silent shout: saying nothing and getting heard

Wow. Did that really just happen? Did 30 days really go by and this now really is it?

I feel like I’ve just come back from a long trip abroad. So yesterday, Monday 31st Jan, my first day of speaking. No sooner had I sat up in bed than my phone rang. It was one of my best friends. My first words were ‘Good Morning’, followed by laughter. My tongue felt strange, working its way around words, then sentences. I spoke slowly, deliberately, bemused by the sound of my own voice. Later that day I went to see my folks. They welcomed me back like they hadn’t seen me in a month, despite having come to the show only 2 days before. Mum, although relieved not to have to text me or e-mail me anymore (bafflingly, throughout the month she would call me, just to impart information, knowing that I couldn’t respond… I stopped answering the phone after a while) pointed out I don’t speak to them much anyway. She’s right. But it’s nice now to be able to talk to them and others about the experience. Reassure people that I’ve been there all along, inside this silent bubble, that I hadn’t really lost the plot… However every few sentences or so, my brain seems to give me little electric shocks as a result of 30 days of conditioning myself not to speak. Little stomach flips of guilt. And then my jaw starts to falter. My mind and body are a little confused at this sudden change in rules. This complete u-turn.

I was hoping that 30 days of silence would finally help my brain catch up with my mouth. That the two would put aside their differences and start to cooperate. This didn’t happen. Whilst my mouth, for now, has slowed down as it re-familiarises itself with words, (clearly impressed at it’s own ability to get an immediate response), the brain still ambles along at its own pace, taking in the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sensations, filling itself up with ideas, concepts, colours, shapes, nameless things. The brain is still reeaally slow. What I’ve discovered is that they do in fact walk two separate paths that only very occasionally converge. This makes things mighty difficult when given a limited amount of time to get something across. Like, say, on a radio show. The producer and presenter of Woman’s Hour this morning did well to put me at ease and the experience was painless. Enjoyable even. Only I was so relaxed that I don’t feel I really explained anything at all. It took me the whole slot to answer about two questions, not giving myself or the presenter the opportunity to expand or diversify. My brain and mouth had misunderstood what I meant by cooperation and instead had gone off arm in arm on a little wander down memory lane. It’s not the silence that’s done this. It just that silence hasn’t fixed it. I would like to have shared some insights with listeners, offered something a little less vague, a little more useful. I would like to have talked about visitor reactions to being silent in the installation, about what I’ve gleaned from reactions in general this month and what it is that is actually remotely helpful about this exercise. But I guess that’s what this blog is for.

Which means you’re in for a long post. So stop sitting on your legs (this gives you varicose veins apparently), go have a stretch, make a cup of tea, get the circulation back into your buttocks and straighten your spine. Um, I guess those were instructions for myself.

On Friday I felt like everything was collapsing in around me. How had it got to this? I’d been working solidly, forsaken sleep, recruited helpers, written lists… Were my expectations really that unrealistic? Memories of sinking early morning realisations that I wasn’t going to miraculously recall a years worth of skipped history lessons two hours before taking my A-level came back to haunt and taunt me. It was 17.45, show was due to open in 15 minutes, and whether anyone was coming or not, nothing was going to be ready. Not the mural, not the installation, not the foyer and not even me. Having slept an hour and a half at some point between 3am and 6am, I was still in the clothes I had worn the day before. A shower was bottom of my list of priorities. I resigned myself to the fact that people were going to have to come and see a work in progress presented by a dishevelled miming trampette in her painting skivvies. I texted a friend for reassuring words. I kept throwing my hands up and grimacing at another friend who had come over for last minute rescue. They both told me, it doesn’t matter. I told myself it doesn’t matter. But I know better than to reason with myself on no sleep. I would just have to ride the wave of doom and wait for it to subside. Which, inevitably and eventually, it did. The show was meant to be a manifestation of a month of silence. And that’s exactly what it was. Who said it needed to be finished? I made a board saying so though, just in case.

I didn’t expect people to linger. I had doubted that wine and flapjacks would be sufficient bait to make people stay and ‘suffer’ in silence. But they did, and there was no room to move! (ok, so the ‘foyer’ is kind of small…) The need to communicate was evident. People were writing notes and miming to each other, communicating in animated silence. Silence apart from the laughter. Some stayed 2-3hrs. The last batch of guests hung around for a couple of hours too, but with less furious notewriting. Non of them were from the UK. I pondered the significance of this and thought how the English do have a habit of talking more than is often necessary. After they left, I gathered all the written conversations littering the floor and stuck them to the wall. They made me smile. The scrawls on these fragments contained such fascinating gems as ‘I’ve got a new eyeliner’ and ‘I ate a fig before I came and broke my tooth’ to ‘I feel uncomfortable being silent’ and ‘I’m too scared to wee because everyone will hear’. On Saturday I finished off the installation and decided that the mural was going to have to remain a work in progress. On Sunday I even put on make-up.

In one respect the ‘silence in the space’ rule was a stroke of accidental genius on my part, taking away my having to suffer instant ‘feedback’. Or worse: politeness. But the intention behind the rule was to allow people to be part of the experience, digest it and then take it away with them. I wanted to remove the compulsion for some audiences to force their half-formed impressions into words that didn’t fit, mostly just to make noise, to reassure their companion that they are still living and breathing and that they have an opinion, even if it’s a bluff so that they don’t look stupid. Or too clever. ‘I make noise, therefore I am’. I know I do this too. It’s absurd but I still do it. I’m trying to do it less. Stopping talking didn’t make me cease to exist. But back to the rule. It meant that by stepping into the space, the visitors were automatically involved and engaging with it. They got a tiny slice of my 30 days, through experience. And experiences stick with us more than concepts or things we’ve been told. The reactions were varied and interesting, all valid. People openly admitted (on paper) that they felt exposed by the silence. It’s not that I sadistically get a kick from seeing people out of their comfort zone. I enjoy it because it reveals something that people fight so hard to cover up. Their imperfections, their fallibility, their fears, essentially, their human-ness. We hide behind words. But why? Why are people so afraid of exposing themselves? Do they all think they’re that bad? What’s the worst that can happen? Criticism? Are we really so afraid of words?

