This past Monday I had a small surgery to remove a hemorrhagic nodule from my right vocal cord. As medical procedures go, this one’s not particularly challenging, except perhaps for the follow up, which requires three weeks of absolutely no speaking.
There are quiet people for whom this probably represents little or no significant challenge. For me on the other hand, someone who makes his way in the world with words, and in particular, spoken words, the experience of keeping my mouth shut for such a protracted period is a big change.
I figured it’d be a sort of learning experience, some kind of Zen meditation, a monk-like silence that would teach me things, show me new ways of looking at the world, and I wasn’t wrong. The trouble is that the things I’m learning are so subtle as to be very difficult, if not impossible to explain.
Let me try it this way. What I’m beginning to see are all these little spaces forming. Spaces that had been filled not only with my words, but with my visceral need to provide words; as if the silences were in themselves wrong, and somehow needed the corrective measure of even more things to say to stave off the silences. What I’m finding is my utter waste of words, the energy of producing sounds that have little reason for existing. Because I’m not speaking my entire rhythm has begun to change, the entire tempo at which I approach life. I dare say it has been way too fast.
As I walked down to the ocean this morning I saw the smallest things. Or at least the things I might have once considered small, like say, the color of the sky, or the shape of my neighbor’s gardener’s hat, or the conversations in Spanish that a woman and her daughter were having on their way to the bus stop. I saw the bright red jackets of the two Japanese kids that live a few blocks down from me were wearing. I’d seen them before, maybe once or twice. I saw the older one today, the older brother. He had on these funny dark eyeglasses and when he extended his hand to his younger brother as they crossed the street, I saw incredible tenderness. I saw an older man and his wife. He was carrying a canvas sack of groceries and she was speaking to him about some woman. “Two-faced,” she said. “You can’t trust her from moment to moment.” I saw the man nod his head as if to say, ‘Ya… you can’t trust that woman.’
Those were the things going on around me. What I noticed next was the muddled conversation going on in my head. It’s that conversation – if you can call it one – that is the most unseen. It’s a tangle of words and thoughts that buzzes relentlessly in our minds. As I neared home, I stopped for a moment and actually tried to listen to what goes on in my own head. It makes for a somewhat frightening experience. The disarray and the disorganization made me aware of how much house cleaning there is to be done in there.
What I really started to think about at the end of my walk took on the form of a question: What will I say once I can speak again? What words will I eliminate? What words will I add? Even if adding them might be difficult, and might require me to stand up for something or someone I haven’t yet dared to.
I’ve got a ways to go on my silent journey. One thing’s for sure. I will not be the same person I was when I started.