The trouble with talking

It used to be that a person driving in a car alone, grinning broadly, sobbing or staring rapt and open mouthed would be considered a little loony. People would quickly glance away before the nose picking began. Today we assume a Bluetooth is in the ear we can’t see. So I can get away with reactions more animated than should be allowed, even in the semi-public bubble of a car interior. When I drive, I listen and emote accordingly to books on CD. This week I knew I had a long drive to Indianapolis so I had four choices scattered around the car: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Special Topics on Calamity Physics, The Portable Atheist and a book of essays titled Grace Eventuallyby Anne Lamott. The morning of my trip I pondered my selections. I had listened to Harry a hundred times, couldn’t remember where I had left off in the Calamity book, 6:00 a.m. seems way too early not to believe in God, so I put in Anne Lamott.  

Her voice is flat, slightly nasal, she whistles slightly on certain sounds. She is also crystal cut articulate and inexplicably expressive. Accustomed to hearing out-of-work actors ham their way through various texts, I was taken aback for about seven seconds. Then I realized that I was having one of those book moments. This is where the author must know me and lived in my head for some length of time before writing the clues to my entire being in a story that I needed to hear or read at exactly that moment. I sat in partially caffeinated astonishment and listened while she identified so many loose, raw, frayed, sore ends and brought the edges together with a daub of intellectual Neosporin and empathic Band-Aids.

I did not expect to connect with her reading or writing to such an extent. Typically it is easier for me to process meaningful content when I am holding a real book, solid paper and ink. I listen to books on CD for self improvement, like lifting barbells or learning scales on the piano, purely medicinal.  I practice listening in the car for when I get out of the car and have to interact with live humans. I have a history of trouble with talking and ironically just as much trouble concentrating on other people’s talking.

The trouble is that I stutter. All speakers stumble or repeat, but at some point the intensity and frequency cross a line separating normal from a diagnosis. As a kid the label became apparent every time I spoke. Now it is more intermittent. Stuttering has settled to the bottom of my speech patterns like dirt, tamped down, until a breeze of anxiety or a gust of circumstance stirs up a choking cloud of dust. A pause will be a little too long; the twist of my mouth won’t quite match the emitting staccato. It is uncomfortable for everyone when they figure it out, as if my skirt flew up to reveal bad underwear. Although I have become more fluent with age and confidence, a few side effects linger. Aside from the obvious, stuttering kids do not like silence – silence equals block – and they do not listen well. Another person talking is time to prepare and organize for the next attempt at speech. Shuffling through imaginary flash cards to find the right combinations, we think: are they done? No? Great, then switch out toast for wheat bread, say butter instead of jam, eggs are OK but forget the detail about juice. Reality is edited and accuracy is only valid if the words don’t stick to our teeth.

My vocabulary and I got away with this for years. Smiling, pretending to pay attention, meanwhile a thesaurus of pathology going on below the nod. Then it became professionally important for me to gather more information before I blurted out the first thing I could say without stuttering. I needed a broader skill set to achieve real expertise in my field and this required that I learn to listen to people who were speaking to me more than I thought about what to say next. This scared me, without my constant mental manipulation, I risked exposure and verbal failure.

But I was determined to learn. So I developed listening strategies. I asked questions to buy time. I forced myself to pause and collect my thoughts after the speaker was done speaking in spite of the stomach ache inducing minutes of silence. I tried to notice body language, something I never had the energy to observe before. I allowed myself to say, “Can you explain that again?” or “I did not quite understand” instead of assuming what they meant because it was enough to launch my next statement. I forgave myself when my response wasn’t perfectly formed on the first try. I encouraged people to tell me stories because they maintain my focus more than explanations. And I began listening to CDs in the car to practice keeping my mind from drifting. I am not always successful and sometimes worse for having attempted goat (hard g) when I should have said barnyard animal with small horns and a beard (all soft breathy sounds). But there is always the next conversation.

Halfway between here and there in my long drive, I started thinking about what might happen when I arrived at my destination. I would leave Anne in the car. She would wish me well, having kept me limber and quiet, ready. Walking into the store, from one dialogue to another, I could hear new essays. People will tell me how they made a customer happy or frustrated, how much they like or dislike a co-worker, about their children or puppies, their latest love or fling, a book they just know I will love. My first urge will be to solve or compare in homilies containing long vowels and devoid of the letter d. But I will resist. And in about seven seconds, I will have an epiphany like the one in my car. One of those moments where the speaker must know me and lived in my head for some length of time before naming the clues to my entire being in a story that I needed to hear at exactly that moment. Unexpectedly, I will also hear them stammer, stumbling over words that are hard for them, pausing, blocking, desperate to be heard, worried about being understood. I might realize that the difference between us isn’t very different when we are really paying attention. True listening, calming our internal din, intent and open to what the other is conveying in words and movement and space, can have surprising echoes, familiar and often comforting.   