When I talk about exposure, I don’t mean that everyone should grab a megaphone, rush out to Speaker’s Corner and blurt out their deepest, darkest secrets. I’m talking about just being yourself. Whatever form that comes in. Tall, short, fat , thin, shy, outgoing, quiet, loud or a combination of all those things or somewhere in between. We’re so lucky in this country that we can speak freely without being thrown behind bars. And most of us are so lucky that, if we want to, we can ask for what we need. I guess I just don’t think we should take that for granted. I don’t think we should take anything for granted. But especially the ability to express ourselves. Once we lose that ability we lose our own power. When we feel powerless we feel afraid. And it’s when we’re afraid that we hurt ourselves and others.

I went to see Nan this afternoon. I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks. I played her the podcast of the radio programme and described the installation to her in detail, promising to show a video of it when ready. She was in bed, but seemed to be listening and she smiled once or twice. I asked her if she thought I was mad. She said ‘yes’.

if a tree falls in the forest…

If Becky utters obscenities to herself in the studio, does she make a sound? No, of course she doesn’t as that would be cheating. And if I was to slip up again you know I’d tell you. But the cursing that goes with struggling to hit a deadline does echo pretty loudly inside my head, along with all the other incessant internal babble. I thought I might gain some kind of mental peace and quiet from this, but no. I was thinking though how you just have to trust me. Trust that I’m not cheating, that I’m not walking around my studio delivering endless soliloquys to my plants and furniture. And I have to trust you. Trust that you will take something, however small, away from this strange thing that I have decided I need to do.

Fortunately I did get out after my last post. Needing a change of scenery, some inspiration and contact with a human being, I met up with a good friend at the Museum of Childhood. Oh the noise. I know, I know. I just didn’t think. Well, think I did, but nothing helpful such as: Museum of Childhood = children. Swarms of them. Where was their mute button? I must’ve eventually managed to tune them out as I marvelled at all the toys on display: magic lanterns, zoetropes, dollshouses, tin cars, puppets, miniature worlds made out of paper housed in boxes. And of course those from my own childhood: The Big Yellow Teapot, Carebears, Gameboy. I smiled when I saw this:

My heart skipped a beat when I saw a real mini carpentry kit (with spirit level and everything!) that I’d wanted aged 7 but never got.

Instead I had Barbie dolls, which only ever really served as window dressing for the makeshift homes that I built for them out of whatever detritus I could find in the house. These homes could have been so much more impressive had I been given and been taught how to use that carpentry kit. How deprived my childhood had been. As I carefully avoided stepping on the wriggling uniformed creatures that littered the museum floor, I wondered what toys they played with at home and how those toys would inform the way they relate to themselves and each other. I have this idea in my head that kids these days only play with computers and fancy electronic things. Ok so I do have luddite tendencies, romanticising a distant age of innocence that I have no experience of. Feeling disappointed when I see kids screaming for the latest new-fangled gadget or must-have new toy and the parents who cave-in and oblige just to get a moment’s peace. But what’s wrong with a cardboard box and an imagination?  I do not have children nor do I work with them and so perhaps I should keep my thoughts to myself. Pity the kids I might have one day, who will have to make do with sticks, stones and toilet roll tubes.

But back to the museum, and eventually, my point. The upstairs gallery is where all the role-play type toys were: scaled down ironing boards, mops, fully kitted out kitchens, you get the picture. I started to imagine a child-sized office with photocopier and a Starbucks next door. When I was a little person, I wasn’t interested in pretending to be my parents. Perhaps I was precociously aware that the reality of being a grown-up is avoiding becoming your parents at all costs. Better to learn that lesson early and avert inevitable disappointment. And besides, that grown up world seemed so stiflingly boring. I was happy to let them get on with it while I carried on being a kid.  Only it appears that my view hasn’t altered much twenty or so years later. Maybe I could have done with some practice at this being an adult business after all. Or maybe I don’t need to worry about it because I seem to manage just fine as I am. But all this got me thinking about how we learn to express ourselves as children. We are shaped and guided into ‘acceptable’ ways of communicating. Keeping it conventional so that we’re easier to manage. There are so many rules and caveats when it comes to expressing ourselves. Of course there have to be some boundaries. But where do we place them? How do we know when we’ve stepped over them? What are the consequences of stepping over them? Surely it’s ok as long as no-one is being harmed? What happens to a person who isn’t able to communicate in a more widely accepted manner?

I have a cousin (one among many), now a sweet, sensitive  and articulate soul in his mid-twenties, who by the age of 3 had the whole family convinced that he was possessed. He tried to turn my pet rabbit into a sacrificial offering once or twice. Just the memory of his bloodcurdling little brat screams and gargoyle grimaces makes me want to sleep with the light on. It turned out that the poor little boy was literally tongue-tied and therefore monumentally frustrated because he couldn’t express himself. After a simple operation he was almost instantly exorcised and consequently morphed into a little sweetheart.  I’ve ended up on a spurious tangent with that story.  I guess it’s an unsubtle example of what an inability to express oneself can do to a being. It makes me think of how we deal with children with any kind of learning difficulty or less conventional behaviour. I wonder how much we try to ‘normalise’ them, rather than encourage them to find their own ways in expressing themselves. I realise I’ve strayed away from the topic of toys, but there is a connection in there somewhere.

And so taking a giant leap back to that topic, of toys, I can’t help but feel that the market is flooded with millions of toys that might improve motor skills,  memory skills, etc but they don’t necessarily teach children how to express themselves. They occupy, entertain, distract and groom children to play their role in society. What they don’t necessarily teach or encourage is inventiveness, imagination. resourcefulness,  self-reliance, the ability to express oneself. I suppose this only comes out of boredom and limited resources, which some might consider child abuse.

