Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected European folk tales in the nineteenth century. Here’s an excerpt from their story The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids:
It was not long before someone knocked at the door and called out, "Open the door, children dear, your mother is here, and has brought something for each one of you."
But the little kids knew from the rough voice that it was the wolf.
"We will not open the door," they cried out. "You are not our mother. She has a soft and gentle voice, but your voice is rough. You are the wolf."
So the wolf went to a shopkeeper and bought himself a large piece of chalk, which he ate, making his voice soft. Then he came back and knocked at the door, calling out, "Open the door, children dear. Your mother is here and has brought something for each one of you."
The dual nature of motherhood implicit in this intrigued me, and my children became used to having me say on occasion: ‘I am not your mother. I am the wolf.’
What’s brought it back to mind is quoting Bill Coleman here a day or two ago : '…did you ever hear an Amish adult raise his voice?’ And in the same post, quoting another, forgotten. source: 'Speak softly, the world will listen.' You may have forgotten it, but it stayed with me. Talking to myself developed to an art form!
So I’ve been thinking about the way people speak – to each other, about each other, and just anyway – and about the way I speak.
In Shakespeare’s play of King Lear, the king says this of his daughter Cordelia: ‘Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.’
To be gently and quietly spoken is something I aspire to. I am a long way off.
Not so very long ago, my beloved Badger drove across, at the end of the working day, from his office in Oxford to my mother’s home near Cambridge, to pick me up and drive us back to Hastings in East Sussex. That’s two stints of driving each roughly two and a half hours long on the end of a day’s work. My mother expressed concern lest he fall asleep. He made light of this, saying: ‘Oh, don’t you worry – Ember will talk to me all the way home.’ Regrettably this is probably the case, whether he’s tired or not!
Quick to improve any occasion with my usual sparkling wit, I made some remark about this being a dubious remedy, given that in my preaching days those in my congregation remarked often on my soothing – even soporific – voice.
‘Your voice? Soporific?’ (insert derisive laughter here) responded my mother.
My first husband used to remark on occasion that my voice is (like my mother’s, he said) hard and rather masculine. Sigh. It shouldn’t be, should it? It should be ever gentle, soft and low, as if I had been eating chalk specially purchased for the purpose, an excellent thing in woman. I am not your wife, chum. I am the wolf.
But that’s all going to change. I have decided to approach 2011 with heart and mind prepared, and get ready with my New Year’s Resolutions in time for the actual New Year, rather than creating a retrospective list in February, or Second Month as I shall have to learn to say.
And Resolution 1 is going to be to learn to speak gently. Not too softly or I shall drive all the old folks crazy. (‘Eh? You what?’) Not too low either, for the same reason. But gently anyway - and a bit more soft and low than is my wont. I usually start off OK, but then I kind of warm to my subject, and before I know it am holding forth with all the dulcet tones of a politician at a public rally. This has to change.
But there is a Resolution 2. What I actually say. On the train to Lewes today, Hebe and I amused ourselves listening to two sets of old ladies, one behind us, one in front of us, conversing. Those behind us whiled away the journey complaining about their family for three quarters of an hour. ‘And you’ll never guess what, but he phoned her at that hour of the night! Yes, he did! And as soon as she picked up, “Where’s Sharon?” he said. Well, what could she say? So she told him she didn’t know and next thing he slammed the phone down on her! Yes!’
Neither lethal nor interesting, just the usual drivel designed to blacken the character of absent friends and strengthen the impression of great virtue and integrity in our noble speaker. Righteous indignation. Yawn.
In front of us creaked the aged voice of another venerable friend also discussing an absent companion: ‘Well that was a nasty thing to say! That was very nasty. She can be very nasty sometimes, can’t she!’
Aye, and she’s not the only one.
God save me from descending into such an old age. There is only one hope of avoiding it. Start now.
So 2011 is to be the year that I meditate on what I say and how I say it.
Note to self: First day first month 2011 – eat chalk.