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Posts Tagged ‘finding your voice’

I have a tracheotomy scar that I got when I was 18 months. Mom said I used to get croup and that this particular time my croup turned into pneumonia. By the time they realized how bad it was, I was turning blue. They rushed me to the emergency room, and Mom says that a little Mexican doctor, a woman, performed the emergency tracheotomy on me. They kept me in an oxygen tent for days, and Mom said that’s when my hair went curly. She said I looked like an angel under the plastic of the tent.

Later, as a young girl, any time I got fever, I would have dreams where it seemed angels were hovering in the room with me. I could hear people talk, my brother and sisters, but it was the underwater sound of voices. And I felt like there were other children with me, except these children were calm and light. Those were the angels who visited any time I was sick, and I often wonder now if they related at all to the time I almost died.

Also, in my mind, I picture that little Mexican woman. The doctor. Mom and Dad had great pride in saying that it was a Mexican woman who saved my life. Mom’s grandmother on her dad’s side was a little dark woman with a long thick braid. Mom talks about how as a child she would go in and see her grandmother, who was sick in bed. Her name was Elena, and Mom said she’d be in a white bed dress, sitting up, her gray-black hair pulled back in a thick braid. Mom says that she thinks Elena had Indian in her, Spanish and Indian, which is Mexican. And somehow, when Mom talks about the Mexican doctor, I often think of Elena as being that woman. She wasn’t, of course, but that’s who I picture saving my life.

The other thing that I picture is the doctor puncturing my throat with a pair of scissors. I don’t know why I see that, but I do, and it’s comical now to think that someone would take whatever object they could find, a good pair of steel scissors with black handles, and poke them into my throat to open up a passageway.

And I see myself under the tent afterward, sweaty from the oxygen and heat that builds up. And then like when the house falls on the Wicked Witch of the West and Dorothy takes off the witch’s ruby slippers, and all of sudden the witch’s feet curl and retract under the house, this is how I picture my curls happening. Mom and Dad are staring at me in the tent, my hair is wet but straight, and suddenly the entire head of hair starts to curl into ringlets. I picture my parents’ eyes getting big and the two of them looking at each other, incredulous.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my parents to almost lose a child. Mom says that after that, she didn’t like to take me out. She didn’t like it when people with colds came over. She tried to keep me covered and away from germs. Back then we had relatives visiting all the time. And neighbors, too. We were a big family, social. All my sisters’ friends would come to our house to play and hang out. And Mom’s friends, too. On Sundays my Aunt Barbara and her eight kids would often drive up from a town just south of us. Eventually Mom must have just let it go, let me be a normal kid again. What do they say? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.




-Related to topic post WRITING TOPIC – 3 QUESTIONS. [NOTE: This is the first of three questions mentioned by actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith in an interview with Bill Moyers (see link). She talked about the questions in the context of interviewing people and listening to them. The three questions came from a linguist Smith met at a cocktail party in 1979; the questions were, according to the linguist, guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves. QuoinMonkey, ybonesy, and frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman take on the three questions by doing a Writing Practice on each.]

-Also related to PRACTICE: Hair – 15min

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Question Mark, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2008, all photos © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


A few weeks ago, I watched an interview on Bill Moyers Journal and was mesmerized by the work of Anna Deavere Smith. It is tough work. She takes on controversial subjects most would not touch in our sanitized, politically correct language of the day. Her 1992 one-woman performance Fires in the Mirror explored the violence between Jews and Blacks after an August 1991 civic disturbance in the New York neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Her solo performance in Twilight: Los Angeles dramatized the 1992 riots that broke out in L.A. following the first Rodney King trial.

For her current one-woman play Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith interviewed Americans from all walks of life about healthcare, medical, and end of life issues. After 9 years and 300 plus interviews, she chose 20 people; through their words, body language and speech, she transforms on stage into each one. I’ve only seen snippets of her 90 minute performance on TV. And from bullrider to politician to Buddhist monk, I could hear the voice of all America inserted into the healthcare debate, leaving little room for doubt — something has to change.

We are trying to bring disparate worlds together, not so that we can all get along, but so we can see out of the ‘me’ into ‘us.’