Without realising, we’re constantly forcing each other, adults and children, into little boxes that we’ve made, partly because we think it helps us understand each other better and people are just easier to deal with when you think you can predict their behaviour. But the fewer boxes you’ve bothered to build, the bigger the potential for misunderstanding. By adulthood it’s drummed into us that we need to be ‘sensible’ and are encouraged as far as possible to ‘fit in’ and not ‘make a scene’. In fact, Birdwhistell, mentioned earlier in this blog, says in his Kinesics book:

‘The child is born into a society already keyed for his coming. A system exists into which he must be assimilated if the society is to sustain itself. If his behaviour cannot, after a period of time become predictable to a degree expected in that society he must be specially treated.’

So it seems to me that the purpose of those role-play toys that I mentioned over a paragraph ago is ‘ to make that child’s behaviour sufficiently predictable that the society can go about the rest of it’s business.’
I still don’t have the answer for why I get so frustrated in trying to express myself the way I want to. I’m not talking about the not talking. I mean generally. I don’t feel like words are sufficient. I like them, but I’m greedy, I want to be able to do everything, as my long-suffering friends are well aware. But why? On Friday I was flicking through a Hans Christian Anderson book I’ve had since childhood to try and find some reference material for the installation and out fell some pieces of paper with the handwriting of a twelve year old on it. The first paragraph made me laugh out loud (it’s ok, I can do that, it doesn’t count as talking), but as I read on, my heart ached for my pre-teen self. The pain of not feeling understood combined with not understanding why I wasn’t understood. Whilst this is all part of the general teenage spin cycle of hormones and heightened emotions, some of us seem to emerge cleaner than others.

So anyway, another good friend stopped by late on Saturday night, an insightful and supportive friend who offers extremely good advice (the kind where you already know the answer but it sounds much better coming from someone else). Already tired and feeling a little beaten by the installation, I was a tiny bit knocked by his admission that he doesn’t understand what I’m doing or why. Now I know that this doesn’t really matter. Some people will get it, some people won’t, and ultimately, everyone’s experience, understanding and opinion is going to be different. You have to trust your audience to get something from it. But it’s hard to remain convinced when I feel like I’ve spent more of the day staring at the wall than painting it.

One of the biggest ways we communicate is our attitude. I’ve noticed that when I’m buzzing and feeling inspired and fearless, it’s contagious. People come along with me. When I’m feeling doubtful, insecure and frightened, that rubs off on others and then reflects back onto me tenfold. We owe it to ourselves as well as others to sometimes think about what we project.

Only a few days left until my self-imposed talking ban is lifted. I have conflicting feelings about that. Part of me can’t wait to be free from my silent shackles. But I like the fact that as a mute I don’t have to try and explain the unexplainable. And I wonder if I want to talk more to ease other people’s discomfort than my own. Like all cravings, in time the desire to talk would probably die down. It’s already waning. And the end of the silence means reintegration into the ‘real’ and ‘grown-up’ world of explanation, jobs & sensibility.

going radio ga ga in solitary confinement (and my war with words)

I have a love/hate relationship with words. They give me the run around. Just when I think I’ve spotted the one I want, it hides from me. They’re also crafty chameleon-like little buggers, changing their meaning with context, tone of voice, facial expression, punctuation, etc, etc.  They can even coordinate themselves to do this collectively. Have you ever noticed how a whole sentence, whether heard or written, can completely change meaning depending on what mood you’re in? But I also love this about words. Yes, I’m a contradictory little so and so too. So maybe that’s why sometimes we get on. Me and words that is. When I can catch them, I quickly pin them down and rearrange them later. It takes time, I won’t lie. Unfortunately this doesn’t work when speaking. I have tried in the past but was met with blank looks which isn’t very good for morale. Thankfully I don’t have that problem at the moment. And it’s nice not to have to kick yourself after stupid or nonsensical things have fallen out of your mouth that weren’t meant to. But even when writing I can look back on what I’ve written and those words will have morphed into a whole load of meaning (or lack of) that wasn’t there before.

Reading that, it’s probably apparent that I haven’t set foot outside of the studio or seen a living soul (apart from my plants, but they’re giving up on me too) for more than 24hrs. As happens in a normal day, I’m up, I’m down, tired, inspired, bored, excited, euphoric, restless, calm, you name it, I feel it. I also feel a bunch of things you probably can’t name.  In the days when I spoke, if I was at my usual telly job and had a decent desk buddy, they’d get intermittent whispered status updates from me. (unless I was thoughtful enough to put my headphones on and tune the world out). Friends or family get the same (not whispered, that would just be weird). It’ll come as  no surprise then that I’m a serial Facebook status updater.  But only because I want to share the magical discoveries that I make daily. What I’ve had for breakfast or the fact that work is boring does not count and does not feature. Not now though. No Facebook updates for me. I’m not allowing myself that privilege. On numerous occasions throughout this mute month I’ve felt the urge. I was thinking in status updates before Facebook was even invented. That function was made for me. All my thoughts and feelings lingered a lot longer in today’s self-imposed solitary confinement, having not had any kind of outlet. Not that they bothered me. I’ve learnt to mostly observe those things and let them go. Ok, I wrote stuff in my notebook. But why is all this? Why the need to record, share these thoughts? I know I’m not alone in wanting to share, but I think we all have different reasons, different motivation. I have less of a motive than a need.  If I could control it I would. And some people don’t do it at all. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate whether you’re a Facebook status updater or not. I have friends who verbalise the tickertape of thoughts in their head as much as I do but who don’t announce it on Facebook. So what’s my point? The point is that as much as I don’t want to admit it, Facebook does sometimes help me feel more connected with people. But it’s a cheap thrill. A quick fix. As soon as I’ve had a response or a couple of comment back and forths I get lulled into the void where nothing’s actually happening, waiting for something to happen. Then you lose precious minutes, god forbid, hours, looking at a stranger’s wedding photos. And by the end of it you’re a listless, empty shadow of a human being. Facebook has its uses and enables me to keep in touch easily with friends across the planet, but once that’s done, I must log off. I’m much better at this now. But that’s probably because I’ve got so much work to do.

