Today, like most other days, you told me: Mommy, Look how beautiful I can sing, before you broke out into your fanciest version of ‘Do Me Ri.’
Your sweet sound got me thinking, Natalie. And there is something I need to tell you.
You know those nights that you tiptoe into my room and tell me you’re scared because you think you heard a monster, and I assure you that there is no such thing? Well here is why I say that to you: there are no monsters under your bed, in your room; there are no monsters anywhere. But I am writing to warn you about something worse. Something dangerous, worth fearing. Something that- if you aren’t careful- can build itself a home in your mind, and move right on in.
I’m writing to warn you about the voice of No. It’s a mean voice, although it doesn’t always sound mean, and doesn’t sound like mommy’s voice, or daddy’s voice, or Ms. Margaret’s voice, when we tell you No. This voice is different.
It will start off only listening, quietly, as you say things at age four like I want to be sister dentists with Allie when I grow up and I want to be a mommy to five babies. Things like I can run the fastest of anyone and Mommy, look how beautiful I can sing. When you are young, you wont hear this voice I’m writing about; It won’t hurt you. It will leave you alone, intimidated by your simplicity and your bravery and all that you promise to be.
But as time goes on, it comes out of hiding. Slowly, maybe one lunchtime when your friends at the table no longer have room for you, or in 9th grade English when you get your first C on a paper you put your heart into. Politely, it will whisper maybe’s. Advising you maybe not to try this anymore. Maybe you will fail. Maybe you will not get accepted into this fancy college, or that boy’s heart. By the time you’re older, like mommy’s age, if you aren’t careful, the voice of No will have become more clear and more bold, replacing maybe with probably, walking up and down the halls of your life and lining them with yellow, tattered caution tape, blocking you off from the beautiful unknown. Caution: you probably shouldn’t. Caution: you probably can’t. Caution: You probably wont. At times, it may protect you; but mostly, it will prevent you, always prepared with a million excuses as to why not. The voice will send you back to bed on early mornings, ignoring the sports bra and sneakers you laid out on your chair the night before. It will keep you trapped in a relationship that makes you feel worthless, or a job that makes you feel bored; it will have you paying every dollar you bring home to live in an apartment you hate, in a city that makes you feel lonely and uninspired.
Just recently, at age 34, Mommy first began to understand the voice of No, and how mean it was, and what it was doing to her life. Mommy has been letting this voice trick her for years. After I had you, it got even louder: even though having you and caring for you was such a wonderful thing that I should have been only hearing yes and you are amazing and just keep going. Now the voice of NO hides under my bed, just like the monsters you complain of. It says terrible things; would you believe that it even told me not to write you this letter? Sometimes I think it is too late for me to make it disappear. But I am starting to discover certain ways to drown it out, keep it quiet; I’m still working on them. One day, when it’s inevitably seeped its way into your beautiful little heart, you will have to find these ways too. Make no mistake: I will want to kill your voice of No. I will want to take it, and squeeze it, and scream at it how dare you? and who the hell do you think you are? I’ll want it to look back at me stunned, and terrified, before backing away to the door, and letting itself out. But from what I know about this life so far, that’s just not the way things go. Your voice of No will only listen to you. You will have to find your own ways to defeat it, just like I am trying to find mine.
Some people can pull their confidence and bravery from role models: maybe movie stars, or famous writers, or athletes sipping Powerade at post-game press conferences. I guess that’s fine, but it’s never worked for me. Here is a secret: Looking at other people’s success sometimes has a way of making my own feel more impossible, more far away. So I’ve been looking elsewhere, for reasons why I can, or why I should. I look for reasons all around me, in small places, that often go unnoticed. Like on the trail that runs along the west side highway, as I drive to work in the pouring rain. Out my window, I can almost always see someone trotting rhythmically by the river, unaffected, for no one but herself. I do not know her, but I picture her waking up in the morning to her alarm, folding her voice of No away in box deep inside her closet, putting on her windbreaker, and choosing not to listen. I smile at her as she runs along the water, early in the day before the sun sails high with tedium and responsibilities, because even though she’s probably cold, she’s probably tired, I know that with each footstep, she is saying yes.
This helps me; she helps me. I need to keep going. I try to silence the voice of No by continuing to look and listen for the voice of Yes. And when I still can’t hear it, or find it, I’m starting to learn how to say it myself.
This is why, Natalie, when you appear at my bedside in the early evening with your wide-awake brown eyes, telling me you are scared, telling me there is a monster, this is why I chuckle, and hug you, and send you right back. There’s nothing under your bed tonight. Tonight, you are so, completely free.
So of course, I will “look how beautiful your voice is”-now, and always. Partly because I’m your mommy, and I believe in you. But mostly because it is. It is so, truly, undeniably beautiful. So, even though it may be hard, I want you to promise me, Natalie, promise me that when that monster first appears, and it tries to convince you with everything it has that you are simply not good enough, you will laugh how I’m laughing tonight, and tell it how ridiculous it sounds. You will sing even louder. And promise me, Natalie, you will always keep singing.