A New Voice

I have always loved words. But I did not always love poems. It took years before the brilliant insights embedded in a poem began to seep into me. It would take another decade before I would dare to share poems with my students. Now when I find a quote or poem rich in wisdom, I like sharing them with others. But they are not always well received. A lesson I learned from Emma.

A few weeks ago, I was caught up in teaching story writing to a dynamic group of fifteen storytellers. In this Zoom writing workshop there were eight women with cancer; two of them had stage four and were, of course, unsettled by their diagnosis. Three women, all from California, were cancer survivors who wanted to write their stories. Two women had lost their spouses and wanted to write about their dramatically different losses–one wanted to honor her loss, and the other wanted to help others escape the nightmare she had endured. There was Maria with razor sharp insights, and there was Emma, both beautiful and a bit befuddled.

One day I shared with them my favorite poem, “The Journey” by Mary Oliver. We read it. We wrote about it.  Midway through a robust discussion, Maria lifted her head, shoved a huge curl out of her face, and read these words,

there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

“I love these words from the poem for this struggle is the struggle we all have. I think I am finding my voice, and it lifts you up, changes you, to find your voice.”

Emma’s turquoise eyes flickered, and then she unexpectedly popped on her Zoom mic, and her voice had an urgency that was new.  “I want a voice.  But I can’t always understand what is being said.  I read the poem, and I want it to make sense to me, but I don’t get it.” She paused and bit her lip, looking down with a shadow cutting across her face. “As a traumatic brain injury survivor, I get frustrated. When I don’t understand things, I don’t know how I can find my voice.”

I understood her pain. I think we all did. But her words carried me back to a time when I felt my voice had been ripped out of me. Haven’t we all had that experience? For me it was in a medical office, a box-like room that felt like a coffin, where I met an awkward radiologist who stammered my fate, “You—you—you have breast cancer.” In the coming days life became a dark rabbit’s hole that I had tumbled into.

For months I struggled to find the words to talk about my cancer. Indeed, I found solace in a bright red journal. On those pages I raised questions, poured out my fears, and shared painful memories of test after test, physician after physician, and surgery after surgery. In that time, I would see my ninety-year-old mother’s scars from losing her breasts. In that time, I would lose both my breasts. In that time, I would cry and struggle to find my way forward. But I did. Cancer changed me, and my writing in the bright red journal was a huge part of this. It took time, but word by word I found my way back. I found my voice, perhaps a new voice.

Yesterday, as I finished teaching my writers, each one read her story. Even Emma.  She read about her struggle with her traumatic brain injury. She explained that the biggest surprise came when she returned to her first-grade teaching job, a job she had loved. It proved impossible. She read of her struggle to make dinner for her three children. Possible but hard.  She talked of wanting to understand a beautiful poem but acknowledged she could only learn about it from others. She explained how hard it is to be this new person who tries to understand and often doesn’t—but sometimes surprises herself. She described her new life as a puzzle that needed to be put together. Some days the pieces fit. Some days not so much.

When she finished there were tears. Her tears. Our tears. In this way we welcomed another beautiful, reclaimed new voice.

The Little Orange Book

“Oh the places you will go!” said Dr Seuss. For me, books are a way of discovering new places. A way of meeting new and interesting people. A way of learning how to grow and change. Books can change us, but the path can be an uphill climb. Or not.

It did not start well for me. In first grade I was uprooted from a school I loved and moved to Southport Elementary. My dad’s dream of starting an engineering business with a friend vanished when his partner unexpectedly had a heart attack. Suddenly, Dad needed a paycheck. While his transition to an engineering job in Indianapolis went well, my transition was a bit bumpy.

At nearly six-feet-tall, Mrs. Walker, my new first grade teacher, intimidated me. Every strand of her blond hair was pulled into a tight bun. She tediously scratched her directions on the board. As Billy Schrader used to say, “She has a stare that can knock you flat.”

One day after reading groups, in front of the entire class, Mrs. Walker asked me, to read aloud from the yellow reader. I felt like she had spit nails at me. My face turned red, and I covered it with my hands to shield myself from the slings and arrows of her words–as well as the stares of my new peers. I could not move. I could not even open my mouth.

Immediately, Mrs. Walker explained she was moving me from one reading group to another.  She used names like, “You are moving from the red bird group to the blue birds.” While I was only six, I knew I was being demoted from the high reading group to a lower group—and all of my new classmates were staring at me with pity. Even Billy Schrader, the class bully.

To this day I can call up the shame of how that moment felt. At six, I was painfully shy, and I had no understanding of how to stand up for myself and explain that I could read every darn word (all 15 of them) in the yellow reader. But I was scared. I told no one. I harbored the pain of my shyness and a fear of reading or speaking in front of others for a long time.

