Using My Voice: to Sing, Whisper, or Roar?

I’m standing on a stage in a converted Vaudeville theatre. The house is empty. It’s the final week of dress rehearsal for The Drowsy Chaperone and I am belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glide with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I plant my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I take a deep breath, open my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. The director’s face freezes in horror as I cough and gasp, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager runs toward me with a bottle of water and I drink, but I still cannot squeeze a sound out of my throat. I end the song with tears streaming down my face. There’s no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome, had undergone prosthesis surgery to replace, was my undoing, just two days before opening night.

I’m standing on a stage in a church auditorium. I am flanked on both sides by middle-aged men, and I clasp my husband’s hand tightly as he bares his soul to the congregation, laying down his ministry, our mission, and our livelihood for a crowd of over 1,000 church members. Their eyes are wide and my spirit is shattered; the only sound in the room is my husband’s broken and trembling voice as he confesses his sex addiction for the whole world to see. I have nothing to say, and wouldn’t be permitted to speak anyhow. My church preaches and practices the silencing of women.

I’m standing on a stage in another sanctuary, an earlier one, clad in white satin. It’s a different brand of church that allows my voice to speak not only my wedding vows but also to sing all the love I feel for my new husband that day. We sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. We mean it. My voice rings clear and true that afternoon, it is quite beautiful. As I sing, I trust that my uncle and grandfather will keep my mentally ill and drug-addicted mother calm. She has hinted at a scene in my dressing room and again as I hand her a rose during the processional. For a few minutes, I stop worrying about her to bask in my husband’s blue-eyed adoration.

I’m standing on a stage in my senior year of high school, performing the song “Memory” from Cats for the Senior Farewell Talent Show. My accompanist is absent, having not found the sheet music in her bag. I sing a cappella after the speech teacher gives me a pep talk just before the lights turn on my frightened face. I haven’t yet learned that my voice is resonant and strong enough to make a melody without the help of a piano, without the crutch of another person on stage with me. I stand in the spotlight all alone and sing of moonlight and beauty, skipping the final verse when my nerve abandons me. After the talent show, my mother slaps me in front of what feels like the whole school, and I sense the heat of all those curious, sympathetic eyes as I flee to the shared dressing rooms, where my friends form a barricade to protect me from my own mother as she rages.

I’m standing on a different sort of stage, not a stage really, but oh-so-exposed anyway. In my own backyard, between the side of the house and the neighbor’s fence, my six-year-old self pulls down my pants and allows a little boy to put his tiny erect penis in between my legs. He sticks his tongue in my mouth, his friends watch, and I can utter no sound. I am silent. When it’s over, I hide in my room and cry. He does it again, then again, and I never speak a word. I stay silent and I suffer shame.

But my first time on a stage is joyous, though still quiet. My beloved Uncle Steve, who performs at Six Flags Over Texas in the early ’70s, invites me to sing with him at the final rehearsal of the amusement park’s Crazy Horse Saloon. Only six years old, I never utter even a peep. Yet it is so profound a moment that I will always know that I was wearing my white tennis dress that had red and blue edging and looked just like something Billie Jean King would wear. I will always recall the encouraging expressions of the invited audience as I gape and stare. No trauma, just stage fright and an introverted little girl.

So quiet. In so many key moments of my life, I have locked my heart, soul, and voice up tight. Lips compressed. Spirit screaming, though. Screaming, wailing, thrashing, and hurting. No more. No, no more. I am learning to speak my truth, from the small honesty of what I do or don’t want to eat when with my family to calling congressmen to press for justice; from expressing, rather than clutching, hurt feelings to setting a boundary to protect myself from a tyrannical boss. And when the spoken word is not sufficient unto the task, I write my soul’s truth, pouring heart and mind into words that I sometimes share.

