Silence Diary


Laryngitis January 15th: I have had laryngitis for four days. Fascinating to see how people communicate around someone who cannot speak (I have been writing notes and trying to gesture what I mean). First of all, everyone starts whispering. Interesting, I think this could be useful somehow. And some people are just plain uncomfortable and chatter or joke incessantly. But more interesting has been how I have noticed how my speech affects group conversation and when I feel strongly I “must” jump in – so now I’m noticing what happens when I don’t. The conversation evolves in unexpected ways and I love listening. Being a fly on the wall in a sense. Not contributing at all, just listening, though I think an attentive listener contributes to conversation. 

Flashback 1986: The most powerful political use of silence I’ve ever witnessed was in a meeting in Washington DC with Senator Grassley, a Republican on the Armed Services Committee, whom we were lobbying to end US military aid to Salvadoran military and death squads. You may remember the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and separately, three nuns who were raped and murdered, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel in 1980 in El Salvador. We had been organizing grassroots pressure on members of the Senate Committee responsible for authorizing US military aid and Grassley was a possible swing vote. We were collaborating with a Quaker community and Catholic priests and nuns as well as community activists. An elder Quaker woman was sitting in the front row of chairs in our meeting. Despite our witnessing to the horrors of the war on poor people and dissenters and showing growing American awareness of it, Senator Grassley stood firm in his support for continued aid. The Quaker woman up front silently stood and turned her back on the Senator. I’ll never forget the utter shock of her sign of moral outrage and defiance – she was of small stature but she absolutely towered in that room, dressed in black from headscarf to floor-length dress, she was commanding.

Paresis February 20th: Well it turns out I don’t have laryngitis. After 4 weeks of hoarse voice I broke down and went to the doctor. She “scoped” my throat and found one vocal chord totally loafing – just laying there. The poor right vocal chord is doing all the work. Recommends total vocal rest and maybe changing diet in case its “silent reflux.” It turns out that so much silence is driving me crazy, driving my partner crazy. Our usual verbal bonding and musical bonding is really being challenged. I’m worried - actually, I’m scared. This vocal chord paresis may or may not go away. This somehow feels like a huge issue beyond the physiology of it – I feel silenced. What is my voice? What does it mean to me? Folks cannot tell when I’m close-mic’ed, especially if they’ve never heard me before. But I don’t sound like me.  I am grappling with bigger questions here about my voice and silence.

#metoo too: I’ve just read Rebecca Solnit’s essay on Silence, in a book my daughter gave me for Christmas titled Mother of All Questions. Solnit reviews the ways in which silence on the part of oppressors and the oppressed contributes to the growth of violence and shaming in misogyny, racism, homophobia and toxic discriminatory beliefs, culture and behavior. I have been thinking about my own silence, about my experiences and identity.  Through #metoo campaign women from all over the world went public with their stories of sexual harassment and assault. Through the anti-abortion schemes assaulting the rights of women to make their own health decisions, and the answering rallying of pro-choice women and men. Through the vilification of and attempts of make people who are LGBTQ feel they are Others, therefore less human. It’s not like I have been sitting at home doing nothing – besides working as musicians and producers, my partner and I have been actively joining resistance activities. Phone banking for Planned Parenthood; marching against white supremacists after the Charlottesville murder of an innocent young woman; marching for women, Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community and immigrants; using our music to send a message through lyrics and film and speaking out at shows; signing petitions, sending postcards, contributing money to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. It’s a part-time job. But I wonder if it should be a full-time job for me since my life and my identity are tied up on these issues – I am not a bystander protesting. I am not heterosexual and reject the idea that sexuality is a category rather than a continuum. I had two abortions when I was a much younger woman and completely unprepared to be a mother. I was sexually molested as a child and have been physically threatened by powerful men many times. As I watched women come out of hiding to talk about their experiences on Facebook, I hesitated and questioned and then the moment passed.

Why?  So many reasons. Reading Solnit’s piece, which explored why so many women don’t speak up, has made me analyze why I have been silent – about who I am and what I have experienced.

“No one will care, no one is listening, I won’t be believed. Why should I stir things up for my family? What if the molester comes after me? It’s Personal, it’s a Private Matter. It was a long time ago.  What is all this personal exposure on a social media page? I hate Facebook and its fake Friends and fake social bonding, why should I write on their walls? I’m OK, right? So what’s the point?”