— Anna Deavere Smith

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Highlights


Below are few notes I jotted down while listening to her conversation with Bill Moyers. A few may seem cryptic, but will make more sense when you watch the interview:

  • The title Let Me Down Easy came to her almost out of a dream. There are two songs with the name. Of the title, James H. Cone of the Union Theological Seminary said they are the words of a broken heart and can be interpreted as broken love. “Don’t do it harshly. Not too mean. Let it be easy.”
  • Let Me Down Easy is a call about grace and kindness in a world that lacks that often —  in a winner take all world.
  • Death is the ultimate form of loss, the ultimate form of abandonment
  • It broke her heart to know that we, with all of our money and technology, believe that we can afford to leave people so alone
  • Are we afraid of being poor, afraid of losing, afraid of being sick? Is that why we distance ourselves from that reality all around us?
  • She chose these 20 particular people because they are very connected to the life cycle – death and life
  • The most important thing you can do is be with someone when they die
  • Art comes in when the official language falls apart. When things fall apart, you can see more and you can even be part of indicating new ways that things can be put together.


What seems to be important to Anna Deavere Smith is the art of listening. And letting what she hears soak into each cell of her body. Words matter. People matter. She believes something she learned from her grandfather (who was also the inspiration for her method of theater) — if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. In a New York Times article Through 1 Woman, 20 Views of Life’s End she says, “I try to embody America by embodying its words.”

Near the end of the interview, Bill Moyers asked, “When did you begin to listen to people so acutely?” Anna said when she was young, she lived next to a woman who weighed 400 pounds. The neighbor would ask her to go to the store to buy her fatback and she’d love to sit on her porch and listen to her stories —  that’s when she started really listening.

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Writing Topic — 3 Questions


How do we teach ourselves to listen? How do we get people to talk about what has meaning for them, moving beyond repetition or sound bites? In Anna’s words, “I say their words over and over. I listen and I wear the words.”

She said she also taught herself to listen by breaking up certain rhythmic speech patterns. She met a linguist at a cocktail party in 1979 who said she would give her 3 questions that were guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves:

Have you ever come close to death?

Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do?

Do you know the circumstances of your birth?


And that’s the inspiration for this Writing Topic — 3 Questions.

Choose one of the 3 questions above. Write it down at the top of your paper. Take out a fast writing pen and do a timed 15 minute Writing Practice.

Maybe 3 questions, combined with the wild mind of Writing Practice, will break patterns in our writing and lead us to listen more closely to our own voices.

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Epilogue


Anna Deavere Smith is on fire. In pursuit of her mission to translate art into social commentary about race, poverty, and injustice, she’s won two Obie Awards, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and two Tonys, and is a recipient of the prized MacArthur fellowship. (Not to mention her role in NBC’s The West Wing, as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally.) You can read more about Anna Deavere Smith at Bill Moyers Journal. Or watch the full interview with Anna Deavere Smith and Bill Moyers at this link.

In November, the Moth Storytelling Awards in New York honored her as their 2009 recipient at the Annual Moth Ball. The Wall Street Journal blog Speakeasy covered the event which was also attended by writer Garrison Keillor. On the subject of healthcare, the blog references a compelling verbal account from Keillor that night about his stroke in September. He had the stroke while on a massage table, eventually drove himself to the ER, and waited 15 minutes in line before he was able to tell anyone he was having a stroke. Read the full story at Speakeasy: Jonathan Ames, Garrison Keillor and Anna Deavere Smith Headline Annual Moth Ball.


In some ways the most effective politicians are the ones who have the best verbal clothes that they manipulate the best way. And there is a gap between that type of clothing and where people walk and where people live.

Whitman was doing another kind of work for the country at that time. Speaking a different song. And I think the politicians can sing to us but I respect, in a way, the limitation of their language. I mean I guess it’s a part of our culture that goes back as far as Jefferson, that they have to be so careful about what they say. My only desire would then be that we would find other places in our culture to work out our differences.

— Anna Deavere Smith from Bill Moyers Journal, November 2009


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, November 29th, 2009

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Dee Butterfly, cell phone photo of my oldest daughter when she was about eight years old, photo © 2003-2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.


I gave birth to Dee on Labor Day thirteen years ago.

“Some Labor Day!” folks joked afterwards.

It was a beautiful birth. I had her in our bedroom, attended by Jim, my best friend, and our midwife.

For a while I didn’t think I could do it. I was on my back pushing yet nothing was happening. Finally my midwife, who up to then sat quietly in a corner letting me be in control of my birth, came to check on me.

“Ah, your water’s not broken,” she said. I had told her it broke before she got there. “Go into the bathroom and visualize your water breaking. Once it breaks, the baby will come.”

I sat on the toilet and stared at the circles on the linoleum tile. Open, open, open, I said to myself. I closed my eyes and could see a faint imprint of circles in the darkness. Open, open, open. Splash! It worked.

Dee came in to the world in the early morning. I birthed her crouched on the floor beside our bed. The air was cool, sunlight soft. Mexican sunflowers stood guard outside our windows.

Every human being brings with him or her into the world a bundle of traits. Some characteristics deepen with love, others are quashed from lack of support. New talents and quirks emerge based on home life and the world at large, but I know with certainty that every one of us arrives with something and not as a blank slate.

