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I. “Those who stutter win, in the painful pauses of their demonstration that speech isn’t entirely natural, a respectful attention, a tender alertness. Words are, we are reassured, precious.” – John Updike
I stuttered when I was a toddler, my parents tell me — couldn’t get the words out fast enough, and then the syllables and sounds would start to run into one another. I tried to catch the story before it ran away, like I tried to capture butterflies with a net in my front yard. I chased the words, worried they might escape, fly away, and disappear.
On Ash Wednesday, I listen to a message about acknowledging my sin and need for the cross. I wonder if I stutter because I don’t surrender enough, because I try too hard on my own, because I want control over my own life. I bargain that stuttering could be a sin — I think, if I give this to God, if I stop focusing on myself, I’ll be cured. I’m getting in the way of the words.
I envision reciting scripture from the pulpit at church, of volunteering to read aloud in class, of standing behind a podium to share a short story or essay I’ve written — I imagine no hesitation, no word walls, no longing for other readers to replace me. I wonder what it would be like to record a message on my voicemail without re-doing it 12 times to get the breath right, to sound smart, natural, poised.
I yearn to have a tongue that is bold and flexible, capable of doing back handsprings instead of awkward, clumsy somersaults.
In high school, I am class president, editor of the school paper. I am confident. But then, my history teacher asks me to read aloud. A whole page. Single space. A pointless announcement about a Student Council sweatshirt sale. His assumption that I can do this, that I am the perfect candidate, only makes my anxiety worse.
Then, just as I am about to begin, the classroom door opens and the assistant principal walks in to observe the class. He sits on a table, props a knee up on an empty desk directly behind me and motions for us to go on as usual.
I lose my breath during the first sentence and never recover. Each word is harder and harder to get at — they are stuck to the page — and no one can rescue me, no one can make this any easier. I try to read faster, then slower; still I sputter. I try to anticipate the words in the next sentence that will trip me up, but this only makes my breath shorter. I’m standing in a maze and it takes all my energy, all my strength to break down the wall standing in front of each word I need. Each letter taunts me from its black ink on the page. Everyone in class is listening, even those who never do, holding their breaths, wanting it to be over.
My face is red and hot, and when I finally fight through the last sentence and loosen my grip from the single sheet of paper, I contemplate apologizing. I want to stand to explain that this is not who I am. That inside my head, the words ring clear; that I am articulate, even eloquent. Instead, we all pretend we are okay. We get out our textbooks and open them to chapter seven.
In social situations, especially when I’m put on the spot, I devise a back-up plan for every sentence. I anticipate the words that will not likely be at my disposal, and then reach inside my personal thesaurus to find others that may work.
Sources say that stutterers can predict ninety-five percent of the words they will struggle to read aloud in a given passage. We take our cues from the past.
Some, I am always prepared for: Divorce is replaced with separate. Decide becomes choose. Words that begin with R will take an extra push. Like remember, relationship.
In certain circumstances, even my name gets stuck somewhere between my chest and my tongue: when I’m at a baby or wedding shower and someone quiets the living room full of women squeezed in on folding chairs, perched on ottomans, and declares that we should go around the circle and introduce ourselves. There is a moment, when the person next to me stops talking, and the collective amusement and polite laughter has halted, and all eyes turn to me, and I am supposed to Go.
I just need to say my name, who I am, but it’s not that easy. There is an unwritten script of what is supposed to be said, of how we are to behave, of what we are to wear — and everyone acts as if this exchange is simple, but it never is. And in that self-conscious moment, when my face muscles start to fidget and my tongue starts to twitch, I can feel everyone waiting in hopeful anticipation that I’ll get the words out, so we can all go back to acting as if we are okay with each other, with ourselves.
There is an instant, when, if I can just eke out a bit of a breath, the rest will come — the name, to which side of the family I belong, why I have the right to be taking up space in the room.
II. “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” – Eudora Welty
After college and a summer spent in the Rocky Mountains working as a camp counselor for homesick nine and ten-year-olds, I jumped at the offer to move to Switzerland for a year to work as an au pair for an American family employed by the United Nations in Geneva. I knew I would be every bit as vulnerable as my summer campers had been, but I went anyway.
“Why would she want to do that?” my Grandma questioned my mom. Grandma had always told me that I would never graduate from college. “You’ll meet some guy and get married instead,” she’d assure with a grin, like it was what we both really wanted.
I arrived on September 11, 2001. In minutes, other planes would be on the news. I wouldn’t see any TV news reels until I was back in the U.S. several months later. This national disaster was a story I watched from afar, in a different translation. The BBC played on the radio as I cleaned up the breakfast dishes of the strangers who were now my housemates.
