Silence can be a gentle, healing balm, a respite from the noise of a chaotic world. Silence can be a razor-sharp sword, the weapon of withdrawal, piercing the fabric of friendship, severing the …
Silence can be a gentle, healing balm, a respite from the noise of a chaotic world. Silence can be a razor-sharp sword, the weapon of withdrawal, piercing the fabric of friendship, severing the lifeblood of a partnership. Silence can be a deep well of meditation, reflection, centering, grounding. Silence can be a vacuum sucking up all the breath in the room.
The same could be said of words, can’t it? Words can be gentle and healing, offering kindness and solace or very effective weapons, striking out, causing damage, breaking hearts.
So how do we discern when to speak and when to keep silent? When is it wise to take the chance to speak up, speak out, reveal our hearts?
Audre Lorde was a poet, teacher, activist, lesbian, black woman who died at the age of 58 in 1992. She said, “I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigated pain.” She wrote powerful poetry calling for social and racial justice and revealing the reality of queer experience and sexuality. She spoke up about the silence surrounding cancer and other illnesses. After she had a mastectomy, she decided not to wear a prosthesis, which she said offered the empty comfort that “nobody will know the difference.” She felt that it was important that women with mastectomies be visible to each other, to broadcast the awareness that they have lived with cancer and survived it, to acknowledge and share their strength.
In an article in Minnesota Women’s Press, Gaea Dill-D’Ascoli tells of going to Vanuatu in the South Pacific with the Peace Corps and living in a bamboo hut on the island of Pentecost. An oft-repeated phrase was “storian hemi laef blo yumi,” which means “chatting is our lives,” meaning that communication and relationships are the lifeblood of the culture. “Storian” can mean everything from casual greetings to deep philosophical discussions. To understand the language and the culture more, she learned to storian, spending hours talking about “everything and nothing,” and she felt she became part of the village.
Seven years after she returned to the U.S., she was living in South Minneapolis when George Floyd was killed. In the midst of the protests, her community organized, fought fires, kept neighborhood watches, made phone trees and connected with each other. When things calmed down a bit, she and her mom decided to try to nurture those new acquaintances and invited people for cookies and tea. They shared resources and found out about how everyone was doing. Engaging in the art of storian, she felt that people felt closer, more connected.
How often do we hold back from inviting another to talk or have coffee? Or offer to help a friend or neighbor? Do we withhold, fearful of rejection or being misinterpreted? Disasters or illness often bring out the best in people…and literally bring out the people from their houses and their busy lives to make casseroles, offer rides, donate money or fill sandbags to hold back the flood waters. And when the waters recede and the fires are out, the people often disappear into their lives again.
On my street, which is generally quiet, you’ll often see a person walking who has stopped to chat with the driver of a passing car, or two cars in the middle of the street, neighbors catching up with other. That’s at least a brief version of storian. I’m guessing and hoping that during this time of COVID people have had more time to talk with each other becuase they are in less of a hurry to run off to a tight schedule of activities.
Audre Lorde also wrote out against our tendency to label people, putting them in separate categories such as “lesbian” and “black woman,” saying it marginalized people and keeps them apart. She encourages us to not isolate out of fear, “for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
Alma Silver, a disabled woman who just graduated from St. Catherine University, was inspired by Audre Lorde when she read her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” In her own essay in Minnesota Women’s Press, Alma said she had learned that we all need to tell our stories, speak our truths, and listen to the others around us in order to become conscious and global citizens. She said that dialogue is more than being physically together and more than just having a lot of voices in one place, but that “true conversation stirs something deep inside us, and leads to a new way of seeing, understanding, thinking, being or doing.” Although she deplores the policies and attitudes that treat disabled people as less worthy, she says, “I believe the beacon of hope lies in the power we hold to break our silences, express our outrage and share our visions for change. Hope lies in the conversations that embolden our collective spirit. Hope lies in the moments in which our silences blaze into action.”
Years ago, when I and others had spoken up against the threatened invasion of Iraq before the weapons inspectors were given a chance to complete their job, a woman approached me outside the post office. She said, “I heard you speak at the city council meeting and I want you to know that there are a lot of people who agree with you, but we stay silent. I don’t know why. Maybe because we’re busy with children and taking care of parents. But there’s a silent majority here, and I wanted you to know that and thank you for speaking up.”
Sometimes we keep silent because we fear what those people closest to us will think or say about it. Sometimes we’re afraid of what it might mean in terms of commitment. Sometimes we’re just too tired. But it’s good to remember that our speaking may embolden others while it keeps us true to ourselves. Audre Lorde said, “We can sit in our corners mute forever…and we will still be no less afraid.”
The Ely Folk School will be hosting monthly storytelling sessions via zoom, check their website at www.elyfolkschool.org for details.