Thursday, April 27, 2017

Finding Your Voice

It was folded and stashed in a small storage box with other relics from my years in parochial school.

It was a sixth grade essay I had written, completing the sentence "When I Grow Up..."


When I grow up, I'm going to cry.

This won't be because my life is sad but because I will be free to express myself and all my emotions in a way I can't today.

My father won't let us cry or express opinions at home. He spanked us for crying when we were babies. We soon learned to keep still. My father is not an evil or unloving man. He simply doesn't seem to be able to admit that emotions are part of all our lives, no matter how young or old we are, and that it's harmful to suppress them. He wants wind-up dolls, little robots, not children. I think he knows he is making a mistake in raising us this way, but is too proud to admit that he is wrong. I feel he loves me as much as he is able, but I still must live up to a standard of perfection I can never meet. I feel sad for my father and for me.

When I grow up, everything will be different. I will not be too proud to admit when I am wrong. I will love my children enough to let them be themselves.

Most of all, I will experience the whole range of my feelings. I will dance for joy on a sun-kissed beach. I will tell people I love just how much I care, not because they meet any expectations of mine, but because they are themselves. I will weep with sadness or simply from the fullness of living my own life completely and honestly as a loving, deeply feeling person. 

Glancing at the unmarked paper, I remembered: my teacher, Sister Mary Clara, didn't give me a grade or credit for this essay because "You didn't follow the assignment." She handed it back to me scornfully with the admonishment "Next time do it right. Say what you're supposed to say."

What I was supposed to say was that I would grow up to be a good Catholic wife and mother or, better still, a nun.

All our lives, there are so many obstacles to finding our authentic voices. There are teachers who want only the expected, canned reply. There are adults who think children should be seen and not heard. Or who correct children who have expressed a strong emotion with the admonition: "You don't really feel that way, do you?" Well, yes. At that moment the child does. I'll never forget the letter I got from a mother when I was working at 'TEEN Magazine and had written an article about communicating with parents. She told me that she had suffered a lot as a child when she was told that her angry feelings were wrong. She said that she had raised her children to speak their minds without punishment, even if it meant saying "I hate you, Mommy!" in a moment of anger. She told me that she had found that hearing all her children's feelings calmly led to resolution, closeness and understanding.

But, all too often, we were not allowed to express our feelings while growing up. It was not okay to speak one's mind, to express an original thought, to diverge too severely from what was considered acceptable.

Sometimes restrictions ease with age. Frankness that might have been shocking earlier on is amusing now. I find that younger people smile indulgently when I use a swear word, express a frank political opinion or make an off-color comment. Of course, this may be because I'm childless. A friend from my college days, visiting California with her teenage grandkids in tow some years ago, suddenly reverted to her own teenage self when she saw me, squealing and rushing toward me with open arms. Her grandchildren cringed in the background, glancing around at other restaurant patrons, and groaning "Oh, Grandma...please...."

So in many phases of our lives, we adapt and quiet our voices.

We learn to speak or write to a specific audience. This adaptation is useful and necessary at times. But, personally, there can be something lost in the process: an opportunity to share our authentic selves.

My parents decided to keep all of my letters from college. There is a big binder for my Northwestern undergraduate years and a smaller one for my fraught time in graduate school there. The other day, I came across that smaller binder and read the letters for the first time in nearly 50 years.

 I was aghast at what I found -- or, rather, what I didn't find.

My mother had said that she was keeping the letters so that I could look back and have these memories close at hand if, sometime in the future I wanted to write a book about these years. What I read in those letters were not my authentic memories. Those are still fresh in my mind, or at least fresh enough to know that what I wrote my parents was not the full story about my life and my experiences.

I left out the most important discoveries and feelings of that tumultuous time --  like what it meant to me to have a friendship with Judge Edith Sampson, an African American woman who rose from an impoverished childhood to become the first black female judge in Illinois and the first black U.S. delegate to the U.N. I met her on my fall quarter assignment to the Chicago courts beat in my graduate reporting class. Somehow a friendship bloomed between this brilliant, accomplished, larger than life woman and one shy, uncertain student journalist. Judge Sampson was so wise, so funny, so compassionate, so outspoken. Whether in her chambers, in the courtroom or at home, she was very much herself. She became a wonderful mentor and friend who coached me through cooking my first Thanksgiving dinner that year and taught me the joy of living with vitality and authenticity.

