Don’t ask Suzanne Rust to pick a favorite story. As the senior curatorial producer and radio host for The Moth, she’s had the pleasure of hearing incredible stories through the podcast and radio show. Still, the seasoned journalist admits to having a soft spot for some of the older yarn-spinners who have appeared on the show since she joined in 2018.
“It’s just like sitting on a porch and listening to an old family friend or a grandma telling you the story about their lives,” she says. “There’s just so much insight gained from these people.”
It wasn't easy to choose, but we handpicked five incredible tales from The Moth's archives to share with AARP members. Click here (or scroll down to the end of this article) to listen.
The Moth has been promoting “the art and craft of storytelling” since 1997, when its creator, author and poet George Dawes Green, wanted to simulate the experience of spending long summer nights swapping tales with friends on the porch, as moths flitted around the lights. What started as a small group of storytellers dubbed Moths is now a globally recognized nonprofit organization that hosts live storytelling shows, the award-winning The Moth Radio Hour and The Moth Podcast, and live and virtual storytelling workshops all over the world.
There’s no age minimum for storytellers, and people of all backgrounds and cultures are welcome to share their experiences. Anyone can take part, but most have a commonality, Rust, 57, says: “Moth stories are generally about a moment of change in a person’s life, big or small.”
‘It’s what you make us feel’
One of the ways The Moth team fosters that connection is by finding raconteurs who are willing to “tell on themselves,” Rust notes.
“It’s not what you tell us, it’s what you make us feel,” she says. “So that’s what we really look for with people, [when] someone’s just open and honest and raw. And it doesn’t have to be a tragic thing that they tell us, it can be a very funny thing, also. But that kind of realness is very important.”
Rust, who has two grown children and lives in Harlem with her husband, says that she and her team are always on the hunt for great stories — whether through magazines, newspapers, dinner parties or word of mouth — but that it’s nearly impossible to describe exactly what they’re looking for. One thing she does know is that it needs to be fresh, since the show has been around for almost 25 years.
“We’ve heard these stories, so how is your story different? It has to be as unique as your fingerprint,” she says. “It’s like a special sauce. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is.”
She says there’s a team of directors that works with storytellers to make sure each yarn presents something new and surprising to audiences.
“We have all kinds of stories, and they all resonate on different levels,” Rust says. “We’ve had stories from priests, we’ve had stories from astronauts, former exotic dancers, housewives, mailmen. ... That humanity in any story is what comes across and sells it, so I don’t think there’s any one type of story that works better than others because we have absolutely silly, funny stories and we have the most tragic stories, and they all hit a different part of our hearts.”
And while she wisely resists lumping any age group into one monolithic block, she concedes that their performers in the 50-plus age range often have an undeniable confidence and comfort level that sometimes — not always — comes with age.
“I think people who have lived in their skin for a while usually are ... just more generous and comfortable sharing,” she says. “It takes some time to get solid with yourself. ... When we get to a certain age, there’s a level of comfort, and I think that makes for a very relaxed, kind of chill storyteller.”
Share Your Story With The Moth
Think you’ve got an experience like none other? Visit The Moth’s Pitch Line page, where you can write or record your story in hopes you’ll pique the interest of a director. Some tips: No cliffhangers, and keep it brief.
‘Work from the scar, not the wound’
If you’re familiar with The Moth, you’ve probably been impressed by the polished storytelling — complete with intentional pauses for reactions — and that’s no accident. Each story goes through an intense process to make sure the cadence, pauses and points of reflection are just right. It can take weeks, months or longer, Rust says: “There’s a lot of patience involved with storytelling.” And although potential storytellers submit their pitch, not everyone is truly in a place to share.
“There have been people who, you dig deep with them and they realize they’re not actually ready to tell that story,” Rust says. “Some people have a very heavy thing happen to them, and they start out with the story, and it’s just too raw, and they need to sit with it a little bit. We have an expression: We tell them to work from the scar, not the wound, so you have some distance from it.”
Finding the right story is also part of the process. “I think some people are under the impression that people just get up [on stage] and tell a story,” Rust says. For StorySlams, that’s partly true. These open-mic competitions are organized by theme. You put your name in a hat and you have five minutes to tell a story. Winners of Slams compete for the title of GrandSlam champion.
Sometimes directors will reach out to develop the story for a Mainstage event or ask if the storyteller has a different story to tell. But for Mainstage and other events, a lot needs to happen first, including making sure listeners aren’t whiplashed with emotions. Rust adds: “When we curate our Mainstage shows, we do try to make sure there’s some balance. So, if there’s a really heavy story, we’re not going to follow it immediately with a story where you’re going to burst out laughing. We’re very careful to curate the balance so that people aren’t going into shock.”
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Storytelling as art form
In a survey of listeners done by The Moth, 47 percent agreed that “storytelling helps them to explore what it means to be human.”
“I see it as eye-opening to see different kinds of people, different demographics and how they’re living their lives,” Rust says. “And whether that’s someone in their 50s or 60s or someone who’s a high schooler who’s really sharp, I just think it broadens my sense of hope for the commonality and the diversity that we all share. ... It just keeps people on their toes, and it’s really a delight. It’s like a surprise package.”
