On Finding My Voice again: Lessons from a Year of Silence

Catherine M Wallace

         I finally had lunch with Bill last week. It took us a while to get together because his calendar is always crammed with meetings and marches and protests. He has been on the street for progressive causes ever since college in the 60s. This Tuesday he was tired. His broad shoulders were rounded, his face sagging, his gentle blue eyes weary and sad.

         "We thought we'd stop them," he mused. "Remember? But now? Now I feel like I've spent my life standing in the road like a wisp of straw thinking it can stop a line of tanks."

         I was in the car with Claire recently. She's another force-of-nature political activist, and she was on a rant. "I've been out at meetings every night a month! All month! You know what I need? I need to sit on my sofa with my dogs and watch television." I hung onto the passenger door as she swerved around a corner. 

         Abdul called over the weekend. He's an activist videographer with a long, solid resumé, including years at PBS. We had planned to do something together about compassion as a universal moral value. Now Abdul sounded just as despondent as Bill and Claire. "Did you know," he said, "did you know, that sixty hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute? What's the point of doing anything?"

         Afterwards I looked up how many books are commercially published each week: roughly 6,500. (If you include self-published titles, the weekly total is more than nineteen thousand). Tell me, how many books have you read in the last week?

         Once upon a time, those odds didn't matter to me, just as long odds probably didn't matter to Abdul. Like my friends more directly involved in politics and social-justice work, Abdul and I both felt anchored in an American mainstream. We felt we were a secure part of a national conversation.

         That has changed. Now more and more people that I know are trying to ignore politics. We are backing away because staying engaged feels impossible.

         This blog, for instance, fell silent after armed and uniformed neo-Nazi militias rallied in Charlottesville. When President Trump failed to denounce them, I felt that I no longer recognized America. What had looked like deepening shadows from the 1930s now felt like the knife-edged storm front that any native Midwesterner recognizes as tornado weather. Something deep in my soul did something like run to shelter under a basement stairwell. I shut down. I could no longer cope with feeling hostile, helpless, and crazy.

         Everything I tried to write sounded shrill and belligerent. It all flowed from a dark place within me that was nothing but incoherent outrage, personal malevolence, and despair about the future of American democracy.

         So I stopped writing.

——//——

         At a craft fair earlier that summer, I'd seen a display of hand-dyed yarn. I'd never seen anything so gorgeous: bundled loops of yarn the length of my forearm, rich colors complexly variegated. I decided that someday I should learn needlework just to have an excuse to play with that remarkable yarn.

         At the time, this was just a passing thought, a low-priority entry on my bucket list, no more probable than seeing the Great Wall of China. But when I found myself chronically exhausted, frazzled, and desperate to stay offline after dinner, needlework came to mind. I had a new grandchild on the way. I decided she needed a newborn-size pussy hat—a memento of the historical moment into which she had been born. I should begin, I decided, by making a proper plain newborn beanie she would actually wear, something simple, without the little kitty ears on either side of the crown.

         So instead of writing every day—as I have for most of the last sixty years—I took up crochet. I felt acutely guilty from time to time about not writing more than I already had about fundamentalist Christianity and hard-Right politics. But faced with a choice between feeling crazy and feeling guilty, I opted for guilt. I crocheted instead of checking the news every few hours. I crocheted instead of checking Facebook. I avoided Twitter like the plague. Entire days went by as I sat there with a small hook tying yarn into beautifully intricate little knots.     

         I found a terrific recipe for eight simple crusty yeast rolls. I made it repeatedly. I'd eat a bite or two between rows of crochet. I need that much bread just as much as my grand-daughter needs the dozen bibs I eventually made for her. But I persisted. I needed the comfort.

         Then I signed up for knitting classes—a whole new skill set, equally challenging. Vogue Knitting wedged itself onto my shelf of cookbooks, right next to my cherished copy of Crochet for Dummies. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. A year went by. There I sat, yarn properly laced between the fingers of my left hand, one or two little sticks held in my fingertips, slowly turning yarn into fabric.

——//——

         Needlework is remarkably soothing. The action of needlework is both repetitive and intricate, which provided a manageable challenge to my limited natural dexterity. Needlework also requires sustained concentration of a visual and spatial variety that felt entirely new—and utterly non-verbal. Everything else I had ever studied, including mathematics, I had somehow turned into language, into sentences, into relationships among words. Needlework felt utterly silent. And that's what I needed.

         Needlework gradually silenced the rant that had been flowing through my soul like toxic discharge from a Koch-brothers factory. If my attention flagged for a moment—if my hyper-verbal consciousness started muttering grimly to itself—I'd make some mistake. I'd skip a stitch. I'd do the wrong stitch. I'd find yet another way to do something backwards. It was proof positive of my mental meandering, evidence of how obsessed I had become—me, and how many other people? I became adept at "frogging," the needlework term for undoing hours and hours of work in order to repair a mistake.

         Stitch by stitch, stitches done and undone and done again, needlework gradually stilled my sour muttering. The ranting subsided. I found my way back to a calm, resilient, resolute center that had been disrupted by Trump's election and all the stages of grief that followed. Stitch by stitch, I have rewoven the fabric of my composure.

         And one day my voice returned. It felt like spotting the season's first robin, or watching first snowfall. Oh, look, the season is changing.

——//—— 

         As I found my voice again, I also found my proper role in the resistance. What I can contribute comes down to something like this: we need antidotes to the despair that has enveloped so many of us so completely since Donald Trump was elected.

         Despair is a spiritual predicament, not a political one. Despair may have major political consequences, of course. Trump's supporters were centrally motivated by their own despair. Paradoxically, despair is a condition that unites the nation. But the problem of despair is itself a spiritual problem.

         And despair has remedies. Temporary relief can be reached by rousing up fear and hatred and aggression, but these need to be riled up repeatedly to keep the remedy working. (That's what Trump's tweets and his rallies try to achieve with his supporters; that's also the mind-game he is playing with the rest of us.) But hostility provides diminishing returns over time: reasonable people grow weary of tirades whether from Trump or about him. We withdraw from politics altogether, which is a dangerous mistake.

         Serious remedies for despair are complicated. They do not demand religious faith nor conformity to dogma. But they do require maturity and, at times, precise and careful thinking about complex issues.

         That's what I hope to explore in this blog. I hope it serves your own sanity to check in here from time to time. I'll do my best to make it worth your while.

         If you need more visceral solace, try needlework—or at least this recipe for crusty rolls.