I’m in my car driving home from an evening of Scrabble with my 94-year-old mom.
I’m listening to a podcast to keep me company on the familiar thirty-minute drive: “Making Obama” from WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago. In the first segment of the series, various people are recounting tales from former president Barack Obama’s early years as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. Often a person speaks for a few minutes before the narrator identifies them by name.
One of those unidentified voices has a strange and immediate effect on me. After his first two or three words, I have a vivid physical sensation in the center of my chest. My heart area is immediately flooded with warmth. Then it feels as though something is opening or unfurling in there. My heart feels like it’s …. well……blooming.
I’m completely surprised and bewildered by this experience. Why am I feeling so strange? What is happening in my chest? And why on earth do I feel so darn happy at the sound of this voice?
The speaker continues to tell his tale and then, by way of a little laugh, I recognize the speaker at last. It is my friend and colleague, John McKnight.
John was a mentor to Obama in those community organizing days. Many years later, John and I collaborated with Peter Block and Walter Bruggemann in leading a number of large group conversations about creating and sustaining community. They took turns speaking and facilitating small group conversations; in between, I offered song. I came to call us “Three Wise Guys and the Muse.”
I can’t estimate the number of hours I listened to John’s voice over those years. Apparently, I took his way of speaking deep into my bones. How else could I explain the powerful physical response I had to hearing it through my car stereo speakers?
I am still intrigued by the fact that my body and emotions recognized John’s voice well before my brain registered his identity. Without knowing who was speaking, my body instantly recognized that I loved him dearly.
As a voice coach, I often hear myself saying how vital our vocal tone is in delivering our message. We could craft every word of our message to perfection, but if the tone we use to deliver it isn’t congruent, our listeners will come away confused or distrustful.
This recent experience with John’s voice has illuminated new questions for me about how our voices impact the bodies, minds and emotions of others.
How are my sounds – or yours – lodging in the body memories of the people around us?
What emotional traces are we planting in there that may return in some future time?
How can we become more conscious and choiceful about howwe say what we say to our family members, friends, colleagues and community members so that their memories of our voices are as vivid and joyful?
The first line on the back of my book, Full Voice, reads, “Your voice matters.” Thank you, John, for giving me a new and (literally) heart-warming illustration of this idea.