I thought that not being able to talk about what I’m doing would mean that I do more. I thought that I would be more focused, more disciplined, more productive (go to bed early, run, meditate, do yoga, stop smoking, paint like Degas, not eat just pitta bread for dinner). It’s with a sigh that I accept it’s now 2am as I write this and there seems to be no method, only madness. But wherever you go, there you are, talking or not talking. Well, in that case I have to work with the madness. The only way to do that is to be nice. Especially when trying to create something. I’m actually talking to myself in my head (not out loud) saying over and over ‘trust in the process’. If I don’t, that cantankerous old witch that some of you may know as the devil on your shoulder or your inner critic , starts sabotaging everything, whispering completely obvious and unhelpful things in my ear, like: ‘what on earth are you doing? You don’t even have an art A-level’. Hush old grinch, I don’t have time for this, you’re overruled. So me and the little forest warrior (ok, that’s a little embarrassing) get on with the work. No magical silence-induced meditative focus, just a good old fashioned deadline to boot me into action.

At least the radio has been keeping me company. Although now that I find myself noticing lyrics more, I can hear just how awful some of them are. Yes, yes, respect for those brave enough to just put themselves out there, I know, I said it. But I forgot about that fine line between brave and stupid. Hmm. Anyway,  back to the radio. It astounds me how much negativity is communicated to us through the news media. I must have heard that sombre voice warn us of ‘a miserable year ahead’ and state that ‘jobless have risen by 49000 in last 3 months’ at least 12 times today. It may well be true and people are going to struggle,  but is this actually helpful to anybody? What’s the purpose of presenting ‘news’ in this way? Maybe the idea is that when we all feel hopeless, depressed and full of fear that we’re easier to keep under control.

I really must get out tomorrow.

radio silence vs honesty tourettes

When I was a little girl and angry at my dad for some reason, I would write myself a note and put it by my bed for when I woke up: “Remember, Daddy is mean and horrible”. Well, luckily I never held onto this bizarre determination to bear a grudge, but unluckily my brain does still seem to reset itself overnight. Hence the need for me to now write notes to myself that say “Remember, you are silent”. I have actually been doing this, but on Wednesday night I thought surely this silence concept must have stuck in my head by now, so I didn’t bother. Oh dear, silly girl.  After getting through a load of extremely important computer admin on Thursday morning which included asking my landlord if I could borrow his Tate membership card to go see the Gauguin show for free before it finished this week, I swanned around a bit and got ready to hop in the shower. Then there was a knock on the door. Naturally I went to answer it. Slowly as I tried to acclimatise to the world that exists outside my head, I realised that my landlord was standing there holding the Tate card. A strange disembodied voice could be heard gushing: “Aaah, thanks so much for that”. I was stopped by my landlord and my neighbour Jeff, who having heard me from inside, had rushed out and was now standing on his doorstep looking very concerned. Oh crap. It had happened again. With witnesses and everything (although I’d have felt just as bad without). I stood there in disbelief and then felt everything crashing down around me. I had become a fraud and a failure in that instant. They both promised to keep my dirty little secret. But I didn’t want it to be a secret. I had to confess. I had to get this awful crime off my chest and tell the world, otherwise I could never live with myself. But first I had to get out. Get out and reinforce my silent position in the ‘real’ world.  So I went to the Tate.

I cycled with no bell,  sending telepathic messages to people to get out of the way.  I parked my bike and walked up to two Oriental girls wiggling my thumb over a loose fist. One of them replied “sorry, I don’t have a lighter”.  A young bemused man came to my assistance instead. Once inside the building a frail old man asked me directions to the ticket office. I shrugged that I didn’t know but pointed down the steps to indicate that I was going there to find out. He followed. I slid and shimmied my way through the exhibition, tapping the occasional shoulder to budge an inch. ‘Sorry’ and ‘excuse me’ would have been lost on all the tourists anyway. I do wish people would be quiet in art galleries though. And concerts for that matter. Do they think they’re not having the experience if someone else doesn’t know about it? I should be quiet. Before someone who knows me exposes me for the  living breathing walking talking status update that I am.

When I got back to the studio I reflected on my week. Thursday was the first day I hadn’t had someone in the studio with me for most of the day or evening. My friend Darren had been helping with the installation build on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. He’s an actor, I figured he’d be good at mime, but then I remembered that he’s not the one who has to mime. Having known me for 13 years, he knew better than to question what I was asking him to do. I timed other visitors to come while Darren was still there, so they’d get more bang for their buck, or at least the chance of a two way conversation. I can fully empathise with Nan getting tired and giving up after the long and ultimately fruitless guessing games that we often play when she makes a noise.  I wondered how I would manage when one of my best girl friends, Jelly,  who I hadn’t seen for two months came over for a ‘catch up’.   With new whiteboard pens that proved to be permanent markers in disguise, and knowledge that my normally beautiful handwriting is virtually indeciferable when written at speed, I was curious as to how our usual habit of talking furiously, verbally bouncing off each other, constructing an exciting new universe with words and ideas…  would manifest.  She turned up with a bottle of wine.  This wasn’t going to work as a one-sided confessional. So she talked and I typed. And we got drunk. It actually got easier and soon I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t talking. Jelly said that the experience taught her new lessons in patience.

But those damn bubbles on my tongue. I’m dying to talk. They’re at their worst when I’m around good friends. I practically foam at the mouth,  the bubbles threatening to boil over the edge  if left unattended on the gas cooker that is my mind (which would then put out the flames and gas us all to death). With this in mind, I wasn’t too nervous about my first big social gathering with a load of strangers, not much.

