Growing up in a large family—a family full of Irish Canadian storytellers—the biggest impediment to effective communication was getting the floor. With so much competition, air-time was precious; but we all seemed to have our fair share, and real communication that fostered and deepened relationship was the norm. There have been times in my life, however, when communication did not come as easily and required some differing adjustments and approaches.
Since I wanted to see big city life and leave my sheltered country home for the exciting United States, I went to Spring Arbor College in Michigan. If you are at all familiar with the “hamlet” of Spring Arbor, it is not exactly big city life. And the nearest city is Lansing, which is also not a bustling metropolis, if you don’t count wildlife activity; but this did classify as being in a foreign country.
Living five hundred miles away, I had not taken the campus tour. I trusted that, by signing on my dorm form that any dorm would be acceptable, the dorm gods would provide for me adequate accommodation for my new adventure. After hiking to the fourth floor of the oldest women’s dorm on campus, I dumped my belongings in what appeared to be a walk-in closet, stuffed with two desks, two dressers, and a bunk bed. After sorting some things out, I yelled down the hall of this conservative Christian college dorm, “Hey, does anyone have a rubber?” Now in my world, a rubber was one of a pair of footwear or a pink eraser, which is what I needed at the time. The reaction from a loud and unfamiliar girl was surprising to me. Apparently, in the States, rubber was a condom. This revelation came on the heels of her greeting me affectionately with the term “Bugger,” which in my world was synonymous with bastard. I only reeled for a few days as I grew accustomed to the variances in language and learned that if I wanted cooked potato strips, I needed to order French fries, not chips; and if I wanted something to wipe my face with, I needed to ask for a napkin, not a serviette. Fairly quickly, I adjusted to my Yankee compatriots and was only given a hard time at Thanksgiving in October.
Another episode that caused me to re-boot my language skills came at a concert where I was scheduled to perform. I had been on the road for a while and had grown fairly accustomed to the kind of crowds my agent was booking for me. As I prepared to start my concert in front of this group, my hands grew clammy, my breathing hard. It was not nerves per se, but I recognized immediately that my innocent country upbringing stories were not exactly going to relate to the individuals before me. These kids were druggies, murderers, parolees. I was not. This was a Teen Challenge rehab group, and I scrambled in my brain for a bridge to cross to link our obviously disparate lives.
This is what I came up with: I described one day when I was at college. For summer school, I had been living alone in an apartment two miles down a lonely, wooded road from campus. I was exchanging cleaning lab rats for free housing. Another story! A visiting friend had forgotten his cigarettes (which were contraband) in my apartment when he left. So never having tried a cigarette before, I locked the door to my apartment. I went into my bathroom and locked the door. I looked around. (Add dramatic posturing here.) I lit one. And…I took two, not one, but two puffs off that cigarette!
At that point, my exaggerated drama and the ludicrous content of my monologue had the group laughing. What a relief! I used that story to show that my apparent innocence and naiveté and their crimes were both shortcomings. One was not better or worse than the other (OK, I lied a bit.), but we all were short of perfection. From different worlds, a connection was made, and my breathing returned to normal. And just for the record, I didn’t inhale!
A couple of years later, after suffering the loss of my first child, I was on the receiving end of the ineffective language juggling that comes when people try to comfort someone who is grieving. My little girl Noelle was two weeks overdue and died in my womb, the umbilical cord twisted around her neck. I delivered her, Lamaze breathing and all, knowing that she was gone.
I received cards and comments that, though written and spoken in perfect English, seemed like foreign languages to me. People claimed that I would get over this pain, that I would have other children, that God just needed another special angel in heaven, so He strangled your child in the womb. Well, they didn’t say that last part. But they may as well have. Not meaning to, they were Job’s comforters revisited, speaking and writing words that meant something to them, but nothing to me. Their attempts at comfort were like knives being plunged and twisted in my heart. What they wanted to communicate was not only ineffective to its purpose, but destructive.
I too experienced an inability to communicate. My desire to not make people feel uncomfortable and my desperate struggle to make some sense out of the senseless stopped my often easy words at my teeth. All I could do was cry.
The greatest comfort came from an older pastor friend and another close friend I did music with. They came. They sat. They hugged and said they were sorry. They prayed and cried with my husband and me, and they left. Their silences and their measured words communicated more than all the other cards, letters, and condolences put together. The lesson for me has been a good one: Sometimes silence speaks the most effectively.
For someone who loves words, communication—being heard and being understood—is a motivating force in my life. But what seems so clear in my head sometimes needs to be tweaked and rearranged creatively so that what I say is what I truly intend. We are all so different and one size certainly does not fit all, but there is inestimable value in the relationship that comes by trying to communicate well.