Mission Impossible

‘You are not what has happened to you. You are how you have overcome it.’

So says Beau Taplin, a self-published author from Melbourne, Australia.

He also wrote, “Your body is not a temple. Temples can be destroyed and desecrated. Your body is a forest — thick canopies of maple trees and sweet scented wildflowers sprouting in the underwood. You will grow back, over and over, no matter how badly you are devastated.”

Could it be true? Is the human spirit and body strong like the roots of those 100 year-old trees in California? I wish I had known it then.

Today, I am going to tell you a story, about an impossible mission – a mission to do; a speech. I belong to three Toastmasters (public speaking) clubs in Melbourne. You would think that getting a speech out is easy.

But first – when was the last time you were in hospital?

I have not been a hospital patient since I was born. I’m 28, but my metabolic age – the age of my body on the inside – is 12. I’m pretty energetic. Because of my dance background, I get back pain if I sit in a chair for too long. Otherwise, I’m pretty healthy.

So you can imagine my dismay when in April, for three weeks, I suffered from two periods, a lingering urinary tract infection, or UTI, and the flu. I was helpless, impatient and I hated my own body and immunity system.

This bewildering period began on Monday, 30th March, in the week leading up to Easter Sunday. It began with a period. In a way, that’s life to a woman – a series of blood flows, interspersed by breaks. I had been taking The Pill inconsistently. So I wasn’t surprised when it happened. What surprised me was its length – 6 days of heavy blood flow. And on the 5th day, that Friday, I began going to the loo every ten minutes. I recognised what it was immediately – a UTI. I thought, “Oh God. I’ve got to go to the clinic.”

Concurrently, this is what was going on in my personal and Toastmasters life. I was trying to get my bond back from my former landlord. I thought that a speech on tenancy rights would be perfect for Project 4: The Fact-Finding Report, a project in the Speaking To Inform manual. I scheduled it for Tuesday, 7th April, at South Yarra Toastmasters. Going into Easter Sunday, I thought, “I’m bleeding, peeing constantly and I’m taking a landlord to court. But I’m going to enjoy myself.” So I planned a super Easter Sunday – coffee and board games with a friend in the morning, tea and a walk with friends in South Melbourne and a date in the evening.

Only two of these three events ended up occurring. Sitting in Uffizi Café in Caulfield with my friend Thomas, that Sunday morning, building monasteries, roads and castles using tiles, I remember saying, “Do they have soup? I’m feeling a little something in my throat.” We both had chicken and vegetable soup. I had a good time – people kept coming over and asking, “What are you playing?” I’m a proud ambassador of board games.

I also had a gut feeling – that I shouldn’t go for that walk. Don’t you hate feeling left out? I kept thinking how nice the invitation sounded. So I went for the walk. It was the last time I would enjoy myself for a whole week.

By the time I got home on Sunday afternoon, the little thing in my throat had morphed into a full-blown cold. I texted my date saying, “I sound like Kermit the Frog. Maybe we should put this off.” Wisely, he agreed. The date wasn’t the only thing that got put off. I shifted the speech from Tuesday, 7th April at South Yarra to Monday, 13th April, at Ivanhoe Toastmasters. I titled it, “Fair, Efficient Justice For All Victorians.” How bad was the flu? Well I went to the meeting at South Yarra anyway and played the role of Grammarian. (say in a croaky voice): “The word of the day is Exemplary.” One of my club mates said, “Do you have a shocking cold, Tara?” And nobody wanted to sit beside me.

Just stay home, Tara. I spent the rest of the week cooped up in my tiny bedroom in Kew, ingesting Claratyne, lemon water and tea. But even through the rain, there are little rays of sunshine. Four, in fact:

  • My housemate and landlord fed me lunch and dinner
  • I wrote another speech, for the same manual
  • My Toastmasters friends kept texting me, offering words of support to keep my spirits up. It’s so good to have friends! One even offered to attend the court hearing with me.
  • The bond money went into my account on Tuesday, 7th I withdrew the case from VCAT.

On Thursday, 9th April, I got a text from my mentor and Vice-President Education at Ivanhoe Toastmasters, Anna Ballinger. She wanted to talk about the meeting on the 13th April. Gregarious lady with curly blonde hair. She’s like an Energizer Bunny. And she injected me with enthusiasm at the right time.