Thanks Chris! March 15th:  Talked with Chris Webster today. What a kind and generous heart. She had the same “idiopathic” (i.e. the doctor’s way of say “WTF?!”) vocal problem ten years ago. She listened, shared her experience honestly, and lent encouragement and support. I am so grateful. When I think of my friends whose homes burned down, who are fighting cancer and Parkinsons, serious injuries from falls and so on … what right do I have to be so sad? I am loved, I love, my family and friends are so dear to me. Somehow the power of positive thinking is just not working right now, counting my blessings honestly just makes me feel worse. But Chris just simply said, “Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Its scary to face this, especially when music is so central to your life.”

Wadada Leo Smith: The New York Review of Books has a wonderful essay about the music of Wadada Leo Smith and his use of silence in his compositions. I am anxious to get my hands on his new album, a tribute to Miles Davis. The silence he incorporates is described as “willful rather than a renunciation of will,” it has a “poetic task.”  In Smith’s words, the silences are “a vital field where musical ideas exist of what was played before and after.” These ideas captivate me. Like the silent rebuke of the Quaker woman, SO much can be said in a thoughtful silence.

Loving Human Beings. I have fallen in love with people over my whole life. My life partner is a man now. But even when I was a very young girl, I was in love with my best friend who was a girl. I found a note I wrote her, somehow it survived decades of moving house. It was a beautiful love note and she wrote me back the same sort of adoring notes. I fell in love with women and with men at different times in my life. I reject the categories offered me. My feeling of passion and love and desire are on a spectrum and they have totally enriched my life and heart and soul and body. There are times I have felt like a man, and I only wonder if that’s just really normal. And I wonder if its because I show traits that society says are normal for men and abnormal for women - decisiveness, strong opinions, fearless in exercising my right to disagree with prevailing opinion, standing up to threats and refusing to be intimidated. I am a woman, I have these traits that are part of my female nature. How am I to be “out” when I don’t have a category to jump into and associate with? Except “not heterosexual.” I prefer not to be identified by “nots.” I suppose that when I protest on behalf of the LGBTQ community, then maybe I am organizing and speaking for me, not “them.” This is a way of communicating and being that I have not taken until now. I think almost everyone I know might be surprised initially and then say Oh OK, and move on. No drama.

Where’s the Remote? April 15th: I had a huge realization this week: I have not lost my voice. I have a new voice.  That I’m getting acquainted with, and gently introducing to my life. Slowly regaining my voice… met with speech pathologist Dr. Sarah Schneider who gave me exercises. I’m blowing bubbles through a straw into a glass of water. Practicing speaking phrases including “where is the remote?” Hehe. We don’t own a TV.

Wisdom Healing.  Jim and I went to Galisteo, New Mexico for a week of qi gong. We did not know what we were getting ourselves into.  We’ve been practicing qi gong at home for 2 years and occasionally attending a retreat with this same qi gong teacher and community over at Spirit Rock. The retreat was a life-changing, healing experience with another 40 people who spent 7 days together from 7am to 9pm. There were folks with Parkinsons, cancer, victims of assault and other traumas. We practiced meditation and healing qi gong, laughed, danced, cried. We have come home with a deeper understanding and embrace of our inner resources for healing ourselves and others.

#metoo two. I was manipulated, molested and intimidated by an older teenage boy who was the son of very close friends of my parents. He must have only been 16 or so. But he babysat us until my mother caught on. He molested me over a couple of years I think. It’s blurry when it started and ended, but the episodes are crystal clear. I found out what city he lives in and where he works, I think. I’ve called the Sexual Crimes unit there to report him knowing that what happened 50 years ago means nothing in any effort to punish him. But I spoke with a female officer who listened, cared, asked questions and when I said I just want ya’ll to know so you can keep an eye on him in case he’s coaching a girls soccer league or something. Why did I not say something when others were speaking out last Fall with the #metoo avalanche of stories. I felt and feel protective of my family, and while this is my story, it’s a painful one for them too. While I’ve had elaborate revenge fantasies involving the molester, the truth is I don’t know him. He was a kid and I don’t know who he is now. Did he continue, did he stop, does he feel remorse. Years of therapy ended up healing me in the sense that I feel no shame, but also in convincing me that I do not want to further invest in memories of those disgusting moments. I just leave the dark matter under a rock. Other women (and men) have experienced much worse, what does my painful experience amount to? That’s another good silencing argument. In the scheme of things, I am OK and so many others are not. Is it impolite to talk about something so personal and awful? Is it my obligation to southern good manners that keeps me quiet when others are speaking up about their own stories?

April 24th: Just decided to share my diary about this winter of silence. Taking my chances. Silent no more.

Hilary Perkins