While vodka might have made for a better story, the first time I wound up under a table at a social gathering had to do with public speaking. I was 7, and my task was to recite a Bible verse at our church Christmas pageant. I turned out to have an early talent for memorization and an affinity for poetry. I stood up at rehearsals and did my piece without a hitch. The night of the event, I stepped out, ready to show off my precocity… and then saw the faces. Everyone was looking at me. I promptly dove under the table, which had a sort of valance around it, and wouldn’t come out until they promised I wouldn’t have to give my speech. It occurred to me what a great strategy this was, because it actually worked.
Douglas Adams suggests that we always bring a towel. I say we should always bring a tablecloth, so we can just hide under it when we’re not feeling up to something, and everyone will immediately understand and carry on with the program. I’m going to embroider “I would prefer not to” on mine.
I’m 40 now, and I’ve grown up to give various impromptu speeches. I don’t really mind anymore. I mean, my brain doesn’t. My legs have other ideas. I’ll be making an announcement or sharing some sort of information, and my thighs are shaking like canning jars during an earthquake. This is probably why hoop skirts were originally invented. I’ll get one and start a show called Whose Crinoline Is It, Anyway? Then someone will think I’m a table and dive underneath, and I’ll be stuck making both our speeches.
This year, one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to join Toastmasters, the way I intended about 12 years ago, and learn to get over my psychosomatic issues with public speaking. I don’t like having a block or resistance to anything. I ran a marathon because I hated running so much, if that makes sense. Now I’m going to learn public speaking because I hate having a roomful of people looking at me. That’s the weird thing about it. I wouldn’t balk at doing a solo interpretive dance under a spotlight, going to a nude beach, or introducing myself to 50 people at an event – although maybe, on second thought, not all at once. I’m not particularly scared of public speaking, as long as at least some people in the audience are distracted. There is just something about the idea of wanting to do justice to anything that’s important enough to be presented from a stage or a podium.
I went to my first meeting. I did what I usually do when I am nervous about something, which is to delay and try to distract myself and pretend that I’m not going to skip it, until, OOPS, gee, I accidentally made myself late. Now I don’t have to go, right? Somehow, though, I managed to arrive at the stroke of noon. I was greeted warmly, introduced around, and given a nametag. Everyone who spoke addressed me as ‘Honored Guest.’ They were quite lovely.
Then, right at the end, the president asked me to stand up, introduce myself, and explain what brought me there.
My legs didn’t shake. My hands didn’t shake. I didn’t turn red. I didn’t stammer. All I did was stand there clutching my elbow, feebly covering my vital organs with my forearm, since there was no tablecloth to hide under.
“My name is Jessica, and I’m here to become an inspiring public speaker, even though I’m… paralyzed by shyness. I first heard of Toastmasters in college, but it was cross-scheduled with an open mic night where a certain boy used to play guitar. Fifteen years later, I’m here to try again.”
Everyone laughed and clapped. Then they called me up and gave me this nice ribbon. I was even officially included in the grammarian’s report, and I only said “Um” once.
We learn a lot when we first force ourselves to do something that has scared us. We learn that the fiction we’ve built up in our minds is always significantly scarier than reality. I walked into a room full of exceptionally polite people who were welcoming and encouraging. It would have been harder to design a more diverse group. Several members were non-native speakers. Here I was, worried about my legs shaking, while others were worried about the vocabulary and pronunciation of a language they were still mastering. Do I have the courage to do what they’re doing in one of the other languages I’m studying? Heck no! Suddenly the task ahead of me seemed much simpler. 1. Stand up 2. Speak English 3. Stay away from tablecloths.
Part of my Do the Obvious discipline is to include pop culture research, in the sense of folklore or sociology. When I wanted to learn ballroom dance, I started at Arthur Murray. (Bronze I, competent social dancer, if you please). When I decided to learn to drive, I got an instructor with a redundant brake pedal on his side of the car. When I decided to join a gym, I picked Curves. Now I’m checking out Toastmasters. I’m doing the work and also some meta-work. It helps me, when I’m insecure, to look at something as a research trip or Fact Finding Mission.
What it comes down to is that I don’t want to be the kind of person who lets myself off the hook. I don’t want to have a “thing” that I can’t make myself do. I can catch a spider in the tub and carry it outside. I can put chains on my tires in the snow and wind. I have waded through mud, jumped over open flames, climbed a rope, run a marathon, and pitched my own tent in the rain. I can even parallel park if I get enough tries. Being able to make myself do things is a superpower-creating superpower. It’s like asking a genie for infinite wishes. Rather, it’s like wielding a dragon-slaying sword, only to find that (unlike superpowers and infinite wishes) dragons are merely figments of our imagination.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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