When I mentioned to my husband that I was considering taking a vow of silence, he had an immediate reaction, “What a great idea! How long are you going to do it? How about a month?”
Now here we were, on the morning of Day 2, and my husband had this to say: “I can’t wait for this stunt to be over. This has been the worst two days of our marriage.” (I didn’t think it was as bad as the day we got to the airport for a weeklong vacation and discovered he had left my suitcase in our bedroom. Or the day I was supposed to set up the VCR to tape The Sopranos but left it on the Disney Channel.) He must be missing my sparkling conversation, our emotional intimacy, I thought. When I gestured “Why?”—palms up, shoulders shrugged—he explained that I was “no Marcel Marceau.”
Not speaking was my latest experiment for the Human Guinea Pig series, in which I engage in unusual activities so you don’t have to. I challenged myself to 48 hours of silence. What would happen if I stopped communicating while leading my regular life? This meant no talking, no e-mail, no PDA. No scribbling notes like Holly Hunter in The Piano (and no being ravished by Harvey Keitel with face tattoos). Nothing beyond simple gestures.
To judge by the number of silent retreats listed on the Internet—Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Sufi—Americans are eager to spend their money to go to bucolic settings for a chance to shut up. But as befits Human Guinea Pig, I would do it homemade and cheap—keeping to my routine, which since I work at home is somewhat like being under house arrest, and skipping the cultivation of a higher consciousness.
To prepare for my temporary vow, I cleared away all my work and social obligations and did some reading. Thomas Merton, the American monk, wrote: “In silence we face and admit that gap between the depths of our being, which we consistently ignore, and the surface which is so often untrue to our own reality.” I learned that in Buddhism, one cannot achieve enlightenment without the practice of silence. The Catholic Encyclopedia cites silence’s long history: “Pythagoras imposed a strict rule of silence on his disciples.” In Christian orders, not speaking to people allows one to better speak with God and is a means of self-restraint.
At the least, our household could use some self-restraint. Normally, the morning routine resembles a Supreme Court oral argument with our 8-year-old daughter playing the part of Alan Dershowitz. Not that first morning. When I woke her up, instead of being greeted with an observation such as, “Stop nudging me, are you trying to break my shoulder?” she quietly said, “Oh hi, Mom, you can’t talk today, right?” I smiled beatifically, which required the use of dormant facial muscles, and led her into the bathroom where I supervised her shampoo and shower. It was like our own Zen monastery.
When I walked my daughter to school, she happily chatted about the camping trip we were about to take, and I occasionally squeezed her hand in acknowledgement. She didn’t seem to care I wasn’t saying anything, a warm presence was enough. When we got to school she gave me a big hug in farewell, instead of her more usual posture of pretending I was a stranger who happened to be headed in the same direction. I quickly left, avoiding the other parents.
When I got back home, I got my husband’s attention, pointed to our beagle, Sasha, and mimicked her elimination processes. My husband said she hadn’t done anything when he took her for a walk, so I put on her leash and we set out. Sasha had been hit by a car the previous week. A beagle is a conversation piece. A limping beagle with a leg wrapped in a pink bandage is a car-stopping conversation piece, so it was with trepidation that I had my first non-family encounter when a car pulled up and the window rolled down.
The passenger asked directions to a nearby school. To get there required a couple of turns to avoid a dead end and a one-way street. Feeling pressured, I guiltily pointed in the general direction, sending them straight to those pitfalls. The man, noticing my T-shirt depicting a blue sky and floating bowler hat, said, “Hey, that’s a Magritte painting, right?”
“So your dog with the pink leg, is that some surrealist message?”
I wanted to say, “If you’re looking for surrealism, wait until you try to follow my directions.” Instead I just smiled and walked away. Then I ran into a neighbor. I thought everyone on the block knew about Sasha, but he looked shocked and said, “What happened?” I rolled my eyes, shook my head, picked up Sasha, and ran back to the house.
For the last few months I’ve been writing a book, so it was easy to have a silent morning, since most of the time Sasha provides my only interaction with another mammal. But by midafternoon, I was missing even the minor human contact I usually had. I called my husband at work. After he said “Hello” and I didn’t say anything, he said, “Oh, it’s you. How’s it going?” Pause. “That well, huh?” Pause. “I love you and you’re very weird.”
My plan for picking up my daughter was to grab her like a member of Delta Force on an extraction mission. I wanted to avoid the happy chitchat of the lingering parents that made the school such a nice place. My daughter was not in the room where I normally meet her. As I looked down a corridor I saw the back of a father who was a friend. Before he turned and saw me, I ran in the opposite direction, only to come face to face with him halfway around the circular hallway. Goodbye, Thomas Merton. Hello, Harpo Marx.
He said, “How are you doing?” I pointed to my throat.
“Laryngitis?” he asked. I shook my head no. Just then, my daughter arrived and explained I had taken a vow of silence. “I won’t ask,” he said, sensibly, if with a touch of suspicion.
