Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Story of Silence

I am intrigued by silence that sits in a room, tempting me to determine why it’s there.

I believe every silence holds a story. Some discover the plot by listening and observing, while I can’t resist the investigative approach. I want to prick the silence and see what oozes. Even in the most benign situation, the process can be healing or hurtful. I don’t believe there is an in-between.

In my family, silences are few. Growing up, when hot silence occurred, I wondered what topic had begun the argument that had fizzled my parents’ fumes. In the family for which I serve as the matriarch, I never wonder. The topics that push our marital hot buttons are mine to choose or to accept as a challenge.

Then there is cool silence – the kind that exists between strangers. My parents practiced a narrow definition for “stranger.” Dining in a restaurant, sitting in a waiting room, or walking through museums and state parks, I witnessed conversations go from who-are-you to we’ll-try-to-look-you-up-next-time-we-are-through in mere minutes. Equal parts horror and fascination motivated me to remind my parents – as often as I was able - that it wasn’t necessary to include family details in conversations with people we hardly knew.

Their powers of discernment must be strong, however, for I cannot think of a negative experience that resulted from their approach of sharing our lives with strangers. Yet.

My relationship with silence was shaped by my parents’ avoidance of it. Something was always being discussed in the home of my upbringing. If not, music was playing on our stereo. On paper grading days, my father would stack 1-2 inches of 45s or a half-inch of long-play albums to create a soundtrack for his morning or afternoon teaching task. His soundtrack then became mine as well.

My father is the reason I know all the words to Connie Francis’ “Where the Boys Are” and every lyric to every song on the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack. He is also why I can sing through Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” album. My father, who is charmingly tone deaf to notes above middle C, set my life to music long before I understood who I was. It may be part of why I am who I am.

Then there is this: My parents are both storytellers – independently of one another, but in their most stellar form, simultaneously. One will begin a story while the other fills in words, corrects facts, and then adds commentary or observation before, ultimately, sharing in the outcome of the story’s conclusion. With them, more is more. No detail is left behind.

I have witnessed few couples able to navigate to the level tale telling that my parents have achieved. I think of it as interruptus-augmentative. The fact they drive some listeners crazy is a given. Yet, even their most annoyed listeners agree their conversational art form is spectacular to behold – like a train wreck in slow motion or the laborious, intentional strokes of a classical artist.

I am aware that I practice a solo form of this method, interrupting myself to add details that have flicked into my stream-of-consciousness. Bits of memory arrive tardy but important. Could I leave them unsaid? Certainly. Yet am I compelled to embellish, for I am a product of my upbringing. I have learned that someone cares, someone wants to know it.

More is more. Remember. Until it is not.

My family is also the first to demand I get to my point. So sometimes I simply talk faster. If the desire is to be heard, succinctness isn’t a friend. Few words carefully chosen do nothing for listeners who – by demanding the point be gotten to –allow little time or credence for what is being shared. I learned to spew words out anyway. If someone isn’t really listening, why not at least get the words out?

For one critical reason: Listeners may be less likely to listen the next time.

But if that proves true, why seek an audience with them again?


Humans are relational. Words mixed with silence are how we communicate. Actions – or a lack of action in the silent spaces – speak as well. A smile with words, a simple a smile, or no smile at all. Sitting next to someone and choosing to greet one another or simply sitting. The choice itself communicates.

I want to be better at silence. I want to hear what it tells me about others, but mostly I want to hear what I am saying to myself in a language only I can hear. I want to hear a story that is mine to tell then determine the best way to share it. Right now I am sitting with the silence, but soon I will prick it and see what oozes. I will likely tell more details than most people would. I will also, mostly likely, hear the soundtrack of my life as I work.

“I know too much to go back and pretend. … Yes, I am wise, but it’s wisdom born of pain. Yes, I’ve paid the price. But look how much I’ve gained. If I have to, I can do anything at all. I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman.”


Anonymous said...

! It is good food for thought this morning as I will spend some time in silence at my son John's house after the family all leaves. My daughter-in-law, DeeAnn, is on a mission trip to Haiti and I have the privilage of staying a few days while she is gone. A delightful exchange student, Bianka, from Slovakia is living here too and it gives me a chance to know her and my grandson's, Austin and David better. Do you think I'm related to you. I could so relate! Thank you Joy. I am Anne Mason's mom, AnnaLee Austin-0Crawford

Joy said...

Hello, AnnaLee! We could certainly claim connectedness, because I had the privilege of getting to know your lovely (lively!) daughter so many years ago.

Thank you for your comments. I think I am a bit envious of the days that you will be spending in your son's home. Enjoy the silence AND the revealing times in between.