This big social was last Saturday (forgive me for my backwards chronology, but somehow it makes more sense to me), when I attended my cousin’s boyfriend’s birthday dinner in a restaurant. I’m not usually bothered by strangers and what they think of me, because we have no history and most likely will have no future.  But I was aware of all the potentially odious opinions of me that they might form when told about my vow of silence: pretentious, annoying, ridiculous, weird. Actually I don’t mind weird. Actually, I don’t mind any of those opinions anymore. I no longer feel the need to make people understand. I can do my best, but the rest is up to them, I can’t do their understanding for them. Nor should I try to, or get frustrated about it. As I float around in the first half of my third decade in this life, it is with much relief that I can now add  ‘caring what people think’  to the list of Things That Are a Waste of Time and Energy. If people were thinking those odious thoughts they certainly didn’t betray them, either that or I wasn’t paying enough attention because I didn’t care.  When I had arrived I’d made a beeline for my other cousin Kitty who I know can talk for England (if England was a 20 mile radius around London).  Kitty is… to put it bluntly,  er… blunt. And sometimes listening to her feels like being bludgeoned. But that evening she was my shining light. As my spokesperson for the evening, she was far more witty than I could ever hope to be and was endearingly attentive. I felt fully part of the conversation. There were moments when I was just happy to sit back and observe. And when I did I observed that there were people at the table who were contributing less than I was.

With all her honesty, Kitty wasn’t very complimentary about my use of sign language (although I apologise to her for using a certain finger gesture in response to her remark). In fact many people have asked why I haven’t learned sign language. My answer is that they would have to know sign language in order to understand me. And the majority of people I come across do not know sign language. There are some signs and signals that could be thought of as universal, but  even those are open for misinterpretation.  I know it’s not just because I’m not doing them properly. All this has made me aware that I don’t see (or don’t notice) many people who show signs of being deaf and/or dumb when in situations that require communication. But then in London, it’s easy not to notice much.

In the book that I have been reading, Kinesics and Context (Essays on Body-Motion Communication) by  Ray L. Birdwhistell , I was comforted to read the following:

“In the novel, and even more clearly, in the drama, we find individuals who speak politely in turn. And, if we really accept the literary model of social interaction, we would be convinced that most people speak in complete sentences, and more important, that they listen with awareness to what the other person says – most of the time”

As a speaking person, I often find myself speaking in incomplete sentences. This is usually because my brain and my mouth seem to work at completely different speeds, my brain lagging behind with an armful of words trying to hurl them hopefully, with appalling aim, at my mouth that can’t be seen for dust.  I’ve often wondered if there’s a faulty connection and if it’s possible to fix it. Part of me is hoping that not talking might act as some kind of magic communicational soldering iron, but I think that’s a little optimistic. I’m going to have to find some kind of solution though, because a well known radio programme want to interview me about this experience once I start speaking again. I’m worried I’ll speak in half sentences and won’t make any sense. I think part of the problem is that I’m afraid of my own honesty.

Which brings us back to today, Friday. I went to the jobcentre to sign on for the second time but for the first time as a mute. I considered how to play this. Do I just claim that I’ve lost my voice by doing the throat tapping thing (this worked well in Boots, charming the guy who was selling me organic moisturiser, or maybe he was just chuffed I’d let him sell me something I actually needed) or do I try and explain what it is I’m actually doing? I was early so went to a little Italian cafe to fill out the form that details what attempts you’ve made to find work.  The owner of the cafe and the waiter both seemed enamoured by my muteness and went out of their way to make me stay and gave me biscuits. Maybe they mistook me for a cute dog or maybe they were just being Italian.  And then it occurred to me, isn’t it every man’s fantasy to be with a woman who doesn’t speak?  Anyway, this is what I presented to the man at the jobcentre:

He just smiled at me, intitialled my form, got me to sign and off I went. What did I expect? No-one really knows what to say.

This silent business is like a job in some ways. I have to remain vigilant. You’ve seen what happens if I don’t. And like a job, there are times when I want this to just hurry up and be over. But there also times when I’m in the flow of it and feel nothing but peace and calm and like everything makes sense. Like doing this makes complete sense. And I almost forget that at some point I will have to start speaking again.

a slip of the fat tongue

I had an anxiety dream two nights ago that this would happen. I’m afraid I slipped up. At least I’d managed to get through a whole week first…

How on earth did it happen? It dawned on me moments after as I clapped my hand to my mouth in horror. Where did those words come from?! They just… slipped out. “My oyster card is showing seek assistance?” I didn’t even need to say it. The attendant at Elephant & Castle tube station was already waving me through. I know why it happened. I got lost in my own little world, reading a book on Kinesics (essays on body-motion communication) by Ray L. Birdwhistell and then listening to my iPod as I exited the tube. I had retreated into my internal cocoon and shut everything out as many of us do when travelling around London. What a surreal moment. It didn’t even feel like me. Took me  a few seconds to realise that those words came out of my mouth. And as if the universe was trying to rub it in, ‘Words’ by Neil Young shuffled into play on my iPod.  As I waited at the bus stop I had to take stock of what had just happened. And decided maybe I ought to up my game a little, to stop this sort of complacency tripping me up again.

I thought back to the 10  day retreat in Nepal and how we weren’t allowed to write notes, or write anything at all. In fact they asked that all writing, and reading, materials, be handed in for ‘safekeeping’ at the start of the course. We were discouraged from even gesturing and making eye contact. But here I must stress that this current exercise is not about setting myself up to fail. It’s to remove my ability to talk, still live an interactive city life and see what I learn. In this life I want to be making art of some sort and devising unorthodox and hopefully interesting means to convey a message. I say this partly in response to a comment on an earlier post which made me re-examine and remind myself of my objective. The  comment suggested I test the reaction of children by offering to babysit some, as I don’t have any of my own. Now I don’t usually look after other people’s children unless forced by means of emotional blackmail.  I have therefore decided that to use those children in my experiment would potentially subject them and myself to unnecessary trauma. Besides, I think ‘grown ups’ are more of a challenge. So far the most frustrating part of all this has been wanting to connect with people and allow a conversation to develop by means of a fully reciprocal exchange. This is hard when you can’t ask questions. I have resorted at times to writing furiously on my A4 whiteboard or scraps of paper. But this, I think, needs to be limited. It’s not even satisfying. Especially when it ends up as: Person 1 states their opinion,  then Person 2 states theirs, Person 1 states theirs again, and so on. I hate those kinds of conversations. The ones where neither of you are really listening. What do you learn? That both people feel that they have nothing to learn from each other. Maybe I should limit myself to 30 written words a day for face to face communication purposes. Not carrying the allowance over into the next day. What do you think? This does not include e-mails, text messages or this blog. I do, after all, need to get things done.

