Silence or caesura?

spray painted graphic of a stylized bird resting on a rod, eyes closed

(graffiti from Lisbon)

Good morning, good morning. The ocean is loud out there this morning – but everything else is still quiet; it’s too early yet for sparrows or cardinals or jays. The moon is an Impressionist crescent hanging low to the south, and, at least from where I stand here in southern Maine, the stars have gone quiet, too. The trees, still unbudded, nestle their shoulders into the quiet early morning dark.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here. I’ve been quiet, too, like the cold and sleepy winter birds, though every day, what I want is to be like that ocean. She’s never completely quiet – somedays she’s a loud fist of noise, some days she’s a gentler song, but she’s always there. Her voice persists.

I’ve been thinking a lot about silences recently – like, over the last year or so. I’ve been thinking about the ways we learn to swallow our voices, swallow our shouts and our rages and our griefs and our confusions, our questions and curiosities. We also learn to swallow our delights, our hungers, our celebrations. We learn this silencing in so many different ways, and are taught the lessons of our transgressions over and over again. What am I trying to say with this? 

It’s become clear to me how much of my voice – how much of myself – I’ve swallowed back. There are reasons for this, reasons that once upon a time seemed to make sense — reasons connected to (so-called) ally-ship, fear of causing “harm” (in my previous relationship), not wanting to upset anyone (in my role as an ostensible business person), and other reasons that I still can’t discuss publicly. Those self-silencings build on the awful lessons I had to learn as a teenager living in the house of a violent man, who demanded both silence and compelled speech, at his whim. The speech he insisted upon was meant to build him up, and so, in that context, keeping quiet was often a victory – but, of course, it was a “victory” won at my own expense.

And then, of course, there’s the silence that comes in with depression, walking not on little cat feet, but with that bell jar that Sylvia told us about, the one that rings around just under my skin, keeping me from truly feeling connection to others, and placing its glass ball at the base of my throat. No words for you, the ball says. Nobody wants them. Nobody needs them. Nobody will miss them. Why don’t you just be quiet? 

Maybe you are on the long walk with depression, too. Maybe you recognize that quality of silence. Maybe yours has a different feel (or, you know, lack of feel). Are you able to find words for it, even just for yourself, in the pages of a notebook or typed into a private page on the screen?

Many of us now inhabit a world that is constantly shouting, and demands that we shout, too, if we want to join in the “conversation.” The masters of social media told us that they were giving us tools to make us free – that they were making it possible for everyone to have a voice.

But we know better, we who are living with the long-term impact of intimate violence; we know what it means when someone sets the tone and the character of a “debate” or a “talk” and then insists that we participate on their terms, using only the words that they will allow and only in the ways that they are willing to acknowledge. We know that every time we capitulate to their demands, we lose something more. We lose access to the full breadth of our mouths and minds. We lose our poetry and our questions.

Poetry and questions have to do with nuance and vulnerability, and social media doesn’t want that. Violence doesn’t want that. Rage doesn’t want that. But we need it. We are all, I have been, dying every day for lack of what is found there

I am coming to think of this most recent silence as not simply capitulation but also as resistance. In the poem from which that famous quote is drawn (“It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there”), William Carlos Williams also writes, “…The poem/is complex and the place made/in our lives/for the poem./Silence can be complex too,/but you do not get far/with silence./Begin again.”

Begin again.

We have always been making our own conversation, our own meaning and challenge and debate and delight, when we speak on our own terms. Our voices thread through the shouting and the fists and the hostile, incredulous laughter. Our voices get to be music and rhythm, they get to be poetry and bread, they get to be keening and the shredded screams of the vengeful. We get it all. And if “social media” doesn’t want it or can’t hear it and if the journals and editors aren’t able to comprehend, we still share our songs amongst ourselves. We create impact we will never know. Every ripple in every pond creates change – we know that, we who have been the ones with our faces close to the ponds, we who climb the trees to watch the wind in the branches, we who walk up to the face of the ocean and put ourselves right agains the body of her voice. But even deeper: every time we share our voice, we begin again, and we continue.

Beginning again isn’t starting over, not always. Beginning again is taking the next step in this long journey, taking the next breath in order to sing the next note in a very long song. Silence isn’t always bad – we need time to rest, we need pauses, we need caesura.

And then, after the pause — after that necessary pause — we sing.

If you have some minutes and want to open the notebook or a journal page on the screen, maybe you could give yourself time to find words for what silence looks like in you, of you, for you at the moment. Is your silence (or your character’s silence) resistance? Is it simply a pause, a rest? And what is he/she/they not saying? 

I hope you are as easy with yourself as you can be today. I will practice that, too.


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