48 Hours of Silence

I hadn’t felt passionate about much for months.  It makes sense– I’m a grad student who is used to climbing mountains every weekend, two months into Stay at Home orders with unsatisfying remote learning and half-hearted new hobbies.  I wanted an “adventure” of some kind.  I know I talk too much, so I decided to try being quiet for 48 hours as an exploration of something internal.  I was hoping this would help me both to think about how I used language and to practice spending time with myself, even without doing something exciting like a long run in the mountains.

While I was silent, I read almost an entire book. I had just started reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being for the first time, and since I couldn’t make phone calls I found myself drawn into it with a fervor I had rarely experienced in the last couple of dreamlike, boring months.  I read the first 15% of it before my two days of silence, and I ranted about the main character’s hetero-normative, weird, and simplistic attitude toward sex and women, and everyone in the book’s apparent inability to own what they actually wanted and be at peace with themselves.

But my lack of other options forced me to give the book a chance. Sabina, who I originally felt was a male-fantasy-progressive-sex-object character, got more of a backstory and became somewhat relatable.  There was a section in the book that felt especially poignant to me in this context, a “Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” between her and her lover.  Some words had intense meaning for one character which was lost on the other, including “Sabina’s country,” whose revolutionary history he idealized and which she found “ugly, without the slightest trace of romance.”  It rang more true as I was reflecting on what it was like to try to rely less on language, and how misunderstandings of words normally take on so much weight in my life.  I struggled not to text the person who had recommended me the book.  I’m sorry, I don’t hate it, what do you think of this part?  I took photos of paragraphs with my phone, sent them to people without explanation.  I had to just deal with the potential for their relevance to be misinterpreted.

That was the theme of the project– sometimes I just couldn’t explain something to someone.  I couldn’t effectively charades at Guy that I was selling some stickers, but that the price wasn’t fixed and it was “pay what you can.”  I just smiled serenely and shrugged and gave up.  I struggled to convey what I was doing for my research, that my camera used both infrared and visible light.  I faced Charles, slashing my hand through the air, trying to symbolize a ratio.  When I wanted to interject in conversations around me, I simply couldn’t.  I couldn’t ask what was going on, I couldn’t request anything.  It was a wonderful exercise, in a way, in letting go.  How much would getting to say those things even actually matter?

I messed up four times during the two days, and none of them were actually important.  I said “okay” when someone asked me to turn off the lights, “just checking” when someone was in the bathroom, “that works for me” during an online class, and “fuck” when I hit my fresh knee wound on a cabinet.  It’s strange, really, how automatic speaking is.  I came to realize how many things I might say without even thinking that are communicating my mood or thoughts, apparently literally without my consent!

The couple of times I wanted to talk about things I felt were important were uncomfortable: wanting to express my feelings about struggles in my day or an opinion about coronavirus conspiracy theories, I was left to just hold the words like a swollen sore on my tongue I couldn’t immediately ignore. It was annoying, but it was almost like it forced me to treasure my own company.  Good thought, Nastassia, aren’t these interesting feelings?  It felt like I had secrets with myself, and others just didn’t get to know.

I tried to communicate with sounds.  Guy was going through some intense stuff at work, and I felt like I was still able to listen with facial expressions and grunts.  (I actually even bookmarked passages of the book that reminded me of his situation to show him when he got home.)  I laughed more when I wanted someone to know I appreciated what they said.  I made animal noises instead of “good mornings.”  I went for a kayak by myself one evening, and waving and smiling at strangers felt like meaningful interaction.  Some courtesies were not easily replaced, however, and it was just awkward.  I simply didn’t say thank you to the woman who dropped off my groceries.  I struggled immensely to order a croissant, the person at the bakery unable to understand my gestures indicating that I couldn’t talk.  I awkwardly texted my advisor while my video was on in a Zoom meeting.  I left these interactions feeling even more awkward and disconnected than I otherwise have in quarantine, wondering what it would feel like to feel understood again.

Normally, on weekday mornings I do crosswords with friends over video chat.  I still tried, and it was nice to hear their voices, but I felt like a sad ghost even though talking isn’t actually a big part of solving crossword puzzles.  I filled out the words without them probably fully understanding I was there.  Other interactions with friends were surprisingly fun.  I had made a rule that I would have professional email/slack text communication, but would not text anyone for personal reasons. I was, however, allowed to send emojis, photos, or videos.  I made plans by drawing a calendar in my notebook and taking videos of it to ask which day someone preferred.  I got gif answers, a video gesturing toward the correct day with a sunbathing foot, long regular text answers expressing enthusiasm about this new whimsy.  I spent an enjoyable few minutes trying to convey “the middle fork road is open” via emojis.
It was a little hard ignoring texts; it was much harder not calling anyone on the phone.  I’ve been coping with quarantine largely by calling my friends and parents all of the time– while running, while making dinner, while drawing.  My housemates go to work and were not home until relatively late each day, so I spent a lot of time alone and spent the time trying to lean into the discomfort this caused.  I did silently call Westy at the end, hoping he would monologue at me about his day, but hilariously he stayed mostly silent with me, and we made faces at each other over video chat for 40 minutes.  I didn’t work much more, but I was more focused on work than usual just because I had energy for it.  I found myself feeling trapped, like I had a desire to go and do something– anything– major, to take out a lot of energy on something.  But somewhere in me I know that I need to learn to use this energy more constructively, to save it for something worthwhile instead of letting a need for immediate engagement distract me.  And really, this was just a magnified version of how I’ve been feeling since quarantine began: like a person who normally occupies a large, vibrant world forced into a small, sedate one.

And as soon as it was over, I laughed loudly with my housemates over Friday night games and subjected them to an impassioned summary of the book and my reactions to Guy’s latest work drama.  You don’t change overnight from a 48-hour exercise.

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