Hearing My Voice Break [Hippie Squared]

When we write we are speaking, in print, in the voice of whatever we are. I find myself in a weird place right now. As I enter my fiftieth year, having come through two years of chaos and crisis in more than one arena of my life, I feel so changed that I’m not even quite sure that I know the sound of my own voice anymore.

I feel the tectonic plates of my internal landscape have shifted so drastically that I’m on the other side of a faultline from the old “Hippie Squared,” and now, when I open my mouth to speak (when I hold my fingers poised above the keyboard), what comes out sounds like a squawk to me, a croak, a squeak. I hear my voice breaking. At forty-nine years old, you no longer expect to hear your voice break.

Almost half a century old, and I feel like I’m speaking with a fledgling’s voice. I have to try out my old wings as if they’re new. They creak and moan with arthritis, yet it feels like I’m just learning how to unfold them and fly. I’m not even sure they’re not vestigial. I’m no longer even sure that flight is possible. But I feel forced to try.

So yes, I’ve been through some hard stuff. I’m hardly alone in this, of course. The rough times are widespread. In my case: Grief. Layoff. Unemployment. Fighting to hold onto our house. Family health problems. The toll that all of these can take on our most intimate relationships. Hurting my loved one, terribly. Getting hurt.

So who am I now–entering my 50th year, seemingly on the other side of the worst of it? On the earlier side of that faultline was a young writer who believed that the power of words placed in the right order was limitless; a young writer confident that he could gain the full range of that power.

On this side of the fault line I am much more conscious of the limits of words. The failures of my courage to speak. I’m aware of so many people I’ve let down, where words failed me; or toward whom I’ve fallen effectively mute, because it seems impossible to even know what it is that I long to say, much less figure out how to say it.

“I wish I were transparent, like this balloon” I once wrote, in black marker on a red ballon, “So you could see my heart.” I’m more and more aware of how hard it is to say the stuff that truly matters.

Who am I as a writer now, and what is my voice? Are my concerns the same? Can I still have faith that my voice is equal to my concerns?

Entering my fiftieth year I’m so much more conscious of the limits of time; aware of the time that has gone by and how, though it went so fast, it may well stretch behind me now farther than it runs on ahead. My mom died at 65. Not that long ago. She was only sixteen years older than I am now.

At twenty I moved from Michigan to LA on a holy quest, armed with a quill-pen sword, a machine-gun typewriter, with shitloads to say and a fury to say it all.

I’m less romantic and dreamy about what it is to be a writer now. It feels less externally heroic. Less about taking up a lance, jumping on a horse, and charging out. It’s more about looking inward now. The holy grail is somewhere inside, lost in my many-chambered heart, in the echoing dome caverns of bone inside my cathedral skull.

“I know what I been lookin’ for, but I just can’t find it. Guess I gotta look inside of myself some more,” as Donovan sang it, in “Riki Tiki Tavi.”

The quest feels much more internal now, but no less the holy for it. Where it’s still external, it’s less about fighting dragons, and more about a harder honor: taking better care of my relationships with the people close to me. Learning how to reanimate my changed voice, and finding the courage to use it when it’s most important to do so.

I always wanted wisdom. I always assumed that wisdom would be the byproduct of my writer’s quest for truth, justice and beauty. But I thought it would come from what I learned about other people, about how the world works, from my victories and triumphs. I didn’t understand how much of it would come from hard-won, painful self-awareness. From repeatedly letting myself down, and figuring out how to get back up and go on, anyway, with hope somehow intact.

So this is where I find myself, entering my fiftieth year, not at a run but with a bit of a limp, in walking meditation: just a tender, fledgling elder, trying to learn to sing a new but ancient song, in a breaking — but not broken — voice.

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featured image credit: wili_hybrid