Last Thursday, I was driving in my car, trying to catch ten minutes of listening time on the radio. Lucky for me, "Radio Times," hosted by Marty Moss-Coane, was airing on National Public Radio (NPR). I became immediately captivated by the interview with Terry Tempest Williams, author of a memoir, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. Terry told listeners how, while her mother was dying, she told her daughter, "I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone." In total, she left 54 journals, "one for every year of her life." Weeks later, after her mother died, Terry, then 25, went to look at her mother's three shelves of journals and became shocked to discover that the pages in each and every one of them were blank.
Each time I tell the story, I watch people's jaws drop and faces register confusion. How could that be? How could it be that a woman held on to three shelves worth of journals that never had a single entry? The author, now 54, the same age her mother was when she died, questions, "What was my mother trying to tell me?"
What does this story say to us about voice and about silence? Voice comes in many forms of expression. We have the spoken and the unspoken. Our voice gets to express how we feel or what we think, or it remains quiet, held back from being heard or understood. The author's mother clearly believed she needed to remain silent, yet she wanted her daughter to figure out what her silence was trying to communicate -- why else would she have directed her daughter to look at her collection of empty journals? You might wonder how verbally skilled Terry's mother was at her baseline. From listening to the content from a birthday card she wrote to her daughter upon her 21st birthday, I'd say she was highly competent as a writer and deep in her ability to think about women and the conditions that affected women's lives.
This woman who grew up in the same generation as my own mother had something to say but couldn't say it with words. She was bound by a powerful internalized rule forbidding her from verbal expression, from saying what was so. In trying to make sense of the message given by her mother, Williams ponders "what it means to be silenced" and thinks "the most terrifying aspects of being silenced is self-censorship." "What are we afraid of?" she asks, referencing the poet, Audre Lorde, "Why do we privilege fear? We say we can't speak because of fear, we can't write because we are afraid. What if we think of fear on the same level as we do of being tired?" As women, we know what it's like to be tired and we keep doing what needs to be done. What if we applied the same attitude to fear and assumed it's similar to being tired; something we live with rather than something to paralyze us?
On a quest to figure out this enigmatic "gift" passed on to her by her mother, Williams asks how "we can perceive beyond the words; to think about things on the surface and beneath the surface." And she contemplates her own voice and how to apply her mother's messaging to her own voice and the ways she does or does not use it.
At times, our lives may depend upon silencing ourselves, while at other times, our lives may suffer as a result of that silencing. We are confronted with the age-old challenge to find the courage and determination to use our voice and share the unspeakable. In the era that my mother and Terry's mother were coming of age, the social rules and regulations were enforced by the threat of judgment and ridicule. Fitting in and keeping quiet were sanctified. Being different was feared because of the threat of ostracism, being marginalized from those in your own community.
While we've come a long way from those days, we are still threatened by fear of being humiliated or hated for not fitting in. While many of us know that the social prescription for acceptance puts us at battle with ourselves, we still capitulate for fear of what may happen if we speak our truth, use our voice or behave differently from how we perceive others might expect us to act. How might we use these empty journals to empower us to be braver? How might we listen more to Audre Lorde's message to co-exist with fear rather than succumb to it? How might we grow beyond the threats of what might happen in order to build greater safety for us to speak our truth and live with greater emotional and spiritual freedom?
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