On Saturday, hundreds of people packed onto the freshly hewn pews of the Tabernacle for “The Moth” live storytelling event. It was an evening full of raw, moving stories by David Montgomery, Suzie Afridi, Phyllis Bowdwin, and local Islander Cynthia Riggs, hosted by Tara Clancy.
This was the sixth event “The Moth” hosted on the Island, and the theme of the night was “twist of fate.” Moth storytellers can choose to talk about anything, as long as it is a true, personal story. They must tell the story without notes or a script.
Jay Allison, founder of WCAI and producer of “The Moth Radio Hour,” welcomed everyone to the show. “Storytelling is both modern and ancient,” he said. “What I love about it is it’s just about listening to people who you don’t know, who are different from you.”
“Imagine yourself sitting around a porch, sitting around a campfire, and downshifting a gear or two and tuning in,” said Clancy. “It’s simple and raw, and that rawness is its beauty.”
Los Angeles–based writer David Montgomery was the first storyteller of the night. He told a touching story laced with hilarity about leaving his “big boy job” to follow the Spice Girls on their reunion tour.
Montgomery recounted his feelings of alienation growing up “extremly gay in a backwoods town.” Rejected by his family, Montgomery described how seeing the Spice Girls on MTV transformed him.
“I wanted to have a voice,” Montgomery said. “I wanted to be loud and brash and in your face and not care what people thought about me. I wanted to be spicy. I want to be clear, outside of the Spice Girls I have an impeccable taste in music. I’m always two drinks away from a Joni Mitchell tattoo.”
Feeling alone and vulnerable at his first job as a teacher in a new city, Montgomery decided to make a spicy move. He quit his job, bought tickets to all of the Spice Girls U.S. shows (22 in all) and spent the next few months living off his savings, or as he jokingly called it, his “Spice Girl reunion tour fund.”
Montgomery went on a thrilling adventure, putting videos of himself on tour in a blonde Baby Spice wig on YouTube, where he amassed a fanbase of his own. This eventually led him to a place he never thought he would be, taking photos on a runway with one of the Spice Girls.
“It’s a Spice World,” Montgomery said. “We just live in it.”
Next up was Suzie Afridi, who shared a touching tale of her estrangement from her family for loving the wrong person. Growing up in the Greek Christian faith in the West Bank, Afridi was told to avoid Muslims, and absolutely forbidden from falling in love with one. She remembered regularly hearing stories about women who were disowned or killed for loving a Muslim.
Cut to many years later, when a 26-year-old Afridi, now living in the United States, locked eyes with a man with eyes as green “as expensive olive oil.”
“This guy is talking, and all I’m thinking is, ‘Please be Christian, please be Christian, please be Christian,’” Afridi said. “And then somewhere in the words were Pashtun and Pakistan. My heart sank. Olive Oil is Muslim.”
This did not stop her from falling in love with the man who eventually became her husband. Her family, however, was scandalized by the marriage. That was the beginning of a very difficult time for Afridi, who was ultimately disowned by her family at the hands of her brother-in-law. “In that moment, I hated the fact that a closed-minded man could have any say over my destiny, could have any authority over me,” she said. “It made me so sick.”
Phyllis Bowdwin, the next storyteller, shared a nasty encounter with a misogynistic mime. During her walk to lunch one day, Bowdwin walked through a seemingly innocent crowd and became an unwilling spectacle in a show that assaulted women, young and old, for a laugh. Bowdwin became the victim of the mime, who groped her in full view of a crowd of people, with no one coming forward to stop him.
“I went up to the cafeteria where they were serving my favorite, turkey tetrazzini, and I went through the motions. I bought it, I sat down at the table, but I couldn’t speak or eat. I had just been blindsided, bullied, and blatantly violated by a strange man in the street. With the approval of hordes of other strangers. And the very idea that I had no recourse, no way of defending or protecting myself, left me feeling so powerless that I wanted to cry.”
But Phyllis Bowdwin is not someone who sits back and cries when faced with injustices. She marched back into the scene where she was so recently traumatized, and surprised her attacker with a can of pepper spray, ending his reign of terror for the day and disbanding the complicit crowd.
Vineyarder Cynthia Riggs rounded off the evening with her tale of timeless love, recounting the romance of her second marriage to Howard Attebery.
It started with her first internship, counting plankton in a lab in California. This being the ’50s, she was the only woman in the lab, and her coworkers, she described, “had been counting plankton for too long.” They started playing practical jokes on her, until one of the scientists got them off her back.
For the rest of the four months, the two passed notes in code on pieces of paper towels. Then, when her internship ended, she headed back East, and he remained in California.
Over 60 years later, Cynthia received a package in the mail containing all of their notes, with a new one added to the bunch, “I’ve never stopped loving you.” With encouragement from Cynthia’s Wednesday writers group, they became pen pals, which soon led to meeting in person.
Two hours after Cynthia flew out to San Diego to meet Howard, he proposed with a paper cigar ring. He knew that she didn’t like jewelry, but she said she’d make an exception for rings. They spent the next five years on Martha’s Vineyard, enjoying the short time they would have together.
Howard passed away on Feb. 1, 2017, with Cynthia by his side. After his death, Cynthia was at a baptism and saw a child running down along the pews. She knew that Howard will always be with her, but it reminded her that life goes on.
“The Moth” is a live storytelling series with events around the country. For more information, visit themoth.org.