Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
April 2008 - Volume 08, No. 4
Having One's Own Voice
It was a simple but intense battle - between some virus and my immune system. For two weeks, laryngitis and a hacking cough dominated my waking and sleeping hours. Halls Mentholyptus by day and Vicks Vaporub by night, were but a shabby defense. I cut back my client load, especially so the erratic coughing bouts could remain more private than social. But what disconcerted me most - was that I couldn’t count on my own voice!
Sometimes I could only cough when I wanted to speak - or even when I just wanted to breathe. Sometimes there was very little volume - just painful sounding air. There were those moments when to speak took three or four times as much energy - hardly seeming worth it. My vocal cords were on a capricious work-refusal strike! My body recalled an old recurring dream - of trying to push against hard felt, of struggling and getting nowhere.
Sniffling and sneezing this time were graciously minimal - and rarely social. Yet my out-in-the-world work is dependent on my voice - my spoken voice. It seems some “teacher” is at work here.
Consequently it’s been a time of much pondering - of paying attention for lessons at hand. This is the progression of my inquiry:
1) The human voice can be a powerful thing. Our Creation Story, from the Old Testament Book of Genesis, has the Lord God speaking - and whatever God spoke, came into existence. This is more than just conversation, folks. It’s closer to the sorcery of Merlin’s “Words of Making” (in the Arthurian legends).
From the Inuit (Eskimo), Nalungiaq, comes the following favorite of mine:
In the very earliest time, when both people and animals lived on earth, a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals and there was no difference. All spoke the same language. That was the time when words were like magic. The human mind had mysterious powers. A word spoken by chance might have strange consequences. It would suddenly come alive and what people wanted to happen could happen - all you had to do was say it. Nobody can explain this: That's the way it was.
2) We live in a culture that has become lazy with words. Few people memorize anything (we’d rather use a computer’s ‘memory’). An interesting bibliophile friend of many years ago, Clarence H. Young of Flint, now sadly gone and missed, would get on the phone with me and recite poem after poem from memory - while I would pull down books from my poet shelf to read along. He insisted that in order to ‘know’ a poem, it must be memorized - and he lived those words. Our mutual love of W.B.Yeats easily overcame our divergent political leanings in those years (the early ‘70s).
3) Around that same time, as I was just turning thirty, I recall a sense that my own words could finally have some authority. (My son insists that’s far too long to wait.) But I’ve carried a sense that one must deserve to have one’s words heard - and that deserving at its best comes from a life of attention and discipline. And like one’s own name, the authority (sic!) of one’s voice cannot be given to oneself, but is granted by others.
4) To use words is a hallmark of being human. We have a natural ability to speak - a part of our genetic heritage - and in numerous cases, that ability is quite independent of any corresponding wisdom. First, we learn to speak to get our needs met. Then we learn to speak to get things accomplished. Words are used to get things done (masculine), and to relate to each other (feminine). Then with maturity, comes the greater use of words - for the sake of others, to enhance life. Our voice becomes a gift to the community, to the culture.
5) Our voice can be used to contend, as it were, in battle. Much of the early history of our Republic is recounted in the use of words-of-power in the struggle for our new nation. Currently the patriot, Patrick Henry is being remembered - even by the US Postal Service! (Yes, the Mail once primarily transmitted important words.)
6) Then there is that speaking in the face of those who may not welcome our voice. I’m referring to the common phrase, “speaking truth to power,” which involves speaking critically to authority. The original concept comes through the Quaker tradition, which implies a willingness to speak one’s truth and stand defenselessin the winds that then may blow from the corridors of power.
7) So now the circle stands complete. Having one’s voice begins to involve one’s vulnerability. To speak only in safety is rarely to speak one’s own voice. One’s own true voice may speak on behalf of the safety of others, but not for oneself.
A compelling lesson emerges. It feels like awaking from a long sleep:
Like love - having it always risks the losing of it. As love matures, so increases the acceptance and agony of it’s loss. As we mature in the gaining of our own voice, so does the risk, and the glory, of losing - everything.
"Magic Words" after Nalungiaq - from Robert Bly's News of the Universe, (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980), p.258: [from Edward Field: "Magic Words," after Nalungiaq. From Songs and Stories of the Netsilik Eskimos, edited by Edward Field.]
Now, my voice is once again clear.
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