It had not been a spur-of-the-moment thought that flew into my face like a random, flapping bat. It was more like a soft, warm and fuzzy idea that I had entertained over the years but knew I could never pull off due to pure logistics. I wanted to stop talking. I wanted to stop talking for an entire year.
If you have children, a spouse, a job, family or any number of other responsibilities that require you to speak, purposely not speaking just because you don’t want to speak is generally not an option. I could see things working around a sudden loss of speech, a physical inability to form spoken words due to an industrial accident, where over months and months of time you made tweaks and adjustments in your daily activities and family members and friends adjusted their lives and such to accommodate this unfortunate turn of events. But to just wake up one day and write down on a piece of paper that you will no longer be speaking and hand it to anyone who tries to talk to you? Just like that? Out of the blue? It would be tricky and no doubt met with plenty of resistance.
I was going to call it a social experiment. I had yet to work out the particulars. I had no hypothesis. I had no controls. I had to real plan at all, except to stop speaking words and to analyze the different reactions this induced in others around me. Basically, the “experiment” part of all of it was to give the concept a name so nobody would ask me any questions.
“What are you looking for?” my friend Beth asked. “What are you seeking?”
“Clarity,” I answered.
“Clarity through silence,” she said and considered this. “Okay.”
The discussion of the experiment was fascinating. Some people just got it immediately. They asked very few questions. They could feel the benefits as if by some cosmic comprehension. Others were not so understanding at first, but were curious, and asked questions. This often led to conversations about words; the importance of words, the emptiness of words, the meaning of certain words, the failure of words, how we learn to speak, how we learn to listen, how we learn to shut down, but mostly about how we all communicate without speech, in every other way we have available, through facial expressions and body language, through guttural noises and facial twitches, through text, Facebook, writing, chatting and the bazillion of other ways we have at our disposal to avoid actually talking to each other.
I wanted to have good, noble reasons for this word strike. I wanted it to be the result of some catastrophic mental breakdown, some horrific physical attack, or the culmination of a spiritual awakening that could find no explanation with mere words. But really, I was just tired of talking and I didn’t want to do it anymore.
“What do you mean by ‘catastrophic’?” asked Carol, my therapist, during our last appointment.
“Well, like Maya Angelou. In her autobiography ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ she writes about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was seven and how she stopped talking for five years. That’s catastrophic. That’s how she dealt with it. That’s how she coped.”
“So you’re saying that you can’t justify your word strike because nothing bad enough has happened to you?”
She leveled a gaze at me.
“I’m a grown woman. This is just life happening to me.”
“On your first visit here you told me that your life had exploded in your face.”
“Yes, but I’m the one that lit the match in the first place.”
She offered a faint smile. “The point of the word strike is to cope, not to blame. You don’t have to justify it at all, to anyone.”
She gave me permission, should I decide for myself that I would stop speaking, that I could continue to come to her office every week and sit for the entire hour and say nothing. She said she did not want to compromise the integrity of my principles. I told her I would speak during our sessions. I wasn’t going to be a dick.
Surprisingly, the people fully supporting me made making the decision to do it even more difficult. How beautiful they were! How would I handle it if a friend came to me and said, “Hey, I’m giving up talking”? I’d probably turn into some snarky smartass hell-bent on forcing conversation with sarcastic commentary about their twisted ideas and warped perceptions.
Physically, realistically, it could be done. I was on medical leave and not working. My daughter was on her own and totally understood and supported the concepts of this cultural-sociopsychological experiment. I seldom left the house. I never answered the phone. The only people I ever really spoke to were doctors, which could easily be done with nods, shrugs and one-word answers on paper. Even my psychiatrist was excited about the quest and said he would see me again in December. Since I couldn’t drive and never went anywhere alone, I always had someone with me who could explain to any persistent person demanding an answer that I could not speak and they could answer for me.
But there were other obstacles looming in the distance, and ones not so easily checked off and pushed aside.
