Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Experiment with Silence

This is Essay #18 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Have you ever tried going a day without speaking? Deliberately not using your voice?

I tried it yesterday. I didn’t speak for about 16 hours.

It started with me saying something regrettable to my youngest kiddo.

I’ve been home about 3 days after spending a month at Vermont Studio Center for a writing residency. Re-entry is hard, to say the least. Re-entry like the burn of a space shuttle’s orbiter back into the atmosphere. It takes time, too. And, for me, it requires plenty of recovery sleep (which I haven’t been getting).

Yesterday morning was especially challenging since it called for me to take on full mama responsibilities before I was ready. Nothing like a Monday morning to kick your ass back into the swing of things! Needless to say, I was irritable. Waking up kids, packing lunches, and driving to school? No, thanks. All I wanted to do was sleep. On top of this, my youngest was tired and cranky. She, too, just wanted to sleep. In my world, I’d just gather her up and get both of us back under the covers. But, alas, the real world was banging down the door.

In my irritation, complete with short temper & frustration, I blurted out: “Maybe I should go back to Vermont”. Instantly, I regretted saying it. There’s no need to discuss the messaging here. I already know. I apologized and corrected it. But it also gave me pause.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to talk anymore. My mouth didn’t want to open. My larynx wanted to make no sound. My jaw seemed to grip tighter.


Voice box: colloquial term for larynx. A box that contains voice. Voice inside a box. What is voice? Who gets to open the box? What sound comes out? What is the sound of your voice? What is the sound of mine? My voice is in the key of G. Girl voice. Box of voices harmonizing through chords. Vocal chords. A chorus of harmony to create the key of G. Girl. Voice. Sing.


The drive to school was interesting. If you know me, I love singing in the car. I didn’t sing. I couldn’t. I tried. It felt weird. Like I was forcing something to happen that refused. So I just kept quiet.

It was then that I decided to just refrain from speaking for the rest of the day. My body had already decided for me, so why not just comply?

Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to interact with too many people yesterday. What’s funny is that I got to learn a lot about those people I did encounter during my day of silence.

I carried a small notepad and pen with me to communicate. I discovered that my handwriting is really scrawl so I had to exercise some patience to write more legibly. The people to whom I was writing also had to practie some patience while they waited for my message. Most people got a kick out it, watching me write, smiling the whole time.

A sample of my quick handwritten notes from my day of silence

There was something there in that silence, in that waiting. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s something worth investigating.

For some, the silence was a little awkward. I could tell from the tiny fidgeting movements. The shifting of weight from one foot to the other. The looking around. Others just laughed uncomfortably to fill the void.

The reactions I got were also telling. Some people, when I showed them my message, “No talking day today”, gave me this look like: I don’t get it, but okay. One friend, who is deep into yoga philosophy as much as I am, said to me directly: “You’re crazy, girl. Only you would do something like this.” Uh, what? What is that supposed to mean? Why am I crazy for practicing silence? And why is silence an act of crazy? I didn’t get it. I thought that she, out of most people, would at least try to figure out what I was trying to do. Instead, she wrote me off as “crazy”.

Another person didn’t think I was serious. That I was joking. Then, upon realizing I wasn’t joking, thought I was being ridiculous.

Later that night, I had hip-hop class. Prior to class, I texted my instructor to let him know what I was doing. When I got there, he announced to the class that I simply lost my voice, a case of laryngitis. He was honoring my experiment with some privacy – there’s no need to give those folks an explanation of what I was doing. And I appreciated what he did. He got it. He got what I was trying to do. He might have been the only one. After class, I wrote him a note saying that people think I’m a weirdo. He responded with: “You’re doing this for you. Who cares about them.”  What a great reminder. (Thank you, Tom!)

I found ways to communicate outside of using my voice. Gestures, mouthed words (I quickly learned who can read lips and who can’t! haha!), emails, text messages, and of course, handwritten notes.

For this last method, yes, I gained patience in order to write legibly, but I also had to write briefly (my notepad was small – the size of Post-It notes). I needed to be deliberate in my word choices. I had to make my words carry more weight than usual. This was certainly terrific practice for writing poetry!

When I did open my mouth to speak again this morning, my words felt purposeful. It sounds corny, almost melodramatic, but it’s true. The effects of not speaking for a whole day makes you think about how you use your voice and what you actually say. Are you saying things that matter? Are you saying them with kindness? (Tone matters, too.)

I was so fascinated by my experience with this experiment that I’m thinking of doing it again.

Silence is like a chameleon: it morphs from one thing to another, depending on its environment, carrying different meanings in various contexts. Intentional silence. Imposed silence. Quiet versus silent.

Who is listening?

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