One Right Word Can Save Us

I have been thinking about healing, and how language can be a powerful agent for making well what has been unwell. And how it can also be a burden or impediment.

This is written after spending seven hours trudging through more revisions of my novel, Other Than Words. It strikes me as an irony that for years I have been devoted to a story of over 400 pages that has at its center a woman who has stopped talking. Sophie experiences her muteness as a dictator, an ally, a healer, an exorcist. She wrestles with finding the one word that might set her free of her silence. Still, she continues to use it as a safety zone in an embattled life as she seeks to integrate the pieces of her inner and outer life after terrible trauma and loss.

Sophie takes her time. She finds new ways in which to communicate with others–she is a dancer and a painter. She listens. She takes solace in the pleasures of living without the obligation to speak. It is made clearer that people are by turns compelling and foolish in their succinct or clumsy attempts. How crucial it can be to make known to others what matters most and least, what moves and bores and delights them. But it is what they do not speak that she hears the most clearly. Sophie’s muteness has the odd effect of making her presence irrelevant at times, as though she is invisible, so they say speak without thinking.

I work with Sophie in my story deliberately, carefully, because she is a woman like so many I have worked with as an addictions clinician. I have also met her in different cities and towns across the country or at recovery meetings. They have been diminished by the lack of their own voice. They harbor secrets and grief that weaken them from inside out.   They may learn to sit patiently with pain; they have a higher tolerance than many and just get on with their lives the best they can. But so often it doesn’t work out well.

Some years ago I had an opportunity to work with Native American women in a residential addictions treatment program. They brought with them some of the most devastating histories of trauma I have ever heard. There was much they could not say aloud.

I wanted to develop a different sort of women’s recovery group, one that utilized poetry, song, dance, exercise. I thought that they’d had enough of education and process groups. They were restless and resistant with a tight treatment schedule. By late Friday afternoon they were ready to fight or retreat entirely.  After we stretched and breathed deeply, we sat down on the floor in a circle. They spoke about their ancestral and circular stories and songs because that is what they loved and missed from their homes across the western states.  Little by little they shared favorites, some in their tribal tongues.

And something happened to them when they spoke up, shared the old words and sang the songs. They stood taller, sat straighter, became alert. They looked at each other with new respect and offered me English versions as well. 

One day I decided to ask them to get in a line. They automatically started to move into place as they had at pow wows or other occasions at home. Only, this time I asked them to call out what they most wanted to tell the world and themselves. They were embarrassed for me, a skinny, middle-aged white woman who was going to stand at the head of the line and shout out things–they couldn’t imagine what. So I began.

“We are beautiful. We are strong. We are joyous. We are free.” I looked behind me and they shuffled along, each holding onto the woman ahead. “Come on now! We’re going to snake through the entire building, so I want you to be loud enough to get everyone out of their beds and office chairs.”

They laughed, incredulous. I started again, kicking out my feet one at a time in a rhythmic sort of shuffle-dance. I could feel them catching the beat and off we went into the main hallway. I kept repeating phrases and shortly I heard more voices join me, then more, until our voices grew louder as we wove our way through the building. Counselors stuck their heads out their office doors in surprise, clients ran up to us and teased us, then clapped. I saw the director come from her office, stunned, then shake her head with a bemused expression. I figured if I got fired it would be a good way to leave.

Downstairs and out the doors, we kept going. “We are women! We are strong! We are brave! We are good! We survive! We stand tall! We are good-looking, smart, valuable women!” They clapped their hands in unison and spoke with such fierce joy that by the time we had assembled in the back field, much of the building had emptied and followed us.

It was late afternoon and the sun was laying gold over the trees and grass. I stood in line, my words following theirs as we formed a circle. They were illumined, beautiful with pride, full of this moment, their declarations.

It became a ritual each Friday. Some times we were  joined by others, sometimes not. But always there was something palpably happy about the group, the same group of women who bore visible and invisible scars of abandoned, often brutal lives. Potent words were raised to the sky along with fists raised, feet stomping the ground.

Every time I felt their victory as a vibrating force of life rippling between us. And they began to get better, day by day. Things were said in their circle that hadn’t been said before. Risks were taken that once had been unthinkable. Enemies became cautious companions. And what was fearful was sometimes put into the circle and laid bare. As one woman said, “Something gets unplugged. It feels so great to sing and yell, to shout out to the Creator. I am learning how to feel good and free, again.”

Such is the mysterious power of language to liberate, to heal. And so I return to Sophie, who struggles with her inability to speak in Chapter 3. I care about her. She is a woman in need of compassion and courage, another chance, and her own one right word spoken aloud. Until then, she will learn how to settle into her silence and use it to clarify her vision on the road to health.

3 thoughts on “One Right Word Can Save Us

  1. I didn’t know you did this with your group there, or forgot. I admire your creativity and faith in your own ideas. How awesome.

  2. Cynthia,
    this looks like a perfect piece to use for Words Work – the power of both words and silence

    now that I have that said . . . (can you tell that WsW is grabbing close to all of my attention?) I can express thanks for your blog. Also, my friend Ilsa has now read all entries. Yeah.

    I will forward this story to Laurie Vischer (who remembers you [fondly] from ….?). This is the kind of story that touches her where she needs. She will lead the lectio portion of Words Work – and plans to sing a song about words and silence as part of her introduction to workshop.

    w/gratitude for your words

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