Most broadcasters get their start in small markets- places like Glendive, Montana; or Alpena, Michigan, but my first gig was international.
It was 1994, I had recently graduated from college, and I was stranded in the Australian capital of Canberra. How I got there is a long story that involves first love, first heartbreak, and an overnight bus ride, but I’ll save that for another time. Suffice it to say I found myself with several hours to kill in an unfamiliar place.
The sun was barely peeking out of the early morning sky, and in my teary, weary, travel-ragged state, I was hardly in the mood to tour the sights. Still, part of me knew this was quite possibly the only time in my life I’d have the chance to see Canberra, so I’d better pull myself together and take advantage of it. Surely there were national treasures, museums, and galleries that I should visit so that I could broaden my worldview and deepen my understanding of that great nation on the other side of the world.
Just one problem: it was 7am on a Sunday morning and all the bastions of Australian culture were closed. I had about 5 hours to kill before my next bus, so I stashed my backpack in a locker, grabbed a cup of coffee from a corner deli and wandered the streets.
About an hour into my aimless jaunt, I stumbled across a large building that looked interesting, and by that I mean it appeared to actually be open. It was the Australian Institute of Sport.
I walked up the steps, pushed open the door, and found myself face-to-face with a dark-haired, red-nosed man sitting behind a desk, surrounded by a pile of Kleenex, a manual of some sort, and a telephone.
“(Sniff) Well, good morning (cough cough cough),” he sputtered, and then continued in an extremely hoarse voice. “We’re not quite open (sniff sniff) but now that you’re here, I’m going to need to you do something…”
“Umm…what??” I replied nervously, as headlines of international kidnappings and trafficking rings flashed before my eyes, and I wondered why I couldn’t have just wandered right past this place. It’s not like I even understood cricket. Or rugby. Or Australian men. (oops, I digress again…)
“We just got a new phone system (GIANT COUGH) and I need to record (SNIFF) the outgoing message on it, but as you can see…or well, hear…(SNEEZE), I’m a bit under the weather. Could you do it for me?”
Relief flooded through me. “I guess I could, but in case you can’t tell, I’m from the United States. Shouldn’t the official message for the Australian Institute of Sport sound a little more….Australian?” I asked.
He looked right at me said, “You have a voice- that’s what matters.”
So right there and then, I scored my first paid job in the industry: I recorded the outgoing answering machine message, giving the days and hours the Institute was open in exchange for free admission and a refill of my coffee.
Shortly after my splashy debut on the international broadcasting scene, I caught a bus back to Sydney, and eventually a very long flight back to my regularly scheduled life in the US. I think it’s safe to assume that my message has long since been erased from the phone system of the Australian Institute of Sport, but that random stranger’s message to me was permanently archived on my brain: You have a voice – that’s what matters.
I thought about it in those emotional, jet-lagged days upon my return to the States, where I felt lost and silent.
I thought about it in the years that followed, as I tried different career paths and countries; all those years when I said too much, struggling to fit in.
I think about it now, as I grow deeper into motherhood, when it often feels simultaneously like no one and everyone is listening.
It’s no coincidence that “voice” and “vocation” come from the same root: the Latin “vocare,” which means “to call.” When I think of what it means to have a “voice,” I think of the bridge that connects our inner and outer worlds. It’s the sweet spot where body, heart, mind, and spirit overlap. It’s not just the sound that comes from our mouths, but the one we make in the world.
As this new year begins, those words speak to me once again: “You have a voice- that’s all that matters.” Will I be strong enough to be a voice for justice and a voice for love? A voice of truth and compassion? A voice that says what it means, and isn’t afraid to say no? A voice that is unafraid to speak alone? Because that’s what matters.
About a month ago, my daughter gave her first book report of the school year. Despite being a voracious reader, and the daughter of a broadcast journalist, she’s a shy flower who breaks out in a sweat at the mere thought of speaking in front of her class.
“Mommy – I don’t want to do it,” she cried that morning, her voice shaking with fear. “Why can’t I let someone else read my book report for me?”
I took her on my lap, held her hands in mine, and looked right in her eyes.
“Because there’s only one YOU,” I told her firmly. “You don’t have to be the loudest, you won’t always have all the answers, and not everyone will always like what you have to say. But nobody, NOBODY can speak for you, sweet girl.”
“You have a voice – that’s what matters.”