“On Being Silenced”
She had them spread across her bed, a homemade quilt beneath them, ordered and displayed like trophies lined up on a shelf.
Betty is a poet. A librarian for years, she still loves the newspaper, books, and magazines; and she used to write poetry, a lot of it, even having a poem published in her hometown paper every Sunday for years. She speaks of this accomplishment, this means of being a published writer with a great deal of pride.
We are going to put a book together, a book of her poems, that when not displayed upon her bed for her caregivers to notice, are kept in an old faded briefcase, poems that she hasn’t looked at in years.
“What shall we name it?” she asks after I share my idea.
“Whatever you like,” I say. “It’s your book.”
“It’s a Beautiful Life,” she replies quickly almost, as if she had already thought of creating a book of poetry.
“That’s lovely!” I respond. “Do you have a poem by that title?”
And she shakes her head.
“Then maybe you’ll write one,” I tell her and I am buoyed by the hope sparked between us.
“Oh, I haven’t written in years,” she says. And I’m about to launch into something inspirational or encouraging “like it’s never too late,” when she tells me a story. A very awful story.
“Our marriage was already on the rocks,” she starts. “I wrote all the time back then,” and explains about the Sunday papers, her poetry a weekly feature. “My husband worked a lot and when he came home he only wanted to watch television; so I wrote poetry and short stories.” She then looks away.
“One day he came home and said a friend told him that writing poetry is a sign of mental illness and he asked me not to put anything else in the paper ever again.”
I am stunned by her pain. She is silent until she adds, “I never wrote again.”
It always breaks my heart when I know a voice has been silenced, when shame or fear or even something as mundane as boredom causes someone to shut down, put away the pen and paper, sell the guitar, throw aside the brushes, never dance again in public. But it stirs up something totally different when I hear someone else is the cause for the writer not writing, the musician casting aside music, the artist without paints, the dancer who no longer dances.
It’s a sleeping beast that stirs within me when I hear a story like Betty’s.
Who has the audacity to call a poet mentally ill? Who gets to silence a writer’s voice? Who gets to do that and get away with it?
I take a few deep breaths. I do not get to force my anger upon her story, my judgment upon her dead spouse. So I wait, pull myself together and say again with a bit more vigor this time; I say to this poet once more. “Well, it’s not too late. You can write again.”
And she stares at me, hard; and for a moment a poet thinks of long-forgotten words, the cost of silence, and seemingly imagines it may, in fact, be so.
You are the light of the world.