Enjoy the Silence

Most of the traveling I’ve done has been solo travel. When I was young and would quit whatever job I had so that I could travel for as long as I wanted (or until the money ran out), I would spend long stretches of time in silence. Sometimes I would miss casual conversation, the easy talking that could be done with someone who spoke my language, with someone who spoke my language as their first language.

I am thinking about those extended periods of not talking because the shelter-in-place order I now live under creates something like that for me when I’m not working. During my work-at-home days, I have meetings and meetings and meetings. I have anything but silence. Come the weekend, however, I have to conjure up some activity if I want to speak — a phone call, a zoom date.

At the same time, it’s hardly true that I’m silent in my downtime these days. I’m a talker, and there always seems to be some chatter of one kind or another around here. I talk to myself. I talk to my cats. I am that crazy spinster lady you’ve heard tell about. I talk. 

On a call with a friend this morning, she mentioned how hard the silence has been for her. Like me, she lives alone. Unlike me, she has been working at home for a couple of weeks now, and the quiet is getting to her.

And so I thought about my travel experience and the enforced silence of having neither a companion nor enough language to make real conversation easy. And that silence went on sometimes, went on for one week, for two weeks, of me really not speaking at all. And it was hard sometimes, but it was also okay. I was writing in my journal, I was having an adventure. Silence wasn’t a weight I was carrying.

And we have tools now that I didn’t have when I was traveling. We have the ability to be in contact no matter how physically isolated we are. We’re just at the beginning of sheltering in place. Now’s the time to figure out how not to be driven crazy by things like not talking. We have a much longer period of aloneness ahead.


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Fleshing Out the Five: Parlor Tricks

So … I’ve decided to make a post about each of the random facts I included in my Counting to Five post. Is this cheating? I think not! Besides, my brain is tired. All the awful drama unfolding with this virus and people’s responses to it is a lot. So I’ll dip into these little stories and give us all a break. So, in no particular order  …

The third item on my list was:

I was once the host of a party at which a friend’s +1 thought his clever party trick would be to insert himself into groups and diagram the sentences of everyone trying to have a conversation. <sigh>

Yeah, it’s hard to be a hostess. It’s particularly hard for someone like me who suffers from Manic Hostess Behavior. And to have this guy show up at my party and start diagramming people’s sentences … the peak of petrification for a manic hostess. For realz.

There isn’t much of a story here, but there are all the things I think about this incident. A friend’s parents have an extraordinary apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This friend, another friend, and I would sometimes throw ginormous parties when said parents were traveling. We invited crazy numbers of people. We had the idea that our different friend groups should meet, that surely they would like one another as much as my two girlfriends and I liked each other. This turned out to be true and not-true, of course, because that’s how things go.

And that is how, at one of our parties, I walked up to a group of surprised-looking people and found this guy. Had he been a simultaneous interpreter, that would have been cool. But a simultaneous diagrammer? That’s weird. Totally impressive, to be sure, but still weird. And also annoying, as it gets in the way of smooth-flowing conversation.

He was getting quite a kick out of himself. I remember him laughing each time he finished a sentence and could imagine him mentally making a little hash mark, like notches on a headboard: “And one more!” I played good hostess, stepping in to let those people find their way out of the non-conversation. I allowed a few of my own sentences to be diagrammed as I led him to the snack table. I wound up doing that several times before finally giving up.

Giving up is, of course, complete hostess fail. How could I abandon my guests to that nonsense? But I couldn’t bear another go-round with him. And he wasn’t even the +1 of one of the folks I’d invited. I just couldn’t let him be my responsibility all night, not if I wanted to enjoy some of the party my own self.

Okay, real talk. Being able to diagram a sentence on the fly is amazing, but who walks into a party thinking this skill is how they will make friends and influence people? And how hard does one have to practice at home to develop this skill? And, if you have this skill, why would you need to demonstrate it with every single sentence uttered by anyone standing near you?

Trust me, sir, this is neither necessary nor welcome. And that girl you’re trying to hit on? She’s already seen you do this really weird and annoying thing, seen you do it over and over again, even with the sentences you’re saying to her as you try to chat her up. It is not working. It really is not. Stop now.

It can be super awkward going to a party where you know exactly one person. I get that. I’ve been that person, and I’m really not good at it. This is still the wrong parlor trick to pull, uninvited, out of your hat. I say “uninvited” because it might actually work if you handled it differently. Maybe you told everyone in the group that you had this talent and challenged them to try to stump you. Then everyone would be in on the fun and you wouldn’t be cutting conversations off at the knees by inserting your diagrams all over the place. In this scenario, your skill would be a game everyone could play. I think that’s probably the only way this would ever be enjoyable for other people in the group.

None of that is what happened at that long-ago party, however. The young woman that guy tried to hit on immediately removed herself from his presence. So did most of the other people he threw diagrams at.

And me, the manic hostess? That party was decades ago, and I still remember this weirdness. I can’t remember anything else about the party, but I remember this. Ugh.

