There ain’t no answer.
There ain’t never gonna be any answer.
There never was no answer.
There’s your answer.
There are simple things that appear full of light and air and colour, and weightlessness. A voice speaking. A truth. A small decision. Why is the simple thing as heavy as it is? Why does the thing that should feel like playing a single note on a piano feel like pushing down an old door? It’s as if, in place of the right muscles, the right strength, there is dust.
I didn’t go to my final speaking class on the weekend. Every class member was going to give a big presentation, i.e. a speech, and be critiqued by the rest of the class. We’d already given 2-minute impromptu speeches (these included speeches about a special type of curry you can buy from Pak ‘N Save, tennis, and how expensive the components of motorcycles are. Predictably, I talked about my cat, Jerry). For the big presentation, I was going to talk about riding a bike in Wellington. I should’ve gone to that last session. But I was feeling burnt out and my heart sank when I thought about expressive gesturing and voice modulating. Embarrassment takes a lot of energy. I don’t think I absorbed much, in the end, from the first two sessions. Nothing went in, nothing bonded. It was like a body rejecting a skin graft or something. At the same time, I think I stood on the edge of absorption, and actual betterment, and it seemed very close. ‘It’s right there!’ Then you dive in and realise that actually the island of betterment is hundreds of miles away, and on the way you get stung repeatedly by jellyfish. (I should mention, I’ve been reading about incredible marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam from Florida to Cuba and was stung repeatedly by jellyfish, including the 24-eyed, 3-foot-long-tentacled box jellyfish, whose poison can cause cardiovascular collapse and cerebral haemmorhage. Nyad is 65, and my hero.) If you are lucky, you make it.
The convener of the speech class told me was that I should open my mouth more when I talk, and also increase the volume of my voice. ‘Throw your voice like a ball.’ This is the one constant piece of advice for people trying to get better at speaking. ‘Throw’ your voice. And the voice is always a ball, never some other object (I guess because a ball suggests interaction, as opposed to, say, a firework). I would imagine one of those medicine balls they have at the gym, the heavy ones that some people throw at walls or slam into the floor, making the whole building shake. The convener explained that your head is like the body of an acoustic guitar: it’s the resonator. When air is blown upwards from the lungs, it excites the vocal folds of the larynx – that is, makes them vibrate – which then produces a tonal quality, resonating in your mouth. The more force with which you throw that air upwards from your lungs, the more the voice will resonate.
The convener said, ‘Open yourself out more when you sit.’ Don’t cross your legs or hunch over or hug yourself. All of these things compress the organs, the diaphragm in particular, restricting the breathing and contributing to a sluggish circulation, but more importantly these self-minimising postures send our brains a signal that we’re shutting down, withdrawing. To say something forthrightly, from this position, is perceived by our bodies as a great effort.
The convener singled me out to say, ‘Move around less awkwardly.’ So, let go of stiffness in your upper limbs in particular; let go of tension in your shoulders. Move as if you’re newly oiled, as if you’re a set of ball bearings in a perpetual motion machine, and your smallest movement flows from the previous movement and on to the next. So, sort of like saying, ‘Do all of your ordinary movements, but in reverse.’
When a person tells me to what to do to get better at something, and when their words seem to glow with good sense, I feel the old surge of hope. The possibilities blossom around us. ‘Goddamn! I am going to do this.’ This, I know, is the hope that fuels all endeavours of self-improvement, and the whole self-improvement industry. The hope is a kind of hyper-alertness to how you work and how you could work, instead. This sense of a new beginning has always been bound up with a lot of excitement for me. Built To Spill’s third album, Perfect From Now On, was one of my favourite albums as a teenager; I think partly because its title was what I said to myself all the time. Messing things up badly gave you permission to imagine yourself as a new person the next day.
Then come the days following the hope, when you’re striving. They’re like the days after a physio appointment, when you’re attempting to put into practise the correct ranges of motion that the physio has taught you so that you’ll sit, stand, walk and run properly. You have to place your toes and feet differently on the ground. ‘Make space’ in your hips. Not jut out your pelvis. Not swing the right side of your body more than the left. Etc. You walk out of the physio’s office and down the street taking small, weird, steps, hobbled by correctness. The way you move through the world must change if you’re going to stop getting injured. Despite the overwhelming nature of all the changes you need to make, it seems like a minor sacrifice to give up all those slightly erroneous ways in return for travelling more smoothly.
There was a lot of hopefulness in the speaking room.
There was a chaos of trying things out, setting yourself awhirl and seeing where you fell. It was almost like one big identity crisis. Trying to find a different hinge onto which your self might swing open.
I remember when I was maybe seventeen and studying first-year education, I read about James Marcia’s theories around the development of self-identity in adolescence, including the idea of ‘identity foreclosure’. In this identity status, a person ‘commits’ to an identity without much exploration. They haven’t questioned themselves much, or explored other ways of going about. At the time, I latched on to this idea of identity foreclosure. ‘I committed too early! I foreclosed!’ This was why, I thought, any kind of exploration or experiment or game felt so difficult, like trying to push down a very heavy door. In Marcia’s theory, it’s only later, towards the end of adolescence or even into the twenties, that the person has the big crisis: the ‘identity moratorium’, when the lid comes off the blender and all hell breaks loose.
But there was a lot of hopefulness in the speaking room. There were simple things that appeared full of light and air and colour, and weightlessness.