The Involuntary Vow of Silence

My days are in no way silent. I have never done a silent retreat. When I go on my mama retreats I find myself chattering to myself all weekend, narrating my actions like I do day in and day out when I’m shadowed by a little tribe of children. It’s a habit I can’t shake, and one I think of when I encounter monastic rules of silence occasionally in novels.

So, it was a big change when, recently, I got the first case of full blown laryngitis I can remember, right on the heels of my first bout of mastitis.

I didn’t see it coming, hadn’t realized I’d even caught the kids’ cold until the mastitis misery lifted, and by then, there was no saving my voice.

Homeschooling, as it turns out, is mostly talking, at least the way I do it, but we were already behind from the colds and mastitis so we limped along. It turned out Pip, now in fourth grade, can do almost all his work independently, but that second-grade Scout can do basically none of hers. It turns out lots of Ambleside Online books can be found on LibriVox or Scribd or YouTube, but very few of Mater Amabilis’s books. So John did a bit and the internet did a bit and some of it just got rolled over till later.

The more important lessons of my involuntary silence for me came outside of school hours, though. When I can’t speak, I listen more to my kids. I enjoy their conversation more when I can’t hustle them along or shape the conversation.

I have to go with the flow a lot more. So much of managing and adjusting to life with four kids has been me raising my voice and delegating, coaching and guiding us all through the grocery store aisles, or unloading the groceries. But when my coach voice failed me, mostly the kids rose to the occasion, even without my minute management.

Being rendered voiceless, more than anything, reminded me of those long mornings with just a couple small kids, when in my exhaustion I’d convince the kids to play doctor, so I could lie limp and sneak-sleeping on the floor of their bedroom as they flitted around me with their plastic stethoscopes, their faux-concerned voices. There was nowhere to go; we were just together, passing the time in each other’s company. As one murmured to the other, as the other inspected my wounded knee and dropped it with a professional cluck of disapproval, I’d doze off.

Nearly a decade ago, it was just me in the winter light of our silent New England apartment, staring in to the inscrutable blue eyes of our firstborn. Now, improbably, I am surrounded by a murmuration of starlings, a murmuration of my own making, the happy chatter and endless complaints of these little people God has called into the world. It is overwhelming and it is beautiful, both. It took being silent to remember that.

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