An Oath of Silence

Two decades ago, give or take, I took a 24-hour oath of silence. The moratorium on talking was not my idea, but rather an honors professor who assigned every undergraduate student in her “creative processes” class a full day of no talking. Our goal was to receive and observe the world around us. We picked when we would observe our silence, and then would write a report about what the experiment yielded. The point, Dr. Betty J. Scott said, was for us to reawaken our senses, to tune into what was happening around us, to be better listeners, and to let go of our impulsive, nervous need to fill the air, especially when nothing needed to be said. “Nothing in nothing,” Fanny Howe wrote in her poem, “Everything,” “prepares us.”

Anyone who knew me then, as anyone who knows me now, knows not talking, even for a day, was a lot to ask. It is a lot to ask of most of us, who in the 21st century are doubly connected by texts, tweets, hashtags, status updates, and all manner of not talking-talking yet talking. There are routine news reports about vacations that promote “digital detoxes” and the endangered state of silence and how the absence of humanity’s noise and the soundtrack of the natural world may help us develop new brain cells in the hippocampus. There is even a National Day of Unplugging, soon to be observed again from sundown to sundown, March 1-2. So, my 24-hour oath of silence 20 years ago may even seem quaint by current standards of connection.

“You’re not gonna make it,” several of my friends predicted, laughing hard at the prospect of me keeping my mouth shut for a whole day.

While silence was not, is not, my natural affinity, what my friends had miscalculated was the power of a stubborn woman. This well-rooted willfulness has goaded me to do and try things a more flexible person would most likely reconsider or shrug off sometimes had served me well, if only to help my doubter eat a double batch of crow.

No, being told I could not do something was akin to a matador twirling his red cape at a bull. We shall see who will make it, I thought to myself, surer now than I had been moments before that I would see this endeavor through.

To show my skeptical friends I meant business, I raised the stakes. I was about to take my first Greyhound bus from Springfield, Missouri to Phoenix, Arizona to visit my grandparents during spring break. Surprise, where they lived in the winter months, was 40 minutes from the Sky Harbor International airport, where the bus would ultimately arrive.

“I am going to be quiet on the first leg of the trip,” I told Andra, my best friend from high school who was coming with me to see the red rocks of Sedona, hike Camelback Mountain, get frozen yogurt in Tempe, and take photos of us mock-hugging saguaro cacti.

Andra nodded and asked how we would communicate. Notes, I said. “Sure,” she said, and that was all she needed to say, the type of friend who understands you even when your ideas are suspect.

On our 20-hour-plus silent ride to Phoenix, we were left driver-less for over an hour in Wichita, moved seats after a random guy groped my ass in my sleep, remained awake and on-guard for the rest of the trip by imbibing too much Surge and staring the perv down anytime he looked at us, marveled at the way dust hung in the sunlit air of some run-down bus stop in the panhandle of Texas, and almost cried in sweet, been-on-a-bus-for-almost-a-full-day relief and stink when we finally saw the sunrise over Phoenix.

On the brisk March morning our battleborn Greyhound pulled into the station, the sky was aflame in super-saturated color: deep plum, primrose pink, the golden orange yolk of a farm-fresh egg. Even if I could have spoken, I would not have known what to say at such a sight. The sunrises in the Midwest often are a more subdued, washed-out beauty. As I sat on the bus, I finally realized the world may need fewer words and more naked appreciation.

Andra squeezed my hand as she said, “We made it.” I nodded, my oath of silence almost finished, right in time before my grandmother grilled me about classes, dating, and what I was planning on doing after college.

I often think about riding that Greyhound through the dark in silence, and I know it is time to revisit the process and its lessons, this time for my own edification. Listening these days, I think, may sometimes be as rare as silence.