Baptism By Fire: On Reading Your Words Out Loud And Finding Your Tribe

We clumsily made our way down to the beach. Our destination was a place called George’s Taverna, a tiny open air beachside café with animated waiters, easy food but mostly drinks, an Aegean breeze to die for and of course, free wi-fi.

We were late of course, running on Greek island time. The sun was starting to set and the night was urging us along the sandy beach, pushing us towards our intimidating destination.

It was a long walk and I could hear raucous laughter and applause emanating from the distance. Who was laughing, who was reading, what was going on?

I liked the idea of it in theory. I just hadn’t come around to the idea of ME reading something I WROTE to all the PEOPLE. The idea where we elected to read out our writing in our free time on the island in between classes and lectures and workshops. And by “elected” I mean Amanda walked around, saw you, wrote your name down and told you what night you were reading.

What would I read? Would I even read? Did I have a choice? Not at all and that was the best part.

We arrived to a hero’s welcome. The women and one man (hi Reade) were already there, cheering loudly as we took our seats.

Am I down to read tonight? I mouthed to Amanda. Of course, she mouthed back, as though I had just asked her if we were really on an island surrounded by water.

the great formidable fire that is Amanda

the great formidable fire that is Amanda

It was only our fourth day on the island. In total, we were only there for 10 days. Only, I say, still remembering how it felt like a lifetime, still aching for that to be the case.

The atmosphere was electric and wild with promise. Amanda, our hilarious host, would pluck out bits of paper from an ashtray and read out the bio for each reader, which was actually just the notes from the lectures and salons that we’d had already.

Everyone was in a gloriously happy mood. It was infectious. Sarah and I were frantically trying to connect to the wi-fi in the tavern so we could search for a past blog post to read out. We were ill-prepared to say the least. It’s not like we could read out something we’d written that day, right? It wasn’t good enough, surely? Our island writing was unpolished, rushed and unfinished and we felt underprepared. Surely it wasn’t enough.

But it was. It was all so wild and brazen and that was all it needed to be. So I pulled out my tattered notebook and knew what I’d read almost immediately. When my turn came up I was one ouzo down and halfway through straight Metaxa, a potent Greek brandy that Amanda kept raving about. I was buzzing already because there was energy in the room, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something buoyant and happy; supportive, joyful, ready to laugh, ready to cry, ready to listen.

This was also showing in my physical appearance. The slight transformation reflected how I was feeling inside: warm and growing like a plant getting its intake of sunlight; a whisper of a golden tan, speckled with a little scorching from the sun and some freckles to show for it. Slightly tipsy, I must have looked like a crazed woman. Wearing my high-waisted vintage “mom” jeans and a white striped top cut down the middle of the back, flowing freely, so white against my fresh new skin. My unwashed hair was wild and untamed, the sea salt water curls flying everywhere. My lips were punctuated with a dark red lipstick. I remember how the small changes made me feel fierce.

I was here for the show, albeit unintentionally and the warm lights had been waiting for me all along. They were more ready to illuminate me than I was.

I can’t remember being nervous although I must have been because I always am, even when you can’t see it. I have the uncanny ability to wear my nerves like an invisibility cloak. I cracked jokes and pretended to jump up and down on the giant white stone step behind me, simulating actual stretches and warm ups. My new friends laughed and I could hear murmurs about how I was drunk but also, somehow, on fire. I felt that I was heating up for something, unsure of what exactly.

When the lights had dimmed and the chatter decreased and all you could hear was the sound of the crashing waves only metres away, or the movement of glasses being lifted every which way, the air heady with the promise of safety and warmth, full of kind faces staring up at you, waiting for the storytellers, waiting for you – I knew it was time to begin.

I read “my birth story from the perspective of someone else”. It was Rachel DeWoskin’s writing prompt for that day. My someone else was my Lebanese immigrant grandmother. I had to do the accents. I couldn’t read my scribbling scrawling from when we only had 25 minutes to write it. At first people didn’t laugh at the times I expected them to, but then they laughed uncontrollably, unexpectedly, so uproariously in fact, that, I struggled to get through the piece, to be heard over the laughter. I didn’t know what was happening. My face was burning up. The laughter increased. Did they like it? I had no time to double check. When I was done, their applause lifted me up like a procession through the streets. I sat down, my face entirely red. They were still applauding. The readings went on. I was glowing like a bloody glow worm. People got up to read, but afterwards something even more unexpected happened.

