L. couldn’t find her voice to tell us that awful thing had happened to her. We were all twelve, but L. had breasts while Val and I waited for our lives to begin by willing ours to grow.
When L. walked into our homes, our brothers stared and our fathers looked the other way. She had wavy brown hair down to her hips and overlapping teeth and a smile that could melt Antarctica.
Brighter than a star, she was a whole constellation, and we all rotated around her, season-less without her light.
But someone had dimmed her, and no matter how many times Val and I tried to get her to tell us what was wrong, she avoided us in lunch, study hall and moved her desk to the back of sixth grade class.
The three of us shared a diary that year, a black composition book, and we’d pass it back and forth, hating and loving our parents, falling in love with eighth grade boys and math teachers and each other’s brothers – with Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon.
Together, the three of us were discovering our voices.
We wrote in all caps the way adolescents do with question marks and exclamation points. That black composition book was made up of three voices that became a chorus – singing, screaming, loving, laughing, sharing.
One day between English and Social Studies. I found L. In the bathroom stall crying. She couldn’t tell me what was wrong because she had lost her voice.
I slipped that composition book under the pink stall in the bathroom even though I couldn’t see her feet.
Write it, I said. – if you can’t tell me, write it.
And she took the notebook, and the blue ink pen, and I waited. She passed the notebook back to me, and after reading each sentence she had written, I crawled under the pink stall and I held her. She smelled like her mother and her sisters and her father who had been gone three years.
She smelled of the royalty checks that never came from the hit song he wrote.
I took her whole story into my arms, including the broken stairs on the way to her apartment and her empty refrigerator.
After, I ripped those pages from the book and tore them into pieces and flushed them down the toilet, went home and told my mother everything.
L.’s voice was in my own throat now, and my mother took her story from my throat so she could protect us. She told me we were still children, though we weren’t anymore.
I was born the daughter of a journalist, an observer in a house full of words and emotions and chaos, the last born, and I didn’t talk until I was three, hiding from strangers who tried to engage with me in the stalks of my mother’s legs.
I was late to voice.
I learned to speak by learning to read out loud, under the crab apple tree in the rusted metal lawn chair. I found my voice through story, and it’s been my life passion to help others find their voice.
I learned that day in the middle school bathroom that secrets were meant to be shared.
Shame is meant to be released.
Warriors show up to hold space and protect us.
Healing begins when we write and speak our stories.
There are times in life when we must become the voice of another when it’s not possible for them to speak.
Every now and then in my writing workshops, a writer is too emotional to read their story. I ask them if they would like to email it, so I can read it for them, so I can be their voice.
It’s a privilege when they say yes.
I know when I read another’s story out loud I am still reaching for my friend L.
It may seem we are living in dark times, but if we are honest with the history of the world, we have always lived in dark times.
Yet voices have power and are also a healing balm. Our words and stories are needed because we are witnesses to this unique time in history, and sometimes we have to speak for the person we love standing beside us until their voice returns.
We are all carrying a box that is too heavy, but perhaps if we carry it together, our strength won’t give out. Stories are a way of carrying that heavy box and making it lighter. By writing and using your voice, you might be passing that composition book to another writer and taking the frog out of their throat, so their story can also be ignited, so they can rediscover their voice.
In this way, we are all one story closer to a better world.
I invite you to explore the story of your own voice. For the next five minutes, make these lists:
•Make a list of books, poems or people who have had a distinct influence over your voice – positive or negative!
•Make a list of moments when you were surprised by the power of your own voice.
•Make a list of lost moments when you didn’t use your voice and someone had to speak for you.
•Make a list of moments when you spoke for someone else who could not speak.
Set your timer for thirteen minutes and choose one of these writing prompts to explore the story of your own voice:
•Write a story of a time you couldn’t speak, and someone else became your voice, saving you.
•Writing a story of a time you became the voice for someone who didn’t havethe courage to speak.
•Write about a moment you lost your voice, and then found it again.