The Opposite of Silence by Sarah Anne Childers
I come from one of the quietest places on earth. There is a difference between quiet and silence. Quiet feels like being held. It is the contented squeak of something small and furred sleeping curled into itself. Silence is the unsaid, bound and gagged.
The morning after Inauguration Day we waited in a crowd along Jackson Street to join the Seattle Womxn’s March. Behind us, a tofu factory. Across the street, an art school. Above us, blue sky and later, after we had passed, a pair of eagles. The wait was a welcome respite. My daughter, Anita Belle, was tired as we had walked several miles already to get this far.
The thump of padded mallets on skin drums announced that the demonstration's leaders crested the hill. After they passed, we folded into a surge that was quiet save for drumbeats and neighbor-to-neighbor murmurs. Incredible. Thousands of people moved through downtown streets lined with thousands more, and in the beginning, at the request of the march organizers, we were quiet.
The quiet didn’t last long. Murmurs grew into talking spilled into chants and whoops and hollers. The ensuing cacophony was energizing and spirited, wonderful too in its own way. The march moved slowly, but still we lagged behind. It was all that fishing in my backpack for trail mix and cheese sticks, and the pausing of our footsteps to make space for others to join.
Most of us went downhill but one young woman and her mother walked against the crowd toward the starting point of the march. The young woman held aloft a homemade sign that read: You will never have the comfort of my silence. I squeezed Anita Belle's hand and pointed to the sign. She is a confident reader now, but I read it aloud to her. I wanted my daughter to hear that young woman's words in my voice.
Storytelling is the opposite of silence. It is to speak, sing, scream, stutter, sigh. It is to give voice. This is why I feel an urgency for stories and storytelling – my own and the stories of others, especially the stories we do not hear, the ones that are silenced.
Recently, a journal called Six Hens published my story The Orchard. Six Hens features true stories by women, and while my story is true, it is not mine, not entirely.
Two summers ago my mother told me about one of her earliest memories. She was alone in an orchard. A neighborhood boy - a horrible creature - brought her there; she does not remember why or to what end. Her father found her in the orchard. She was wearing only one shoe. The memory haunts her, and now it also haunts me. We share it like we share our strong legs and thick dark hair.
The story in Six Hens is the story of my mother telling me her memory. My mother spoke of the orchard in the afternoon, and that night I scribbled for hours in the quiet of my childhood bedroom. I was possessed. My mother's words were a stone plunked into still water; I had to voice the memory-story of its ripples. It was give voice or sink.
I kept my story close, but from the beginning I knew it was compelling. I knew this because I make so much that is not good. The wanting work serves a purpose. It is the first pancake - oddly shaped and imperfectly cooked because the pan wasn’t hot enough, its not-quite-right consistency unfixable unless you can undo the alchemy of chemical reaction, so best to eat it out of hand over the stove while tending the eggs.
My story found a home in Six Hens, and then, just like that, it was out in the world, and I still had not told my mother what I had written. Here are my excuses: It all happened so fast with Six Hens; there never seemed to be a good time to bring it up: I thought I had more time before the issue was published. The truth is that I was a coward. My mother is intensely private. I worried I had crossed a line.
I told my mother about the story at the end of a long visit home after the holidays. We were in the kitchen alone. "Do you remember two summers ago," I stammered, "on our way home from swimming ... we were driving in a thunderstorm and Anita Belle had fallen asleep in the car ... you told me about one of your first memories, about being found alone in an orchard wearing only one little shoe?" Everything stopped. She stiffened. Of course she remembered.
We stared at each other, but then Anita Belle bounded into the kitchen with a Lego ship she had built with my father. She looked from my mother to me. "What's going on?" she demanded. "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing, little one," my mother and I clucked. "Please go back downstairs." The little girl's price was a large bowl of popcorn and chocolate to ruin her dinner. She scampered off to share her treats with my father, and my mother and I were again alone. Anxious, I babbled into the silence. I said that I have written a story about her telling me her memory, and that the story had been published. I said that no one had read the story and that I wouldn’t share it until she read it. I told her that the story was foremost about me and my quest to make sense, but admitted that she was everywhere in my words because she was what I was trying to make sense of.
When I finally stopped for breath, my mother said she would read the story, but later. Her voice was tight. And then she told me more about her memory of the orchard, details she hadn’t told me two summers ago in the car. I sat on the tile counter and listened until we were interrupted again by my little girl, and we turned our attention to her, grateful for the distraction.
I slept fitfully that night and early the next morning met my father at the coffee pot before dawn. At the kitchen table I told my father about the story and asked him to read it. Right now, I insisted. I was a child again in need of reassurance. "Is it too much?" I asked. "Will she be upset?" He shook his head, took over his glasses, blinked back tears.
Later that day, before my family left to drive back to the city, my mother and I went on a walk on our narrow country road that runs south from the highway up toward the mountains. The morning was clear, the stagnant air surprisingly warm. Overdressed, we took off our coats and hats and carried them in our arms as mangy dogs I didn’t recognize followed behind us for awhile before turning back for home.
After we passed under the power lines that swooped crackling across the road, my mother said that she had read my story. She said that she had read it quickly because she was afraid. I waited, nervous for what she would say next. And then my mother said that it was good, that I was good. She said that she wanted me to keep writing. I told her that I write about her, about us, about family. I told her that my obsession is memory-story and the ways it builds our worlds and identities, how it anchors and undoes us both. She said that I was not to censor myself. Just write, she said.
This is my mother’s wisdom and her gift to me. It is permission but also a mandate. Use your voice, she said. Do not be silent, she said. Not ever. Comfort be damned.
Sarah Anne Childers is the online editor at luciajournal.com where she happily toggles between curating creatives as an editor and creatively curating ideas and the words they live in as a writer.