“Wow,” the pastor of my former church said, looking over the coffeeshop counter at me. Jessica had stopped into the Peet’s where I worked on her day off. She was wearing her usual hiking boots in the middle of the city, with her unruly hair that she was letting turn fully gray after years of dying it falling and flying all around her face.
I had just asked her something that had been on my mind for months. “Jessica, can you PLEASE give a sermon about how women should respond to homeless men? Because the only advice I’ve ever heard from pastors has been that I should make eye contact, smile, make them feel loved and show them the kindness of God. When I did that this morning a dude asked if he could F*** me in the A**. I need something different here.”
Her hazel eyes moistened at my question. I had always found her beautiful, and alternated between wishing she was my mother, sister, and lover. My fantasies never held her as pastor, though, which was the frustrating role she did fill.
All she said in that moment was “Wow.”
Two Sundays later she preached, very simply, out of her own experience. “One time, I passed a man on the street who said hello,” she told our small congregation. She never chose the safety of standing behind the elevated podium. Rather, she stood in front of us, on our level, her hands awkwardly hanging at her sides. “I stopped to talk to him. After a minute, he asked for a hug. I gave him one. He burst into tears on my shoulder. I left praising God for that beautiful moment. Another time, as I was walking to the Church office, a man said hello and something about him did not feel safe, so I crossed to the other side of the street. That day, I thanked God for my good intuition.”
This was the first time I’d ever heard in church, possibly in my whole life, that my intuition was a reliable source of information, that there was no one right answer for every situation, no “God wants you to…” Rather, there was myself and my best guess, moment to moment. I exhaled a decade’s worth of relief.
After the service, I thanked Jessica. She said, ”Christine, no one had ever asked me to speak from my gender before. They’ve asked me to speak from my seminary training, they’ve asked me to be a spokesperson for different theologies. But no one has asked me to speak from myself. I’ve always tried to live by the motto, ‘Speak, even if your voice shakes.’ You gave me a chance to do that. So, thank you.”
Six months later, she came out to our church. The sermons were usually recorded, and before telling her story, she asked the tech guy to turn off the recording software. And she spoke. Her voice shook and her breathing was shallow as she told us of a lifetime of attraction to women, of her desire to serve God that seemed to conflict with that, and of her longing to live as a whole, full, honest person.
Since that day in the coffee shop twelve years ago, I have had many chances to speak with a shaking voice, following Jessica’s lead.
Like the time I told my mother, in the presence of a therapist, the ways in which she had failed me with her own silence.
Like the time I told my former husband, over a plate of donuts, “I don’t know if I want children. I don’t plan on deciding that yet. I’m sorry if that makes you anxious.”
Like the millions of times I’ve said “No,” and disappointed someone greatly.
Like the times I knew I’d messed up, and had to admit it and apologize.
And now, as a therapist, so often I have to reflect unpleasant truths, and speak of things that scare me and my clients. I was joking with my clinical supervisor this week that I entered this profession with a fantasy that it would make everyone love me. But the reality is, often my job is to tell people the very thing they do not want to hear. I’ve gotten good over the years at taking a solid enough breath to hide the quiver in my voice, but I’m still sometimes nervous.
Speak. Speak your deepest truth, even if your voice shakes.
Of course, sometimes we can get confused about what our deepest truth is. It might seem at the moment that, “You are a shithead,” is the brave true thing to say, but our anger might be covering a deeper, truer truth, which is “You hurt me, and I’m scared.”
My rule of thumb is, if it’s terrifying to say, it’s probably true. It doesn’t take much courage to say “Piss off!” But “You hurt me” or “I don’t like that, please stop?” That can make a person want to go under the covers for a week.
Even if your voice shakes, speak.
Speak, even if you are in a room full of men, a room full of executives, a room full of interviewers, or, the scariest of all, a room full of your family.
Speak, even if you’re the only person of color, or the only queer person, the only religious person or the only Atheist present. Your truth is not everyone’s truth, but it is yours and it deserves your voice.
Speak, even if your partner will not like your truth, if you know it will start a fire. Speak.
Learning to speak (which is like learning a new language, you never really develop fluency but you get better and better), begins with what poet Marge Percy calls “Unlearning to not speak.” Her poem centers around a female college student, finding her voice in a male-saturated world:
Unlearning to Not Speak
Blizzards of paper
in slow motion
sift through her.
In nightmares she suddenly recalls
a class she signed up for
but forgot to attend.
Now it is too late.
Now it is time for finals:
losers will be shot.
Phrases of men who lectured her
drift and rustle in piles:
Why don’t you speak up?
Why are you shouting?
You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.
They tell her she is womb-man,
babymachine, mirror image, toy,
earth mother and penis-poor,
a dish of synthetic strawberry ice cream
She grunts to a halt.
She must learn again to speak
starting with I
starting with We
starting as the infant does
with her own true hunger
In therapy, often what we find is our infant-voices, which carry our deepest truths. A baby and toddler do not know anything except their own truths of the moment— hunger and pleasure and rage. They have not learned to hide the way adults do, to appease others or protect themselves.
In that coffee shop a decade ago, my pastor and I had a moment of connecting to our own true experiences— hunger and pleasure and rage. She paved the way for me to start putting voice to those truths. I’ve lost contact with her, but I think of her often. As I continue to wrestle with my silence and to give a shaky, quavering voice to my truth, I hope she is still doing the same.