On getting things done. Without being able to use the phone and speak to someone, aspects of preparing this installation are taking twice as long. I have been enlisting the help of charitable volunteers to make phone calls for me chasing up e-mails that I have sent. When you have a deadline, nothing beats a phone call to kick things into action. I had the van for 1 day only and needed to collect trees, wanting to collect them all from one location for the sake of efficiency. Council waste services were contacted and in the end I managed to achieve my mission. However, it would have been a real struggle without Paul, a trusty speaking sidekick for the day, to explain what we were doing, and to phone the van company when the van stopped working.

Other things I’ve managed to get done with little trouble aside from being cast the odd quizzical look: join Peckham Library on Wednesday in order to get research material for the installation; went to the supermarket to buy food using the self-service check out (yes, I did have an ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ which brought the assistant over but she barely even looked at me as she rectified the error). On the whole, my heart is warmed by the accepting, sympathetic and helpful manner in which I’m treated. An old man at the petrol station pointed out that my tyre was flat, dug into his own pocket for change (I had just tipped my empty purse upside down) and put air in it for me. He asked if I spoke English. I did the throat tapping thing but desperately wanted to verbally thank him for his kindness. Instead I grinned like a loon, put my hands together and then waved furiously as he drove off.

It feels like not talking is making me a nicer person. Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’ve ever even been close to being what some might call a bitch, but I’m not an easy liker of people either, hence my habitual escapes into solitude. But I’m noticing the good in other people more. My thoughts aren’t so quick to judge. My sister has been trying to rile me, but it’s not working. I riled her with a few written words and instantly reprimanded myself. What was the point in that? I don’t enjoy seeing her get wound up. I do it because I feel I ought to correct her. That she ought to know these abstract concepts that in spite of my 10 year advantage, I’ve only really started to grasp in the last two. I should just let her be.

And the solitude is different. I’ve never been afraid of it. Never really felt lonely when alone,  only when around other people. I cherish my alone time in the studio. But as time passes and the night draws in sometimes I feel the need to call someone, maybe because I know I can’t. And for the first time in the last couple of nights I felt a howling loneliness. I start to rattle around in my silent cage. But this eventually passes and I settle down. It always passes.

silent yoga and a fat tongue

My tongue is starting to feel very heavy.  This must be due to lack of exercise. Every now and then I have to stick it out of my mouth and wave it about a bit, but I must remember to do this discreetly.

Which reminds me, fat tongues, exercise… yoga! I was going to tell you about my silent yoga experience. On Tuesday night I went to my first yoga session in months. I went because it was free. You see, my friend Kat who is an almost qualified yoga teacher was really interested in teaching me in silence. I was grateful but a little confused.  Aren’t most people silent in yoga (apart from when they’re doing Darth Vadar breathing and ‘om’ing)? What she actually meant was that she would instruct in silence. Ah, okay.  At this point I ought to inform you that I’m the kind of slack and distracted yoga student who is almost always wishing that the class would just hurry up and end.  Often drifting off, trying to catch the butterflies in my brain, it’s no wonder I can’t balance. Previous teachers have muddied my still waters right from the start when they introduce themselves as ‘Shiva Shakti Shambala La La’, or something in that distant pseudo zen ‘spiritual’ voice, wafting out instructions in Sanskrit. Or one will shout out ‘mountain pose’ which is a different mountain pose to the one another teacher has taught me. And they describe body parts in such different and confusing ways. Kat’s not like that though, she’s taught me before. I think the fact she’s German actually balances things out nicely. I do want to learn to love yoga. I do I do I do.

Learning in silence was a revelation. Without having to simultaneously follow and interpret the verbal instruction, I was able to watch and concentrate fully on what Kat’s body was doing when she demonstrated a pose or sequence. And then I would copy. She used her hands to guide me if I wasn’t aligning correctly which enabled me to really feel what the posture was meant to do. With no other sound in the room, I was forced to listen to my breathing, which in turn made me focus on it by default and then use it to push further into a posture. It may sound obvious to you, but to me the yoga light had just been switched on after years of flickering dimness. I hadn’t felt that present and peaceful in a class ever I don’t think. Silent yoga practice felt so much more intuitive. I think everyone should try it whatever their level of experience.

So am I alone here, being  frequently flummoxed by verbal instruction? Is it because I is thick? Is it a flaw in my understanding or a flaw in the teacher’s instruction? Of course, this depends on many factors, and there isn’t just one answer. There are so many opportunities for the message to get warped on that journey from giver to receiver, especially in a classroom scenario where everyone has differing levels of experience and ability, different prejudices and automatic barriers. It is difficult to reach everyone. But sometimes a little shift in habit in the way we communicate, or the way we understand, can be the breakthrough we need.

And I can’t believe I’ve  just written a whole post about yoga.

10 fingers o’clock

I’m afraid the only shop experience I’ve had so far is the petrol station. Filled up, showed with my fingers what pump number and asked for a VAT receipt by pointing. As suspected, no big trauma. This was on the way back from seeing Nan yesterday. I went with my old school friend Rohini, who she hasn’t seen since long before her stroke. She seemed amused by our double act. Cute and and her friend Mute. Nan hasn’t tried to talk this much for months, at least not when I’ve seen her. I don’t know what came first. Her growing tired of responding or me getting tired of engaging properly. Because it IS hard work. Of course, I don’t know what she’s like around others. Maybe she’s now desperately trying to tell me to quit this buffoonery, that I’ve made my point. Or maybe she’s fine as she is. Maybe she’s accepted that this is it. Sitting in that chair in that room, unable to feed herself or tell anyone what she wants or how she’s feeling. Maybe the fact that as I think about this now, in tears, shows that it’s more my issue than hers. Why can’t I allow her to accept it? Why I can’t I accept it?

