Let me tell you about finding my voice.
I lose my voice periodically. It’s usually when the season changes – stuffy nose, sore throat, and no way to complain to the world about it. I can’t sing, and that always makes me sad. Every fall, without fail, I spend a week or two croaking through my classes and insist on talking even when my professors tell me to stop because I like to be a part of the conversation.
I like to be part of the conversation. But sometimes, my host parents speak so quickly at dinner that I can’t catch all the words. Embarrassed, I have to ask them to repeat requests, or get what I can from context. I do all the reading for my history class, but the teaching assistant and another student have a rapid debate with their backs to me, and it’s all I can do just to keep up. In my oral comprehension workshop, we have assignments where we listen to an audio or video clip and have to fill in the blanks in the dialogue. If there’s a word in Spanish that I’ve never heard before, I don’t know what to do or how to spell it. There’s a few key phrases I’ve gotten in the bad habit of sticking too when I’m in a longer conversation in Spanish with friends – because by the time it takes me to think of a response or an interjection, the moment is already gone. And even when it’s not, we’ve only been here a month – I feel like to some degree we’re all still getting to know each other. There are jokes I would make or stories I would tell with friends back home, who know me inside and out, that come to my mind but not out of my mouth every day. Here in Argentina, I feel like I lose my voice periodically.
My family came to visit this last week, and as crazy as it was juggling classes, homework and spending as much time with them as I could, it was such a great time. In all of the ways that mattered, I felt like I had my voice back. My family knows me better than anybody – all my stories, all my quirks – there’s nothing I have to explain or excuse or evade. My brother will always be the only person I can quote Gravity Falls with, and there’s a couple of one-liners from movies that can send all four of us into stitches of laughter at any given moment. The day of my back-to-back classes, I was stressed and tired and frustrated and harried all morning – so not in the mood to be around people. But when my family met up with me for lunch, they were the ones who could pull me out of that bad mood and make me laugh even when I’d been scowling for hours. Because they know me so well, I got to share my city with them in some really fun ways, showing them where I’ve been and what I’ve done and who I’ve become in the meantime, and we got to share memories that will carry me through the next few months until I fly back home.
When they got in the cab to go back to the airport on Friday, I choked on all the goodbyes I had planned, and I felt myself losing my voice again. I came home with my shoulders slumped and sadness settled over me like the gray blanket of clouds overhead – missing my people and missing the feeling of comfort and home and the ways I express that when I’m there, and not for any particular reason that I could verbalize other than they were here and they left and I just was sad.
I’m normally an external processor, so the most frustrating feeling in the world is feeling something – anything – without being able to come up with the words as to why. But just the other day, my friend Kyler was talking about something that fascinated me – how words don’t have meaning, they have usage. We use words to express what we mean – but if the person listening doesn’t speak the same language, we’re only speaking in sounds that have no significance. On their own, words don’t carry weight.
I love to be part of the conversation. I hate losing my voice. But maybe words don’t mean as much as I thought they did. Maybe it’s okay they’re not what I use in the moment to know what I mean. And as I walk a fine line between two languages, falling into one and tripping back into the other on a moment-to-moment basis, maybe it’s okay to speak even when my voice breaks a little.