JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU MEAN: SILENCE, OR MISUNDERSTANDING
As a young girl, I did really well in school. But at every parent-teacher conference, the same thing was always said, every year, from every single teacher, to my mother: she’s a good student but she doesn’t talk enough. Sometimes, more specifically: she needs to ask more questions.
I spent years resenting the fact that my intelligence didn’t seem to effect the amount of questions I was perceived as lacking. I spent years misunderstanding the non-binary relationship between knowing and asking. I spent years wondering if I was skinny enough and in which body parts; where could my flesh raise its hands a little more, bubbling out into the world: pick me.
There is a way in which the silent body, at the request of those receiving it, threatens to become the invisible body. As if spoken language alone can constitute our reception, our method of meaning. What does it mean to be a quiet girl in a room full of people? If my own experiences are to be trusted, not much.
I can’t talk about silence or about the misunderstanding that envelopes it without pointing straight back to my misinterpreting body. The misinterpreted body I am suddenly so noisy about. As if I have something to say.
A subtitle of this essay might be: in the classroom, in the poem. Another: what if I refuse to say more, what if I stay quiet? But I’m a woman and therefore I’m tired, full of things to say.
I’ve started poorly, indistinct, unable to signify my meaning or establish value. What if I carry a pizza with me everywhere I go? A baby?
This is an essay about silence. The body it hovers around, and at whose request. Whether I can advocate for the productivity of silence and still avoid contributing to the ever-unfolding history of the silenced girl.
Not doing well in school became an act of resistance, a political stance before I could even distinguish between leaning into and standing up. I realized I could choose to do a few things: study less hard, wear dark clothing, quit running track. My parents got divorced and I couldn’t change their minds about it for a second. It was a quiet household I grew up in, with the exception of the divorcing year.
So I ran less, learned less, talked so very quietly, if at all. Few questions came boiling out of my mouth. I was an unsuccessful volcano. I was perhaps imprinted by birds. I may have been my own lackadaisical nest.
Years later, I see my young carelessness as the anomaly of how a girl can be utterly selfish and yet fully unable to focus on her selfhood.
I wonder how we have learned, in the classroom space in particular—and so, dangerously, in the way that adults define the shapes in which we think learning takes place—to avoid silence. To interpret it as awkward, unintelligent, bad. To view silence as a thing to avoid, to rush over, to imbed with an impending sense of embarrassment, to feel embarrassed by: our own, and others’.
But silence, like embarrassment, looks better on women—the already shaped. In fact our collective, socially-dictated trajectory makes for the easy adoption of a quiet life. But if I want to push back against silencing, why am I being so quiet about it? Moreover, if I’m advocating for the substance within silence—for its complex uses, for something beyond the misleading oversimplification of what it can or cannot do—how am I to communicate this in a substantially relevant way, here, in words?
It’s so confusing: see how the girl continues to not make up her mind? To want things that, when expressed in the tiny vehicle of her own language, look like contradictions. The girl makes up so many things about herself, through words and ideas. The girl should stick to what she’s best at making. Otherwise the girl begins to demand too many qualifications: self-imposed silence but never enforced by others; ugly questions, about matter and meaning, held in public spaces; strength achieved through various associations other than beauty; what next?
Silence is the I don’t know, the not-understood; and that’s a bad thing, and maybe that’s the crux of what I’m trying to parse out here: the difference between the (gendered) silences we understand and the (gendered) silences we resist. The thing I’ve learned to avoid with my body and brain: not knowing. Women especially should refrain from not knowing in public. Women should stick with mere silence instead, with their familiar realm of production.
It is difficult to understand desire when it can sometimes manifest as my own choice, sometimes as the thing routinely expected of me. Which is it: more silence or less? I still haven’t made up my mind.
Mary Ruefle: “You simply cannot learn and know at the same time, and this is a frustration all artists must bear.” Suddenly, I found permission, found a way to voice my concerns without certainty. I made a list:
how can i relinquish knowing about my body for learning about my body?
how can i relinquish knowing about mindfulness for learning about mindfulness?
how can i relinquish knowing my partner for learning about my partner?
how can i relinquish knowing my daughter-mother relationship for learning about it?
The list continues for some time.
I’ve misunderstood almost everything. Through silence as much as nervous laughter.
Consistently, publicly, I find myself advocating for other-than-classroom spaces. But it was the classroom space that got me here—one of the many hoops we jump through, so that we may see more clearly their restrictions.
I couldn’t know what I know without having made the mistakes I’ve made. This includes years and years of silences, both intentional and accidental. Both selfishly formed as well as tumbling outward from the space that is a body inherently determined. See how I say inherent where I could also say pre-?
A body that refuses finite intelligence. I mean singular intelligence. How I mistake mortality as solitude; value as desirability.
