When I was in the sixth grade, our teacher Mr. Lee played the song “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel for the class and asked us to write an essay about what the lyrics meant to us. Mr. Lee was my very first male teacher and I adored him. I think it’s because he was the first man in my life who wasn’t related to me to spark the possibility in my mind that I might actually be interesting. His eyes would light up when he was listening to what I had to say, coaxing out what was inside me with genuine delight: words, thoughts, dreams, worries. I imagine he had this affect on many kids. I wasn’t the only shy child who had shit to say but needed a little encouragement to speak it out loud.
So, it stands to reason that I would want to impress Mr. Lee in all my twelve year old brilliance by getting into the heads of two legendary singer-songwriters and nailing my essay. Instead my head became so full of the desire for approval that I became paralyzed and could not generate a single thought. To this day, it haunts me, my inability back then to express what the lyrics meant to me. I have tried for years to remember if I wrote ANYTHING down on paper. I don’t think I did and the entire class discussion is a blank. I was so worried about being wrong and disappointing Mr. Lee that the whole point of the exercise was lost on me, which looking back was wonderful irony, considering the lyrics.
When the fantastic remake of the song performed by David Draiman of Disturbed went viral (it’s playing now, on repeat as I write this post) it made me realize I have unfinished business from the sixth grade that needs tending to.
Now, honestly, I’m still not completely sure how S&G wanted their lyrics to be interpreted and I don’t know that I really care. The question that Mr. Lee asked us is “what do the words mean to YOU?” Art in any form, by its very nature gives us full permission to engage on a personal level and connect ourselves in any way we choose. This is the beauty of art and also perhaps the difficulty, at least from the perspective of the artist. The interpretation is individually subjective and can be as different as night and day from one person to the next. So much depends on the baggage being attached to the art.
The song to me speaks about the painful ramifications of a certain kind of silence. What held me back from saying back then what I felt about the word ‘silence’? I had a teacher who was ready and eager to hear what I had to say. Why didn’t I speak up? Why was I afraid back then to tell about how a certain type of silence could hurt as bad as a slap in the face?
I’m not talking about the kind of silence that happened when I was alone, either up in the arms of the chestnut tree or hanging out in the sanctuary of my bedroom. I was a pretty content kid and to this day feel the most peaceful and at ease when I am flying in silent solo.
I’m talking about the type of silence that turns your blood cold when you are in it’s midst. Walking unsuspectingly into a frigid wall of silence from someone you love without any understanding as to why. My mom was queen of the iron curtain and could go for weeks without a word to me when she was angry. Sometimes I was just an innocent victim of her internal rage at someone else, often my dad. Other times it was something I had done to receive her ostracism, though rarely did I find out exactly what I had done wrong. She would just one day be done with her silent treatment and move on as though nothing had happened. I was always so relieved when the silence ended. It felt dark and loveless.
Now, I do not mean to imply that my mom did this all the time. She was a caring, generous and creative soul who loved people so deeply that I think sometimes it physically hurt her. I like to believe that she doled out the silent treatment because it was to her better than what she wanted to do which was scream horrible obscenities at my sister and I. I for sure was no princess. And I KNOW from experiencing motherhood six fold that children can be terrible little assholes from time to time.
Admittedly, I have tried a few times in my life to use the silent treatment with my kids. There HAVE been times that I have been so angry that silence seemed like a solution that would keep me from causing greater harm. But I can never seem to be silent longer than the time it takes to simply cool down. Because shunning people this way feels as horrible to me as it does to be the one shunned. It is also seems completely useless. I am by nature someone who needs to speak, express, yell, listen, hear and then resolve things. You can not resolve anything with silence. In fact, conflict grows bigger and more powerful the longer silence holds it prisoner. “Silence like a cancer grows.”
To this day I can not handle that kind of silence from people. It tears me apart. And while I will probably continue to love certain people in my life who use their silence as a weapon, or maybe more fairly, as a shield, it for sure creates thick boundaries in the relationship that don’t need to be there. The lyrics “hear my words that I might teach you, take my arms that I might reach you, but my words, like silent raindrops fell” make me remember those desperate mental pleas: “Talk to me! Yell at me if you must! But please don’t ignore me!” Because the indifferent silence is so loud in my mind that it is unbearable: booms of thunder that resonate exhausting questions timed with a heavy beating heart “Why won’t you speak to me? Why won’t you hear me? What have I DONE that you won’t love me right now?”
And so my dearly adored Mr. Lee, while I’m sure that there is so much more to the song than how a certain kind of silence can hurt like a motherfucker, I bet you wouldn’t be in any way disappointed that the vision you planted in my brain no longer remains silent.