A List of Quiet Things

“Are you leaving?”

“No, but I am shrinking.”

-from An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012), dir. Terence Nance

“…tried

car exhaust? Holding your face

to the steaming kettle?

Primal screamed into

a down-alternative pillow

in a wood while tree-bathing?

Have you finally stopped

shoulding all over yourself?”

-from “Self-Care” by Solmaz Sherif

“I love my bed. But sometimes, I’m afraid that if I die, everyone will be too tired to remember my name. So, I take care of my little body. You, take care of your little body.”

-from “Take Care” by Tasha

The easiest thing to do where I am, in this current (and temporary) headspace, would be bite back at my own words almost as soon as I’ve said them, undermining my own feelings of being lonely, depleted, and homesick this holiday season. Self-deprecation comes too readily to me, like you are not the only one who has felt lonely when it’s cold all the time and getting dark at 4 p.m.; you are too extra and too overwhelming, nobody cares; you are a failure because you should be making more money than this by now;  you are not complicated enough to be misunderstood; you are a failure because you haven’t been on a [good] date since _____; you are self-obsessed, and even in your own writing there should be less about you and your anxieties, just look around at the world; this is tiring and everyone you know is tired of it and you, aren’t you tired?; you’re not the only one who has spent years away from home because of high travel costs or insufficient time off work; you’re a failure because when they ask you at work how you spent your weekend, you want to say “I spent it with x and did y, but your honest answer would be in tears and checking the bank; you’re not the only “highly sensitive artist;” you’re not the only one pinching pennies (farewell, pandemic discounts on rent); you need to let all this go. I’m only comfortable sharing these extracts of inner dialogue because they are relatively tame, because I’ve shared them here before, and for the most part I’m no longer talking to my self like this, at least nowhere near as often as I used to.

Because the story I’ve told my self about my self is that I must always be the person who knows exactly what to say and/or do, including when to be still and listen and hold, in response to the sorrows of other people, and because my empathy is not a story but a very real part of how I try to move in the world, I am often horrified by my own inner dialogue, because it would never even occur to me to think about let alone speak so cruelly to another person who was hurting, never ever. I excavate my inner world for problems and failings that I would never even identify as such in other people. As in, I can’t remember ever referring to someone else as a “dumb bitch” when they make a mistake, and yet, if I’m the maker of the mistake…

Before I listened to this Therapy for Black Girls episode on loneliness, I resolved to try an experiment in which I would talk to my self in second person, to see if I could trick my self into turning to my own worries with the tenderness I try to practice for other people (the inner wicked voice is saying: you are not all that you think you are to other people; you are giving your self too much credit). The podcast validated this approach by discussing how depersonalizing your experience of loneliness can help to offer some more balanced perspective, helping you see beyond your self and misery that can at time feel all-encompassing and immovable. (They also talked about volunteering and engaging with surrounding communities as a way to see past your self while supporting other people, something I used to do and need to pick back up.) So here I go:

Even if you are extra—in size of sleeve or earring or laugh or joke or dream or flourish of hands—that is something you love about your self, and it is something many people who know and see you the best love too.

That italicized voice is coming from a place of self-protection, as they said in the podcast, a manifestation of the fear that you will be rejected if you do reach out to a loved one paradoxically existing alongside the desire for connection and to be seen and listened to. She can be cruel, but she is not your enemy, she is just scared and living in all the moments of emotional and other kinds of injuries you have experienced. She will most likely resurface when you are reminded of those injuries, but you do not live together. She is not even a temporary houseguest. If you want, she can be as transient as the voice of someone having a loud phone conversation on the street bouncing off the walls of your building and eventually, away.

It is ok to wear your heart on your sleeve, but sometimes, give that thing a scarf or put it in your pocket, or something. [The analogy is falling apart]. There is no shame in being vulnerable, even if you may at times feel or be rejected. Sometimes, it matters just that someone made themselves available to listen, even if they changed the subject in a rush to try to cheer you up or stared blankly, saying nothing. Sometimes, you just have to accept saving certain topics for your therapist, even if you feel shame that someone who is essentially a stranger who is paid to listen has to do so where you wished it could be someone you love deep and love for real. [It was your therapist who told you that there’s no shame in wearing your heart on your sleeve.] Sometimes too, you just have to be quiet. Be quiet and turn to your pages.

There is also no shame in caring what other people think about you, especially when you feel your side of the story is missing, but you need to let it go. And again remember that you probably can’t and shouldn’t share everything with everybody, that you can strike a balance between being open and upfront and refraining saying things you would be ashamed to stand by in public; you’ve become a lot better at this, and it is human to slip.

You are never as alone as you feel like you are, especially these days. For example, you just spent a lovely stretch of hours with a friend you met at your lowest [you didn’t even know how low you could get then], and you are both still here, in each other’s lives. 2016–2018 you would be proud of you, because you live on our own with lots of plants and fresh fruits and veggies in the fridge that do not spoil because you have the time and energy to prepare and eat them.

And no, those people who said or did this or that were not right about you. You need to let those stories go, too. No one is powerful enough to take you out of step with your self.

Turning inwards and falling silent is probably ok when important deadlines loom, but don’t become so remote from your own life and from other people that you run the risk of your soul crouching and preparing to die. Unfortunately, the solitude it requires to take one’s art seriously often creates or deepens cravings for meaningful connection with other people. But the version of you who had multiple jobs and little time will always be grateful for any uninterrupted time to focus or dream or sleep, even if the house is so empty, it echoes.