While The Moth might be one of the largest and most recognizable storytelling organizations, the popularity of the campfire genre has been stoked in modern history by myriad outlets. USA Today’s Storytellers Project is a “nationwide series of live storytelling nights where anyone, from neighbors to notables, can step on stage and share a true, first-person story with their community.” The award-winning program This American Life reaches 2 million listeners each week on over 500 public radio stations in the U.S., with another 2.8 million people downloading each episode as a podcast, according to its website. TED Talks, which allow industry experts to share “ideas worth spreading” on technology, education and design, often involve a personal narrative element. They were first shared online in June 2006 and had a million views by that September. And podcasts — with 104 million Americans listening at least monthly, according to a study by PodcastHosting.org released in April — show that people still respect the art form and crave the connections that can be made when we relate to someone’s story — or just find it hilariously funny.
Storytelling, Rust says, is the glue that makes us human: “I see it as humanity in its purist form.”
- Leland Melvin suffers a devastating injury that cuts short his dreams of flying in space.
- 95-year-old park ranger Betty Reid Soskin squares off with an intruder.
- Andrea King Collier is the last to learn her son's girlfriend just gave birth.
- Window dresser Simon Doonan suffers from a lack of credibility.
- Cynthia Riggs reconnects with a man she hasn’t seen in over 50 years.
Hi, I'm Suzanne Rust, senior curatorial producer at The Moth, a nonprofit dedicated to honoring the diversity and commonality of the human experience through the art and craft of true personal storytelling. As a senior member of our artistic team, my days are filled with stories, whether I'm listening to thoughtfully crafted stories, told on The Moth Mainstage or screening two-minute story pitches that have come to us via The Moth Pitchline, every story matters. We are thrilled to bring this playlist of Moth stories to AARP members, and we encourage you to visit the moth.org/pitchline to share your own true personal story with us. Who knows — maybe one day you will end up on The Moth Mainstage
Leland Melvin: A Moment of Silence
I was peering into a 30-foot-deep, five-million-gallon pool. I was an ASCAN. That’s, that’s NASA speak for Astronaut Candidate. And I wanted to see if I had the right stuff.
We were training to do a spacewalk in this five-million-gallon pool, and I was in a suit that looked like a cross between the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man with a helmet on. They start lowering me down into the pool. I get to about 20 feet, and I realize that this little Styrofoam block that cost about two dollars that’s in my helmet is not there.
That’s used if you’re the kind of person that needs to squeeze your nose to clear your ears. Well, you can’t reach your hand in the helmet, so you press your nose against this to clear your ears. The technician forgot to put mine in.
At 20 feet, I tell the test director to turn the volume up in the headset. From that point on, I hear nothing but static, like [mimics static noise], you know, white noise. They start raising me out of the pool, and I look at the connection to the pool deck, which is a yellow cable, and I think maybe that cable is actually kinked and they’re going to fix it when they bring me up to the top of the pool deck.
I get up there. They take my helmet off. The doctor, [Rich Mikulski], starts walking towards me, and he’s just moving his lips, and I’m thinking, “Why is this guy playing with me?
And he gets to me, and he touches my right ear, and he pulls his finger back and there’s a river of blood just starts coursing down the side of my face.
At that point I realize that something’s kind of wrong, right? They take me to the showers, and my head starts to violently turn. I fall to the ground, and I violently throw up.
They rush me to the hospital, the Houston Medical Center, and they do a battery of tests. And the next thing I know, I am rushed into the OR, and the world-renowned surgeons are now going inside my head, into my ear, to look to see if there’s anything that they can see that caused this problem.
As I wake up from the anesthesia, I see three doctors’ faces that don’t look good at all. They couldn’t figure out what happened to me. I’m laying in the hospital bed, and the only way I can communicate with the outside world is through these yellow legal pads. I can still talk, but I can’t hear anything, and I get these notes written to me.
And, and at one point, there’s a note that says, “You will never fly in space.” One of the yellow legal pad notes comes to me from a friend, and it says, “Remember what [Janette] said.”
And I’m thinking about this note. And if you back up four days before this accident, I was in Virginia, and this woman sought me out to tell me that something was going to happen to me, no one was going to know why this happened, “You’ll be healed of this. You will fly in space, and you’ll share this story with the world.” I’m like, “Okay. Thank you.”
So at this point in the hospital, that note is the only hope I have to hold on to. I get released from the hospital at about the three-week point, and I’m still, you know, severely hearing impaired in my left ear, but now I can start hearing things.
And as I lay in my bed at home in Houston, Texas, and the air-conditioner [handler] kicks on, I have earplugs in and noise-canceling headsets because my brain is starting to rewire itself to hear again, and it feels like ice picks are going to the side of my head.
My hearing gets better and it’s, I’m functional and I can talk to people. I kind of hear what they’re saying. And NASA is trying to figure out what to do with me. They don’t want to release me. They are trying to find a job that I can do that doesn’t require diving, or flying, or doing something that requires healing, hearing, because I’m, I’m truly medically disqualified by NASA standards.