I was pulled out of my dazed reverie by the line of women and one man who came to tell me that they loved it. Loved what? Loved my story, my words. What story, what words? I was in shock. They came to tell me that I had made them laugh. What, I demand you tell me at what point I did anything remotely of that nature. They held my hands, held my gaze, they sparkled with affirmative joy.

Mary said she simply had to record this story for a radio story. Another woman Janet came over and said that she nearly pissed her pants because of my story (“Amanda’s story made me piss my pants but your grandmother story started the piss trail!”)

I never thought that starting someone’s piss trail would be an indication of success but here in this parallel universe, what other measure could there be?

What was happening?! I had never done anything like this before. How did I not fall into the earth’s crumbling, fiery abyss?

Something had shifted, whether it was my world, my surroundings or maybe just me.

I had always been waiting on the sidelines, in the audience, waiting for someone to pick me first in the gym team of the writing world, to ask me to be the one to write something and to read it out loud, to prove that my words were real and worthy. I believed if I went to enough late night readings, comedy nights, story events – that eventually someone would recognise that little sparkle in me too and ask me to have a go at it. I never asked myself or offered to put myself out there. I was always too afraid of the no. Or even the ‘yes’ and not being able to deliver.

Instead I tried to subtly infiltrate the stark whiteness of literary festivals, make friends with the right people, the right/writer people. So I sat comfortably on the sidelines, almost too eager to be relegated there. I changed the narrative until I was convinced I was always meant to not get up there at all and forgot all about it.

Soon it started to dawn on me what was really at stake and what has always been slipping away from me, slowly but definitively. I would watch on as even “non-writers” got to have a red hot go at it, just because they knew the right people and took up the YES wholeheartedly. What chance did I, the imposter, even have?

I started to believe I was a joke to all my writer friends. That I was just pretending to be one. That no one would ever ask me to read my words out loud and that if they didn’t, it meant that I wasn’t really a writer. If I didn’t get validation from other writers, all types of validation became null and void. This became my burden, my deadweight.

I would say it was stupid to wait around all that time and not dive in to that ocean with both hands, both figuratively and then, literally in Patmos. But I did this reading not because I volunteered to do it, but because a guardian angel named Amanda put my name down before I even had a chance to say yes, no or let out a scream of panic.

I didn’t know that this was all I needed. I even made excuses like “I’m not going to read tonight”. I said that each night. But I read both nights anyway. Because I had to, I was called to. Amanda said my name and I stood up and I read and it was as simple as that.

***

Back in Athens, before the island, before the magic, before any of it, I caught a cab to the dock where the ferry would depart. Before the cab ride that changed everything, I first got to the café which inadvertently became a meeting place for the other course members. At first I was entirely alone. I was so incredibly aware of how alone I was, since I had all my luggage with me and no idea what to do there at that random beachside cafe in Athens. Until they found me, of course. First Reade and Martha wondered over to me a little timidly. It had to be the way. I could no longer summon the courage.

“Are you going to Patmos too? We just figured, you know, with all your luggage” they said.

Then Mayra came over too, we recognised each other in the same way and almost hugged each other with relief, until we remembered that we were still only strangers.

“You had your book out and I just thought, she has to be a Cheryl Strayed girl” Mayra said to me in that excited way you get when you’ve been flying for way too many hours with no rest or reprieve but you absolutely have to say the first thing that flies into your head. My heart soared at that simple recognition. We had come so far but we’d finally found each other.

Eventually I found Dunja (or rather, she found me since I was too scared to leave my chair and luggage) one of the other Australians there too and we instantly hit it off in a way that startled me; it was like talking to a more animated version of myself. Dunja and I got so caught up in our conversation, we almost missed getting a cab to the ferry. We rushed out, forgetting things like a phone charger, wondering if there was a cab left. There was.

