When my daughter was three, she started asking me not to sing. It isn’t because I have a bad singing voice. I don’t. When I used to watch my friends’ kids, or before that when I used to babysit for cash, my made-up bedtime stories and my lullabies were treasured. I know this because I would threaten to take them away if the kids in my care didn’t behave. And it worked. My daughter’s friends used to tell her how lucky she was to hear my lullabies every single night of her life. Each time, she shrugged.
But it isn’t because of my voice that she asked me to stop singing.
And she didn’t ask me to stop singing just for that one day, when we had some of our favorite tunes playing in the car – Dan Zanes, or Ralph’s World, or maybe Caroline’s Jungle CD – it was that one day, yes, but then the next day, too, and the next day after that. Every day. Before that, we sang morning ‘til night. I kept her occupied as a toddler on the plane between London and Chicago four times, almost solely with song. She giggled, she mimicked, she sang along, she joined me in the hand motions and squirmed happily away from me when my tickly hand came for her belly, her chin, or the backs of her little thighs.
She loved my voice. I know she did. Not like my breath, which she told me all the time was unpleasant. “No, Mami,” she used to say when I’d lean in for a kiss. “I don’t like your taste.” But my voice, she liked. She still does.
But here was the trouble: She couldn’t hear her own voice while I was singing. She needed me to stay quiet, so she could hear.
It isn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment expressed – although in the past, it was not about singing. In the past, during community meetings, activist meetings, meetings with everyone fired up to make social change, it came to my attention that I, as a white, middle-class, college-educated person, had no trouble taking up space, speaking my mind, pulling the threads of a conversation together and offering up my own interpretation. This was never pointed out with malice, but it was true. And the challenge for me was to stay silent awhile – a bit longer than I thought I could – not only to hear what people had to say, but to leave open the space for other people to speak. I learned a lot in these meetings, when I stayed quiet a few beats longer than I thought I could. People spoke. People who weren’t me, who didn’t look like me, who didn’t have my background, my color, my beliefs. People spoke truth. Not my truth, but theirs, and it was full and rich, and exploded inside me while I listened. People shared their stories, not because I invited them to, but because they were called to share and there was quiet and it was time.
I remembered this – finally – a year after my daughter first asked me not to sing. Every day now, I strive to meet the spirit of her request. There is room here for all of us to speak truth, to share poetry and song.
We take turns staying quiet now, a moment longer than we think we can, so we can hear. A moment of quiet. Will you join us?
What do you hear where you are?