Dancing in the Passenger Seat

Hi. Remember me? I used to blog here.

It’s always a fun experiment for a minute- to live the story and not tell it concurrently. What’s it like to let moments- good ones, funny ones, moving ones- pass right through you and be gone forever? Ultimately I always come back because my anxiety starts to climb when I’m not documenting. If you ever want to see me have a panic attack, watch me get caught in traffic without a pen.

Last week, I told a story at a special Moth Mainstage event in Portland, in front of three thousand people at the gorgeous Arlene Schnitzer concert hall. The other storytellers were Adam Wade, Satori Shakoor, Dori Bonner and Kerry Cohen. The night before the show, we had a little rehearsal at the hotel, at which we sat around and told our stories to the other storytellers and the director. It is a wonderfully (if somewhat uncomfortably) intimate thing, to stand a few feet from a handful of people, look them in the eye and tell them a story. By the end of the rehearsal, I was sobbing. I felt honored to be included in such an honest and accomplished group. We went out to dinner afterwards and wound up talking about our storytelling predecessors in each of our families. For me, it was my dad. I’ve only started to understand him in this context and to contemplate the function of his stories in our lives. I remember how I judged him for repeating his stories, for altering them in the retelling.

I was foolish.

I didn’t understand that he was shaping an emotional arc, exploring nuance, choosing and editing the stories that would define our identity as a family. I just thought he was a blowhard. But then, I was a teenager; that was my job.

My father’s stories had recurring characters. One of these characters was an alter-ego of sorts. His name was Jeffrey and he was the fast-talking college roommate, who was always getting my more reluctant father into trouble. For some reason, as I sat nearly hallucinating with stage fright in the green room on the night of the show, a Jeffrey story came back to me. It goes something like this…

Jeffrey had a ’56 Ford- two-tone, turquoise and white, with bubble skirts and a continental kit. There was a raccoon tail hanging from the antennae, fuzzy dice on the rear-view mirror. The two roommates thought themselves very urbane, driving around in this fantastic car wearing dockers and cardigans and looking like Pat Boone, but a little more Jersey.

One time it was five or six o’clock, just getting dark and they were late to pick up some girls for a double date. Jeffrey really dug that song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” They were caught in a terrible traffic jam and it came on the radio. Jeffrey turned the song up full blast, climbed on top of the car and started dancing on the hood.

(There is more to the story. I think it involves mouthing off to police and decidedly not getting the girls in the end. Or maybe that was a different story. But, anyway….)

I had tried to picture my father being best friends with a wild man, who danced on the hood of his hot rod at twilight. It always made me a little bit sad, imagining what it must have been like to be the one in the passenger seat, staticy music turned up too loud, listening to your friend’s footsteps. To be the one whose lot it is not to dance, but rather to tell the story years later to an unappreciative teenage daughter.

It was this story I remembered when I sat in the green room, literally seeing weird spots in front of my eyes and completely unable to remember even the first line of my story because I was in such a cold panic. Over the past year, I’ve been getting increasingly bad stage fright and it has made each of my storytelling gigs a rather fraught experience. I keep at it, because I know that if you let anxiety cripple you in one arena, it’s not like it stops and is satisfied. It gets a taste of triumph and goes in for the rest of your life, too. So I keep fighting, but I constantly worry that I’m about to freeze onstage and forget everything and it’ll be exactly like that classic nightmare except I’ll still have my pants on.

I honestly don’t know why that story popped into my head, but I decided to go out there for my dad, who doesn’t even talk to me anymore, but still gave me so much of who I am. As I walked onstage, I thought- here I go dad. I’m telling my story on a huge beautiful stage in a new pink dress. I figured it out. I’m in the passenger seat and I’m the one dancing.

It went great. It was thrilling.

So, I took a little break from blogging to dance on a car for a moment. Or at least on a Portland stage. But I’m back now, friends. I have missed you.

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