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’.