Dee brought with her a fiesty attitude, curiosity, and a natural tendency to question and challenge. She was expressive, sensitive, argumentative. She held her fork in her fist while she waited for her meals, refused to take a bottle, and cried every time she woke up from a nap. She was serious and at times stern. She was also compassionate and could break out crying at the knowledge that someone or something was hurt.


Using the words Brave and Face in a sentence, Dee’s second-grade homework, image © 2002-2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




Jim and I each grew up in homes that stressed respectfulness, courtesy, and good manners. Jim’s parents, especially, valued proper behavior in children. My parents did, too—Grandpa’s motto was, Children are to be seen and not heard. However, Mom’s tendency to rebel against anything conventional translated into exposure to many vices (poker and Black Jack games at any family gathering, smoking, drinking, cussing, etc.).

It was apparent early on that Jim’s ideas about the right way for children to behave would not set well with Dee. Although she was often quiet and inside herself, she never hesitated in voicing her opinions. If she didn’t understand something, she asked questions and always in a way that sounded like she didn’t quite believe what was being said.

Jim’s sister came to visit one day when Dee was three. We were at the kitchen table talking about something that happened when Dee insisted that Jim’s recounting of events was not right and began telling her version. Just as Jim was about to reprimand Dee for the interruption, his sister stopped him.

“Let her be. If you teach her to not speak up when she’s a child, she’ll have a hard time finding her voice as a woman.”

I joined Jim’s sister in describing how so many women I see at work are reserved and conditioned to neither debate nor question, how they let men dominate conversations and meetings. While courtesy was important, we said, Dee carried an innate respect for all humanity. If it came down to teaching proper manners, wouldn’t it be easier to learn good etiquette later in life than it would be to unlearn reticence?

To his great credit, Jim listened to the women in his life. In bringing up his daughters (because he was the one who had the most influence in their early lives) he has resisted the urge to constantly keep them in check. That’s not to say he is overly permissive; he still appreciates a well-behaved child.

For her part, little Miss Dee is a confident, newly annointed teenager. She can be quiet, especially among strangers—another one of those characteristics she brought into this world. But among her friends and family, she continues to speak her mind.

This morning Dee said that tonight she’s not going to cry over leaving behind her childhood. She’s ready for what’s next. (I, however, might be a different case altogether.)

Happy Birthday, Dee! You are an impressive young woman and human being.





[NOTE: I don’t normally publish photos of my family, but this photo of Dee was taken so long ago, plus with the face-painting, I decided it would be fine to share this one.]

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I don’t remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not like Jim remembers. Jim was in 4th grade when Martin Luther King was assassinated. He says he remembers Walter Cronkite cackling over a black-and-white TV tube. I can picture the television, set in a blond wood console with long spindly legs. I can picture Jim’s dad with his tortoise-frame glasses and Jim’s mom with big dark eyes and a small round mouth.

I’m feverish now, not dangerously so but enough that my arms ache as they hold the notebook and pen upright on my stomach, against bent knees. I’m lying down, not wanting to get up again today, although I know I will, eventually. Feverish, which seems like a good state to be in, a non-remembering place. I have blurry vision, and all I can say is, I was young young and innocent.

I would have been in Mrs. Salisbury’s class, or wait, she was second grade. She was tall and black and wore shoes I associate with nurses. I bet she remembers Martin Luther King as if it were yesterday, MLK-the-time as well as MLK-the-man.

They say, these days, I hear it on the news almost every day, that Latinos and Blacks don’t get along well. They say it when talking about Barack Obama and whether he’ll get the Latino vote or whether Hillary Clinton will. I was thinking about that in the bathtub this morning, trying to steam the sick out of me. I thought of a guy I knew in Malaysia who told a joke about crabs in a bucket, how some crabs were Malays, some Indians, some Chinese. It was a politically incorrect joke, the punchline being something to the effect that one of the nationality of crabs pulled down the others while another nationality got out of the bucket by stepping on the others.

It’s auto-discriminación. Self-discrimination, this so-called feud between brown people. You get stepped on enough by white people, you start looking for somebody else to step on. It happens around the world among people who are marginalized.

I remember South Africa and how the neighborhoods ringing Johannesburg went out in concentric circles based on color. Whites in the middle. Indian-White next. India-India, Black-White, Black-India, Black-Black. We get closer to the core the lighter our skin is.

I remember making up a story about being Italian. Italians were Europeans. Caucasians. It was a way of saying, I’m just white like you, a way of stepping on someone else’s back to get a little bit higher. Except I’m not just like you.

