“Find your own voice,” say the writing experts.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

In another post on voice, I described how helpful it was for me to try to visualize my voice as a farm. Today I am pondering the role of another of the senses–touch. How does one sense inform, enlarge, or restrict, another one?

Here’s a thesis to consider: a writer whose voice touches us usually has been touched profoundly by others. Have they been touched gently, intimately, wisely? Or has the touch been rough, unknowing, uncaring? What places inside us do they reach, and how do they touch us?

I first learned about voice and touch from Max DePree. Max likes to joke that he is a “born leader” because his father owned the company he later led. He eventually became CEO of the progressive, high-quality furniture company Herman Miller Inc., makers of the ubiquitous Aeron Chairs and famous for hiring the team of Charles and Ray Eames, who designed the quintessential modern chair included in the MoMA collection, the Eames Chair. When Max agreed to be my mentor, back in 1998, two years after I became president of Goshen College, I was deeply moved. I love to hear his voice, and his presence in my life has influenced me in ways neither of us can fully comprehend.

Max has written a lot of books about leadership, most famously, Leadership is an Art (1989, 2004) and Leadership Jazz (1992,2008)

After one of our long conversations, in Holland, Michigan.

After one of our long conversations, in Holland, Michigan.









But the story that touched me most from Max comes from his experience as a grandfather rather than as a CEO. It comes from a now out-of-print book called Dear Zoe, one of the most beautiful childbirth and childhood stories ever written. Max wrote this book as a series of letters to his granddaughter Zoe, who was born prematurely (24 weeks inside the womb) and weighed 1 pound 7 ounces and was eleven inches tall. Max could slip his wedding ring up Zoe’s arm all the way to the top. When he dies, he wants to give Zoe his ring on a gold chain.

Here is the passage from that book that catches me in the throat every time I read it. It describes Grandpa Max’s encounter with a nurse after Zoe had, to the amazement of all, survived her first few days. Listen, please, to Max in his own voice:

“While we were looking at you, a wonderful nurse named Ruth came over to chat. After a few minutes she turned to me and said, ‘For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father. I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger. While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.’

I’m sure Ruth’s suggestion is going to be very important in our relationship together. I also have the feeling that she has given me something enormously profound to ponder.”

As I write these words, a little boy is getting ready to be born in New York City. I don’t know his name yet, but I do know that I want to touch him and that I will love his voice. He will make me a grandmother for the first time, and I hope that he will always connect my voice to my touch. His doctor says he could come any day now, and we wait prayerfully for him and his mother as they prepare for the amazing journey toward birth.

Have you learned anything about the connection of voice and touch from your children or grandchildren, if you have them?

What touches you in another person’s voice? You can describe either physical or metaphorical reality. As you read or write, are you aware of times when your voice and your touch connect? What happens?

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