“Telling a story is an act of courage, listening is an act of compassion.”
The first Moth event was held in 1997 by novelist/founder George Dawes Green with the intention of recreating “…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.” That inspired tribal spirit has blossomed into 30,000 participants, 27 city Story Slams, The Moth Radio Hour (Saturdays at 2:00 on WNYC) heard on 450 international stations, three books – the third, just published is Occasional Magic – and community workshops reaching as far as Tanzania.
This is my second curated Moth. The well run event features five storytellers, a host and a musician who doubles as time keeper lest a participant go over the 12 minute allowance. They never do. Alice Tully Hall is packed with an enthusiastic audience whose buzz and cheers are infectious.
Left – Mazz Swift; Right – Dame Wilburn
A violin solo by the extraordinarily skilled Mazz Swift, is followed by host, Dame Wilburn who welcomes us and lays out format exuding warmth and humor like breath. Tonight’s theme is occasional magic. Wilburn shares a brief, exemplary tale only just experienced in New York where the poet/writer/storyteller is visiting from Detroit. It’s a splendid little piece. Delivery is priceless.
Tell us about a time when you knew magic was afoot.
First up is Emmy winning, entertainment reporter Lee Thomas who begins his tale being stared at on a grocery line. Thomas has Vitiligo, a skin condition characterized by defined patches of skin losing their pigment, turning white, and is accustomed to overt attention in public. On air, surrounded by “the most beautiful people in the world,” he effectively covered discoloration with make-up.
Instead of ignoring observation by the stranger, he engaged. A window opened. Asked to speak with a 14 year-old who also had the disease, Thomas assumed the boy would want to know how he dealt with scrutiny. Instead, the youngster requested he go on air without make-up and set an example. Not only might people treat him differently, but an eight year old neighbor who only went outside in a ski mask would see the TV personality at ease with himself.
Nervous about reaction both from the network and his public, Thomas was nonetheless moved to fulfill the request. Response was overwhelmingly positive. He started a support group which is now international. Though narrative is lighthearted, its axis is serious.
Next we hear from Kate Braestrup, bestselling author and now “chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, searching for those who’ve lost their way and offering comfort to those who wait.” “We stayed in bed too long that morning…” she begins, setting a happy, bucolic domestic scene. Brought up in half a dozen countries, this was the longest she’d lived anywhere. Braestrup had followed her husband, a local trooper, to Maine.
Community was a revelation. “Everyone knew me and I knew them.” When an ambulance went by that morning, she wondered who it was for and caught short by the realization this was the first time in her life the question was meaningful. Her husband would tell her about it later. Unfortunately, it was he who died in a terrible crash.
Recollection of immediate events and feelings is shared without drama. “… I think I screamed that he (the chief of police) was joking, then lying,” Braestrup says calmly. She had to tell the children and was driven home in shock. “Is being bereaved like being sick?” she thought standing frozen in her curiously unchanged living room. The new widow recalls her friend Monique was dying to vacuum as sympathizers would shortly arrive and the house was a mess.
Neighbors descended doing everything for the family from providing meals and chauffeuring to sheet rocking a new playroom and rotating her tires. Braestrup recounts what followed with grace, gratitude, and more than a little gentle humor. The story ends with a lovely moment of recognition.
Number three this evening is veteran/author, Will Macklin who resolved to fly fighter aircraft after seeing Tom Cruise in Top Gun as a kid. He sailed through ROTC and joined the Navy’s flight training program, “30 men and women also obsessed with the film.” Few would graduate. Instructors included Howdy (as in Howdy Doody, a pseudonym for the more amiable officer) and Major Small (a tough, former POW who never smiled). Fortunately, Macklin was assigned to Howdy.
We hear about flight tests with Howdy in succinct detail. Macklin was a good pilot. For the last qualifying segment, however, it would be Small in his plane. The storyteller conjures his silent shadow as he lights a cigarette – forbidden for obvious reasons – and then another. Whether for that reason or something unsaid, landing went very wrong – they bounced!