I am discovering that being quiet is okay. Quiescence is beautiful, it implies a hush that is grounded in rest. But healthy tranquility is not the same as resentful placidity. Living quietly, in a place of hope, requires muscular work. Diligent mindfulness. Rigorous self-examination. The Divine Creator, She who holds our hearts and minds in such compassion, is present in our quiet; is heard best when we are still. And it is Her voice that can either sing, whisper, or roar through me if I will but avail myself of Her power and courage.

My voice returned in time for opening night, by the way. I belted about bluebirds and “dawn’s blinding sunbeams” as though I’d never known a day of vocal cord paralysis in my life. But underneath my voice was a support network not just of muscle and lung, but of love from family and friends, and the breath of the Creator.

0*8xZ3ZaeviM1P5w0G

 

My New Avatar and My #CuratedLife

Cartoon versions of all my friends permeated my Facebook feed this week as the social media behemoth dropped its new avatar feature. Not one to miss an opportunity to immortalize myself in pixels, I tried to create mine without much success until I humbled myself, resorting to asking publicly for how-to instructions. I managed to get her created, and figured out how to save just one sticker, see exhibit above. I am finally getting a handle on Twitter and now TikTok is in the mix? Nope. No way. I fell in love with Facebook eleven years ago, here’s my first post, in fact, from March 25, 2008:

I have evolved from silly posts like that one, with some stops along the way for oversharing or airing professional grievances online, in an effort to live a truthful life. Now I am more judicious about where that truthful life really belongs. I have gotten better at using filters and hashtags and presenting my best public self. Mostly.

About five years ago, I found Pinterest, and I could, if I let myself, scroll through pinning pictures of beautiful living rooms and historical costuming all day long. I have boards called General Geekery (for Star Trek and Harry Potter), The Democratic Diva (mostly inspirational quotes about my core values), and Women I Adore (Obama, Streep, and Alcott). I save photos from Gilmore Girls and Supernatural and I have a new board called “It’s a Grand Baby!” That’s where I save a ridiculous number of nursery décor pins and ideas for entertaining one’s grandkids.

And now…Instagram. It’s my most recent foray into social media. It’s so dreamy! Here is where meals are perfectly plated, fashions are always forward, and delightful dogs make me smile. This is also where my favorite authors send what I pretend are personal exhortations and juicy little details about their lives (Did you know Glennon Doyle loses her keys all the time, just like me? We are so sympatico!)

No, really. My BFFS are Liz Gilbert, Brene’ Brown, Martha Beck, Glennon Doyle, Cheryl Strayed, and Oprah. All of them. They talk to me every day on Instagram. And podcasts! How could I not mention podcasts? Magic Lessons, SuperSoul, Robcast, On Being, What Women Want; these podcasts fill me up! I have a whole other genre that I love, spooky podcasts like Lore and Pleasing Terrors.

Here’s the thing about all this social media, all this curation: while I am a little bewildered, my daughters get it. In spades. It’s just how they live.

My son posts interesting memes that reveal his offbeat sense of humor and explore his love of interesting indie music. When my older daughter hits a gorgeous yoga pose, she somehow manages to photograph it and post it on Insta with just the right hashtag. For my senior pictures, I wore a fluffy pale blue boa and sat in front of a swirly brown background with the photographer hired by my school. For my younger daughter’s senior pictures, she scheduled two photographers and an independent studio space, complete with multiple changes of clothes, a variety of backgrounds, and my yellow bicycle with silk flowers wired to its basket.

When I was in my twenties, if Instagram had existed, it would have been full of photos of me dripping milk all over the front of my shirt or char-marked skillets full of cheeseburger macaroni Hamburger Helper (I grew up on the stuff, I raised my kids on it, and I still love it, I don’t care what anyone says). My wedding would have needed about $10,000 more to spend so that I could have all the details that make for perfect pins. My kids’ birthday parties would had to have been bigger and louder so they would stand out on Facebook and they’d get #invited to all the #coolkids parties.

I am so glad I didn’t live my twenties that way.

