What were your favorite books growing up?

What did they teach you about communication?

Some of my favorite books were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series. The author and I share a name, and I, like her, was a brunette country girl who loved spending time outside in nature, and with animals. Every few years I pull the books out and re-read the entire series – most recently shortly before my husband and I took our annual trip to my home state of South Dakota the third week of August.

As a voice teacher and performer who knows the importance of being in the moment, it’s almost embarrassing to admit how much I have come to dislike traveling. I simply don’t enjoy the journey like I used to; I just want to be off the plane, out of the airport, leave the rental car in the driveway, and sit down at the kitchen table with my cousin Kat. Who will offer me a Cabernet or chilled Pinot Gris. Kat is one of my closest friends. We’ve known each other her entire life because I was the first-born LaBay granddaughter and Kathryn is the second eldest.

She’s also a skilled communicator. As a project manager and mother of two adult daughters and two grandchildren, I suppose she has to be. I’ve noticed Kat tends to be the voice of reason when others are wigging out.

I have been that voice of reason myself in the past, but I can’t say I was on this trip. The Friday morning of my birthday, I completely lost it when I needed to be left alone and wasn’t. It wasn’t the finest of moments for me or for my husband.

I teach vocal and piano technique, but the voice is about so much more than how your body produces sound. It’s about confidence. Awareness of what impacts your voice – physically, mentally and emotionally. Knowing who you are inside and what you want to say. Or sing. Communication with others.

During this both super fun and complicated trip, I found myself going back to the communication of the Ingalls family during The Long Winter.

Here’s the back cover description: On the empty winter prairie, gray clouds to the northwest meant only one thing: a blizzard was seconds away. The first blizzard came in October. It snowed almost without stopping until April. The temperature dropped to forty below. Snow reached the rooftops. And no trains could get through with food and coal. The townspeople began to starve. The Ingalls family barely lived through that winter. And Almanzo Wilder knew he would have to risk his life to save the town.

Every time I re-read these books, I remember again how much Ma hated “Indians”, the Native American cultures already there when they arrived. Bigotry saddens my heart. The long winter happened in DeSmet, South Dakota, just 35 miles from where Clark, where I graduated from high school. I have deep respect and gratitude for the Oglala Sioux tribes who wandered those plains and highly recommend the book Black Elk Speaks. I first read it in college at SDSU in an Indians of North America class. That book changed the way I think.

The long winter was foretold.

First Pa found the muskrat house.

Laura put her hand on the wall of their house…she liked to think of them sleeping there. Pa was shaking his head. “We’re going to have a hard winter”, he said, not liking the prospect. “Why, how do you know?” Laura asked in surprise. “The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses,” Pa told her. I never saw a heavier-built muskrats’ house than that one.”

Then came the Indian Warning.

He was a very old Indian. His brown face was carved in deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones, but he stood tall and straight…His eyes were bright and sharp. Behind him the sun was shining on the dusty street and an Indian pony stood there waiting. “Heap big snow come,” this Indian said…”How long?” Pa asked him. “Many moons,” the Indian said. He held up four fingers, then three fingers. Seven fingers, seven months, blizzards for seven months.

That’s a long time to be stuck in a small house together. But the Ingalls daughters were raised to speak kindly to each other.

What kind of language did you see the last time you scrolled through social media?

“Well, the tunnel’s going fast,” Pa said, when he came into breakfast. His eyebrows were frozen white with snow again and his wraps were stiff with it. Cold was pressing the warmth back again to the stove. “I did hope my tunnel would last through one of these onslaughts, anyway. Gosh dang this blizzard! It only lets go long enough to spit on its hands.” “Don’t swear, Charles!” Ma snapped at him. She clapped her hand to her mouth in horror. “Oh, Charles, I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. But this wind, blowing and blowing…” Her voice died away and she stood listening.

And, in a later chapter…

Pa rose with a deep breath. “Well, here it is again.” Then suddenly he shook his clenched fist at the Northwest. “Howl!, blast you! howl!” he shouted. “We’re all here safe! You can’t get at us! You’ve tried all winter but we’ll beat you yet! We’ll be right here when spring comes!”

During the long winter survival was the only priority, including of the animals in the barn. Twice a day, Pa made it out there using the clothesline to guide him back and forth in the blinding snow. Pa and Ma had decided – at one point – that they would kill and eat the milk cow and her heifer calf if they needed to. Fortunately, they didn’t need to.

Our lives are so very different now.

We have electric lights instead of kerosene lamps. Clean water comes out of faucets in several rooms in our homes. We buy meat from animals that have been killed by someone else, packaged by another, shipped, and sold by yet others, the meat in plastic wrapped containers in an air-conditioned store. People in certain states can have caracals as pets in their homes and get tons of YouTube video likes. CNN, constantly negative news, blares everywhere.

Yet I believe we can still have respect and common courtesy in the language we use with each other, including in our own households. I’d venture to guess it’s more important now than it ever has been.

I’m making a personal commitment to it. If you’d like to join me, make a comment on the blog and we’ll start our own little Respectful Communication Club. No long hard winters required!

Love Your Voice & Voice Your Love,