1. Explaining to people that you are not speaking. I readily admit that the very idea of a spoken word strike is pretentious as hell. But if I’m not speaking, then I don’t have to explain why I’m not speaking. But I had to have some method to let people know that I was not. A simple sign came to mind. A piece of paper. Maybe laminated. Simple words. “I CAN’T TALK.” But I was fighting the good fight to live in truth and I didn’t want to lie. Every morning when I woke up I said this short prayer: “Please God, help me with grace, humility, kindness, patience and truth in all my interactions with others and especially with myself.” There was no getting around it. “I DON’T WANT TO TALK.” It was the truth but I could see it provoking more conversation than it would discourage. “I HAVE EXHAUSTED ALL INTEREST IN CASUAL VOCALIZATION.” I would probably have to explain that. When considering the word strike in general, the damn sign was probably going to be the most difficult part of it all.
2. The less you speak, the more you think. Go just a few hours without speaking and the thoughts begin to pile up like random pieces of paper, thousands of fortune-cookie prophesies, until they are piled as high as a mountain of garbage in a county landfill, stinking and soiled to a point where all you can do to rid yourself of them is to strike a match. Try to ignore them and they scatter and fly about like ashes, landing here and there on your face and in your hair and on your furniture and as soon as you try to grab on to one, the movement fluffs it off again into another direction and another one flies into your face.
3. Remaining quiet encourages others to talk more. What makes this more difficult is living in a house with someone who talks incessantly. Now, I must say that TD’s constant narration about the world around her has saved my sanity on more than one occasion, and her thoughts on the mundane aspects of life like mowing the lawn and cutting coupons has focused my all-too-wandering mind on the more logical, realistic components of life and has been, at times, more than appreciated. But during periods of enraptured silence, when I have sat on the porch swing and stared in amazement at the leaves blowing in the whispers of wind and opened my soul to the sound of those whispers speaking life’s most fragile prose, one word about the oil bill and I want to ram a rusty stake through her neck. It is the same when I have attempted to drown her words in the car with a song and then she turns the radio down to point out the new Goodwill donation drop-off location.
I was having coffee with Robin one night and asked her what she thought about the word strike. She understood the concept without much explanation, of course, and offered some advice. “Not sure you’d need a written statement for people. Whoever you were with could just say, ‘Hey, she’s not speaking right now.'”
“Don’t you think that’s kinda pompous?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be rude like handing them an index card that said ‘DON’T TALK TO ME, ASSHOLE.'”
“What’s the point of the experiment?” she asked.
“I’m tired of words.”
“You’re never tired of words.”
“I’m tired of talking.”
“Okay, but you’re tired of talking about everyday, mundane crap. What about your grace and beauty and truth and music?”
“I can’t pick and choose what I’m going to respond to. It has to be all or nothing.”
She considered this for a minute. “Yeah, I can see that. You’re still gonna write, text, Facebook?”
“Yeah, it’s a spoken word strike.”
“Okay, ’cause if you don’t have an outlet, that shit will back up on you.”
Don’t I know it.
I tried to laugh it off with most of my friends. I tried to make it all a big joke, but most of my friends have highly-attuned vision that rakes over me like beams of intrusive light, shedding truth in the dark parts that laughter tries to hide. More often than not, I cried my torment into a vast blackness at night. I felt as directionless as mercury from a broken glass tube, frantic with indecision one moment, and then the next, trapped by time and space, lost inside sinister and unforgiving minutes ticking towards my inevitable demise. My most frightening thought of the day seemed to be that I couldn’t get away from myself. No matter where I traveled, from room to room, from house to sea, around every treacherous corner in a mirrored fun-house…there I was. Before the experiment had even started I had already figured out that no matter how entrenched I became in silence, no matter how far down I let myself go into a speechless world, even if it was to save my own sanity, in words or silence, I was my own hostage.