silence and selfhood

By the end of the first week of classes, I am in tears. Half of my conversations make it obvious that I am a woman in a man’s world, or at least a man’s program. The other half of my conversations make it clear that I am no longer fully a student; my peers expect me to be something more—the opinion of women everywhere, the voice of a movement, at once leader and sacrificial lamb. In my last class of the week, the professor is discussing issues of women’s initiative and agency. It is exactly what I have been attempting to bring out of the mostly-silent women of my cohort, the parts of myself I have been expending on the students’ behalf. I am exhausted.

I share this with the professor after class; she understands completely, even better than I do. “It’s very bad to be exhausted at the beginning,” she states. I nod and unsuccessfully try to keep even more tears from falling. “I wonder,” she begins, slowly, with care, “if the strength that is in you could be for you.” Earlier, I would have claimed that others needed my strength on their behalf more than I needed it for myself, but it’s too obvious that that is no longer true, if it ever was. When she suggests that I practice silence, something in me feels the unfamiliar pull of hope. From my first weeks in this building I had been deemed The Woman Who Speaks (or, more often spoken, The Girl Who Talks). Silence feels like a good practice, one in which I could learn other ways to be engaged with the material, where I could find space within myself for peace, where I could demand others to allow me the silence they maintain, all while inviting those unheard voices to fill the space I leave open.

Silence is capacious. In silence, there is room for me. In silence, room is made for others. I hope that silence would also allow space for God to encounter me. I know myself to be too tired to chase after God. Still, I could make room for the Divine to come in, I could be watchful for moments to welcome such a Being.

I adopt the practice of silence in every class, and often outside of it as well. Even in moments when I want to speak, I allow my silence to fill the room. I notice my breathing. In extended silences, lying in bed at night, or observing the descent of rain while the heat of my morning tea passes into my palms, I put tiny breath prayers with my pneuma, my breath, my spirit. Most often, my prayer is the characters of the Ineffable Name: inhale yod, exhale he, inhale vav, exhale he. In moments of frustration, I use another Hebrew word associated with breath, and more commonly linked with meaninglessness, the soon-vanishing vapor of expelled ether, hebel. Both Hebrew words are scripted over my rib cage, and I watch them rise and fall through the shower steam as I contemplate God within this broken body.  I focus on sensation, I practice mindfulness. I feel cool air welcomed into my body, warmed, allowed to leave as space is made for another benevolent breath. When I eat, I try to really taste. As I fold laundry, I touch the texture of each garment. I knit and notice the delicate softness of the wool as I tangle it into a big and beautiful knot.

Each Sunday evening I drag myself to my version of church: the yoga studio. It is a safe space, an hour and a half in which no one expects me to speak brilliantly, no one looks to me for wisdom nor guidance. Unlike traditional churches, no one asks me to volunteer, host, lead, or give of myself—as though self is something with which I can part, a sweater to shrug off. One week my thoughts drift away during shavasana, as they are wont to do, as my mind begins to realize how beautiful this corpse pose is, how stunning that I, who can barely relax my muscles around those with whom I am intimately involved, choose to let go of all tension and awareness while surrounded by strangers. I am vulnerable, entirely exposed, and my eyes are shut. Despite my years of martial arts training, if anyone wanted to kill me right now, they could. I am thinking this, without anxiety, when I feel the warm palms and thin fingers of my instructor encapsulate my ankles. My inhale catches in my throat and ocean drops roll down my temple and God is with us, between us, in us. The same vulnerability that could lead to my death also opened me up to such warm, unexpected, and tender kindness. I am undone.

In school, silence continues. Nearly halfway through the term, people start wondering about it. One student approaches me while I am working at the front desk and says, “I’ve been missing your voice in Theology,” where we had been discussing feminist theologies. I choose my words carefully to convey appreciation that I was noticed, but underneath I feel the tug of the rope around my neck, students leading me to slaughter. The next Theology class, the conversation turns towards feminism once again. A couple students talk about how to find space for women to speak, the professor rightly points out that creating space can’t just be something that happens out in other places, it needs to start in this classroom, between each of us. “How can we be with one another, make space and find space?” We’re about to go on break, the conversation will end here—as it always does, as if asking the question is enough. I tentatively start raising my hand, put it back down, start putting it up again, lower. The professor sees me and starts unpinning her own microphone in urgency to make room for me to speak; she, too, has been both aware and supportive of my silence.