So they put me in the robotics branch, which is basically playing a big video game, where you have hand-controllers, you have a monitor, and you can like run the robotics arm into the space station, but it doesn’t hurt anything, you know.
You can just fly [it] around like a video game. And then they ask me, since my parents were both educators, they ask me, “Do you want to go to Washington to work in this new program called the Educator Astronaut Program?” And I agree, and I, I fly to Washington.
In this program, we’re trying to inspire children to nominate their teachers to become astronauts, and I have to tell them that, “It’s a roundtrip, not a one-way trip for your teacher, so you’re not getting rid of your teacher. They’re coming back home.”
And so we’re doing this program, and Space Shuttle Columbia is launching off to the cosmos. And I’m there in D.C., we’re kicking off this program, and I decide to drive from Washington, D.C. to Lynchburg, Virginia, on Highway 66.
And my boss, who is new to education, uh, to, new to NASA, she says, “What does it mean when the countdown clock for the Columbia is now starting to count up?” I knew at
that point that something was seriously wrong, and I did an illegal U-turn on 66. I started back to the headquarters.
And I turned the radio on, and there were eyewitness accounts of large pieces of debris falling over the west Texas sky, looking like a meteor shower. I got to headquarters, and they dispatched me to David Brown, who was one of the mission specialists. He, I went to their parents’ home that was outside of D.C., in Washington, Virginia.
And when things like this happen, we go into this mode where we take care of our friends and our family. And I get to the home and I knock on the door, and I go in, and David’s mother, [Dotty], is there, and I hug her, because I’m there to console them. I hug her, and we both start crying.
I make my way over in the living room, to David’s father, Judge Brown, who’s in wheelchair. And I reach down to hug him, and he looks up at me with the same sparkling-blue eyes as David, and he, and he says to me, with tears in his eyes, he says, “My son is gone. There is nothing you can do to bring him back. But the biggest tragedy would be if we don’t continue to fly in space to honor their legacy.”
He’s already thinking about the legacy of his son, and I’m medically disqualified, and I’m trying to figure out how I will fly to honor that legacy. I am torn. I’m trying to figure out what I will do. A few days later, we fly in the NASA jet to the different memorial services. We take off, and we land, and I notice to my right there’s a person sitting next to me on every flight, taking notes.
His name is [Rich Williams]. And as I descend in the airplane, I squeeze my nose and I clear my ears like I usually do, even though I don’t have any hearing in my left ear. And when we go to the services, and I’m trying to figure out what my next steps are because
this education program is over, so I’m ready to transition back to Houston to figure out what, what I’m going to do a semi-deaf astronaut.
And Rich Williams calls me in his office, and he says, “Leland, I’ve been watching you. I believe in you. Here’s a waiver for you to fly in space.” And so I fly back to Houston. I go to flight medicine, and I wave this waiver like, you know, “I got some ice cream. I got some,” and I hand it to the flight docs, and I soon get assigned to a mission in 2005.
As I’m sitting there, three and a half hours before launch, I’m thinking about David’s legacy. Three, two, one, liftoff. Space Shuttle Atlantis is now careering to the cosmos. We’re shaking, we’re rattling. The screens are pretty much unusable because our heads are moving so fast from the buildup of Gs.
The solid rocket boosters get jettisoned after two and a half minutes, and the shuttle is turning. And six and a half minutes later, we are now floating in space. I undo my five-point, NASA-certified seatbelt and float over to the window.
And we’re currently flying over the Caribbean Ocean, and I almost need new definitions of blue to describe the hues that I see.
I exhaust my vocabulary with azure, indiga, indigo, turquoise, cerulean, navy blue, light navy blue, dark navy blue. I’m trying to figure out ways to describe these colors, and I need about 20 more definitions to do that.
My job is now to install the Columbus Laboratory, which is a $2 billion tinker-toy piece of hardware that goes onto the space station. I use my robotics skills to safely install it.
And next, the commander of the space station invites us over to break bread. She says, “You guys bring the re-hydrated vegetables. We’ll have the meat.” And so we float over with this bag of vegetables, and we get to the Zarya Service Module.
It’s like someone’s home. You can smell the beef and barley cooking. We’re watching the planet go by at 17,500 miles per hour, going around the planet every 90 minutes, seeing a sunrise and a sunset every 45, breaking bread with people we used to fight against.
The Russians and Germans are on this mission, and it’s like a Benetton commercial, African American, Asian American, French, German, Russian, the first female commander sharing a meal by floating food to each other’s mouths, all while listen to Sade’s Smooth Operator.
This is the moment. This is the, the surreal moment where I have this cognitive shift. I get this thing called the overview effect, or the orbital perspective, and I look out the window when we’re flying over Virginia, my hometown, and my family is probably breaking bread down there.
And five minutes later, we’re over Paris, where [Leo Eyehart’s] family is breaking bread, and [Yuri’s] looking off to Russia. This is the moment, the moment that changes me. I remember what Janette said. I remember what David Brown’s father said. We honored their legacy. Thank you.