“Get in our cab” two women shouted at us.

Mayra was there too and she was also getting in the cab, but then so were these two new women we hadn’t met yet. I quickly did the math and thought long and hard about the physics. It wasn’t possible.

“It’s okay, we’ll just get another cab” I called out in my sensible voice.

They were instantly aghast at this, like, what are you insane, there’s no time! They waved us away and insisted we get in their cab. The two new women turned out to be our other two guardian angels, Amanda and Bek.
“Do you guys know each other?” We asked them both, since they had such a familiar rapport with one another.

“Ha, no we literally just met like five minutes ago. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Bek cried out.

I’ll never forget that taxi ride. Five grown ass women squeezed in together, limbs flying everywhere, a giant paranoid taxi driver telling us to duck our heads so he doesn’t get fined. We were so far squished up to each other I don’t even know where my body ended and their’s began but it didn’t matter. I laughed so hard for those 20 minutes (he sped to help us get to the ferry in time, and also to dodge the police), that everything inside of me hurt. I’ll never forget Amanda interrogating that taxi driver about his being a spy for the US government.

“What’s your story, George?” she said so earnestly, so unintentionally hilarious in that way that only she could do. George’s story was ridiculous but he loved telling it to us. Dunja and I were in stitches. All our fears on that trip subsided. I felt calm, safe, protected.

That was Amanda. She asked you to tell your story and you did, you did until you laughed so hard you cried. And then maybe you cried because you finally got to tell your god damn story, and then watched as people still wanted more from you.

I realised in the past I was always looking for a crew of creatives I could lean on. I was searching for it everywhere, even in the way I would support everyone in my life who had a passionate creative endeavour. I would just do it so sincerely and unabashedly, unthinkingly to promote everyone without them even needing to ask in the first place. Something inside of me hoped that I’d be good enough for someone to return the favour, unprompted. And it always hurt when it was never reciprocated, an open hand left out to shake and no one there to shake it.

You see, I thought the already established ones; those who studied with me, who wrote around me and inside the lines, they could pluck me from the crowd and usher me towards a place of confidence and self-assurance. I never imagined it would be the uninitiated tribe from all parts of the US and a few places in Australia and even Canada, who would find me there on the isolated and quiet island of Patmos, the island of magic, of unfulfilled promises. They were the ones who illuminated me.

At the final reading, when I was convinced that what I read was not good enough, when I regretted reading that story for reasons that are hard to articulate, a procession of people came to my seat to reassure me that I made the right choice and to thank me for sharing a story that was hard to put down in words and even harder to say out loud.

My darling Mary came by with joy in her face: ‘Now that’s two stories I want to record!”

“I watched Rachel’s face while you read. She said “wow”

Monique came over and sat next to me. She held my hand and came in close to say she understood my story, she had a similar experience. She said I was not alone but I was brave to speak that truth finally. I couldn’t look her directly in the eyes because I still didn’t believe that story was capable of anything except maybe being too long and boring people, or because maybe my eyes were welling up.

Ben hugged me and said it brought a tear to his eye. And since I could literally see the tear he spoke of, I started to believe it, slowly.

On Patmos, on Greek time, there was no doubt about our hidden talents and our worthiness to step up and be the storytellers. There was no longer any doubt that we could hold two truths in two hands, and walk forward (Cheryl Strayed’s direct quote fyi).

We could be, in those moments, both ordinary and extraordinary. We were writers and we were not writers. We came in a little weary but bounced out full of life and electricity, charging each other up like powerful volts you can’t contain.

To feel worthy, I had to first realise that it would only take an entire international tribe to finally give me something even better than permission: the realisation that I did not need to ask first or ever. That I could come and sit at this table and exist, that I could go and carve out new paths, start readings of our own. That I, too, could ask people, “what’s your story” and listen as intently as five women squished together in the back of a cab in the manic lanes of a struggling Greek city.

I am eternally grateful to the kindred spirits I found there on that special island who opened me up and showed me what I could do. I’ll always remember when time was measured by meaning and try to hold that sliver of eternity we captured in both hands forever.

fire

F-I-R-E