Nonfiction by S. H. Aeschliman
The human voice consists of sound made by a human being using the vocal folds for talking, singing, laughing, crying, screaming, etc.
— Wikipedia entry on “human voice”
I like the sound of my voice the morning after I’ve smoked too many cigarettes: rough and unpracticed, gravely as a jazz singer’s.
* * *
Sometimes the air catches on my vocal folds in such a way that it sounds like I have two voices speaking the same words in harmony.
* * *
When I taught English in Spain, I noticed that people’s voices change pitch when we speak a different language. In Spanish my voice is low, almost husky. My students’ voices when they spoke English rose nearly an octave.
* * *
In the lisping Spanish I learned, the Spanish of Andalusia, the ‘s’ and ‘d’ are often left unsaid. Pescado (fish) and pecado (sin) are pronounced almost identically – pecao.
Especialidad de la casa: fried sin.
Father, forgive us our fish.
* * *
In English there are voiced and unvoiced sounds. Place your upper teeth squarely in the middle of your lower lip and blow air: ‘fff.’ Maintain the position and give it voice: ‘vvv.’ ‘Puh’ and ‘buh’ are parallel sounds, unvoiced and voiced. ’Sss’ and ‘zzz.’ ‘Ch’ and a hard ‘j.’
The difference between “cheeses” and “Jesus” is very small.
The word ‘voice’ mixes voiced and unvoiced sounds. It starts out close-mouthed but resonant, moves to a vowel pairing that fills the whole mouth in roundness, and finishes in a voiceless hiss.
* * *
I’m always shocked when I hear my voice played back to me: on the cassette tapes of my college radio show, through a microphone at karaoke, on a video tape. It is higher and more childlike than it sounds in my head. I wonder which version is true.
* * *
At the bar with my friend Dan, we sit on opposite sides of the table, each of us with legs outstretched on our benches, our backs up against the plate glass window. He talks, and I feel the vibrations of his voice through the window. It moves into my body, gently shaking my bones.
* * *
A popular bumper sticker reads: Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.
* * *
Coming out of a meeting in which I’d spoken up more than usual, a co-worker told me that she likes the sound of my voice. “Like a bubbling brook,” she said. “Musical.”
Beautiful? My voice? I studied her face for a moment to see if she was making fun of me or suggesting that I talk too much, but I couldn’t tell.
My first clear memory of singing: it is bedtime, and my mother is tucking me in. The room is dark, but light spills in through the doorway from the kitchen. Usually she sings me a song – “Big Bo Ben,” about a guy with big boots who goes to the movie theater, or one of the other camp songs she learned as a child – but tonight I want to sing to her. I sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as she sits on the edge of my bed, my eyes closed in the darkness to better concentrate on the sound.
The next morning my little brother asks me who was singing. “I was,” I tell him.
“I thought it was Mom,” he says. His face is red. “It was so beautiful that I cried.”
It is the only time my brother ever compliments me on my singing as we are growing up. The rest of the time he grimaces and puts his fingers in his ears, and if I don’t stop he shouts, “Stop it! You can’t sing! Don’t try!”
* * *
Now we are adults, and my brother is handsome, creative and musical. He is a talented sculptor, painter, illustrator and actor. He plays the guitar, electric bass and harmonica. And he has a beautiful singing voice. The bastard.
He recently told me that the key to good singing is to put emotion into your voice. “Any emotion,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what, so long as it’s there.”
I practice singing with emotion in my car and at home. From inside my head, the sound captured and reverberating through the bones of my skull, I think it sounds pretty good. In the right key and even soulful at times.
* * *
When asked about his choice of song for the blind auditions of the TV show The Voice, opera singer Chris Mann confessed, “I love that song. I wanted to come out, you know – I’ve felt – I – . This is my voice and I’ve – it’s been hard for me. I’ve been at it for a while. And I’ve tried to sort of shrink my voice down to fit. But I decided for this show I was gonna just sing like myself.” The audience responded with thunderous applause. Christina Aguilera replied, “Sometimes there are voices that come along that you can’t shrink down. And you have to let it shine and let that voice just go.”
* * *
After years of telling herself that she has a poor singing voice, my mom has surrendered to her spirit and spent a couple years learning how to play the guitar and sing along. This is how the family ends up having an impromptu live karaoke session at Christmas.