Betty Reid Soskin: The Test
The year was 2017 and my friends are settling for Friday night bingo at the senior center and I was a full term permanent Park Ranger at Rosie the Riveter Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.
But I had reached that age with problems that meant that I had outlived my sense of future. And was involved in a grand improvisation. I was making up life one hour at a time. I was meeting with my attorney going over end of life issues in the morning, going to work and then coming back to an exploding life. It was intense. I spent my days as a Ranger doing things that Rangers do, guiding tours. I was being involved in trainings. Of course, that takes most of our lives as Rangers. Trainings in CPR in which I was most often the victim. Trainings with that defibrillator that's on the wall, just in case one of our visitors got in trouble, but also answering phones. And that was tricky for me because I would answer the phone “Rosie the Riveter Home Front National Historical Park” to a visitor or a potential visitor. One you to make reservations to hear one of my programs, because I was in the theater three to five times a week doing programs involving the history of that great place.
They would say, "My mother or my grandmother or my grandfather heard this woman and was excited and I want ..." and they would go on and on and I would feel more and more embarrassed and Betty would go more into the third person. And by the time that telephone was over, I would have gotten to the reservation books. Which is incidentally, usually, two or three months in advance and they would say, "To whom am I speaking?" And I would say, "Helen." And this became a joke among my colleagues. So much so that on one of my birthdays, my supervisor had a new brass ID tag that I wore above my other tags, which said Helen and Helen became the persona that did all the things that Betty didn't have the nerve enough to do.
And Helen was to become a strong feature in my life because my family was involved and concerned and I was involved with those end of life issues and wondering whether living in an apartment alone was something I needed to go on doing. I had become a Park Ranger at the age of 85. I mean, who does that?
But my sons were deeply concerned about the fact that I was living alone. I'd given up driving because my sight was failing, but I didn't want my kids to have to wrestle my car keys out of my hand. So my life was becoming more and more constricted. Right. But on June 30th, I woke in the night to a presence. I realized that there was someone in my bedroom and I turned to see a man standing not six feet away with a small flashlight looking through my things. I reached over to the nightstand where my cell phone was. Anyone would do that, right, to call the police, but my turning signaled him that I was awake and within seconds, he had leaped across my bed, had wrestled me out of the bed and flung my cell phone across the room. And I remember feeling grateful that neither of us was armed because had it been a gun, it wouldn't have lasted more than six seconds.
We wrestled in that room, the stranger and me. I screamed as loud as I could scream. He pinned my arms, my back was against his chest. And I remember, for some strange reason, realizing that my chin, my head ended at his chin and that he was probably five eight, five ten. It's amazing what comes to you in times like that. We wrestled across the floor. And when we got to the door to the hallway, I suddenly realized, even though I'm still screaming, but my screams were being muffled by the fact that his arm was over my mouth. And I was to learn later that no one was hearing me anyway because the downstairs apartment was empty.
But as we got to the doorway of the hallway, I reached out and kicked his leg out from under him and we both fell. I fell with my back on the floor and he was straddled with his knees on each side of my body, my torso, and his hands were freed up. And he was trying hard to keep me from screaming. So he was pummeling my face with his bare fists and I suddenly realized my hands were free and that he was wearing what was probably pajama pants because there was a drawstring that I could feel, which meant that the family jewels were exposed. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered this magical thing and I reached in, I grabbed his balls and I squeezed as hard as I could. And magically, he tumbled over in a heap.
I was suddenly free, but I was right next to the bathroom door. I plunged my way through the door and sat with my back against the lavatory and my feet propped against the door so he couldn't get into me and suddenly, suddenly I felt safe. I listened. I couldn't hear him. I couldn't hear anything. I don't know how long that session ended, but I suddenly realized that under the lavatory was my electric iron, so I reached in, I pulled it out, stood up long enough to plug it into the wall and turned it up to linen. I was going to brand him for the police.
It was still silent and as soon as I felt it was safe enough, decided that he was gone, then my intruder was no longer there. I went in calmly, got myself into some clean pajamas, went out the front door, still with the iron in my hand now cooling, pounded my neighbor's door. Neighbors I had not met, pounded on and suddenly, Arthur Hadley, my neighbor, who I'd never met, arrived, and he opened the door, let me in, yelling to his wife, call the police, Helen.
That night I think I received a gift that was unintended because when the police arrived in the city official's wisdom and the police department was there, because I'm a pretty noted figure in my city. They offered not only counseling but to relocate me if I needed that to happen. And I suddenly realized, despite my kids' fears or even my own, that that intruder had given me a gift. That for the first time in my life I knew that I'd been tested, not only survived but prevailed. And I'm now 97 still living alone. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Andrea Collier: Meeting Miles
I got married in 1982 and we were so cute, but we couldn't have been more different. I was a privileged little only child, a princess of quite a lot. And my husband was one of six. When I first met his parents. I said, “How do you remember six names?” And that did not go over well. But we did have something in common. We were kids of the sixties and we did Civil Rights marches. We helped register people to vote. We knew about segregation and we knew that our folks expected a whole bunch out of us. We were their legacy and they had a script for us that we passed on to our two kids when we got married. Our whole family unit was the Huxtables before they were Huxtables. In fact, our motto was I brought you into this world and I will take you out.