But I was still driving. On the third CD, Anne described eating the “crispy toes” off an apple fritter. I am sure a passerby could see me licking my lips through the car window. My mouth full of dough and frosting, my hungry head expanding, listening for more.

9 responses to “The trouble with talking”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    Very nice post! It’s always entertaining when others share personal information. I was in a mini-training about public speaking on Wednesday, it must have been difficult. Oh, and by the way- “as if my skirt flew up to reveal bad underwear” there’s no such thing as a bad thong… Again, nice post.

  2. Rogan says:

    I am quickly becoming a Books on Tape convert. I love them, and I find that the activities that go with books on tape, like driving some distance, allow me to focus on the ‘text’ better than I often can under typical reading conditions. So I won’t pause to look up at someone enter the room, and then pause again as I scan the page to find my spot again. The constant flow of the actor/author’s voice demand my attention and the set length of time means that I know beforehand what I am committing to when I get the book started.

    Anyhow, I realize this isn’t the main idea of your lovely post, but it is one of the things you got me thinking about. Another thing you got me thinking about are ‘those book moments.’ I love those, when some seemingly unique view of our personal life proves to be far more universal than we had first thought. I got that in a powerful way reading the first few pages of Proust’s Swann’s Way, when the protagonist is reflecting on different states of consciousness between sleeping and awake. Check it out.

  3. N. says:

    Lovely post, Ramona! My son used to stutter. My husband and I discovered that when he was two, until then he just refused to speak all together. In pre-school he faced mocking, therefore refused to describe stories in class or engage in any classroom activities. I could not consent that my son would go through life having to worry about acceptance. We hired a full-time speech therapist along with a crew of six other specialists, who watched his progress while he was at school and at home. This month he will be five. He tested 7.00 on his speech output (whereas normal speaking children, in his age, test about 3.5). He uses sophisticated words and articulately expresses himself in class and anywhere he goes. His stuttering is completely gone. I am curious to see if you had any speech therapy in your childhood. And if you did, was it helpful?

  4. wow really interesting. i knew a woman once that had a severe stutter and she woouuuuuld lengthen out the vooooweeelllssss that tripped her up.

    I’m sure that’s a very difficult thing to do, and to keep doing all you life.

    It’s also very interesting hearing about the thought process that you go through before you speak and how that affects your listening.

    very brave.

  5. N. says:

    #4 Yes, it is amazing. I thought about that same thing too.

    It’s also mind-blowing how much you have to go through for something that most of us just take for granted – makes me appreciate this post so much more.

  6. ramona says:

    1. I beg to differ – the attractiveness of the thong depends on the body it cradles.
    3. no team, but lots of here and there tape recorders in windowless rooms with graduate students and being called out of class – the dark ages of minor disabilities.
    4. lane – thank you and really, not so brave, Evel Knievel is brave.

  7. Tim says:

    I didn’t get a chance to read this until today. I just thought I’d chime in to say how lovely a piece of writing and thinking it is. Very nice! Also, yes, very brave.

  8. Jane says:

    Great post. I loved it.

  9. Kirsten says:

    When I was young there was a man in our congregation who had a serious stuttering problem. When he would bless the sacrament it was a struggle and often made visitors uncomfortable. Perhaps they asked, “Why would they ask him to do this? Shouldn’t they give him a break?!” To those of us who knew him well, this was a silly question. Bro. S was one of the kindest, most hard-working men I knew. I couldn’t think of anyone better to bless the bread and water each Sunday. He had taught my Primary class, his children were my friends, his smile and hearty handshake were proof that I was in “home” each Sunday. Did he feel self-conscious? At times, probably. There were also times, when he was bearing testimony or speaking about something from the heart, when the stuttering would fade away. That was when most of us paid more attention. It was as is if a calmness had overtaken him and he was expressing things that he had practiced again and again. Looking back, I think it was because he was in a zone– a place where he was telling us what his heart and soul knew to be true.
    When I met you, do I remember noticing that you occasionally stuttered? Not that I can concretely recall. I think it was hearing your rare struggles with words that drew me closer to you. Perhaps it was because I felt that same feeling of being “home”. More likely it was the amazing things you said and the honest and kind voice that said them.

    And as far as drivers thinking you are a bit “off” as you grin, sob or lick your lips…. You should see my son and I as we sing The Beatles’ “Rocky Racoon” in the car…