How could I not have told my parents about Edith Sampson?

But there was so much I left out of my letters.

I left out the true extent of my heartbreak over the man I loved. He cared for me as a friend, but someone else had won his heart and they were getting married soon. Unrequited love notwithstanding, I felt even greater sorrow over the possible loss of his treasured friendship.

 I told them that I had gone to see "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" with my Asian-American friend Jeanne and our mutual friend Marie. I told my parents that Tracy and Hepburn were excellent. What I didn't say was that Jeanne got angry and walked out of the movie twenty minutes in, cooling her heels in the lobby and eating popcorn while Marie and I stayed to the end. She told us afterwards that she was angry that a minority person -- in this case, a black man played by Sidney Poitier -- had to be a world-famous surgeon to be even marginally acceptable to his young white fiancee's parents. Marie and I listened as she talked with anger and sorrow about the racism that she observed and experienced on a daily basis. I'll never forget that day or the lesson my beloved, now lifelong, friend taught me.

I recently shared my feelings of disappointment over my grad school letters home with Tim, whose friendship I had so feared losing all those years ago, but who has remained a loving, lifelong friend. "My parents saved all my letters from college, too," he said. "And I knew there was a reason I've never looked at them all these years. I know, without reading them, that they are all on the surface."

Of course, there are times when we can't be totally authentic. There are times when we tailor our remarks to a specific audience of one or many. There are things you don't say to avoid hurting or worrying others.

But for those times when you want or need to speak your mind and all the times in between when you want to be more in touch with your true feelings and true self, how can you hone your authentic voice?

1. Keep a journal:  Keeping a journal is great practice in saying exactly what you think. It may be forever private or simply a warm-up for voicing your feelings and opinions more openly.

2. Let your voice shine through in social media: This could be via Facebook or Twitter or through your own blog.

Some people find tremendous freedom and a spirit of community by sharing feelings -- whether love of animals or political views, personal development or delight over children and grandchildren -- on Facebook or Twitter. And blogging can be a creative outlet where you determine the subject, the tone and the direction of your narrative without interference.

As a professional writer, I never take this for granted. This blog has been an incredible help in giving me the confidence to be myself in a way that was never really possible when I was writing for national magazines and had to please an editor whose point of view might have been quite different from my own. (I still shudder when I think of the editor who exhorted me to "write a funny article about verbal abuse.")

3. Treasure friendships that allow authenticity.  We have all kinds of friendships -- childhood, professional, shared interest focused, warm but distant -- but our best friends encourage and celebrate authenticity. You know who they are. You can put your feet up and dish. You can feel comfortable in their presence even if you don't look or feel your best. You can say things you wouldn't dare say to most others -- feeling free to air your less optimistic as well as hopeful feelings. You can whine and bitch and brag and dream, knowing that your friend loves you as you are -- just as you love him or her.

4. Notice how you feel:  How do you feel when you bite your tongue and keep silent when you really want so much to speak up? How do you feel when you speak your mind in a way others can hear -- not with malice, but from your heart? When you can express yourself in this way, you may have feelings of growing confidence... and comfort within.

I have seen benefits of channeling my authentic voice even when I write on assignment these days. I recently finished writing a book about parent and adult child conflict and estrangement.  WE DON'T TALK ANYMORE will be published by Sourcebooks in October. When she finished reading the manuscript, my editor, Anna Michels, remarked that she loved my "supportive, reasonable, optimistic voice throughout that makes the book both tender and practical."

Yes. She found it: the voice I have always known and valued within. My essence, my authentic voice, is, indeed, both tender and practical.

Finding one's voice can be one of the rewards of age, finding confidence in life experience. It can be empowering and reassuring, an emotional salve for all those times in years past when you needed to be quiet, to stifle yourself, to withstand the criticisms of those who didn't understand or care to know the real you.

So much living and feeling has gone on in my life since Sister Mary Clara refused to accept my essay on growing up all those years ago. I have danced on sun-kissed beaches and have told family and friends how much I cherish them for the unique individuals they are. I have cried in sorrow and in the fullness of being.  And I have loved that I've grown up.