For someone who claimed that on a recent 9 month gallivant abroad that I was ‘desperately seeking solitude’, I’ve noticed that I voluntarily spend a hell of a lot of time with other people. And even more revealing is that when alone and not occupied by more pressing matters, I’m communicating online. E-mail, Facebook. Not surprising then that in the last four days my one conversation has been with a friend in another country (Skype chat) rather than with my parents, sister or friends that I’ve seen almost daily. Despite full awareness that communication is so much more than conversation, I have felt frustrated at not being able to contribute my thoughts. Although on reflection this is a good thing. I’ve learnt much more about the people I’ve been around, by just listening and observing. And I’ve discovered that people are much more likeable when you sit back and let them open up. They no longer need to verbally elbow their way to the front and so drop their armour. I don’t know if it’s a sign of aging, a side-effect of not speaking or maybe it’s not just my body that’s been softened by the excesses of Christmas and New year, but I’m definitely feeling more patient and accepting.

Even the owner of the van hire place in New Cross today made my heart twinge. Today was the day I returned to the studio, but not before I booked the van to collect various big things I need for my art installation that I’m building during this silence. (Oh yeah, I’ve failed to communicate in the last four blog posts that during this 30 day time of quietude I won’t be doing my normal freelance TV work. It was considered but agreed that it wouldn’t be fair on the teams I’d be working with who might need to phone me for advice whilst at gunpoint in some lawless backwaters in another realm, or because the credit card won’t go through to pay for their hotel. And the pub where I did a trial shift haven’t phoned back since I explained to the assistant manager that I might be a little indisposed in January. And so I will be working full-time on translating my experiences into an art exhibition that you can come and visit (in silence – yes, that’s silence please from all visitors) in South Bermondsey on 28th, 29th and 30th January. I’m being kept vaguely afloat by Barclaycard, a lenient landlord and a tax rebate – call it Jobseekers Allowance if you like)…

… So anyway, the van. As I’m not much good with telephones at the moment, I had to go in person.  I knocked on the glass door and the owner (I’ve hired from him before but he doesn’t remember me) opened it. I tapped my throat, thanks Mum, and made a writing motion with my hand. The van man’s eyes and voice softened sympathetically and he fetched me a pen and some paper. I wrote down what I wanted and when. He first started writing his answer but I then showed with a thumbs up that my ears were working fine. He proceeded to speak carefully using simple, short sentences and showed me the van. I took the measurements with my arm span and then nodded and showed the thumb again. What time did I want it? 10 fingers o’clock please. Not that I could gesture ‘please’.  I feel a little guilty for deceiving the lovely van man but he’s earned my deep respect and appreciation for the kind and concerned way in which he dealt with me.

I was going to write about silent yoga this evening but it’s 3.30am and I must go to bed.

For the shopping list: more whiteboard pens.

inside i’m breakdancing

It turns out that a side-effect of not speaking is forfeiting your name. I am now affectionately known as ‘the mute’. Luckily my sister subtly informed me of this: ‘Good morning Mute’, otherwise when I later heard a friend explain on the phone to another friend, ‘I’m coming with the mute’, I might  have thought she meant someone else. Interesting that this has already happened by Day 2.

Mum had a revelation which she helpfully shared with me this morning: ‘you know, when people talk to you who don’t know what you’re doing, you should tap your throat like this and that will show them you can’t talk’. The beauty of the silent treatment is I am forced to resist sarcastic know-it-all responses. And you know what? In a few moments, my body relaxed and I smiled. A nice genuine smile. A heartfelt one. I kid you not. It occurred to me that she’s honestly just trying to help me in this absurd exercise. And actually, most of the time she’s only ever trying to help. So why on earth have I bothered growling back? So what if she can’t see that I know everything about everything? That’s not her fault. Sometimes she likes to push buttons on purpose for fun, but I suspect that lesson will make it’s own ‘special appearance’ another day.

Even though I now have no name, and don’t talk anymore, my own irritating communication habits still seem to be in tact. But it’s early days, so this is to be expected. I’ve noticed an innate urge to reassure that I’ve heard and understood and am still listening and very much care. Even if sometimes that’s not entirely true. This manifests in violent nodding, panto-style face contortions and flapping jazz hands. And I fear that these vile creatures have always been there. But on a less critical note, I’ve voluntarily gone and hugged my family more in the last 36 hours than I would in a month. Which is  a lot. Maybe it’s time to master the Indian headwobble, a one gesture fits all approach, with the general vibe of a laid back ‘yes, yes, I hear you’. Or maybe it’s time to accept those over-zealous ticks and let them be.

Or maybe they’ll just quieten down with time. My thoughts strangely seem to have peaced out (though maybe not apparent with this blog). The chosen rock’n’roll Sunday afternoon activity was a 2hr free meditation class at the beautiful Thai Buddhist Temple in Wimbledon. I figured this would be helpful in improving my discipline and focus, skills I need in spades to see this mute month through and build the art installation. Three friends also came. Now I ought to confess I’m not a complete meditation virgin, or silence virgin for that matter. In March last year I took part in a 10 day silent meditation course in Nepal. To summarise: the silent part was easy (everyone was silent) but sitting on a cushion with your legs crossed and no back support in a dreary room with your eyes shut for 10 hours a day concentrating on breathing in and out, when you know that outside there is the most breathaking scenery, is BORING. By Day 4, I gave up trying to observe my breath and daydreamed the rest of my way through the course. Having said all that, I took a lot of valuable lessons from the experience which I know have helped pave the way for insane investigative measures such as this project. I also realised that boredom, as a concept, is something I needed to examine further. I examined this further today at the temple and was pleasantly surprised at my ability to engage with my breath and have almost no thoughts. This is a first. And hopefully not a last.

Afterwards my friend George suggested that the four of us go have tea with his mum and grandmother, neither of whom I have met before. I panicked and tried to back out, not enthused about being the freak show, but my polite silent protest techniques are useless and George said that he’d told them about me. So we went. It was fine. I ought to have made an effort with his nearly deaf grandmother really but was feeling shy, so I didn’t. I’m starting to wonder who’s more weirded out by this, me or the world?