“Hey sweetie! The Toastmaster of the evening has chosen dancing as the theme of the meeting. Are you sure you don’t want to do The Demonstration Talk about dancing? Let’s belly dance, baby!”

The Demonstration Talk is Project 3 from Speaking To Inform. I have always thought that it would be the trickiest project out of the manual. It had to be done at some point. I knew that the only thing I would be truly confident in demonstrating was dance. The other thing is, Anna Ballinger is Toastmasters royalty. If you received an invitation to have tea with the Queen of England, would you refuse?

Sitting at my desk in pajamas that I had been wearing for three days, I put my ‘legal’ file away and closed the Word file on “Fair, Efficient Justice for All Victorians.” I quickly drafted a speech on demonstrating how to belly dance, my first dance style. Anna came over on Saturday to coach me with the speech. She plonked herself on my bed and said, “I’m so glad you’re not doing a speech on justice or the law or whatever it was!” After we rehearsed, she left me with, “You’re going to get better, and you’re going to be fabulous!”

Jesus. Can you imagine sounding like Kermit the Frog and being told to perform a speech full of body language, and your mentor telling you, “In three days, you’re going to go out there and kill it!”

The night before the speech, I went to the loo one last time and there it was – blood. My second period in three weeks. I only discovered later that taking UTI medication reduces the effectiveness of The Pill. But the show must go on. The worst of the cold was over, but I still had mucous in my throat. I also had good support – a supportive VPE and cameraman – and an attention-grabbing costume – a white crop top, black lace pants and a pink scarf wrapped around my waist.

When I walked into the East Ivanhoe Bowling Club that night, that’s when it hit me. ‘Am I really going to belly dance in front of four Distinguished Toastmasters?’ As everyone started seating themselves around the U-shaped table, Anna walked up to me and said, “Can you speak?”

“A little.”

I gave my evaluator, Mark Cowan-Aston, the manual. He frowned and said,

“What’s this?”

“It’s my manual.”

“I’m not evaluating you.”

“Yes you are.”

“I was looking forward to evaluating Brendan Farrell.”

Too bad mate. You asked for Brendan Farrell, and you got Tara Rahman.

The Toastmaster, Matthew Barlow, the man who had chosen dancing as the theme and had accidentally gotten me into this situation, introduced me:

“Tara Rahman is doing Project 3: The Demonstration Talk from Advanced Manual, Speaking To Inform. She is not 100 per cent tonight so she apologizes if she sounds a bit nasal. She is going to ask the audience for a few minutes of assistance. She says she can’t do it without you.”

I smiled, and began the speech:

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“No you don’t,” interrupted someone from the crowd. Everybody laughed. I had one awkward moment when I had to refer to my notes but somehow…I powered through. I described how I got into belly dance, the main benefit of dancing, and covered the elements of belly dance – chest, arms, hips and footwork.

Mark, my evaluator got up and said,

“I have been a Toastmaster for 9 years. I thought I’d seen everything. Until today. Tara, you smashed it.”

The Ivanhoe Toasties are still talking about my speech. Just before the next meeting, I parked, got out of the car and walked up to the bowling club. Anthony Browne got out of his car. I said, “Hi.” He said, “Not wearing one of your costumes today?”

“No…oh, can you please erase the memory of that speech from your brain?”

I had bared some skin in front of champion speakers and 4 DTMs. Of course I was embarrassed.

“I don’t think anyone is ever going to forget that speech.”

And throughout the meeting, people kept going back to that speech in conversations with me. “That was an amazing speech, Tara.”

What does my experience show? Sometimes, you have to make a speech in imperfect conditions. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t work. Your spirit and your body can surprise you. I’m not just talking about energy levels; I’m also talking about vocal chords. One of the amazing things about the speech was that my evaluator praised my vocal projection, which I thought would have surely been severely affected by the flu. The other thing is, you have to be flexible. You can end up writing three speeches in a short space of time and have to shuffle them around clubs, to suit the moment and audience. By the way, I did eventually perform that speech on tenancy rights, at South Yarra Toastmasters on April 28. It went well.

‘You are not what has happened to you. You are how you have overcome it.’