Voices of the Living and the Dead

These past days, since I wrote my last post, I’ve further considered the active voice, what is it that I have to say and how can I equip others to speak their stories? I am, at this moment, the most equipped I’ve ever been to do this. In my ‘day job’ at the Teachers Federation I’ve created a full production suite and recording studio. This will allow me to pull in all manner of interesting folks and amplify the stories they have to tell. 

I wrote my dissertation on the concept of stewardship. Stewardship is this all encompassing idea (it must be, we cannot rightly be stewards of only one part of nature or culture; the neglect of anything touches on everything else). I’m considering what I hold in my own stewardship. I read this morning an essay by Jay Allison on Transom.org. Jay has become an of Elder of Stewards for National Public Radio and writes here about holding in care the actual voices of people:

I co-produced the wonderful series Lost and Found Sound with my friends the Kitchen Sisters. Sometimes, I would listen all day to the voices of dead people. The listeners who would call our Quest for Sound line would describe their old tape or phonograph or whatever contained the voice of their loved one and say, “It’s all I have left,” as if it were an actual part of the person, full of life and breath. And in a way, it was. The connection to the remaining voice is not at all like a photograph, it’s much deeper. Sound has the ghostly power to enter our bodies, unbidden.

The playwright Marsha Norman talks about a time after her husband died, finding a plastic blow-up beach ball in the back of the closet and realizing it contained her husband’s breath. That resonates with me. It reminds me of the kind of power we hold in our medium.

There is something about our voices, the sounds that we make and take for granted. Each breath has so much potential for changing the course of a conversation—or in different circumstances, the course of a life or the lives of many. Breath and spirit have the same root in Greek, pneuma (yes, I did pay some attention in that one semester of Greek). I’m considering making a sign or writing this to people before they come in my studio. The breath you take in and give out here is an expression of your spirit. You breathe in and live; what you exhale speaks from your soul. I record our voices here in this place and the spirit of this will resonate out from here—and may for years to come.

It’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities of this stewardship (the stewarding of expression and spirit). I’ve taken time to pick out the right microphones, amplifiers with glowing tubes, and made diagrams of how to connect one box to another. But I must take greater care to get caught up holding on to the spirits of those who come into this space, to go beyond the mechanism and into a realm where we can encounter one another and the real substance of the moment we share.

I know that this sounds almost preposterous as the balance of what we discuss is the political activity of a trade union. Most of the people who step into the studio aren’t there to speak from the spirit and share our connection with the Universe. But I think that has to be my intent, otherwise I’ll just sit in a box recording people reading off lists of legal advice and oppositional statements to government decisions. I have to have the presence of mind and spirit to bring it somewhere deeper.

Also, this is again the ‘day job’, I realise that I need to build a body of work separate to this as well. Not so much for professional reasons, but to keep my spirit connected and grounded to other matters that are important. I have to be a steward of the opportunities I’m given in all aspects of life—and hold them for those who will listen.