You are neither as miserable nor as grandiose as your delusions would have you believe. You are just fine.

***

Repost from March 2019:

“A list of quiet things: the sun, snakes, stars, Aminah’s heart every morning, the thick forest surrounding Wofa Sarpong’s farm, seeds, millet seedlings bursting from seeds, the furry mold sprouting on everything, Hassana since arriving on the farm, Wofa Sarpong entering Aminah and Hassana’s room at night, his excited exhalations, Hassana breathing by Aminah, Wofa Sarpong slinking out, the night, heaviness falling and contouring every part of Aminah till morning came, Wofa Sarpong’s wives on the goings-on in Aminah’s room, moonlight.”

-page 86, The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

For a person who talks so loud and so much, one would be surprised to know how often I choose silence (here as well). Maybe other only children or people who were the youngest siblings by far can understand the fact of inhabiting worlds that you’ve mostly imagined and rarely or never share with other people.

Choosing silence used to feel freeing; it meant climbing trees I was too scared to jump down from, inventing languages only I could understand, and reveling in the sweet secrecy of it all. Sometimes it still feels this way, like when I laugh to myself as I witness irate passengers on the Orange Line huffing and puffing as though it will make the train move faster/make it less crowded or more fragrant-smelling, or when I think the funniest thought while crossing the street made all the more hilarious because I know I will never repeat it to anyone else. Sometimes, it feels like receiving good news and keeping it to myself for a few days or weeks, not because I doubt that I deserve the news, but just to savor it privately like smiling behind my own hand.

This evening, I’m choosing silence only to a certain extent, because writing this blog still feels like speaking out loud, except that I’m free to withhold or conceal whatever I want in a way I probably couldn’t if I called a friend or a relative in tears. I’m choosing silence because no matter how many times I’m convinced of the contrary, I’m always seeking confirmation for what I believe to be true, which is that my frightening lows and exuberant highs are too confusing and just too much to expect other people to navigate with me.

This silence looks like scrolling through my phone and coming up with reasons not to call each name that flashes across the screen: it’s too late there; she’s been a little distant lately and is probably struggling herself; she is definitely struggling herself; they are definitely struggling themselves; she has exams to prepare for; she is teaching; she will panic; she has too much work already and too many responsibilities; he will worry too much and call everyone else; so will he; it’s too late there.

Then there are also the warnings from recent and more distant pasts: [don’t call because] you will eventually overdo it; you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate; you will bring down the mood; you will be too negative; you will be an uncomfortable presence other people will have to tiptoe around when they are also trying to be well; your sadness is inconvenient and even worse, contagious; you will take up too much space, you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate– as an aside, I met someone new, but he has disappeared and reappeared and disappeared again, and I fear that it may be because I have shared too much and confused and overwhelmed and frustrated him. It’s also possible he’s just trifling. Who knows?

Today is a Tuesday, which means a long day, but not as bad as Mondays when I split my day between two different jobs. Today’s silence sounds like drumming my acrylic nails on the desk for exaggerated comedic effect, and talking faster and louder and trying to land more punchlines and more laughs. It sounds like responding to several text threads, gifs included, through tears as if nothing is wrong. It sounds like comforting and encouraging someone I admire with a gentleness and conviction that I rarely if ever show myself. It sounds like trying to cry quietly while I call my therapist’s voicemail box, and trying even harder when I hear my roommate in the other room because I don’t want to worry her (I get through because luckily the therapist happens to be working late.) It sounds like my phone buzzing on my bedside table from the people I did try to contact asking if everything is ok. I know I will not answer tonight. Maybe tomorrow, so I can say, “Thanks for checking in. I’m fine!”

Even in this post, I’m saying a lot without saying much at all. What I am able to say out loud is that I am working at a place where I feel my soul bowing down a little when I walk through the door. It feels that dire because I witness and experience all kinds of belittling and disrespect almost daily, and because I see so much wealth and power being hoarded in the name of “justice and equity” or “meeting goals and targets” or “turning theory into action,” meanwhile the world grows ill and dies while we have an unfair share of the necessary remedies. (If you know where I work you will probably ask why I expected it to be different). I am so exhausted and also ashamed for feeling this way, because I would not exist if my mothers did not have the fortitude (something I fear I am lacking or deficient in) to choose to live in the ways they did. I also know they would not want me to despair.

Because of this shame, I was hesitant to include the quote in full at the top of this page, for fear that it would appear as if I was drawing a disrespectful parallel between my life and Aminah’s experience of being commodified and enslaved in colonial era Ghana. Aminah lives most of the novel in her mind, and more importantly she was written in honor of the author’s own great-great-grandmother who was enslaved in Ghana during that era. Aminah means so much to me because she is almost always turned towards herself and her internal life, and I was lucky enough to be able to share this impression with Ayesha Harruna Attah, the author, when I interviewed her at an event at the Boston Public Library a few weeks ago. Most importantly, I love Aminah because she occupied a similar time period as my own great-great-grandmother, whose story I hope to honor one day.

My own list of quiet things continues to grow, especially because it includes memories and events I’m still terrified to think about, let alone to speak aloud. I’m choosing silence just for this evening but hopefully not for long after this, as I know that I can only poison myself eventually if I continue to hold some of these things in. I am trying to remember that I am not too much for seeking to be heard and loved in particular ways, and also that not everyone I choose will be able or willing to choose me and my breaking silence.

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