Up to now I have almost constantly been around other people. My body is helping me remember to keep my mouth shut with this weird automatic blowing out breath thing every few minutes, like a whale expelling air through it’s blowhole. But it’s nearly time to retreat into the studio and into solitude. I have no idea what I feel about that.

quiet is my new loud

I’m not convinced. But was loud ever good? Sometimes. Loud is fun. Quiet is boring. No? Especially at a New Year’s Eve party. But luckily I was amongst a handful of close friends who were prepared to humour me. After 00:01 I felt like a twit. I waited for patience to wear thin as I turned into a ridiculous mime artist occasionally resorting to an A4 whiteboard and pen that I had been given for Christmas. An hour into the silence the novelty was already starting to wear off and I felt like I was stuck on a plane to an unknown country that I’d just decided I didn’t want to visit anymore. Grateful for jokes at my expense, at least they kept me involved, I waited for those too to run out. Thanks to Rapidough (playdough moulding guessing game), vodkashots with bramble liquer and a group of open-minded, hammered and hilarious friends, I spent most of the evening convulsing in fits of silent laughter, like a muffled Muttley, until I crawled into my makeshift bed pretty blitzed around 5am.

And then there was the silent hangover. Hangovers often bring with them paranoia, distractedness, inertia and flobbardy. Flobbardy. You know, that thing when you try to ask for some coffee and it comes out as ‘ffferbledggardhsngjfs. bollocks’. No flobbardy for me for the next 29 days. But I did start to wonder how long it would be until people got bored of starting a conversation with me which could only lead nowhere. Would  I start to become invisible?  So paranoia coupled with inertia eventually drove me out of the house. I knew I could no longer put off presenting my silent self to Nan and then to my parents.

I drove to the carehome where Nan lives. How communicative she is varies depending on these things: when she’s eaten, tiredness, mood, medication, but more often than not she seems to have given up on making an effort. I noticed myself doing the same last night when people didn’t get the message I was trying to convey. By the time I’d written out half a sentence, the conversation had already moved on and I was left trailing behind. So I’ve realised I have to be selective about what I write, if anything. Nan can’t even write. And her words, if they come, are non-words. But something special happened. She was trying to talk to me.  I guess someone had to do the talking! She was probably trying to tell me to stop this stupid nonsense. I’ll never know, but this is a connection, engagement and that is worth everything. Just have to keep my cool when the nurses look at me confused and furrowed while I tap my throat at them and do the embarrasing mime act.

As I turned the corner into the street where my parents live, I saw their car turn the other corner, leaving. I was sad and then grateful for some time to gather myself. They were going to be the ultimate challenge, being the creators and masters of the those pushbuttons that make you say certain things – you are the talking novelty keyring that has 5 pre-programmed phrases or words. I was going to have to be vigilant of my thoughts, maintain constant awareness, no drifting off into daydreamland. I am continually  having to remind myself that I AM NOW NOT SPEAKING. I cannot allow myself to slip, forget and blurt something out. Ollie the dog greeted me with his usual bark until I stepped inside and didn’t say hello to him or tell him to shut up as I normally do. He went into his basket and howled like he’s never howled before. I tell myself he is showing his solidarity. Mum and Dad eventually returned and hugged and wished me Happy New Year with no wisecracks or pokes. They have so far been utterly accepting and accommodating and this is really humbling.

My one relationship that I’ve really struggled with in the last 24hrs is with the camera. In front of it and behind it. I’ve never stared down the barrel of a shotgun, but I get the feeling it might feel similar to looking into and talking to a camera lens (the talking, just for clarificatoin, was pre-silence). To film with it around friends and family feels intrusive and strange. I don’t feel right filming Nan when she can’t object. I’m going to have to rethink this film thing.

So that’s 24 hrs completed. 1 day down, 29 to go. Physically I’m aware that every few minutes I’m becoming ultra conscious of my breathing, needing to open my mouth and blow air through it. That’s partly to keep aware so I don’t slip up.  This is going to take some getting used to.

This is MUCH harder than I thought.

turning the volume right down

Less than 12 hours until my self-imposed ban on speaking begins. Yes, I’m nervous. Nervous about having the self-discipline to keep my mouth shut. About maintaining enough awareness to stop automatic verbal responses slipping out. But most of all I’m nervous about building this exhibition. I have always felt creatively tongue-tied, so this for me is the most daunting part of the challenge. I’m banking on the silence removing that block, dissolving the fear of expressing myself in the way that I’ve always wanted to.  But I know that nothing can be taken for granted.

Of the people who I’ve spoken to about this project, one of the first questions many ask is: “what if you need to go to the shop?”.  I will need to go to the shop. How many of you say much more than ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’, in a shop? Maybe if we were living in the 50s when items had to be requested over the counter… But I have spent time travelling alone in China where I didn’t share a spoken or written language with the majority of people I encountered. I got by. My biggest concern with the day to day is of interacting with friends and family, resisting the urge to speak when spoken to, especially if ‘playfully’ provoked. And of course those reflex things like mumbling ‘sorry’ when you bump into someone or hissing ‘****  you,  you inconsiderate tosser’ when driving or cycling in London.Of people just thinking I’m rude. A large proportion of my heritage is, after all, British and too polite (frightened) to permit awkward silences in a conversation. But another part belongs to Finland. A country where silence is as much a part of the culture as self-flagellation with birch twigs. They’re so economical with their spoken language that some entire sentences can be expressed with one word.

What else am I a little worried about? Those who know me well will be very aware that I have a tendency to live in my head. Happy in my own company, endlessly amused (and tormented) by my  imagination. I think and hope that I’m mentally stable enough to not get completely lost in this silent world. Although on speaking to someone who was a selective mute as a child, I was warned: “be careful, it’s addictive”.

Admittedly, this feels like a plunge into isolation. And that is a situation that many, like my Nan, don’t choose. I’m not going to pretend that I expect to fully understand what those people involuntarily trapped in silence have to face on a daily basis. But we all at times have diffculty expressing ourselves in a way that we really want to,  in saying or not saying what we really mean.  I’ll let you know what I find in there. I hope you find it useful.

Happy New Year folks. May it be a peaceful and productive one.