When I take the microphone it feels heavy and suddenly unfamiliar. “I haven’t spoken yet in this class,” I say, and realize the semester is half over. My pulse races, my breath quickens. This is unlike me; I’m familiar with the amplification of my voice in this room. “I hope that those of you who are often silent feel my silence as an invitation,” I look around to some of those women’s faces; their eyes are in their laps. I persevere, “I hope you feel that space is being made for you. And those of you who often talk, who speak every thought you have,” I’m very selectively making eye contact with certain students, “I hope you hear my silence as an invitation to join me in making space.” I shakily turn off the mic, we go on break. The next week is a jumble of processing, outspoken men thanking me for confronting them, quiet women avoiding me and their boyfriends explaining that they feel like I’m forcing them to speak, others just thanking me for explaining—my silence had been tangible and unknown.

I’m processing, too, but it’s tiring and trying and needs to stop. It’s early and will probably rain any minute, but I lace up, throw on a hoodie, run along the canal. The trees shine against the layered grays of the sky, branches sway in front of the stable lines of the bridge. The occasional biker whirs by, the whisper of leaves cuddling against one another, occasionally huddling tightly enough to offer glimpses of the water. It’s quiet. I run until my breath overwhelms my aural space and the sensation in my lungs overtakes all. The leaves are getting brighter and invite me farther down the path.

Suddenly the trees open up and there is a clearing leading to the water. I turn, leave the trail, allow my pace to slow as I approach the waves. I stretch the tightness out of my hamstrings and watch the inky blue shallows carry leaves as though they’re golden treasures, unexpectedly inherited and loosely held. I don’t know where they’ll be carried, but they’re here right now, and they’re beautiful. The water falls towards its unknown destination; it does not care how many gold pieces join it. A half dozen ducks glide by, or appear to. I know they’re not really gliding; under the calm surface, they’re paddling like mad, just like the rest of us. I decide I’d rather be the water than the ducks, held by the firm steadiness of the rock riverbed, with effortless and natural direction. I wonder if a duck can choose to stop paddling, allow the water to carry it, and survive.

The images stay with me for days. When I try to explain to my husband the warm darkness of the water, the brilliance of the leaves, the rocks that hold the stream and give it direction without ever moving—I can’t find sufficient words. I choke up. He understands, I think, or at least he surrounds me with his arms, and that’s enough.

Perceptions of me are changing. Previously, my struggle, tears, sadnesses had been viewed with a kind of courageous vulnerability. One woman told me, that first semester, that she wanted to sit at my table to see when I cry, because that would signal to her that she should be feeling more than she is. When even my emotions, my falling-apart-ness, were viewed as leadership, I was always on display. When I pointed out that such pedestals are tall and shaky and easy to fall off, people thought that even the falling was beautiful and taught them about themselves, so I was never allowed to fully crash off the pedestal. When I cried that it’s lonely on a pedestal, people said they were there for me, but it was clear that they were there to keep me on the pedestal. Now, students are finally starting to see that my struggle is real and the cost is deep. They still come to me with problems and questions, but more quietly. Most no longer approach me as a rockstar sage, but come to me as a person. They ask how I’m doing, too.

Back in the large classroom for Theology, and the professor is teaching on sin. She summarizes a feminist understanding in which sin for women is not pride, but is essentially a lack, underdevelopment, or negation of self, a dependence on others for self-definition, a deficiency of a center. Not owning one’s self and agency can be an affront to God. And such a shortfall often manifests in service and silence. I recognize this sin in many of my classmates. Is this my silence, too? No: my silence is on the far side of self-hood, a practice in centering and developing my self in order to find my place within community. I recognize that this is not a sinful way of being, it is a spiritual and God-directed practice.

Still, it’s clear that soon I will need to continue to move forward, to allow the waterway to carry me beyond this clearing. Practices and prayers may fit for a time, but they should lead us to a new place, a new way of being. Prayers are a practice of becoming. We each must be ever-moving towards the self we were created to be, the forgotten person we already are.

This paper was written in Fall 2012 for Pat Loughery’s class “Prayer, Practice & Presence.” Students were asked to discuss their spiritual growth and process through the term. It has taken me a year to publish this because I still cry whenever I try to edit it.

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2 thoughts on “silence and selfhood

  1. Bitta says:

    Oh lovely, Kate. Thank you for sharing this.

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