And the kids knew it. My daughter followed this script. She got her dream job after going to her dream school, married her dream man and had a dream baby and then quit her dream job to take care of the dream baby. My son on the other hand, had a script of his own. But what he did though, is his script involved, living in the basement and never coming out. And no matter how much we tried to get him out of the basement, it wasn't happening. We threw money at it, we threw exterminators at it, still in the basement. Except for one day he just left and he stayed gone for a couple of weeks. Now, a young man goes off and does his thing and he wouldn't think anything about it. But without any notice, no texts, no phone calls, I, as his mother, got worried because it's not a good thing for a Black man to go disappearing. It worried me. And just as I was about to call the police, he calls me and he says, “Mom, I need to come over because I have something to tell you.”
Now, if you have a kid who's of a certain age and they say, “I have something to tell you,” what you know is nothing good is going to come out of that conversation. When these conversations come up, that nut say, “Mom, I hit the lotto and I have enough money to move out, Mom, I got a new job and I have enough money to move out.” You see where I'm going with this move out thing. “Mom, I have met Beyonce. She has fallen in love with me. She's leaving Jay-Z and I'm moving out.” Yeah, none of that is happening. I started thinking about all the things that it could be, and he'd get really worried and go tell my husband that he's on his way over. And he says, “Well, it won't be that long. I'm looking out the window and he's pacing up and down the driveway. He's rehearsing. It's going to be a doozy.”
So he comes upstairs and he says, “Mom, we're going to have a baby.”
Who's gonna have a baby?
He has a girlfriend, but I have only seen her from the waist up in the car. Now under ordinary circumstances, because this is not the script, got a simple script, go to college to get a good job, don't go to jail, don't get anybody pregnant. And he said, we're going to have a baby. So my head could have popped off my shoulders. But something happened. It was either the God voice, good voice or the Kanye voice, which is the crazy voice, said, “Ask him to say it again.”
And I say, “Will you say that again for me?”
And he says, “We had a baby yesterday.”
You know, that could have gone all kind of wrong instead because I'm in shock. I say, “How nice for you.”
I'm thinking in my head, calm this down. Ask nice basic questions.
“Are mama and baby fine? Are they home from the hospital?”
And then the thing that I want to know is what's the baby's name. Because millennials can come up with some hell of a name and Black millennials can really come up with some names. You know, they can be Jack Daniels, Wakanda, Apple.
“What’s the baby’s name?” “The baby's name is Miles.”
Okay. That's good. That was the best thing out the whole damn thing. And as I was trying to explain to him that we have colds, so we can't go that day to see the baby, he gets the hell up out of there before I figure out he's gone. He is gone. And so what do you do when you are a new grandmother, there is no baby to see, and you don't have a nine month gestation period?
I get in the car and I go to Target. Now let me tell you something about Target. You can work out a whole lotta shit in the aisles of Target. So I get there and I don't go to the baby section, I’m everywhere else, but the God voice or the Kanye voice says to me, “Call Gussy.” Now, Gussy is my mother's oldest friend. And when my mother died, she and several of her other friends stood in the gap for me. And when I need to figure out something, I call. So I call and I'm fine until I hear her voice. And I am hysterical. I am like having a fit in the store.
“He had a baby, I didn't know. I just saw her from the head up! This is awful. He didn't follow the script!” I'm just going.
And people are walking by me in Target trying to figure out what the hell is going on. “Lady. Are you okay?”
My mother's friend says, “Let me get this straight. Christopher has a baby.”
“Had it yesterday.” “Yes.”
“You didn't know?”
“It's the baby going to live with you?” “No.”
“Okay, good. Let's start with that.” Then she says, “Okay, this is what you're going to do. You'll stop crying. You'll put on your big girl pants and you are going to be the best damn grandma you know how to be, because that's what you had.”
And then I had questions, but she hung up the phone. She had said everything she needed to say, so she was gone, she was out of there.
So what do I do? I started buying up everything in the baby section. I bought so much stuff that my husband had to go back and get the rest of the crap. But on the way home, I got really upset.
So I come in and my husband is there and my daughter is visiting. And I said, “Why the hell did anybody not tell him?”
And my daughter says, “Well, you are really scary.” “What do you mean I'm ‘scary?’”
“You are Oprah scary.”
And I'm thinking Oprah, that's not bad.
She says, “No, no, no, not ‘You get a car, you get a car, you get a car,’ Oprah. You are Miss Sophia. ‘You told Harpo to beat me’ Oprah.”
And I have a little problem with that.
But she goes on to explain. She says, “You know, The Wiz?” “Yeah.”
“You know, Evillene who says ‘Don't bring me no bad news?’” “Yeah.”
“You Evillene. You are Claire Huxtable from the day we were born, you got the Clair Huxtable side eye before she did.”
And wasn’t nothing I can say about it, sometimes you just gotta give it up. So I waited and waited a few days so we could actually see the baby.
We go to see the baby. And I had never met her folks before. In fact, I never had a conversation with her. So we get there. They bring the baby out, put the baby in my arms. And my heartbreak broke wide open.
