Friday, January 8, 2010

The Silent Woman

Being "a little under the weather" on New Year's Day has now stretched out to a week.  Sore throat and no voice, but aside from some tiredness, I feel okay.  No fever or flu symptoms or anything like that.  I did make a big mistake by continuing to talk, but I had a good reason--a friend out from New England. We're only able to get together once a year or so, and since I wasn't contagious I couldn't pass up the opportunity.  And what do friends do?  They talk - and talk - and talk.  By the time she left I'd really done a number on my vocal cords so now I'm following the orders a laryngologist gave another friend and not talking or even whispering at all.  I write notes if I can't make myself understood with sign language and Joe gave me a whistle for when I need him and he's in another room.
       The quiet is really rather nice.  Restful, conducive to meditation.  It's just the two of us here, now that all the holiday visitors are gone, and my silence  has led Joe to whisper when he speaks to me. It reminds me of when my daughter was in kindergarten.  She had a lovely young teacher, Miss Booth, who spoke very softly, so all the children tended to speak softly too, and her classroom was a peaceful, happy place.
      My temporary silence feels rather liberating, perhaps because I know it's temporary, and so I am savoring it, but silence, both literal and figurative, is not a respite for many others who suffer an enforced silence to which they can see no end.  A few days before Christmas we were at the market and on the way out a young man stopped me and handed me a sheet of note paper laminated in plastic.  On it he had written his story, which began with these words: "Please read this.  I cannot speak."  He had printed it out, laboriously, to make sure it was legible, and what he wrote seemed factual, not filled with overly emotional language, and all the more powerful for the writer's restraint.  His muteness (he was not deaf) is due to a physical condition; his landlord sold the building and the tenants were forced to move; and like another 85,000 people in this country last month, he'd lost his job.  It sounds melodramatic and made up, perhaps, but somehow I believed him.  I read it all the way through--he'd written on both sides of the paper--and looked up to see tears running down his cheeks.  He seemed ashamed.  I gave him some money--I wished I could have given more.  When I got to my car I looked back.  He was trying to show his paper to another shopper who shook his head and walked away, just as I have said "I'm sorry," and walked away from panhandlers.  But those other panhandlers, beggars, people in need--whether they needed food or shelter or booze or drugs or whatever they wanted the money for--had voices.  They could get another person's attention, even if only for the seconds it took that person to process the situation and reject them.  To be voiceless is, for the most part, to be invisible.

       Women, of course, have been effectively silenced by various societies for centuries, and still are in many places.  The famous tavern sign may be a source of amusement today, but a few decades ago the women's movement pointed it out as symbolic of an attitude that supported repression. Whole populations, no matter how loudly they weep and wail at home, go unheard by most of the world today.  During the years of genocide in Rwanda, for example, almost none of my students at the university even knew that nation existed, much less what was going on there.  More recently, in the context of teaching how to construct an argument, one of my classes was discussing the local issue of whether water tanks should be left in the desert to try to prevent the deaths of illegal border crossers, another group of people who seem to have no voice, at least no voice that anyone listens to, either in their own country or in ours. A young woman sitting right in front of where I was standing started to pass a note to her neighbor but I intercepted it.  It read simply "Let them die."  I kept silent then because I didn't trust myself to control my reaction.
        Silence can give one time to think.  A character in a film I saw recently said that things become clear in the quiet. If my silence was permanent, I know it would become a burden, but right now I treasure it.  I don't want to turn on the TV or radio.  I even appreciate this brief vacation from conversation, or perhaps from having to contribute to conversation.  I can listen more carefully because I am relieved of the responsibility to reply.  And yet I know that people have the responsibility to reply to others, and that to reply responsibly, first we have to listen, even to those who seem to be silent.

1 comment:

  1. Such a powerful observation, Vicki. As I read about your response to the note-passing students-- your choice to be silent-- I was reminded of the power that can accompany silence. Our choice not to say anything can be just as powerful as the one not to.