At one point I am singing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” for the second time; this time I have asked my brother to sing with me. Suddenly one of my uncles, who has just entered the room from the kitchen, starts braying like a beagle. At first I am a little offended, but then I look at his face – his eyes are closed, head thrown back, braying with complete abandon – and I realize that this is as close to singing as he dares to come.
* * *
Months later, my brother, father and I go sing karaoke together. Afterward, as we gather up our jackets and beer bottles, my dad says to my brother, “I knew you could sing, but that was terrific. You have a really good voice. Good range.”
To me he says, “I didn’t know you could hold a note.”
I wish I could sing well for my dad. I wish I could let him see.
One of the defining characteristics of my relationships with Jackie and Carly is laughter.
* * *
I call up Jackie in Minnesota, where she has moved for work and family. “It’s so good to hear your voice,” she says, and for a moment the distance does not seem so great.
I can always find Jackie in a crowded room by following the sound of her beloved laughter.
* * *
Some people hoot. Some howl. Some guffaw. Some say “Heheh” or “Tee hee” or “Ha ha ha.” Some simply “lol” or “ROFL.” Carly cackles. We cackle together.
I could write a whole book on crying.
I haven’t screamed aloud in ages.
When I taught college writing in Massachusetts, my Chinese students told me that in their classes in China, if they had something new to say, they would make up a quote and attribute it to someone famous and respected. Their voices alone carried no weight.
* * *
We talk about “the writer’s voice,” by which I guess we mean style. But the style changes depending on whom we’re writing for, so a plural, “writer’s voices,” seems more apt.
I have two main writing voices.
My “literary” voice is when I write for others. I strive to be careful, clear and logical and to use complete sentences. I avoid expressing strong negative emotions.
My authentic voice comes out in my journal. I can leave out words, use abbreviations particular to me. I don’t have to explain so much, trusting that my future self will be able to fill in the gaps. I can express my emotions without fear of consequence.
But even in my journal, my style changes depending on what I’ve been reading. Even when I write for myself my voice is malleable, changing in response to others’ voices.
* * *
The voices in my head argue with one another. I’ll speak up in a meeting, and the shaming voice will say, “Well that was stupid. Why did you say that? Can’t you see how uncomfortable everyone is now?” A second voice, the loving voice, is equally angry. “Why shouldn’t she say that? It’s true! Stop picking on her.” A third voice, the voice the first two are fighting over, cowers in the dark, quietly crying.
It used to be that there were only two voices, the shaming voice and the ashamed one. It’s only in the last couple of years, with a lot of work, that I’ve been able to create the loving voice, the one who treats me like a friend. Having this new voice in my head creates more conflict, but I wouldn’t wish it away for the world.
Silence is golden.
Children should be seen and not heard.
Don’t correct your elders.
Don’t talk back.
You have a foul mouth.
I’ll give you something to cry about.
You shouldn’t have said that.
If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
* * *
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
— Zora Neale Hurston
* * *
One of my co-workers lost her voice to laryngitis for a while. She took it as a sign that she should talk less and listen more.
A few weeks later, she complimented me on the way I participate in meetings. “When you lead meetings, you leave lots of space for others to speak. There’s good wait time.”
“My goal,” I said, “is not to talk at all. If I don’t have that goal, I become impassioned and have a tendency to come across as pushy. So I tell myself I’m not allowed to talk, and when I finally do speak it’s because I can no longer stand to be silent.”
* * *
My journal is where I put my pain when I have convinced myself I cannot speak it. Dozens of filled journals crouch on my bookshelf and in storage. There is also a small collection of blank journals. Surrounded by others’ voices, they wait for their time to come.
My current journal is a thick, hardbound book of lined pages. The spine is maroon faux leather with gold embellishment, similar to the old-school copies I own of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Dante’s Inferno. I’d had this journal for years before I was brave enough to write in it, always thinking my thoughts were too poor for something that looked so stately and sacred.
Written in the front of my journal, a collection of quotes and personal epiphanies that first created and now nurture the loving voice within:
I am my own primary partner.
I belong to no one but myself.
My only responsibility is to identify and speak my truth, and to witness others’ truths as best I can.
Harmony with myself is more important than avoiding conflict with others.
I want to be my whole, true self without fear or shame.
Learn to set yourself free.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
— Attributed to Jesus in The Gospel According to Thomas
“To be what we are, to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end in life.”
— Alan Dean Foster, The Black Hole
I am a world creator. I am a truth teller. I am a voice finder.