Silence can be a gift. It can also be a tragedy.
In her book When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams tells of a gift bequeathed to her from her dying mother: a shelf full of journals that her mother had faithfully kept for years and years. When Terry finally had the courage to open them after her mother’s death, she discovered that each journal was completely blank. Her mother had given Terry a startling record of her most precious gift: her silence.
Terry is a gifted writer, and she explores the topic of her mother’s silence with a profundity, respect, and understanding that I can’t begin to attempt. I can speculate about it, as Terry did, but I cannot answer the question that burns most hotly inside me: why? Sadly, or perhaps fittingly, neither can Terry.
That’s because the tragedy of her mother’s gift is that only her mother could ever know the reasons for it. Had she filled out even one page, perhaps the final page of the final journal, or one hidden and lost in the middle of one about a third of the way along the shelf, Terry could have understood, could have gotten just a glimpse of her mother’s life, could have felt a connection to her soul.
Certainly you could argue that, in her efforts to understand the empty pages, Terry gained far more insight into her mother than her mother would have been capable of expressing herself. The case could be made, I think, that taking what Terry already knew about her mother, she would be capable of connecting the dots herself, and in a way, due to her skills as a writer, far more eloquently than her mother could have done. Perhaps you could wonder, as Terry did, that perhaps her mother didn’t even know the reasons for her silence, that she knew only that she wanted to write, but when faced with the first blank page of each journal, she could not figure out how to begin.
But, as is the inevitable result of silence, that’s all just speculation.
I, too, have been silent.
I, too, have speculated on the reasons for my silence.
And I’m not entirely sure I’m in any better position to answer that question in my own life than Terry was in the life of her mother.
Only, I’m still here. I can still be asked the question. I can still ask it of myself.
And I, seeing that silence doesn’t communicate, that it doesn’t provide answers, that it doesn’t allow for human connection and human understanding, well, I guess I’m less willing to let silence have the final word.
I have spent years of my life in silence.
It’s not that I never spoke. It’s that I didn’t speak.
I can speculate that I lacked confidence. Perhaps I saw other people as infinitely interesting, and myself as incorrigibly boring. Perhaps I saw other people as having a right to express their desires and pursue their goals, and myself as somehow less worthy. Perhaps I simply saw my obligation to not offend, not disrupt, not make anyone else’s life uncomfortable with my needs or wants.
Like when I had the same pair of sneakers for so long in junior high that I finally wore a hole in one of them and was careful to avoid puddles so my sock wouldn’t get wet, but never said a word to my parents, knowing that it would probably be expensive to buy a replacement pair.
Or when I waited all day a couple summers later for someone to acknowledge that it was my birthday, only to have the sun go down without anyone having remembered.
Or when, as a married man, I would repeatedly defer to the strongly expressed wishes of my wife rather than continue to present my opinion and risk contention in what I believed was the most sacred relationship of not only this life but all eternity.
While I have increased my confidence somewhat since then, I have been silent more recently, too. Although I didn’t continue to buy a new journal each year as a grown man, I all too often found myself putting down the pen instead of writing in my journal. I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I speculate now that I was distressed at the chasm between what my religion told me I should be and what I should want compared to how I actually felt.
When I did write in my journal, I wasn’t perfect at writing the truth, but I think I was bothered enough by the fact that I knew I was leaving things out that it made it feel useless to write. So I wrote less.
This blog is one of the few times in my life when I’ve broken my silence. I vowed to be as truthful as I could, to be as honest as the imperfections inherent in the human condition allowed. And I found I had a voice.
And even then, when my then-wife discovered that I had been keeping this blog, I was silent again. How could I write when I knew she would see it? When I knew she would be hurt? When I knew she would use my honesty and my vulnerability to argue against me?
Was my silence during that period a gift? Or was it a concession?
What did I gain by my silence? What did my then-wife gain by it?
Shortly after I separated from her, my fingers found their way back to the keyboard, and I wrote again. I explored my new life like a child blindfolded in a maze. I laughed in delight, hands outstretched, bumping into walls, and feeling certain that if I just kept at it, I would figure it out and emerge victorious. There wasn’t always joy. Sometimes the bumps were harder than I expected. Sometimes the path I was sure was leading me to the exit turned out to be a dead end. Sometimes it hurt. But I wrote.
Until I couldn’t any more.
I stopped when I realized that there were some things I wasn’t writing. When I discovered that there were topics I kept avoiding. When those topics hounded at my thoughts but couldn’t find their way onto my computer screen.
For if I am to write, and more especially if I am to write under the guise of being as honest as I can, who benefits from the things I purposefully don’t write?
And an even tougher question, how do I write about things that I can’t write about?
I became Terry Tempest Williams’ mother.
You don’t see the journals lined up on the shelf. You can’t flip through the thousands of empty pages. You can’t examine each untyped word. But they are there all the same.
Every day without an entry is a day I didn’t know how to write.
Today, too, though, I don’t know how to write.
But I’m trying. This entry, as full of words as it is, is still an empty page. But it’s an empty page of someone who is trying.
Because I understand something. Something about words. Something about silence.
“I am a woman of words. Take away my words, and what is left of me?” –Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds
I am a man of words. Without words, I disappear.
The old me embraced the idea of disappearing. The me that lacks confidence likes the idea of fading into the background. The me that is afraid to disrupt wants to blend in. The me that knows he has nothing interesting to say, that knows he has no needs worthy of anyone else’s attention, that me is the one who has been writing all those blank pages with invisible ink.
Silence says: I am not important.
Silence says: I do not matter.
Silence says: your needs are more important than mine.
All those things are true. Silence is not necessarily a wrong choice. I don’t want to pretend that it can never be the right choice. There are times when silence is the perfect response. I don’t want to discount that.
But silence is a story untold. And stories are powerful. Not just for the storyteller. Lives can change with a good story told powerfully.
But even if it is just for the storyteller, stories are still powerful. I pretend to write the truth, but my inability to see myself from outside of myself, coupled with my inability to see others from within themselves, both contribute to my truth being just a story I tell myself.
As I tell it, though, I grow. I understand. I make connections I wouldn’t otherwise make. And maybe, just maybe, that gets me just a little bit closer to my goal of being honest with myself. Of understanding my motivations and finding my way through this maze I call my life.
So here. I’ve put it out there. I’ve made a bold declaration that I won’t embrace silence. Not completely.
I still don’t know how to write.
Just deciding that I won’t be silent doesn’t enable me to write. All it does is show my intention. I want to write again. I intend to write again. I will write again.
It may be ugly. It may come haltingly. It may be uncomfortable, both for me and for you.
The beauty of it is, though, that while I have decided that I have to write it, you don’t have to read it. In fact, maybe it would be better for you if you don’t. It’s probably going to feel like just so much angst from somebody with stupid little problems that he caused himself. It’s probably going to read like the journal of a six-year-old complaining about a mother so mean she makes him brush his teeth not just once but twice (twice!) a day. If you have subscribed to this blog and don’t want to undertake this journey with me, I promise it won’t hurt my feelings if you unsubscribe.
But if you are willing to come with me, I welcome your company. Again. Welcome back to the Frogstar.