choice. Writing funny and reading funny are two very different things, and my forte sits solidly in maudlin and angst anyway. Not to mention, the LA talent was amazing and worthy of the city and no, I didn’t make it.
I don’t want to perform, that’s too out there and visible for me, but because Listen To Your Mother is a live reading series of women and men saying their writing out loud and that action, that flying in the face of fear – for me at least – is an out-of-your-comfort-zone reversal to all the things I’ve thought about myself over the years (I’m good right here doing all the same things, thank you; I can’t speak in public; I have nothing to say), I challenged myself to be a part of it.
I’d read my writing in front of large groups of people exactly three times. Once at a poetry slam I made myself go to in the late ’90s. In a fugue state of what-the-hell-am-I doing, I polished my 11-line poem, made sweaty copies of it, and drove to an Ocean Beach coffee house (Java Joe’s for anyone who knows “old” San Diego), and waited my turn. The man who organized the slam sat up front and had all the trappings of a literary snob despite the shabby outerwear – or maybe because of it – and paid me no attention. For one, I wasn’t on the slam circuit, for another, I didn’t wear ethnic-inspired headwear or a poncho. I was a blonde, fairly suburban, jeans-wearer who couldn’t stop shaking. Not his type.
I handed in my poem and waited. The performer just before me wore all the tribal wear apparently in poetic style in 1998 and read her words in a singsong voice with perfectly spaced “slam beats.” I definitely was screwed. Because here’s the thing: I’m a writer not a reader. So many people can combine those two things flawlessly, but I’m not in that group. I’m in the group of terrified.
I read my poem quickly and forgettably. I left just the same.
Ever since then, I’ve tried to undo that moment.
Twelve years later, I took some writing to the Creative Alliance conference in 2010 where the Listen To Your Mother creator, Ann Imig, had organized a salon. Along with 10 other women, I took my turn reading a short piece in a darkening outdoor rock amphitheater as rain hung in the air, and again ran through my words. The atmosphere was light years more supportive than the slam, but I still had work to do with myself.
One more time at a Creative Alliance, this one in 2012, I read an essay. I went first and after some confusion realized I’d brought the wrong piece, I read quickly and with no small measure of monotone.
But I did it.
Those four words speak years to me.
In early 2000, I visited Vegas with my husband and another couple. As Vegas is wont to do, it separated the women from the men to clubs and gambling tables, and my friend Mike’s wife and I ended up in a lounge drinking rum and cokes. Soon enough, one of those cheesy Vegas contests sprung up and the emcee glommed onto me because he needed more people to dance to cheers and jeers. I’m loathe to get up in front of people just in case you missed the hundreds of words I wrote before these, but I figured “while in Vegas” and also I wanted to bust through my fear. Let’s ignore the fact that Vegas is not the place to do that, ever.
Either way, I found myself participating in a dance contest with some bona fide hams and had to “wiggle” every time “my” music played. The audience was encouraged to clap for the dancers they liked the best and let’s just say, my wiggling did not have a clapping soundtrack.
I cringed my way through “Let the Music Play” and acted like not myself – the one who cared less whether people liked me and was entirely comfortable in her skin.
It was singularly the most red-faced experience I can remember in recent history.
My only consolation? Vegas. And that I got up and did it.
This year, as I received news that Listen To Your Mother show would be produced in Orange County, I let the idea of auditioning again take residence in my head. But I would be out of town during the try-outs and would have to submit a video and I wasn’t a tech and the whole thing probably just wouldn’t work.
I let the opportunity go until on a Sunday I decided to change my thinking or at least do something in spite of it and so I read a piece, figured out the video end, and submitted.
Here was my final thought, again: I did it.
I had smaller than little expectations of making the show. I’m not a natural public speaker, much less performer. I get too tied up in my words and read them either too emotionally or too removed so I don’t come across as caring so much about what I’m saying.
I also have a weird facial tic. It’s a cross between a squirrel wrinkling its nose looking for acorns and me chewing imaginary gum.
But I did it.
Later, I received a phone call while selling Girl Scout cookies at a local Albertson’s.
I made it.
I have no illusions, but I keep seeing this vision that I hope will carry me through the up-there-in-front-of-people: It’s a shaft of bubbly light sent down from the my mom and my Rebecca and it’s joined by the light sent by all the other people before me who were scared to read their words, but who did it anyway.
And two more words keep coming to me along with that vision: bust through.
I know exactly what they mean.