Though I sure as hell am doing my fifties that way! I have learned about hashtags pretty recently and I am working to figure out which ones grab attention; because now I am actively trying to create a new life- an author’s life- and I feel like I need to learn what resonates. It’s not that I am being disingenuous, nor am I trying to use people; but I am working to be a storyteller, and in the year 2020, that simply doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I have been known to post some sweaty, unflattering photos of myself, but I still keep trying to figure out the perfect angle to get a good selfie (what my mother in law charmingly called “facies” early on). When I walk outside, I am always looking for just the right bit of nature to photograph to add to my online presence, to cultivate the recognition and love of daily magic that I think is my calling. I use my bright yellow bike as a prop for my “brand,” even though I worked an acting gig eight years ago to save up for it, long before I had any knowledge of Instagram, WordPress, or Medium; or any idea that I would make a career change that would lead me to want to write and require “branding.”

Here’s where I have landed on all this social media stuff: it is, for me, a gift. I can stay in touch with childhood and college friends and see baby photos of my cousins’ infants. I can post requests for advice on taking care of plants, and one of my green-thumbed buddies will help. I can see the creative work my friends are up to: wire-wrapped jewelry, nature photography, writing, or acting. I can be inspired by the aforementioned authors/encouragers. I can feel a moment of gratitude and share it unironically, with the hashtag #lovemylife.

When I feel super courageous, I can post that photo that shows the realest me: wrinkles and spots and squish and dark eye circles.

I love the online stuff, it’s like a scrolling scrapbook. I can click on any year in my Facebook timeline, and I am instantly transported. What was I doing? Where were my kids? Who did I go to eat sushi with? Why did I wear that?

Of course, there is danger in the temptation to live and love only that way, so I take care. Take care to set the phone down. Take care to look into my husband’s real eyes, not just the ones saved in countless photos in my online accounts; all while he hugs me tight. Photos of gorgeous dinners aren’t nourishing, only in the eating and sharing do we savor the flavors and reap the nutrients. Snapchat pics of our loved ones, no matter how silly the filters, don’t replace the need for touch, for listening to each other sigh or laugh or cry. Hashtag activism isn’t enough, action is required. And Pinterest images, those perfectly lit tableaux of exquisite home furnishings, can never outshine the comfort of our own homes, even if they’re cluttered or not perfectly staged. That’s life. Life is lived by being present.

Have you ever gotten lost in the world of social media, or made a big gaff there? Tell me about it!

(This piece originally appeared in The Fine Line/Prime Women online magazine:

https://primewomen.com/ )

 

I Hugged My Husband On Wednesday…

I hugged my husband on Wednesday. In a moment of crisis, I hugged him because I had to. It was hug him or hurt myself; desperately upset and out of practice, my head knocked sharply on his shoulder as I thrust myself toward him, and I discovered there had been nothing to be afraid of, after all. Oh, joy of joys! His strong hands stroked my back, his broad shoulder absorbed my tears, and I broke open just enough to look around. The world is full of beauty:

books dog-eared with affectionate reading, sunshine sparkling through jewel-colored crystals, juicy peaches, baby toes, the hum of summer locusts in the woods. A Chopin nocturne.

Fresh starts. Worn paths.

Dandelions. Doodlebugs.

Apologies accepted. Grace granted.

a645c770-0d9b-4f6f-805f-0014770f0752

Who knew that resilience, that trauma recovery, that learning to love who you are, would turn out to be a lifelong journey? That ugly voices once thought vanquished could worm their way back in? But beauty and power lay in reconnecting with the deepest part of our spirit. The part that, merged with the Divine, beseeches us, “Don’t listen to the Darkness! Behold the Light! The birds! Sparkling water and leafy trees! Those who love you, not because you’ve earned their love, but simply because YOU ARE.”

I hugged my husband on Wednesday. I accepted his love for me. Though still reluctant to be touched, I am aware of it; I’m still working on shaping my own love for me. But I know where to look to find it, for the Divine Creator is an infinite and persistent source of love.

dandelion 2

 

How a Green Dress and Kindness from a Teacher Saved Me After Sex Abuse

“As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her.”

