One of the first speaking gigs I ever had was in Dothan, Alabama. It was at the Houston County Public Library, and I did not want to be there.
At the time, I had been writing this column for a few years and had a couple books published. I had not done ANY public speaking. I was very worried that I’d make a fool of myself.
The fact is, I can always be counted on to make a moderate fool of myself. As a boy, for instance, my friend’s mother, Miss Martha, used to always tell me, “Think before you speak, Sean.” She was a cantankerous lady who was always saying this to me.
I had no idea what it meant at such a young age. After all, my usual policy was to think AFTER I spoke, when I had more free time available for reflection. But years later, I discovered what Miss Martha truly meant. She meant that I should shut up.
I wish Miss Martha would have just come out and said that. It would have saved me a lot of embarrassment later in life. Because I wasn’t aware that she was absolutely right about me. My mouth did frequently make a fool out of me.
Like the one Sunday at church when I was supposed to read the scripture verse that would be the topic of the preacher’s sermon. A lay person always read the Bible verse before the preacher’s sermon and that week it was my turn.
My mother had written my verse on an index card and tucked it into a Bible so that all I had to do was open the Bible and read the bold letters on the card. But somehow I lost the card. And when I opened the Bible I had no idea where the verse and chapter were located. So I just read from the open page. It was Proverbs 21:9, which read:
“Better to live on a roof than to share a house with a quarrelsome woman.”
One old man in the back stood and shouted, “AMEN BROTHER!”
That was the last time I ever read scripture in church. And it was that very day that Miss Martha’s word’s came back to me. She had me figured out. I had the uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I still do. And I am not exaggerating.
Anyway, I’ll never forget that day in Dothan. The library’s back room was sort of small and there were chairs lined up from the front of to the back. I was convinced it was going to be a disastrous day.
For starters, I didn’t think anyone was going to show up. I thought there would maybe be a few folks huddled around a Bunn coffee machine. I thought that basically I would make a dork out of myself before a three-person audience, then sweep the rest of my dignity into a dustpan and go home.
But that day the library’s room filled up with people until it was standing room only. I started to bawl like a baby. Where did THEY come from? And WHY were they here? Then I took the microphone. I was trembling. I gulped. And I said the first thing that came to my mind:
“I just flew in from Atlanta and, boy, are my arms tired.”
No. I’m only kidding. To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember what I said. I was so nervous I wanted to puke.
But the audience was so gracious. Since I had no idea what I was doing, many audience members sort of guided me through my half-cocked presentation. I’d finish reading one of my stories, then I’d ask the crowd, “What should I do next?”
And one lady would say, “Why don’t you sing something to us?”
So I’d pick up my guitar and sing. Then I’d finish and ask people what I ought to do after that.
One guy shouted, “Read that one story about the dog in the barn…”
This is how it went for an hour and a half. And when I was done my nerves were completely shot. And I was STILL sick, even though it was all over. When we got to our hotel room, there was a hot tub downstairs by the pool. I got into the hot tub and I just cried and cried for a long time. I never expected the day to go like that. It had been one of the most beautiful days of my entire life.
Since then, I’ve spoken in Dothan several times. I’ve even spoken at the Episcopalian church for Wednesday night potlucks where a sweet old woman once offered me—this is true—a shot of Wild Turkey before I went on stage.
But if I can get serious for a second, I’ve realized something over the last several years. Something I wish I would have known earlier in life:
It’s okay to make a fool out of yourself. It’s even okay not to “think before you speak.” Not everyone is meant to be polished and well-spoken. Some of us were supposed to be quirky, different, a little too easy to cry, too talkative, too naive, and maybe even kind of foolish. And I think that’s okay.
So, if Miss Martha is out there reading this right now, there’s one thing I’d like to tell her:
I’d rather live on a roof than share a house with a quarrelsome woman.