The Unspoken

12:00 a.m.

There is a tiny cut on my hand, a spot I must have missed with the moisturizer a while back, which becomes irritated whenever the weather gets colder. It is a small but insistent kind of pain, and as I sit in my green chair contemplating my backyard in the dark once again, I can’t think of anything else but this small annoyance.

It has been a good day, a productive day, a day filled with writing-talk, dinner with friends, and even a film festival which is pretty much my favorite event all year. And yet, this tiny cut is demanding all my attention right now, the way that pain always tries to do. The weather, though recently beginning to warm up, has left its mark on me.

The feeling of winter is still with me, too; I haven’t managed to shake it just yet. The days are warmer now, but the nights retain a chill that makes me shiver most nights at the bus stop. I know, with all the sensibility of my logical brain, that we are on the cusp of spring, but my body refuses to accept it as real, until there is steady proof, until it can be counted upon in a more consistent way. Until then—until every day brings the same, reliable promise—I will remain just a little suspicious.
Lately, a friend and I have been getting together to write haiku poetry. We take our time about it, 5 verses between the two of us per session. We are following, as closely as we can, an adaptive form that requires us to build on one another’s poetry in a collaborative effort. We use an old yellowed book of experimental poetry in mixed-language translation as our guide. We rely upon this format: Stanza 1- mention or reference a particular month; Stanza 2- reference a season; Stanza 3- introduce a new idea; Stanza 4- no mention of the season here, so the author has a bit of freedom. Then we wash, rinse, repeat.

I find the comfort of structure an enjoyable way to write; having an unseen force to push against in my writing is helpful. And yet, when consistently juggling seasons and months becomes tiresome, we try to find a way to “say it,” establishing the “when” of our verse, without actually saying it. This is an old, well-worn technique for most poets, but non-fiction writers are accustomed to truth-telling, and sometimes I find it difficult to hold back on the tell. In my classes, professors ask us to write about grief without the word “grief” itself, to prune our writing back in a way that hardly resembles the old academic writing, with its need for clear thesis statements and literary evidence at every turn. It resembles instead the way my roommate might attack the boxwoods in our back yard with pruning shears whenever they get out of hand.

All this has got me thinking about the power of the unsayable, and how it so often seems to overshadow those things that we have no trouble speaking aloud. Once the words are committed to the page, or to a listening ear, is it possible that this act alone can lessen their power over us?
When my grandmother passed in 1998 from a brain tumor, I found the process of her dying an excruciating one to bring up in conversation. The first person I spoke with about it on the day of her death–a music teacher of mine–seemed sympathetic, but later insisted that I should stick around for rehearsal. I could not do that, I told her. Who could make music at a time like this? She insisted that times like this were indeed the most appropriate for the creative arts. But I couldn’t bear to bring my grief to the stage, to my friends and peers. I couldn’t lay it out in the open like an unwrapped gift. I couldn’t feel her logic, and I felt betrayed instead. I didn’t want anyone telling me how to mourn.

I stopped talking for a while.

Fast-forward 15 years. This December, by the time we lost her husband, I no longer felt like the child I once was. Once again, I learned of the news on my way to choir practice, as though the universe had waited until just this moment by design to tell me of his passing. This time, though I didn’t tell anyone just yet what had happened, I came prepared to sing.

Later on that night, when I needed to talk about it this time around, there were friends in Pittsburgh in whom I could confide. We drove around town looking at Christmas lights and drank hot chocolate in the car. We talked around the subject at first, but when I was ready to rehash my indecisiveness about whether I should return home to New York in the middle of finals, I was supported fully by a set of listening ears.

Naturally, this was not easy terrain for me to navigate. But even so, I spoke about Poppop to others; I let friends console me. I composed an essay about him, called “The Box,” and shared it in my writing workshop. I felt different, this time around, more in control; these acts of expression seemed to lead me out of the darkness. This is not something I could have known in 1998, but I’m glad to know it now.

Nana’s passing still seems mysterious and strange to me, after all this time. The power of the unspoken won out, then. Yet here I am, letting her husband go with all the grace I can muster.
On the page, we’re not always meant to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are often meant to let our readers get there of their own accord, keeping the act of discovery alive for them while we act the part of mere guides. But in our lives, sometimes this is not enough, and this is the different between living and writing.

Lately, I’ve had many opportunities to be heard in the ways that I desire, to say the thing I am not sure I want to say, but which needs to be said. And yet, as I sit here in the darkness of my backyard, the dining room light glowing through our picture window and casting shadows in stripes on our lawn, I find that the brightness makes me both uneasy and grateful all at once. It is nice to be able to see my words on the page, for once, as I sit out here in the dark. But I feel exposed, too, as though any neighbor peering out a window or even my own roommate and her guests might catch me in the act. The act of what? I wonder aloud. I suppose I mean the act itself of capturing the unsayable. The act of speaking things aloud which make me uneasy, and steeling myself for truth-telling in a way that even a fancy degree in nonfiction writing has not prepared me for.

What brings me truth and clarity on the page does not necessarily do so elsewhere in my life. The unsayable has the power to overshadow a person; I must try to bring it to light. This process probably looks just like thinking to my neighbors peeking through those far-off windows. Inside, it leaves me feeling vulnerable. But it is the good kind of vulnerability, the kind that can take a person from the isolation of a self-imposed silence to the quiet camaraderie of a cup of hot chocolate and some Christmas lights with a friend who knows just when to speak, and just when to keep on driving.

Filed under: Prose