“Um,” “uh,” “you know,” and “like” were verbal diarrhea, according to my eighth grade speech and debate teacher. He added that using words like this made us sound stupid, and I did not want to be seen as stupid, so I threw myself into eliminating every filler word possible.
Two years later, working a summer job, I drafted my legal research on a pro bono case involving the definition of the word sunset for my father, a well-known attorney in the south San Francisco Bay Area at the time. Rather than rewriting it, he thought it good enough to present to the judge as I’d written it. Then he asked me to accompany him to court for the case.
The judge recognized immediately that it wasn’t my father’s writing style, and asked who wrote the brief. My father said I did, and motioned me to stand. Then the judge addressed me.
“What do you want to do for a career, young lady?”
“Um…” I began.
I didn’t tell him I wanted to be a writer, because my parents already convinced me I’d never make any money at it, and I should give up that dream. I didn’t tell him I wanted to be a psychologist, that I wanted to guide others toward healing emotional wounds, because I’d already been lectured on the “soft sciences” not being real science. I told him I was thinking of law school.
I wanted his approval. (He was a judge, after all.) I wanted to present an image that others would approve of.
For the next twenty years, I did my best to perfect that image. I called it my mask. And behind it, I was dying. I didn’t want to always look and be professional and competent and constantly prove myself and subject myself to judgment every time I opened my mouth. I wanted to live in jeans and go without makeup and give voice to the voices in my head—those of my guides and those of the characters that had stories to tell.
I had a 90s power suit, was the assistant to the executive director of a university business department, and spent a good deal of time on the phone soliciting money from wealthy donors. I wanted to write and watch the clouds go by and eat ice cream messily.
In my thirties, I got that chance. I had kids. And I wrote two novels. And I spent a lot of time looking at clouds and hunting for Little Boy’s Other White Sock.
Now I’m just into my fifties, my kids have become well-adjusted young adults, and I’ve embarked on my true love—even beyond writing: teaching others how to connect with their soul guides, their intuition, and their joy, and how to use those in every aspect of their lives. In making this shift in my work, judgment came back. How should I dress? How professional do I need to look? What should I say?
But here’s the thing: I don’t want another mask. Now, when you get me, you get me, ums and uhs and awkward silences and all.
There’s actually a science behind all those filler words. Sometimes I use them to let others know that I’m trying to find the right word, that I’m not done talking yet, or that I’m trying to sift through my thoughts and all the input my guides are giving me. (It can be very noisy in my head.) So, Mr. R. in eighth grade speech and debate, I understand what you were trying to teach us, and, um, I reject the sacrifice of authenticity to the altar of image.
And now, in the middle of this global pandemic, when millions are unemployed in the United States, and we’re all stressed to some degree about who’s going to get sick next and if they’ll survive, and what about the economy… I encourage you to give yourselves a break. Accept all your ums and uhs and live in denim if that’s your gig and embrace who you really are, not the image you’ve been trying to project.
We have enough false images in the world today. It’s time to be real. And whole.