And then there's the silence I inhabited for years, the edgy, uncomfortable silence that comes from unsaid words, unshed thoughts. When talk feels risky, then silence is the coward's choice. Saying what I felt was, most times, simply not an option I considered; it was a kind of emotional bungee jumping that terrified me.
Goodness knows, I wasn't raised to talk forthrightly: Silence for children was golden, 24 karat in our house. It was part of the Litany of Ladylike, correlated with the Rules of Niceness. Nice girls don't argue, don't talk back; say thank you, say please, but don't say anything that might hurt someone's feelings. Hurting someone's feelings was worse than almost anything we could dream up, worse than elbows on the dinner table or cutting all the hair off our dolls, worse even than slugging each other. Bruises fade but, in my family, hurt feelings can last for generations. So the rules outlined the way to survive. Don't be negative, put a smile on your face. And, later, when boys entered the picture: Talk about his interests, never disagree. (Which explains my complete disinterest in, but encyclopedic knowledge of, football games of the mid-seventies.)
I became convinced that words were weighty, not to be used offhandedly, and almost frightening in their potential impact. Tell someone what you really feel? Might as well lob a rock. At work, at home, with friends, the silence grew—lots of chatter, mind you, and I certainly was nice. But a fluency in nice talk, even in the everyday world, meant it was often difficult to ask for what I wanted or protest if I was trodden on. I'd eat overdone meat in a restaurant; I'd let anyone have the movie armrest; I'd even, as I did once, apologize to the plumber for needing hot water when he stood me up for the second time. But the trouble with lugging around a sackful of unsaid words is it throws you off balance. You could easily lurch into rage, upend the calm. I worked for years for a bully, a famous woman known in the world outside for her lovely smile and in the office for towering rages and a vocabulary that—well, it was wide-ranging at least. I sat at my keyboard and typed, and gritted my teeth, and stood silent while she ripped strips off me, and I filled my evenings with what I should have said, what I would have said, had I the courage. A year went by, and another, until the day I blew, the kind of overreaction that blazes like heat lightning. I hadn't put a paper on the right side of her desk, she said. I told her what she could do with the paper, the desk, the job, and that night savored each and every blow I thought I'd landed—as I filled out my unemployment form—and somehow what had felt like a victory lost its luster. With people I trusted, I'd unburden—in those beginning jobs, when we, assistants all, would go to a restaurant on payday and order towering burgers and glasses of cheap red wine and analyze who was who and what was what at work. Then I'd talk, about how Sue was just so pushy and how I was sure Jane had taken that idea of mine, and, really, did you see what Sandy had on last week?—all glorious girl talk, but lethal when some of my finer observations were conveyed to the Jane and Sue in question, and they passed me, frosty, in the hall. Not that I could do anything about it, like talk to them about my chagrin and regret—I lacked the words for confrontation.
Those of us who don't feel entitled to speak can really founder when it comes to more intimate relationships. A marriage built on silence and assumptions has its cold and windy places, where the unsaid echoes. I looked hard for someone I could talk to, at least across the chasm of gender and background, and most days we rocked along. But I had secrets he never knew (nothing too serious, no extra men or unacknowledged appetites) and I'd never tell. Perhaps he wouldn't be interested. Perhaps he'd laugh. Perhaps he wouldn't understand. So I stayed still, and a little lonely in our togetherness. And his own secrets, the feelings he didn't share? It was like casting runes, fathoming his silences, a blank wall on which I wrote my guesses. Of course, the real loss lay in my reticence about the good things, too. Not to tell someone how thrilled I was, how proud, how pleased—there the emptiness lay not in what I said but what I didn't say. And what about that real leap into the void—when do you say "I love you"? I'm not sure the most fluent person isn't often stumped about the timing, and if there's deeper silence than the one I heard when those words popped out of my mouth and the man didn't care, I haven't heard it.
Next: If you speak up, what's the worst thing that could happen?
But I think the best lessons came when I had children, and I was determined my girls would have a voice for their thoughts and feelings. Certainly they started out that way, if you call rolling on the floor and shouting "You're not fair!" an effective way of communicating anger. And I was wary, afraid I'd utter something that would reverberate for years, that they'd point to me as the bad fairy whose ill-chosen words haunted their adulthoods. I even took courses in "parenting," which mostly had to do with saying what you meant, using "I" messages. How stilted it felt to say what one wanted. "I'm not happy when you draw on the wall." "It's important to me that you eat those peas." But the kids got the con immediately: "I hate it when you say those fakey things," announced the 6-year-old, who heard the fury behind the well-modulated sentences.
But as time went on, I discovered that being a parent brings feelings so close to the surface that they bubble through; whether love or fury, the words fly. For both the parent and the child, the membrane is thin, the thought becomes the word and with luck the word is chosen wisely. This morning, an hour after a noisy discussion on what 13-year-olds wear to school, a note was pushed under my bedroom door. In wobbly letters, it read "I say I hate you. But I really love you," and I marveled as I rushed to sweep my daughter up. My child was teaching me, as she was learning, too, that risking a word can lie at the very heart of the matter.
Catherine Calvert is a writer and editor who lives in London.
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