on silence

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,
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]



photo of wall installation called “Freed Spirit” at a restaurant in New Mexico

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” ~ Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

“You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in. Give up all the other worlds. Except the one in which you belong.” ~ David Whyte

Despair. Defiance. Determination. Deference.

Who knew that ‘liberation’ could conjure such a range of responses?

Pain. Platitudes. Perspective. Perseverance.

All this, and more. Written in 20 minutes around a table of a half dozen women committed to a weekly 90 minutes of focused, deep listening to one another and themselves. Inside prison… Determination. Perseverance.

By the words you speak, a world is born.
Insults can leave the insecure scorned.
You are a vessel, this life is the sea.
Stop sitting on the shore
living in your misery. You can’t even imagine
what this world has to give;
behind the walls of your entrapment
there’s a different way to live.

Wise men tell stories, philosophical quotes;
they don’t get all their wisdom from sailing their own boats.
They’ve walked plenty of day in someone else’s shoes,
they know what it means to be tattered and bruised.
They’ve met misery on their own steps,
been sunk under water in unfathomable depths.
But they don’t let that fear keep them silent.
They don’t let the abuse turn them violent.
They simply dust it off and walk away.
Tomorrow is a brand new day.

I don’t know about you, but they seem fine
by simply leaving the past behind.

– MGa


LIBERATION (excerpt)
I need liberation from my mother because she’s never put me first, ever, in her life. It’s always been the other way around. I’ve always had to take care of her and my grandparents, and it weighs heavy on my shoulders…



DREAMS (excerpt)
… To show and say,
YES, I CAN! I don’t need your judgments, persecutions or approval for that matter, because I believe in myself; and despite all my mistakes, I am better than you may perceive me. Your opinion does not matter to me anymore. I am going to choose to turn from your evilness and walk in the direction I so choose. I am letting go of you. I am tearing apart the seams that you seem to think bind us together. You can’t have me no more, I belong to Something Greater now and I choose better for myself because I am capable of so much more than you give me credit for. So I am done with all your unfaithfulness. I am choosing to dream a bigger dream for myself. It doesn’t include you. I’m letting go finally because you are not included in my dreams.

– MS


In this world we are in,
so much happens that
we feel we have no control.
Excuse my grammar, but
shit happens
and it weighs on you.

You were expecting a simple, but
Happy Day.
You woke in good spirits,
the morning seemed perfect; but
then your phone rings, and
all you hear is complaining
and gossip.

You feel like you should listen with empathy,
but instead
you say, I’m so sorry, but today is not good.
You hang up and
decide, Not Today.

You sip your coffee,
sit in the yard.
The birds are singing
a favorite song of mine.
I’m a groupie, I thought
and the music I hear
is my sweet inspiration.


geography of Rumi’s wisdom

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

mevlana jelaluddin rumi – 13th century

This week we studied Rumi. This 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic wrote work that transcends his time to resonate with wisdom in readers, thinkers, seekers, feelers. As we read, we felt this: each word dropped into the space between us and created the field of which he speaks. Our discussion centered on where that field is, what it is, where we can live in the possibility of peace.

As communities, we create the structures of space and time that dictate how we live our lives. This is apparent in the extreme in prison. Everything is simplified and restricted: clothing, food, rooms, time, communication. How can peace or expression exist without the freedom of this field, an imagined sun or tall grasses, distance from the physical boundaries surround us?

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