Silence. What a double-edged concept. Every year I hold a workshop around the topic, framed as “Refusing Silence.” Yet even so, every year writing comes out on both sides of silence: the heavy hand that imposes an unwanted internal reality vs the spacious opening for reflective growth and nurture.
Like anything, it is not so simple, Nor are the realities of silence either/or, one extreme or the other. I am reminded of this again and again as I hear stories about silences we carry, silences we suffer, silences we impose, silences we seek. Last week at this time, I had the privilege of speaking to an assembled group at Three Cathedral Square, a Burlington assisted living/retirement community. They wanted to learn more about writinginsideVT and to hear from the incarcerated women who so eloquently write inside prison walls week after week.
I opened with a poem called “Silence” from our 2013 book, HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write. Following a chance to check in with what resonated for each of the dozen participants seated in a circle with me, I invited them to think about a silence in their own lives — whether self- or other-imposed — and to consider its lifelong impact on them. And the stories poured out, going back as they will to early experiences of shaming, belittling, being made to feel less-than, invisible, devalued … from men and women alike.
These stories were also interspersed with heartening follow-ups: the shy one who started to speak up against unequal pay at her workplace; the one who would now take positive action in the face of political repression; the one who found her voice after being told silence equalled ‘being good’ … the bullied and marginalized who discovered through writing how to create an identity that would serve them as adults … the misunderstood who just wanted loving acceptance …
Sadly, these very personal stories of otherness and loneliness and despair are all too universal. Certainly they are often the stuff of which the incarcerated write. And yet here I was in the middle of a cross-section of the never-incarcerated. After we shared our own stories, I read more from the book, perhaps another ten or so pieces covering a number of topics. These wonderful elders were spellbound, grateful, engaged and encouraged by the wisdom and perseverance of ‘our’ inside writers. As are all of us who walk into the echoing corridors week after week to witness the power of the written word to promote awareness, growth and change.
As is my usual custom, I followed up the session by creating a ‘found poem’ from the few lines I jotted down while listening to others read. I know you’ll find yourself in here, too.
SILENCE CAN BE SCARY
Silence can be scary,
a feeling of endangerment
that imprisons because of what has happened in life.
A repressed childhood, a lot of secrets —
imposed silence feels like being unseen.
Like Sunday School – ‘you need to be quiet to hear’ –
or feeling an outsider in a new school.
It hurts to keep so much inside over the years,
not expressing yourself;
waiting to vote, getting out of line without saying anything
because I didn’t own property;
the shaming and belittling of
who do you think you are?!?
Lying in bed, I just wanted Mom to hold me.
I’ve never been much of a talker;
I’m very shy, just listen.
I still don’t like to speak.
And yet – inside silence is an opportunity
if I can really listen.
As a 12-year-old, I found my voice through writing,
forced to find myself.
As an employee, I started writing letters,
speaking up at meetings
for equal pay;
today I would call the Board of Elections.
I’m vocal, I’m not retreating.
Silence can be scary, either way.
[poem ‘found’ from lines shared at our 2/1/18 conversation about writinginsideVT]