I'd never experienced anything like that, not even with my own kids, this beautiful baby. And I looked at him, and I saw my husband and I saw my daughter and I saw me, but I also saw my son, the baby's father. And I saw all the people in my life who had ever loved me in this baby's face. So I started looking at my purse and I started looking at the baby and I look at the purse again. How long do you think it would be before I put the baby in the purse and left that they would figure out he was gone?
So my daughter had been texting me the whole time to tell me not to do anything crazy. And just as I was about to try to bust that move, I heard the text noise. So okay I can't do that, but it was weird.
So I'm looking at the baby and I'm thinking about Toni Morrison. When my kids were teenagers, I heard Toni Morrison say, “When the child walks into the room, does your face light up?” Okay. They were teenagers. Nobody's face was lighting up for them. But with Miles, my face was all lit up.
And I remembered the rest of it, which is “When your child walks into the room, does your face light up? Because that's how they know how you feel about them.”
And I was determined at that moment, for the rest of my life, whenever he walked into the room, my face was going to light up because I want him to know he is just that loved. Thank you.
Simon Doonan: Have Glue Gun, Will Travel
I suffer from a very strange affliction. I would best describe it as a total lack of credibility. No one believes anything out of my mouth. Everything is greeted with a, "Are you sure you heard right?" Or "We'll see about that." No one believes anything I say. If I wade into serious territory: Ebola, global conflict, climate change, people just start shrieking with laughter, and they assume I'm telling jokes. My gravitas is totally missing.
I have only myself to blame for this problem; it's all self-inflicted. Four decades ago, I decided to become a window dresser. Yes. Those people that you see scampering around in store windows, up ladders, with glue guns, making, like, giant poodles out of feather dusters and dressing mannequins in freaky outfits and making wigs out of twigs and macaroni. I became one of those people four decades ago, and I loved it and I threw myself into it. And I became a famous window dresser, dressing the windows at Barneys and winning awards. I loved it. And, you know, it's one of the most fluffy, ephemeral professions. It's right up there with being a fluffer in a strip club or being, like, being a ventriloquist or a ventriloquist dummy. It's like a total joke profession.
So, 2017, I had put down the glue gun. I'd moved away from the glue gun. I had retired. I was looking down the barrel of 65. My mailbox was jammed with AARP brochures and I could see this clinking sound in my mind, and I thought, "Is that my dentures in a glass or is that a cocktail, you know, on a patio in Boca Raton?" So retirement was beckoning.
And the phone rang, and the voice on the other end, out of the blue, informed me that I was being considered for a network television show where I would play the role of expert judge, a crafting competition show starring Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. I was going to be auditioning for the role of expert judge.
And I called my husband, Johnny, at work and I said, "Johnny, I'm auditioning for a network television show."
And he said, "Are you sure you heard right?" Because that lack of credibility extended to my home life and, in addition to which, Jonathan and I have a very, a relationship that's based upon teasing and pranking and practical jokes. I mean, whoopee cushions, everything. You know, we just have a very teasy kind of relationship.
So I went for my first audition, and I did my best to appear bubbly and vivacious and lively and youthful, and they called me back. And then I was another callback and another callback.
And friends and family were anxious to manage my expectations. You know, "It is a network show and they are probably meeting with a lot of people." And even my agent was managing my expectations. "You know, we'll see how this works out." They didn't realize that I was, my
expectations were already low, low, low. Way down, because who was going to hire me to be an expert judge with my staggering lack of credibility?
Over breakfast, Johnny made an astonishing announcement. He said, "Oh, by the way, I got a call yesterday. They want me to come and audition for the expert judge role in Making It."
Great. And I realized instantly that Johnny had become the front runner. He is, after all, a master craftsman. He makes ceramics and has done so all his life. I, on the other hand, spent my life making penguins out of paper mache and throwing glitter at them and making giant spiders out of discarded pantyhose. So I was a carny and he was the one with all the cre-the crafting cred.
I thought, Eh, he's going to get it. In addition to which, Johnny had also previously played an expert judging role on a competition show called Top Design where he had famously dismissed contestants with the phrase, "See you later, decorator." So Johnny was a shoe-in, a shoe-in.
So I took on an earnest, kind of, support role helping him with his audition outfits and helping him workshop some, some little catchphrases. I became Max the Chauffeur to his Norma Desmond. I became like Mamacita to his Joan Crawford, just trying to be helpful.
Then the call came. I got the part!
I rushed outside to tell Johnny. He was outside acquiring a light suntan in preparation for his onscreen performances. And he rose from his sunbed. I said, "Johnny, I got the part."
He said, of course, "Are you sure you heard right?"
After we got past that, he looked at me through his glamorous Hollywood Ray-Bans and he said, "You're having a comeback. I'm very happy for you."
I found this eerie magnanimity -- this was -- magnanimity was kind of sinister. I mean, I didn't trust him. Was he planning some kind of dreadful revenge? Like, how long before, like, the toaster accidentally fell in the bath or he tossed ball bearings on the stairs just as I'm about to descend to greet guests?