Then I met my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Vawter.  She wore a ring through her nose. Billie Shrader called her “the bull” until he realized you don’t mess with Mrs. Vawter. It took a couple of weeks and several parent conferences, but the woman got Billy Schrader under control. In the end I think Billy liked her. No one had ever made him behave.

And no one read like Mrs. Vawter. After lunch she often read to us from the little orange biography books about the lives of Abe Lincoln or Betsy Ross. She pretended to be the characters, even the animals. When she would clomp across the room like a horse, we shrieked our approval.  I started checking out a little orange biography each night and reading it. On the day I turned in the book on Helen Keller, Mrs. Vawter announced to the class I was a “voracious reader.” Of course, no one knew what that meant, so she laughed and then asked me to share the story of Helen Keller.

For a moment I stood there frozen in my shyness. Now, I loved that little orange book, and Mrs. Vawter knew I did. It took a long hard moment, but somehow I broke past my wall of silence and began to tell that story like I had been born to tell it. With passion. I told about how illness at a young age had stripped Helen Keller of her sight and her hearing, and how Annie Sullivan came into her life and helped her learn words and how to communicate. I talked the longest I had ever talked in any class.  I spoke with the fire of inspiration, for I loved this story.

When I was done, I realized my classmates were staring at me in disbelief, and Billy Shrader announced, “Wow, she speaks!” There was laughter, and it is my first memory of my classmates smiling at me. It felt good.

Mrs. Vawter ushered me into books and stories that inspired me. She helped me to find and share my voice. The story of Helen Keller struggling to understand and communicate with others was an important one for me. Being painfully shy allowed me to relate with her communication struggle, and as I watched her overcome obstacles, I wanted to be like her and overcome my own struggles.  I am grateful for the inner courage she helped me find.

Being in the Moment

I think the ocean was my first teacher of “be in the present.”  As a child, my family would race to the Atlantic Ocean every summer to meet up with my cousins. There we ate hot dogs dripping with mustard and battled the waves that seemed as tall as skyscrapers. We howled at the stories of green-winged monsters my brother dug from his imagination, and we played Monopoly long past our bedtimes. I can see those memories like a Panavision film in my mind. I remember them vividly because I was there. In the moment. Children are so good at being present.

Over these many years, there was a move. A job. A new husband. Children. Life becomes hurried and fast. We forget how to hold a moment and the magic of it.

In my forties, I took a class on meditation to slow me down. It did. A bit. I liked how it taught me the importance of my breath. Later I read The Miracle of Mindfulness by the master of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hahn. I wanted to like it, but at that time I could not embrace the thinking. But the message lingered in my mind.

In the book, Nhat Hahn describes his experience decades ago as a young novice monk at Tu Hieu Pagoda where he was assigned daily to wash the dishes for over one hundred monks. Without soap he had to use ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks to clean the dishes. During the winter when the water was freezing cold, he had to heat a big pot of water before he could begin scrubbing. It must have been a Herculean task. But he allowed the experience to be his teacher. He wrote:

“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on simple things? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality.”

The great teacher explained that when his friend Jim came to visit, he asked to do the dishes. Thich Nhat Hahn explained that first Jim needed to learn how to do the dishes. This must have puzzled Jim as it did me. Jim was told by the great monk, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim understood the wisdom in choosing “to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” But I was baffled.

I was a young mother with two high-energy sons who needed my attention, a husband who was struggling to build a business and days filled with 150 high school students. I could not conceive of spending time “in the moment” with the dishes. I just wanted them clean—and now!

But the wisdom of the monk had seeded in me. While it would take years, his thinking began to make sense. It is important to try and be here fully in what we do. Even when washing the dishes.  Last week at the beach with my grandkids, I relearned this lesson. Two-year-old Evy came up to me. She had been sculpting sandcastles all morning. With joy she handed me a ball of wet, gooey sand. She glowed like her gift was gold.

Without words Evy had communicated the beauty of being in the here and now at the beach. I knew what to do. I tossed my book aside, and I joined her, digging my fingers deep into the gritty sand. Seeing the joy on Evy’s face as I sculpted a new castle with her, I felt the power of being at the beach when you are at the beach. I will try to remember this even when I wash the dishes.

This morning I found my old copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness. In it Thick Nhat Hahn wrote: “If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we . . . are sucked away into the future–and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”

I am grateful that this idea is taking hold in me. In truth I have always embraced the future and made plans for it. That will never stop being important to me. In writing in my journal, I value being able to reflect on my life and how to make it fuller and richer. But finally, I am making more room for building sandcastles and magical moments.  May we live and celebrate what we have now.