 


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Euphonious Exhortations

My voice is having one of its moments. These come around from time to time. This week I’ve been told not once, not twice, but five times that my voice … “has something.” This morning, I gave a family directions on the subway and both the mom and a random person who overheard me commented on how pretty and comforting my voice is. The homeless man I gave my half sandwich to in Grand Central Market yesterday said I sounded like a fairy godmother. A friend who wants to work with me on a film project hopes I’ll do some narration because I have a good voice. And the young woman who sells me my iced chai every morning told me on Monday that I talk like I’m singing.

I’ve had that last before. A woman once asked if I was a jazz singer because she said my voice sounded like I should be. A coworker once told me I should record bedtime stories because my voice is soothing. A friend’s baby sister told me I could scold her and it wouldn’t feel like scolding because I said everything “in a warm tone.”

It’s not always cute and sweet, however, the reactions to my voice. A man who was trying to date me (quite unsuccessfully, as this will illustrate) insisted I had to be faking my voice, that there was no way I could look like me and have this voice. Clearly, I have a face and figure made for radio! Another man said I should do audio porn, that my “Snow White sound” would make sexy text that much more titillating. Yup.

My voice is fine. It has probably gotten better with time. It certainly used to be glass-shatteringly high. My students used to tease me by repeating my instructions to one another in squeaky mouse voices. I don’t know that I really sounded that awful, but my voice is high. My dream of a Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner deep sexiness will never come true, but my voice is fine. Like I said, better with time. I’ve come to terms with it. I think of it the way I think of my face, thoughts perfectly articulated by this limerick:

As a beauty I’m not a star,
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don’t mind it
For I am behind it.
It’s the people in front that I jar.*

I don’t think anyone is particularly horrified by the sight of my face. Certainly, the whole of me has elicited startled responses, but that’s generally about racism, and those folks can’t actually see my face. I’m not always aware of the reactions people have to my face, but reactions to my voice are much more noticeable. I can hear the change in other people’s voices when I’m on the phone, can see people turn and look when I’m out and about. And, of course, there are the folks who just tell me.

I like to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s just how I talk. I know I’m lying, however. I know how I respond to certain voices. And there would be no way to count the number of times I’ve successfully used my voice to impact a situation. It matters. And that seems so unfair. We can’t help the voices we wind up with. Yes, there are classes that teach people to sound different, but why should anyone have to take those classes when they already come equipped with perfectly serviceable voices?

I can’t change that random inequity. But I suppose I can try to use my gift for good, right? What does that mean? Well, maybe it means my friend with the film project is on the right track. That baby who told me that my scolding her didn’t feel like scolding because of my dreamy, “warm tone,” was the clue. Instead of only writing my anger, maybe it’s time to put my voice to it, time to start telling people all the ways they need to step up, just how they can straighten up and fly right, just how fiercely they can work at being anti-racist, at dismantling the structures of racism that are destroying us all.

Let me just clear my throat.

__________

* This limerick credited both to Woodrow Wilson and a poet I never heard of named Anthony Euwer. I have no idea whose poem it actually is, but I am choosing to believe it is Euwer’s poem and that Wilson was known to recite it (I’ve seen two different stories of people saying Wilson recited it for them).


Sending a warm thank you to my friend Lisa at satsumabug.com. Her decision to start making space for short-but-with-a-whole-arc musings was a good push for me. My essays of late have been getting longer and longer and longer … so long that I cannot find my way to the end and so have nothing to post on this blog. So I’m going to try writing shorter pieces, no more than 1,000 words, and see if I can’t get through some of the topics on my pages-long list of essay ideas! If this works, I may catch up with my #52essays challenge by year’s end!

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Open Lines of Communication

There’s an elderly South Asian woman in my building who doesn’t speak English. I see her in the lobby, in the elevator. And sometimes I see her at the building entrance as she is just arriving or just about to leave. I have carried packages for her from the door to the elevator, or held the door for her as she makes her slow way inside. She is, most times, in the company of a younger, somewhat stern-seeming woman who thanks me if I’m helping or just nods and carries on if we’re passing in the hall.

When I communicate with the older woman, I use gestures and pointing — to ask if she is carrying her packages inside, for example — but I also talk. I use my gestures and pointing as I ask, “Do you need help? Do you want these over by the elevator?” I talk even though I know she doesn’t speak my language. I do it because maybe the younger woman is nearby and will hear me and answer, but I also do it because it would feel strange to remain silent while grabbing her packages and walking away with them, so I hope my sweet, clearly-ending-with-a-question voice will assure her that I am trying to be helpful.

I speak to her, an I make my hand gestures … and she responds. Always. Sometimes, it’s just a nod, but most of the time she talks to me. In a language I don’t understand a single word of. I understand so little about her language, I cannot tell you what language she is speaking. What I can tell you is that sometimes we will go back and forth in our non-communicative communication. I will ask a question and she will answer. I’ll say more, or repeat my question, and she will answer.

It makes no sense at all that we do this. We are accomplishing exactly nothing, but there we are. Stranger still is that, as illogical as those non-conversations are, they are also entirely familiar to me … because I’ve done this before.