So, there wasn't, everything kind of went into fast forward at that moment. We had to sign nondisclosure agreements. It was all very hush-hush. And, oh yes, in addition to my concerns about revenge, I also started to have real concerns about the show itself. Like, suddenly my lack of credibility was going to be unfurled on national television. And what if my lack of credibility, and I was playing the role of expert judge, was going to undermine the premise of the whole show and Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler would be just furious at me because I had undermined, torpedoed the whole venture? So I had other concerns in addition to the revenge from Johnathan. But everything, as I say, went into fast forward and nondisclosure agreements were signed and I flew off to Malibu to do the filming for a month.
The first day, contestants were challenged to make a spirit animal of themselves. And one young lady made this sort of bulbous, fluffy bunny out of mysterious fibers, with big googly eyes. And another young lady made this unicorn, a sort of glam rock, Ziggy Stardust unicorn out of glitter and fluorescent paper. And then one young man made a pig, this grotesque-looking pig out of felt which had a mullet hairdo. A pig with a mullet. And I looked at these and I thought, "These are my people!"
I'm back amongst my people. It was like being back in the windows at Barneys. And I felt so at home. Not only that, when I started to deliver my critiques, I was actually believed. Not only was I believed, but they were hanging on my every word. And I realized, when it comes to making giant spiders out of pantyhose, no one has more credibility than me.
So, a month of this glorious sensation and affirmation, before long, I found myself flying back to New York, drenched in this new feeling, this exhilaration, from finally being believed. And when I got back to New York, friends and family came to greet me warmly. "How are you doing?"
And I said, "Great. I can't wait to go back and do it again."
And they said, "Do it again? Why do you want to go to rehab again? You want to go back to rehab?"
And I realized, Jonathan had told everyone that I was in rehab!
When, when confronted, he was unapologetic. He was like, "Meh, Malibu, a month, passages, promises. Eh, I didn't know what else to tell them. We weren't supposed to talk about the show."
To this day, there are people in my orbit who are convinced, who will never not believe that I was not in rehab.
But I don't care because I realized that Making It, the show, was a reward for all those years, those decades in the window dressing trenches, a reward for all those glue gun burns and all those late night installations. It was like a congressional medal of honor for window dressers.
And I realized that the God of careers had smiled upon me. "Thou shalt have fun in thy career for decades, but thou shalt not be taken seriously in the wider world." And I realized that was a pretty good trade-off.
And haven't all the most glamorous celebrities been to rehab? Mm-hmm.
Cynthia Riggs: The Case of the Curious Codes
Well, I was born on Martha's Vineyard and coming here tonight, I got lost. I had to ask someone where Union Chapel is. I come from a long line of Vineyarders and I'm descended from both the settling families, both the Athearns and the Mayhews. Well, I spent many years off island, working as a boat captain and then I returned to the vineyard and I came to live with my mother who lived in West Tisbury Dionis Coffin Riggs, a poet. She and I opened a bed and breakfast catering to poets and writers and that was kind of where I came from.
After her death, she was almost 99. I think some of you probably knew my mother. After her death, I was kind of at loose ends and a bed and breakfast guest suggested that I go back to school and get a degree in creative writing. I filled out an application form and they accepted me and somebody told me I ought to write murder mysteries and two years later, my first murder mystery was published by St. Martin's Press. I've now had 10 published and the 11th, I think, is on Kindle and I'm working on the 12th right now.
Well, my first book was published when I was 70. The -- I love this audience. There's hope for all of you.
About six months ago, a mystery came into my life. It was something that was totally unexpected. I had thought about a guy that I'd met many years before. His name just sort of popped into my mind, so I looked him up on Google and I couldn't find him so I forgot about it. Well, two weeks later, I got a package from him. Now, it was his name and when I Googled it, I'd spelled it wrong. But the return address was a latitude and longitude. I opened the package and inside was an archival envelope that had a whole bunch of old dried up, yellowed paper towels in it and the paper towels were all covered with scrolled out cryptograms.
Also in this package, there was a little note also with a more modern cryptogram. Well, I couldn't, I had no idea what this was all about. I looked at some of the messages on these paper towels and it all came back to me. When I was 18 years old, I was a marine geology major at a college in Ohio, of course.
My college managed to find me a college job lasting for four months in San Diego, working for Scripps Oceanographic Institution, sorting plankton as a research project. Now, I was just thrilled. I'd never been out West before. I was working in a real laboratory. I was 18. Most 18 year olds are clueless. I was particularly clueless.
Now, my coworkers were a bunch of guys who had been working sorting plankton for much too long. They were bored and if you could imagine it, they were rather bright so they came up with some wonderful practical jokes, I guess you can call it, like nailing my lab shut. I had no idea how to handle this, all these little practical jokes they were playing or talking in codes that I didn't understand, but there was one guy in the lab. He was an elderly man. He was 28. He started defending me against my tormentors. So I started, my dad had been in the army and he'd
introduced me to cryptograms, so I just loved the idea of these secret messages, so I wrote these secret messages as cryptograms to Howie on these paper towels.