Trigger warning: there is a description of a child sexual encounter.

Hiding behind the house, between the brick wall and the wooden privacy fence…summer air… evening fresh…crickets chirping…and these words: “If you don’t let me, I won’t be your friend, and no one else will, either.” At the age of seven, my neighbor, Donny, who was my same age and size, convinced me to let him put his penis in me and stick his tongue in my mouth. With his little brother and all his friends watching. In fact, he liked it so much the first time that he came back for a couple of repeats; and I, who was so desperately lonely, was too afraid to lose one of my only friends to say no.

After the negotiations were concluded, Donny and his friends led me behind my house, and he made me pull my pants down. I couldn’t look up, I just stared at the feet of the boys. I had seen boy penises before, I had two little brothers after all, but theirs had never been erect, and they’d never been near my own skin. I let him put his penis into the space between my naked legs as he stuck his tongue in my mouth and enacted adult sex. He didn’t really understand where the penis went, so he slid it between the lips of my genitals, and it felt wrong somehow. Even with absolutely no knowledge of what sex is, no prior instruction or indoctrination, I believe human children instinctively sense a problem. I believe their spirits rebel against the aberration of sexual exposure. Mine did, and it felt shame.

If I close my eyes, I still see his face, with its button nose, freckles, and missing teeth. His hair was light brown. I can sense shadows of the boys who were encircling us, serving as witnesses and guards.

I can only assume he’d witnessed his own parents having sex. Or worse, saw porn in his house.

I remember when I found out that all the neighbors knew. Donny’s neighbor Karen was my age, and I knocked on her door, which her mom answered. “Can Karen play?” I asked. Karen’s mom simply glared and answered, “Karen is not allowed to play with girls like you.” She called me “nasty,” then she slammed the door in my face. Of course, I knew what she meant because I carried the shame in body, mind, and spirit.

Donny’s brother had tattled, so he told his parents that I was the one who forced him, not the other way around. As a result, I spent the next year in nearly complete isolation. I rode my purple bicycle with the banana seat around the block or down to the elementary school playground, but I never got off and dropped my bike in a friend’s driveway so we could play. I never rode bikes in a cluster of loud, boisterous, giggling girls.

I had always been quiet and preferred playing with just one or two friends, but this isolation was different. It was forced, it was ongoing, and it was complete. It’s when I started really knowing true loneliness and hushed days.

There was just one house where I was welcome. Our next-door neighbors were older folks, probably in their seventies. I remember white hair and a white mustache, and a kind spirit. His wife rarely came outside, but she did send out snacks. All the neighbors called the gentleman “Grandpa,” though he was none of our biological grandparent, for he filled the role for the neighborhood kids. He kept a pool table in his garage, which was a safe haven for me; I was never kicked out of that room. Occasionally, I asked Grandpa how to hold the cue stick, and he helped me hit the ball. I remember the click-click of the billiard balls striking each other. It’s a sound that, to this day, puts me right back in that garage, next door to my lonely house and my tainted back yard.

Grandpa had a tree in his front yard, a locust, which grew long brown bean pods. I used to climb into the tree and eat the hard little beans, observing the other kids as they played. I spent a lot of time in that tree. It was safe. The garage was safe. Grandpa was safe.

I began drawing with my pencil, little naked figures of anatomically correct boys and girls, with pointed penises and sharp clefts. I kicked the dog. I hid the drawings. These were the first inklings of my rage– not a cute, prissy, toddler-style anger expressed with pursed lips, but a violent and potent fury which was almost always turned back on my own self.

Incurlers: A Vintage Hair Rollers Buying Guide

I felt compelled to punish myself. I can’t explain it, really, it didn’t come out of clear and methodical planning, but out of gut-level, molecular shame: I began to insert hair curlers into my vagina. These were not smooth plastic ones, they were made of wire and had some sort of sharp plastic prickles around them. Wincing, with eyes teary, I would push them up inside me, which was not easy. My skin and muscles rejected the intrusion, and I forced myself to hold them there for about thirty minutes. When I drug them out of me, they were always covered with blood and mucus.