My two favorite examples: About ten thousand years ago when I was 20, I hitchhiked around parts of Europe. For most of that hitch, I was with a friend. One late afternoon, we found ourselves in Brussels. We needed to get our bearings, find the youth hostel. We were standing on a street corner when a bus pulled up across from us. I called to the driver to ask if he spoke English. He answered me — maybe in Dutch? maybe in … Flemish? So I asked him about the youth hostel … and he answered. Using my words and my hand signals, I indicated that we had no idea where to go, and he answered again. At that point, my friend asked what the hell I was doing, which was the first moment I processed that the driver and I weren’t actually making sense to one another. The light changed, the driver waved and continued his route, my friend and I were still hostel-less on that street corner.

Fast forward to my last job when I was running an adult education program. When I started there, an elderly Russian woman was in the ESOL program. Tatiana was always dressed semi-formally, her white-yellow hair teased and sprayed into a perfect, spun-sugar beehive. I found her adorable. She saw something in me that she liked, too, always coming by my office to talk to me. Except that she would come by and talk to me in Russian, a language I don’t speak. In Russian, I can give you a solid, “My name is Stacie,” and an equally confident, “I know nothing,” and a somewhat shakier, “I understand a little Russian.” The end. But Tatiana came to talk with me regardless.

One afternoon, I got a call from a social service agency. Tatiana was there, trying to apply for whatever services they offered, but they didn’t have a Russian speaker on staff and were struggling. Apparently, frustrated by their inability to speak with her, Tatiana gave them my number. “Stacie speaks Russian,” she told them.

So my “conversations” with my neighbor are comical but aren’t anything out of the ordinary for me. But really — what is this complete weirdness?

I’ve had curious language experiences before. In Budapest, I sat at parties listening to people around me chatting in Hungarian and waving off my friends when they offered to interpret because I understood what they’d been discussing. Making conversation with a man in Veracruz, surprising myself with my ease in a language I’d only just begun to learn … only to have him stare blankly at me and ask what language I was speaking and realize that my brain had been pulling from French and Italian to fill in the gaps in my Spanish vocabulary. And done that without pause, weaving the three languages together as if they were intended to be spoken that way.

I say all of that to be clear, what happened with Tatiana and that Belgian bus driver, what’s happening with my neighbor is something else entirely. Those other experiences have made me understand that there’s something wacky about my brain and languages. I like the wackiness, and I’m happy when it manifests, although I don’t pretend to understand it at all. But this thing with my neighbor, it’s just odd. Because here is another person participating in the wackiness.

My neighbor now talks to me when she sees me. She uses hand gestures, too, but I’m not sure what she means by them (just as she probably was never understanding my hand gestures in our meetings leading up to now). Mostly she looks and sounds as if she’s scolding me. She talks to me, and I respond — sometimes to remind her that I don’t speak her language, sometimes with general small talk: “I don’t know what you’re saying, but aren’t you glad the elevator’s working again? It was such a pain when it was out.” When other neighbors see us interact, they look at us as if we’re nuts, which we may well be. But as weird as the whole thing it, it also really amuses me.

I want a way to understand what’s happening. After my experience in Budapest, I read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, and I thought maybe my brain was somehow doing whatever it is Aboriginal Australian’s brains were doing in his description of how people on walkabout were able to communicate verbally with people they encountered. (I’m not describing that at all or well, and Goodreads will tell you the book is about something else entirely. Never mind. I hope this way they communicate is still a thing Aboriginal Australians are able to do. It remains one of my favorite things I have ever learned. It connects so many of my fascinations about language, about creativity, about possibility.)

When I’ve thought and written about this in the past, I’ve connected it to The Songlines, but also to a random experimental language workshop I participated in in college. The instructor called it “Super Learning,” and the trick was that we weren’t actually being taught the language. We were, instead, lounging on pillows, drinking vodka and eating poppy-seed cake and listening to music. And yet we learned some basic phrases in Russian (a few of which I can still say, as I noted above).

The idea was that being completely relaxed and not trying to learn Russian would open our minds and let the words slip in. I loved the idea, but since I only learned a few sentences, I wasn’t convinced that Super Learning would be the secret to my Russian fluency.

But whether it’s Super Learning or Songlines, how do our brains do that? And why? And why haven’t I ever heard that everyone’s brain does that? And, if that could explain Budapest, it wouldn’t explain Veracruz — a language mash-up that has repeated itself in Spanish classes I’ve taken since then and more recently when I was trying to brush up on my French. I imagine those are cases of my brain knowing I’m trying to speak a language other than English and just reaching for what it has at hand.

And none of that would explain my neighbor. People on walkabout were able to make meaning and comprehension with the people they encountered. My neighbor and I aren’t understanding each other. We’re communicating … something, but it’s definitely not being done verbally.

And why is my brain so strange with language? And is there a way to tap into this weirdness at will? It always sneaks up and surprises me. It would be nice to be able to call it up when I need it. And can it work for any language? The Songlines thing has only happened with Hungarian and Russian. Why not any other language? And what other forms of communication and comprehension is it capable of that I just haven’t discovered yet? And how can I discover them?

Yeah, a lot of questions I can’t answer. I feel a research project coming on! Well … or at least some feverish Googling. Surely someone has studied this thing and figured out parts or all of it by now.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.