What does intelligence look like? On a woman’s face? And if she matters forever? She must have a train of suitors.
What if we could lean more into silence? I mean learn more. What if we speak up when we know something, and don’t speak up when we don’t know something, and understand the different and various circumstances in which either can be productive and useful and also just okay? The self-defined context of okay. What if we take time to think through things together and, because of collaboration, because of collective thinking, because freedom really just means responsibility toward others through our actions (Sartre), we all spend more time sitting together in a room, quietly thinking through the things we don’t understand. Asking questions without the guarantee of apparent answers on the other side of them. Finding our safe edges, which vary from person to person, and which probably involve, for each of us, at least some form of quiet time. More quiet than we’ve been so far.
I learned in grad school, during a composition theory class, the usefulness of letting the silent moments occur. Of giving a student the slow chance to answer, to think. But that was a silence still molded by fear and manipulation. And so even my understanding of this radical thing is soaked in a very patriarchal cologne: the smell of a man in charge of a room, always a man in charge of a room, inducing shame.
There is nothing shameful in having something to say. There is nothing shameful in the slow quiet learning that is a woman, making space for others, making space for herself—leaning into her uncertain body with nothing to say and speeding up for no one.
What if we just take our time? If we sometimes don’t know, and we know that not knowing is what leads us to better things, something closer to knowledge as much as intimacy.
The misunderstanding crystallizes most thoroughly, most publicly, when considering poetry. Poetry: the real reason I write anything. Because in writing, and in the poem, I am my best self. Which also means: complicated, questioning, hopefully subversive. Thoughtful. Sentimental and oblique and more or less unrecognizable. Shedding tears over the weirdest words: landmark, breakfast. The phrase, “for example.”
Look at me, pretending I can balance my own sentimentality.
Pretending my insides are here and my outsides over there.
Pretending my colorful clothes, my sections of skin, my shivering.
Pretending my quietness was always grown intentionally.
Pretending agency is an easy thing to recognize but not to take away.
This essay is about silence and misunderstanding, how they apply to and interact with each other.
Here is what poetry taught me: we take for granted that language can do what we want it to do, what we need it to do. We swim in it daily, normalize its constant unquestioned presence, take for granted that words produce sense (take for granted that certain bodies produce). Of course we forget its materiality, its ability to exist as a medium: for fragmentation, for experiment, for all the pointing that never quite captures (Wittgenstein).
I once wore dark clothing for an entire year, lined my eyes with only a downward face. Even the ground couldn’t get me to talk. Silent body: it, too, must sometimes resort to experimentation and pointing.
And here I’ve accidentally reversed the order: it is the fragmented, uncertain, learning body that will undoubtedly perform variations of silence, pointing at existences that cannot always be captured, let alone understood.
When a poem doesn’t make sense, it threatens the safety of how we get through life, person amongst people. When words produce differently, when words express any substantial relationship to the silence surrounding them. We want a legend, a key, or else we give up immediately. The misunderstanding is in assuming the simplicity of the misunderstanding to begin with: that confusion suggests a lack of relation to one’s life.
Difficult poems are so much easier than we think (unless we’ve dedicated our weird young adult lives to this battle cry). Language is so much more difficult than we think (especially for those of us sobbing, confused about our age).
We think we know what silence means. Or the difficult poem: nothing.
Because we take poems at face value. Because we take girls at face value. With regards to either, misunderstanding and silence are read as the same unkempt failure, a tarantula on my sleeve. Thing that should go away.
“Language can be employed to check language, to express muteness…Art must mount a full- scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.” (Susan Sontag)
I’m trying to tell you about the quiet dust hovering about my too-colorful Pegasus clothes-body, my self-interested quietgirl body, my somewhere in the gooey sticky body, egobody, my sadlady birdknowing body, my body never quite what I expect of it, my writing never quite what I expect of it, my writing never quiet, never funny, what I expect of my body or else its severing.
I mean word-chomping; I mean the body that knows a question when it sees itself,
that first moment of clear body reckoning,
that first moment of getting closer and closer to the surfaces, the quiet moment that is knocking one’s girlself sadbody
silently on the heartbrain, a gesture of self-validation. Not stuck up, just shy.
Silence born of fear is the same as silence that breeds fear: continuous loop of disappearing, of accommodating the escape. Of assuming that a lack of words constitutes a lack of meaning. I’m talking instead about a present, active silence, an intentional silence, one molded by learning as much as resiliency as much as recognition.
Quiet girl, consumed by her thoughts, seeks the language that might cradle them. Certain forms of mothering are less visible.
One time my body produced differently. Asked the right question in the wrong, wrong, wrong place (which body?) (whose standard?).
It severed: my feelings from all their little organs.
One time my body refused to answer. This is an essay about the occasional silence born of understanding.