Mystery and voices and the music we aim to make


Dear Karen,

I accosted a priest at the farmer’s market over the weekend. A strange place to begin a response to your gorgeous letter, I know, and accosted might not be the right word, but it’s not far off either. I’m not sure why I begin with the priest, but it seems to matter so let’s see where it leads.

Rochester has a huge open-air market at its city center. A bustling place on Saturday mornings, I was headed there to meet a friend when I spied my childhood priest. I must pause here to say that your words about religion and voice have been with me all week, so it’s possible that I drew the priest into my path with the power of all that’s been stewing in my head.

Anyhow, I saw him and he saw me too, I think, a flash of blue eyes and recognition as we both scurried away, him with his tote-bag of kale or radishes heading toward the parking lot and me, beginning to pick my way across the busy street. We’d always had a strange relationship, beginning in childhood when as a fatherless kid, I’d glommed onto the man, following him around and pestering him after mass, even and especially when I wasn’t an altar girl but a regular girl craving the luster of his attention. There’s more to say about this. The point for now is that we’re not close, but in a way that means something and we’d had similar experiences over the past decade of passing each other by.

I loved church as a child. This was unusual, at least among my family and friends. The mass has much to recommend it, but Catholics aren’t known for especially rousing preaching. This priest was an exception. He breathed life into those Bible stories, filled the huge old building with language and song, followed by homilies on love and social justice. Add to that, candlelight and stained-glass and I was hooked. Not so much on doctrine, but on mystery and music. I don’t exaggerate when I say that sitting in that church, immersed in the perfect combination of silence and sound led to the most meaningful parts of my life, including writing, which may be the closest I’ve come to recapturing the magic of those early masses.

But back to the market. As I headed into the crosswalk, I thought of the priest, how much older he was, how I’d aged too, and found myself turning in the middle of the street. I ran back, passing families lugging bags of onions and overwrought tomato plants, startling a couple sharing the last bite of fried dough, all the way to the priest.

“Jim Shea!” The name came out louder than I’d intended, my voice conjuring a needy child from forty years ago. He stopped and turned and I felt, for the first time in facing him, nothing complicated, nothing at all, in fact, but a wave of overwhelming gratitude and the desire to thank him. He quickly recovered from the surprise of my voice, launching into talk about people we knew, asking about family, but after a minute, I cut him off, saying, “I just want to let you know how much you meant,” and he stopped the small talk and heard and we hugged and it was a moment in the parking lot. Not life shattering. Just a small interaction, a tiny dose of truth. So why have I spent most of this letter telling about it?

You quoted Merton and concluded with lines by Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come” in your last letter, but it’s your words, Karen, that have had me all week long:

“I’ve kept my voice, my heart, my faith, but I’ve kept it all in my pocket, a breviary of which I am dubious and curiously ashamed.”

A breviary. Yes. The things we hold close and why. It’s tough to think of the voices closest to us causing shame or doubt, but there’s huge power in what the world tells us to keep to ourselves. You describe the early voices at church, song-prayer, a collision of whispers, and speak of your own voice, the mountain accent, your history of faith and seeking and whether others consider such topics properly literary or worthwhile.

All of which makes me want to float down to West Virginia to tell you how beautiful your breviary, how agonizing but fertile our sources of shame and doubt.

I’d like to corner you at your residency to talk about voices. How as writers, we focus more easily on the content of our work than the mystery of it all and the music we aim to make. I’d like to compare notes on the various textures and rich array of human voices, and discuss when we use them and how. Why did I—a woman who is most at home in silence—choose to use mine yesterday to stop a vegetable-bearing priest in his tracks? How did my body know before I did how much I needed to speak?

It seems to me now a tender thing, the human voice. The way it marks us and reveals our deepest selves. A source of vulnerability and shame sometimes, but also of real power when we somehow manage to speak our words simple and true. I don’t suppose that others will always like or even welcome what I write about, and I didn’t necessarily like the urgency and need that came through my voice as I shouted the priest’s name in the parking lot: “Jim Shea!”

But as I sit here now, I find that it that was worth it to turn around and use my sometimes gritty, sometimes shy, often hungry imperfect voice, if only for the peace that followed.

Thank you, Karen, for this exchange. I look forward to hearing more of your voice.




Sonja Livingston’s latest book, Queen of the Fall uses memory and personal experience to consider the lives of girls and women. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for use by classrooms around the nation. Her writing has been honored with a NYFA Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, and Arts & Letters Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women.

Her work has appeared in many literary journals including the Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southeast Review, Brevity, AGNI online, and is anthologized in several texts on writing, including Short Takes, The Truth of the Matter, The Curious Writer, and Brief Encounters, forthcoming from Norton in 2015. 

An Assistant Professor in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis, Sonja divides her time between Tennessee and New York State. She’s married to the artist Jim Mott.


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