I don’t remember Reverend King, don’t remember where I was when I was seven and he died. Probably formulating my story, revising myself so that by the time I got to high school I’d have an alibi when the kids called us spics and called our school Vato High. Mom says she remembers. Her voice gets thin (and forgive my feverishness now — I really should be sleeping not writing) when she says, Oh, I remember it. Those were sad times, she says.


-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – MARTIN LUTHER KING

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I don’t remember Martin Luther King in 1962 or ’63 when I was 8 or 9 or 10. I don’t remember him when I lived in the South. I must have been sheltered from all the strife and unrest that was going on during those years. I would not have understood.

I do remember him in the early years of being a teenager in Pennsylvania. I remember watching him give his speeches on television. He was on fire. I watched the unrest, the riots, the musicians of the time rallying around his cause. It was the 1960’s in America. And unless you lived through them, it’s hard to describe what it was like. No one was untouched. Everything was polarized.

There was the essence of pop culture, the Brady Bunch, the Jackson 5, the Partridge Family, living right along side Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Janis Joplin, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Burnt orange polyester bled into red and blue tie-dye. You had Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm (first African American candidate from a major party for President of the United States); you had Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant.

And TV news, it wasn’t spun the way it is spun today. I remember getting home from junior high and seeing black and white footage of Vietnam splattered all over the television. Gruesome images. We will never see a war the way we saw that one. Not the average person. Not someone like me.

I couldn’t watch. I wanted to cling to the things that gave me hope. I was caught in-between in the mid to late 1960’s: too young to be out there protesting, too old to not understand what was happening. And I was different, too. I never fit in to what it meant to be a mainstream American teenage girl.

It would take many years to grow into my own skin. When religion is telling you you’re a sin, and psychology sees a basic component of your identity as a sickness (as it did until the early 1970’s), you learn pretty quickly to fend for yourself. And live with big secrets.

It’s not like that anymore. At least, not for me. There are those who choose to remain closeted. But I have grown comfortable with who I am. There are many reasons for that. Lifestyles that are different have become strangely trendy. And my family is understanding, nurturing, and embrace me for the person I am (though back then, we just didn’t talk about it).

It was public support, paradigm shifts and movements, that taught me it was okay to question. And public figures who gave me hope. Leaders like Martin Luther King. For me, he was a humanitarian. Non-violent. Peace loving. Supportive of anyone who was different. He wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions. He would no longer be silenced. And that’s what I remember.

When I listened to Enrique Rivera’s piece, I was moved to write about King. It opened me up to remembering that he stood for everyone, for the civil rights of all people. I cried the day he died. My parents probably cried, too. I’ve been thinking about those who lived by his side; many are still alive. They risked their lives, too. How many thousands of people did he inspire?

We had to read the John Lewis book, Walking with the Wind for one of Natalie’s retreats. He gave a riveting account of what it was like to meet Dr. King at such a young and impressionable age. I remember King was in a secret location, and Lewis walked through a dark hall into a small room to shake his hand. Later, as a Freedom Rider, Lewis would be beaten by a mob in Montgomery, and, finally, rise to the House of Representatives, representing Georgia.

I saw a documentary of an Iranian woman who worked in government under the Shah in the 1960’s, I can’t remember her name, but she recounted what it was like to run up to Martin Luther King on one of his marches and have him actually know who she was, to say her name, shake her hand, and know that she was fighting the good fight. She was on fire for human rights, too.

Last night I watched a PBS show about Temple Grandin, a 60-year-old woman with autism. When she was born, they blamed her mother, stating she was cold and unfeeling and that’s why Temple turned out the way she did. Turns out, it was Temple’s father who was cold and unfeeling, and her mother who kept her out of an institution.

Later, two scientists, working at different geographic places at the same time, unknown to each other, came up with the word autism. More research and they realized it was neurologically related, not anything to do with the mother, the family, or lack of intelligence.

Anyone who knows Temple’s story, knows that she’s now the rock star of the cattle industry. She went on to write books, to develop the squeeze machine, and to work on humane conditions and rights for cattle as they are led to the slaughter. If you can’t stop people from slaughtering and killing cows for food, you can at least create practical solutions that make the journey more humane. That was her thinking. I was glued to the TV. I couldn’t believe her story.

And that’s what Martin Luther King means to me.

When I think of him, I remember Katherine, the woman who ironed for my grandfather in 1963, and riding along to drive her home in the poorer part of town. I remember Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential Campaign. I remember John Lewis walking with the wind in his family’s shotgun shanty. I remember Temple, fighting for her cows. I remember the monk who set himself on fire during Vietnam. And in remembering all of them, I remember that part of me.


-posted on red Ravine, Friday, January 25th, 2008

-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – MARTIN LUTHER KING

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