I called my mom to tell her I had arrived safely from my new room as the first plane flew into the Tower. She mentioned something about the Today Show, about some plane disaster, and then asked me how I was doing. I was already choking back tears.
The woman I worked for in Switzerland, Evelyn, liked everything small, dainty, and quiet. The entire house was chilly, and she spoke in a calculated voice that was just above a whisper. When we were in the car together, I couldn’t hear her over the engine, so I’d just smile and nod. She was incredibly thin, her body lost beneath layers of black dress suits, like she was slowly fading away, disappearing.
Each evening, while fighting with the two children to get their homework done, I’d prepare dinner following Evelyn’s exact instructions, which had been left for me in a note each morning, along with the dirty breakfast dishes.
When she finally arrived home two hours later than promised, she’d find the energy to voice her displeasure at how soft the broccoli was (she preferred it steamed, but still crisp), and then we’d gather around the table to hold hands and pray, sometimes singing “Hallelujah” or “For Health and Strength.” She tried not to look too dismayed when I could barely carry my quarter of the melody when we were instructed to sing in a round.
I should have known. On the phone interview: the woman’s tight voice, few details on the separation from her husband, questions about my faith and religion that had correct answers.
While eating, I reached too often for the salt and pepper, only to hear Evelyn murmur and shake her head. She scolded the kids if their silverware made too much noise — and then moments later, while cutting through my bread, my knife would slam down, hard and loud, against my plate. She drank one tiny glass of water — I drank a large one and then would get up for a refill. As I scooped out the warm apple crisp I had made for dessert, she’d warn me how hazardous sweets were for the waistline.
Around the table, I especially longed for home. For Grandma’s worn table. For the sound of my dad’s tractor on a Saturday afternoon. For our apples on the tree. Stories that had been told thousands of time and still begged to be heard. For space I was welcome to fill.
Her French, just one of her many fluent languages, was perfect. Mine was even more awkward than my stammering English.
When Evelyn said I broke the visor in the car that I was not allowed to drive unless I was bringing her bickering kids to piano lessons or going to a Bible Study at a local English-speaking church, she wrote me a script in French to read to the mechanic. I wish I knew how to tell him this in French: I’m homesick and miserable, and the woman I work for thinks I broke the visor in this stupid, little car. Please, please help me.
In the local coffee shop, with its red umbrellas, quaint interior, I found refuge. The waiter came to know me — not by my tongue-tied attempt to order a café renversé and croissant, but by my faithfulness, the extra franc I’d leave next to my empty cup, and the pens and journals I carried with me. At a small table, facing the window, I looked out over Lac Léman, the French Alps peeking out from the clouds in the distance. I found comfort and pleasure in the lack of unnecessary conversation, calm in the quiet, and understanding without fluency.
III. “Theology, like fiction, is largely autobiographical.” – Frederick Buechner
Back home, years later, I sit alone at my computer. When I stop to read my words out loud, my speech is crisp, decisive, unfaltering. I think back to the previous Sunday night, how when I prayed aloud, I faltered and stammered. Again, I’d lost my way in the midst of the words.
I’d gathered with a handful of people for a quiet Lenten service. There was no show, no formal order of worship. We sat in a circle and prayed, talked about Passover and its connection to Easter, and sang songs accompanied by novice piano and guitar players.
We learned how some Samaritan families still practice the tradition of Passover, how they raise perfect lambs to be slaughtered in the presence of their entire family. I imagined small children, wearing all white, with the blood of their family pet sprinkled upon them, tears stinging their eyes. The ancient tradition was seen as a sign of their sinfulness. It was a reminder of their need and gratitude for God’s redemption.
As the pastor compared this to the cross, I thought of how sanitized we try to make our salvation. How romanticized and clean this story about Jesus, a man hung on a cross, has become. Easter morning, with bonnets and bunnies and a serene story of resurrection is far from the mess, pain, and complication of Holy Week.
Before leaving the church, we stood in our small circle to sing. On one side of me was Jason, a 16- year-old whose mom was lying at home after open-heart surgery. At 42 years old, breast cancer had already weakened her heart. On my other side was Gerritt, an 80-year-old man who slipped into our service after his nightly visit to the nursing home where he fed his wife of 52 years her dinner, one spoonful at a time. Since her stroke she could no longer speak, but she recognized his hands.
As the music began, the words flowed from my mouth. My voice was not beautiful, but it was steady and the words came effortlessly. I found a softness and an ease I long for in everyday speech. I was no longer in the way of the words, but wading through them, swimming my way through their crude reality. This, like the cross, is rarely as simple as we’d prefer it to be.