On the walk home my daughter said, “Mom, if there was an emergency, could you talk?” I nodded yes. “Then you are better off than Helen Keller.”
Because I was in the normal world and not on a retreat where we all greeted each other with virtuous gazes, I was getting enlightened as to what agony it would be to involuntarily be unable to communicate. My daughter raised a good point. No one paid money to put on blindfolds or earplugs for a few days. Yet forgoing speech was supposed to be purifying. I understood why “retreat” was as important as “silent.” Fleeing from all acquaintances left me feeling less like a spiritual pilgrim and more like a fugitive.
That evening I met up with some Slate colleagues to see a movie at a D.C. film festival. The sidewalk was swarming, but I was late and they weren’t outside. One colleague had bought the tickets in advance. I paced in and out of the lobby trying to figure out a strategy. What if they were already in the theater waiting for me? I realized I’d just have to leave; there was no way to explain my predicament to the ticket taker.
Then a big rush of people moved inside. I thought of trying to hide myself in the next wave to get into the theater, and I imagined my subsequent arrest. I had read that Mahatma Gandhi was such an advocate of silence (“[O]ne cannot help feeling that nearly half the misery of the world would disappear if we, fretting mortals, knew the virtue of silence …”) that for years he did not speak on Mondays. On one of those Mondays, the British authorities arrested him. He greeted them with a smile. The D.C. police probably would not recognize this historical reference when I smiled and refused to speak. They probably wouldn’t even appreciate my literal-minded response to the “right to remain silent.” I stayed on the sidewalk and finally my colleagues arrived.
After a few minutes trying to banter with me in the theater as we waited for the movie to start, the Slate colleague I was seated next to declared me a colossal bore. That night he sent me an e-mail presciently predicting if this went on much longer my husband would fly into a rage.
I got home in time to lie down with my daughter for a few minutes. “Mom, when are you going to be out of this curse?” she asked. I indicated one more day.
The next morning brought my greatest challenge—the event that sent my husband over the edge: taking our dog to the vet. I was concerned that Sasha was chewing off the bandage that held her splint.
My husband, who normally would be at work at 9:30, reluctantly agreed to accompany me to the appointment so there would be a chance of Sasha getting proper treatment.
“What’s the problem?” the vet technician asked me.
I frantically gnawed at my hand in reply.
“She’s saying that Sasha is chewing off her bandage,” my husband explained.
The technician looked puzzled, but continued. “How long has the dog been doing this?” he asked me.
My husband stepped in. “Look, she can’t talk.”
The technician was stricken. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Well, she can talk. She’s just not talking today,” said my husband, in a tone that suggested a dog with a busted leg was the least of his domestic problems.
The technician left to get the vet. I sat in a chair cradling Sasha. Another technician, a pretty young Frenchwoman, came in.
“Oh, I just love beagles,” she cooed. “What happened to her?”
From the other side of the room my husband explained about the accident. The woman chatted directly with me for about five minutes about beagles and their propensity to run into the street. I tried to look responsive while my husband supplied the appropriate comments. I felt like part of some Gong Show ventriloquist act, but she didn’t even seem to notice I hadn’t said a word.
When she left the room my husband said to me, “You look like someone in the Yiddish theater. You make these oversize facial expressions to show that you’re reacting to every line.” I wasn’t sure if this was an insult or a compliment. It was probably best that I couldn’t ask. The original tech came back to tell us the vet was in surgery, and we needed to leave Sasha for a couple of hours.
Because my husband was late, as we got to the car I mimed offering to drive him to work.
“You want to drive home?” he asked. I shook my head no, pretending to turn a car wheel and pointing to him.
“You want me to drive?” he asked. I repeated my gestures.
“I’m driving you crazy?” he asked, adding, “You’re driving me crazy!”
After that, I did my best to avoid people. I had to go to the grocery store, but I couldn’t face it. What if I ran into someone? How would I handle the prepared food counter? And what would I do when faced with that dreadful dilemma: paper or plastic? I stayed home and for dinner defrosted freezer-burned vegetable patties and microwaved yellowed kale. My husband, realizing things could get ugly once I started talking again, declared the meal, “Superb.”
That night, when I kissed my daughter goodnight, she started crying about something that happened during the day. I lay down on the bed and talked to her. When we were done she promised she wouldn’t tell anyone.
The following morning the curse was lifted. I asked my daughter what she liked best about my silence.
“The best part was that you didn’t yell at me in the morning,” she said. There it was, the motherhood moment of revelation of a million women’s magazine stories. I already had the headline: The Gift That Silence Gave Me. I decided not to get into a Dershowitz-like exchange with her, explaining that one person’s “yelling” is another person’s “firm encouragement.”
Being silent in the real world was draining. But it left me longing to do it in the confines of a retreat. There everyone would understand what I wasn’t trying to say.