Now, he'd kept them for 62 years. Well, I have a group of young women in my Wednesday writer's group and I said to them, "What do you think of all this?" And they said, they're all young women. They all said, "You've got to get in touch with this guy. You just have to, this is wonderful." And so I thought about it and I thought, "Well, how am I going to get in touch with him?" This was a latitude and longitude, so I Googled it. I found ... There was sort of a circle right around Baja, California, the coast. Now, I knew that Howie had a dental degree so that was kind of a clue. I figured, okay. There was a golf resort somewhere within that latitude and longitude so I called this golf resort and their toll free number and I said, "Was there a Dr. A. Registered there?" No, there wasn't.
Then I figured, okay, that circle could include the coast of Baja, California so I figured, Aha, he's on a cruise ship. I found a cruise ship tracking site on Google. This is all true. There were no cruise ships in the area at that time so then I was sure I had it. He had a private yacht. He was a retired dentist after all. By the way, I'm sort of diverting from this, but I happened to be writing a book called Blood Root, which is based on murder in a dentist office.
I figured the captain had come up to Dr. A and said, "Dr. A, sir, this is your latitude and longitude," but that was kind of a dead end. The next thing, I figured, okay, I'll go to the California Dental Association, and I found him. I found him and I found the address. Now, he'd been a public service, public health dentist for one of the counties in California, which sort of shot the idea of the yacht. So I went back to my Wednesday writers. I have a representative group of Wednesday writers here, and I said, "Now, what?" And they said, "You've got to get in touch with this guy. You just have to."
Well, I figured I could write in maybe a non-committal note, so I did that and I said, "Well, I just got that packet that you sent and I decoded the message," and that was it.
Now, the Wednesday writers in the meantime, had formed sort of a cheering section and it was going something like this. "This is every woman's fantasy. This man has spent a lifetime loving you and searching for you." Now, you need to know a little something about my background. I wasn't totally off on men, but I was a little uncomfortable because I'd been married for 25 years to a very brilliant, but a very abusive husband and married him, after we were divorced for 35 years, he stalked me for 20. So I was not comfortable opening any doors to any kind of intimacy and these paper towels, the things that lead to intimacy ...
Well, I sent this letter off to what might or might not have been a current address and by golly, I got a letter back or a postcard back. And it said, "nicer than nice to hear from you," So I knew I had the address right. The next thing I did was to send him a book of poetry that, I had a daughter who died about five years ago and this was a book of her poetry and I sent it to him and he wrote back and he said, "I had a son who died the same time your daughter died about the same age." And as you can imagine, this broke down a lot of barriers in a hurry. If you think of the worst thing that can happen to parents is to have a child die and to have two of us sort of
sharing this painful experience, so we started corresponding. We started having, finding out these coincidences that happened. It wasn't just me writing the Blood Root and it wasn't just the kids' deaths, but it was the manganese nodules.
Yeah. Now, since I'm speaking to a group that is near the oceanographic, probably many of you know what manganese nodules are, but most people don't. They're sort of knobby little lumps of black, gray looking mineral deposits that are found only in the deep sea. A few museums have these manganese nodules and very, very few individuals have manganese nodules and Howie happened to have one that came from the Marianas trench, which is the deepest part of the Pacific ocean and he sent it to me.
Well, I just happen to have been on an Antarctic research cruise. I had a small sack full of manganese nodules. I sent him four. I made sure they were smaller than his. The next thing Howie sent me, by the way, this time, the young woman in the West Tisbury post office got involved in this romance. She would say, as she gave me a package, "Another letter from your boyfriend." The next thing he said to me was a CD of a piece of music that his son had composed called Cactus on Mars. Well, my son-in-law, who's a geophysicist was evaluating research proposals for Mars. This has been going on and on and on.
Now, at this point, the Wednesday writers stepped in again and said, "You have to go see this guy." I had no intention of going to see him, but you have no idea what these women are like. You can talk to two of them afterwards, they're representative.
So I have a ticket to California on my desk. Howie found out that I'm an avid gardener so he sent me seven seed packages. Now, one was hollyhocks, H for Howie, and one was catnip, C for Cynthia. And in between, he had leeks, okra, vinca, eggplant and spinach. This is a real romance. So I'm going out to see him, but now, here comes a question. When I appear, is he going to have in his mind this 18-year-old that he fell in love with? I mean, I'm 81 now and he's 90. I asked the Wednesday writers, "Well, what can you do?" And they said, "Oh, plenty."
One of the thing is that Howie has meant to me, he's actually changed my life. I had been pretty much closed up, but what he did was he gave me, some very gentle warrants. He also introduced me to a kind of a calm love that I'd never thought of before. He also introduced me to kind of a sweet passion. You'd be surprised at what you can do in letters and code. But most of all, the thing that's really, really affected me a lot is he gave me back a sense of great self-worth. And with that, I hope you all can find a Howie or his equivalent.
Photo credits: Tara Welch (Leland Melvin); Andy Benson (Betty Reid Soskin); Lindley Rust (Andrea King Collier); Sarah Stacke (Simon Doonan); Amanda Kowalski (Cynthia Riggs). All images courtesy of The Moth.