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Remember when you were little, and you’d be upstairs in your bedroom and hear your parents talking? Sometimes arguing? You would half-strain to hear the words, but knew you really didn’t want to, if there was an edge to them.
Sometimes it was a dinner party and the adults were getting increasingly drunk, and the laughing was loud and sometimes you’d hear your Dad’s voice telling a joke and and it would be met with roars of laughter. And you wondered: why does all this gaiety seem out of place?
No, not those voices.
But perhaps those voices are part of the story.
The voices I’m talking about are those that shaped you and are still shaping you.
Let me explain.
My father was a brilliant man. He was the first in his family to go to university and excelled there. He entered the government and never looked back, achieving success in his professional life and then moving on to research and write a two volume set of biographies. He had a rock solid work ethic and could never understand why people didn’t just *choose* to become successful. I’m not sure that he had voices guiding him or if he simply made his own path. I know he once said that he felt embarrassed by his father’s lack of education.
When I was about to turn 18, my parents, my younger sister and I traveled to England. I didn’t know it at the time but for my mother it was a chance to holiday and visit the country she had fond memories of from her 20s. But for my Dad it was a chance to do some genealogical research. So that meant we visited a lot of cemeteries and churches. I had no clue that was why. I just thought they were part of everyone’s normal routine when they traveled.
I was becoming an adult and ventured out on my own several times to visit art galleries. At the time I was enraptured by the Pre-Raphaelite painters, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti and many of his works were to be found at the Tate Gallery. I knew quite a bit about them; this was probably the start of my interest in art history.
Then my father took me to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and I was confused by the hall full of monumental statues by Renaissance artists. When I appeared awed by them, especially the two Davids, one by Michelangelo and the other, Donatello, my father dismissed them by saying they weren’t real and walked past, not allowing me the time to linger. I had the sense that the real statues were in Italy but yet these “looked” so real. He could have told me that they were plaster copies, made in the 19th century, as was the rage, but painted to resemble their original medium. In every way, they were made to look exactly like the originals.
Then we visited the British Museum that housed the Rosetta Stone. When we entered the room in which it was displayed prominently in a glass case, my father stopped and pronounced with great seriousness, “This is the Rosetta Stone.” To me it was a hunk of stone with writing on it and looked much like the other ones I had seen in the Egyptian wing, called “stele”. When I said, “What is the Rosetta Stone?”, he seemed flabbergasted and replied, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE ROSETTA STONE IS?” and walked away.
That is one of the voices I hear even today.
And it will slip out when I’m doing a project or trying to understand something. It tugs on my insecurities, suggesting that I’m stupid, that I haven’t done the work, that I don’t have the intellect to understand or know something.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that it’s not true but it remains a nagging voice. And the sadness is that it comes from the person who I admired most at a time in my life when I was starting to investigate the world around me.
There are other voices.
Like the voice of my grandmother, when one day she pulled my hands into hers and made a point to emphasize my chewed fingernails, saying, “imagine what your future husband will do when he takes your hand to put your wedding ring on and sees these!” — as if she was suggesting that he would call off the ceremony on the spot, all because of my fingernails!
Or the voice of the bus driver, who said to the schoolgirl me, coming from somewhere that had made my hair wet and so it was plastered to my head: “Well now, are you a little boy or a little girl?”
And then, again from my father, this time on the day of my wedding as he drove me to the Church, he in his suit and me in my velvet wedding gown: “Ailsa, marriage is hell.” Geez Dad, couldn’t you have informed me of this earlier?
Or an encounter with my uncle, who I hadn’t seen in many years, had me reaching out to shake his hand but was met instead with the comment, “Wow, you’ve gotten fat.”
All of these voices are not simply words, many of them slights, but are connected to people who mean something to us. Whether they are a family member or a bus driver, they hit us with the force of authority. And they sit in our gut, growing like a bezoar (look that up at your peril lol) until we recognize their effects and attempt to purge them.
But why are these voices all so negative and debilitating? That I am not feminine enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not going to be happy. Who among us hasn’t heard voices like these and darkly embraced them.
I try to scan my memories for positive voices, compassionate ones, those that made my heart swell. The ones that built me up, that I could draw upon when I felt doubt, or fear, or failure.
Strange that I have to search so hard.
But that is the nature of voices. Some are louder than others. You just have to learn to turn down the volume of those destructive ones to let the positive whispers through. And that is what I am learning to do…
What are your voices?