There was another place where I sensed love: from my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover. She set up a classroom store where students used good behavior reward coupons to shop for treats, it opened for business once a week. Early in the year, my eyes fell upon a beautiful dress. It was a soft minty green with a fitted bodice and full tulle and organza skirt (I didn’t know any of that vocabulary as a seven-year-old, but I surely recognized beauty). The bodice had satin piping in three rows around the rib cage. It had been donated by someone’s mom, but as far as I was concerned it was delivered by an angel, sent as a gift from the Almighty God, just for me.

Vintage Student Reader  Mysterious Wisteria image 0

I started saving my behavior coupons like they were the very link to life itself. I was always a well-behaved child, so it was no struggle at all to mind my manners, take out my Mysterious Wisteria reader when told, and tidy my messes. I was quiet, though, and my extra special efforts could easily have been overlooked. When you’re good and always quiet anyway, sometimes teachers forget to notice you when they are busy corralling the noisy troublemakers who shoot rubber bands across the room, make fart noises during phonics instruction, or don’t clean up after themselves at the art table. But Mrs. Hoover saw me, and quietly set coupons on my desk for my goodness.

Each Friday when the class store opened, my classmates cashed in their coupons for pencils, Hot Wheels, or stickers. I held my breath and watched the green dress. My teacher watched me watch the green dress. After months of waiting and saving, I had enough coupons for it. 43 years later, I remember the moment it became mine. Mrs. Hoover beamed when I gave her my tickets, and I carried it home on a cloudy, gray winter day, holding it gingerly for all six blocks until I got to our little home.

This dress became the inspiration for years of imaginary play: princess, queen, debutante, wife, singing star, all enacted alone in my room wearing my heavenly mint green dress. It remains the most enchanted single item I remember from childhood, that gown scattered little bits of fairy dust over my wounded, solitary spirit until it eventually fell into tattered pieces.

I wish I was not so hurt by this story– I know there are so many women and girls who have endured violent rape. By comparison, my story seems tame, it was a kid my own size, for God’s sake. Indeed, in my telling of my experience with Donny as a middle-aged woman, there have been some who didn’t understand the trauma, who compared it to adult sexual molestation and thought that because the perpetrator was a child, rather than a trusted relative or adult, that it really should not count. They have said, “You were too young to even know what sex was, how could it have affected you so? It couldn’t possibly have.” Dismissed.change 2

Except that I suffered. I really did: isolation, fear, and an awareness of sexuality long before I was old enough. Blood and mucus. Shame. Sexual shame, yes, but just as debilitating and maybe more insidious is the shame of letting him. Many, many people who have been molested talk about this particular shame, and they were likely molested by a full-sized adult who had the physical strength to force them. I said yes to a boy my own size, not because he had strength on his side, but because I feared loneliness. Oh, and underpinning it all was the understanding that boys get to dictate what girls do with their bodies. I learned that if I said no, I would lose my few friends. I said yes, and I lost them anyway.

Though I didn’t realize the lessons I’d internalized, they informed most of the rest of my life, up until about my fortieth birthday. I didn’t ever think of myself as a virgin. I did think of myself as a slut. That’s a sad thing; I understood quite well about men and power; and I lived and worshiped in a church culture that placed such a high value on sexual purity that I was terrified I would be banished to hellfire should I perish in a car wreck. As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her nakedness. Even more, now I understand that the Divine One was with me, surrounding me, and in me: feeling the strange, hard little shape between my legs, trembling with fear and pain as I withdrew bloody curlers from inside myself, adoring a gentle and perceptive teacher, donning a discarded prom dress to escape my lonely world, and gently rocking my shameful spirit on its long, long journey to freedom.

dandelion 2

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, there is help. Here’s a crisis text line, it’s discreet and could be the thing to save someone who’s hurting. https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/sexual-abuse/#understanding-sexual-abuse-1

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