By Caitlin Kelly
Have you ever just stopped talking?
Not the usual way — pausing for a minute to draw breath or sip your drink or check your texts.
But decided, for a while, not to speak at all.
I did so in the summer of 2011, a few months before I married Jose, a man who is devoutly Buddhist and who decided, as a birthday gift, to whisk me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat. (Yes, really.)
The only time speech was allowed was in our teaching sessions, or private meetings with the staff, to ask questions.
We communicated mostly through Post-It notes and gestures, occasionally whispering in our room.
For the first few days, it felt like an impossible burden and every morning’s meditation revealed another empty chair or cushion left by those who had decided to flee.
Then it felt massively liberating.
To not be social.
To not make chit-chat.
To not fill the air with chatter so as to sound witty and smart and cool and employable and likeable.
To just…be silent.
When we returned to the noise and clamor of “normal”life — the blaring TVs in every bar, the ping of someone’s phone or an elevator or a doorbell, the honking of cars, the yammer of people shouting into their cellphones — we were shell-shocked by it all.
I miss that silence, and I really miss the powerful experience of community we had there, with 75 people of all ages from all over the world who had chosen to eschew words for a week.
In December, I started a weekly class in choreography, modern dance, a new adventure for me. There’s only one other student, a woman 13 years my junior. In a small studio, we spend 90 minutes moving, writing about movement and creating “insta-dances” which we perform and listen to feedback about.
It’s all a bit terrifying for someone whose audience — here and in my paid writing work — typically remains safely distant, invisible and mostly ignores what I produce. To look someone in the eye, and to see yourself in the mirror, and to express oneself without words, using only corporeal language are all deeply disorienting.
Not a bad thing. But a very new thing.
Your fingers, wrists, toes, elbows…all have something to say, I’ve discovered. The subtlety of a flick, a wiggle, a pause, a hop. It’s a wholly new way to express ideas and emotions without the tedium of diction.
It’s another way to tell a story, wordlessly. I’ve been surprised and grateful that the other dancer — who is thin, lithe and performs a lot — calls me graceful and expressive. I didn’t expect that at all. As someone whose body is aging and needs to shed 30+ pounds, I usually just see it as a tiresome battleground, not a source of pride and pleasure, sorry to say.
It’s also a little terrifying to have all that freedom, as writing journalism always means writing to a specific length, style and audience, like a tailor making a gray wool pinstriped suit in a 42tall. It’s always something made-to-order, rarely a pure expression of my own ideas and creativity.
It’s interesting indeed to open the cage of words and flutter into the air beyond.