Small’s cigarette flew out of his hands and under controls. Suddenly he spoke: “Can you reach it?” Macklin couldn’t and imagined having to bail out of a burning plane. The officer then took him through a maneuver during which they climbed until his vision “went to grey scale” and lack of gravity made everyone and everything float…including the offensive fag. The pilot reached up and put it out on his hand. He received a poor score in landing but a fine one for airmanship. “Good catch,” Small commented on terra firma. Great story. Economic and striking.
Act II opens with writer Liel Leibovitz whose charming anecdote about fearing Darth Vader as a child, then facing the character at a mall could have, with little addition, successfully been his contribution. Instead it prefaces a statement that he was, in fact, afraid of everything when young – clowns, ninjas, gym class, and especially death.
As an Israeli citizen, Leibovitz became a soldier at 18, for three years attending funerals of friends. He moved to New York, met and married a woman, started a family. Having kids compounded his fear. From sudden infant death syndrome to sneezing, thoughts of mortality, both theirs and his, filled his mind. The storyteller turned to religion.
When the synagogue asked for a volunteer Shemira – someone to stay with a corpse from the time he passes away till he’s buried – Leibovitz thought he saw a way to get over his angst by purposefully facing it. He found himself at 4 a.m. alone but for a dead body in the basement of a funeral home. Methods to establish equanimity were practical, but unsuccessful. Then Leibovitz experienced an epiphany. I had trouble grasping it. The story’s end is nonetheless pleasing.
Our last Scheherazade is prolific writer Wang Ping who came to the United States in 1986. Ping was six years-old when Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution began in China and destroyed her dreams. Everything but his own red book was burned. Teachers were made to clean toilets. Ping most mourned her copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. “Hers was a story of beauty, courage – risking everything.”
Parents detained, thoughts of education were replaced by a constant struggle of trying to feed the family. Description is painful and vivid. Three years later, Ping came upon a cautious neighbor reading the Andersen book in secret and exchanged her only remaining volume, The Arabian Nights (“the most banned book in China”) for the girl’s copy of Mermaid. They met clandestinely sharing thoughts.
One day, taking care of a chicken, she accidentally came across a box of books buried by her mother. By now the girls were meeting with others in the woods. Publications were shared, passed around. Her fearful parent caught Ping hiding one. The child was punished with a bamboo whip and made to burn books she still had – page by page. Ping watched Mermaid go up in flames. Without books, those in the woods began to make up stories.
Suddenly the family had to go to Mongolia. In short shrift, we’re picturing Ping looking at her mother across a very different bonfire knowing she’ll be able to attend college. History jumps here without explanation. The story is vivid and moving until then.
Five colorful, personal accounts, widely varied, related but for a microphone as if to intimates; a marvelous, age old tradition.
That tonight’s tellers of tales were writers is not indicative of smaller meetings and certainly not a prerequisite. From The Moth: While we do sometimes feature published authors, we also include stories from those who have either told their story at a SLAM (where anyone can put his/her name in a hat to be randomly selected to share a story on the evening’s theme) or pitched us via our pitchline (on our website). With regard to the latter, every story is listened to — and it’s not unheard of for some to go on to be featured on our Mainstage.
“The Moth’s mission is to promote the art and craft of storytelling and to honor and celebrate the diversity and commonality of human experience.”
Photos by Jason Falchook for The Moth
Opening: Lee Thomas, Kate Braestrup, Liel Leibovitz, Will Macklin, Wang Ping
Occasional Magic: The Moth at Lincoln Center
Host Dame Wilburn
Stories by Kate Braestrup, Liel Leibovitz, Will Macklin, Wang Ping, Lee Thomas
Music by Mazz Swift
Directors Catherine Burns/Jenifer Hixson
March 22, 2019
Alice Tully Hall
See for yourself: May 1, 2019 The Moth Mainstage
Church of The Heavenly Rest 1085 5th Ave
Doors open 6:30 p.m.; Stories 7:30 p.m.