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Lost and found, again

By RICA BOLIPATA-SANTOS Published Mar 27, 2022 5:00 am

I stopped writing for a long period in my life. In my deepest moments of despair, I’ve counted these years like sheep, making sleep impossible. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I was always writing. But…I wasn’t writing.

There were many reasons for my silence. In the beginning it was middle age and all the loss that comes with it. It was easy to blame middle age but not so easy when the losses began to multiply beyond what the heart could take. When you are hit in the face with grief, the instinct is not to write (right away, at least), but to hold one’s face (Am I here, am I here, where is my face, my face), count scars and heal. Or for many, and sometimes me, to hide the scars. I don’t mean to be hidden, but this is not a piece about a listing of heartache because it is just what it is. One can never escape heart ache, at any age, except that at middle age, with less buoyancy, and collagen, the cuts cut deeper. But never mind the carcass and the autopsy. Such work is for someone else, somewhere else.

“Young Italian Woman at a Table”

It seemed much more logical, or natural, to retreat into silence. I thought of all my proclamations in writing and found them full of ego, vanity, ill-gotten and suspect. How stupid I was to have said anything about desire, children, love. Again, and again, all these will just stump you, leave you wordless and breathless. Desire misleads, children change, love shape-shifts. “Man plans and God laughs.” Much better to just let life be and have its way with you. To impose language upon experience is to impose order and thus reason. It is that reason that life trumps again and again. How frightening to have amassed so much knowledge in decades of study and teaching, and come to the conclusion that I did not know anything, least of all myself, anyway.

How was I to find myself beyond pain, then? Beyond words? I see the irony of writing this now: how are you to trust me or trust my words again?

This new knowledge changed me. I stopped showing up on the page. What could I—or would I—write with conviction? With the pandemic upon us, even more I felt muted or rather felt the need to mute myself voluntarily. As those nearest and dearest fell ill and as many died, all the more wisdom remained silent. What wisdom was there to share? Here is life. Here is death. Hold both with equal measure. Where to find wisdom in the face of the only real and true incontrovertible truths? What else may lie beyond after the names of lives lost move beyond what one can remember? In all my prayerful ages, I have not kept a list this long, my throat aching from the utterance of names of the sick and the dead.

How was I to find myself beyond pain, then? Beyond words? I see the irony of writing this now: how are you to trust me or trust my words again?

The only real work of my silence was to find me and I know this now. To find me is to find peace in this painful world.

Perhaps by the honesty with which I share with you about my loss of words. Let me tell you what happened to me when I became mute.

I returned to the words of childhood, books that had raised me, songs that I knew by heart, poems and prayers tattooed. I had hoped they could rebuild the world for me. But they were cold and meaningless, devoid of their usual warmth and comfort. I suppose I felt betrayed by them, thought they had lied to me because the world had turned out different.

But I was naive to think muting was just about keeping my lips sealed. Because unsaying something does not mean it does not exist. One’s person always leaks in other ways, one always articulates the self, even in silence, and perhaps quite dizzyingly, the most in silence—in the way one listens, in the way one chooses, in the way one makes or destroys anything. I made my words/worlds in these new ways—articulating myself in the desire to listen even more deeply to anyone who came my way. Who knew my feeble hands could make anything grow? But here I am, a surprise pale green thumb, capable of tilling the earth with very little knowledge except a faith in fruit. Someone would come to me for words, but I would hand over a plant instead.

I rediscovered my body and its own way of expressing the inexpressible. Pounding feet on pavement, arching in backbends, containing grief and anger in shapes I could manage to hold and breathe into. When my mother became sick, it was the touch I used and not my words.

We live, we die. But in the middle in the middle is freedom.

The only real work of my silence was to find me and I know this now. To find me is to find peace in this painful world. You can mute yourself, but you cannot turn away from all the mess and mayhem of the world. Was I afraid of my silence? Yes and no. I had given up my voice many other times and each time I came back more fluent. Who would I be at the end of this quiet accumulation?

It is a funny story, how I found words again. One day, in the garden, in the quiet of a garden, the mustasa seed leafed. I beheld her and felt compelled to feel her name on my tongue, to roll it out and see its shape and movement when pronounced. Like the beginning of the world, there was the word. And the word was good. “Mustasa.” Mustard. Such a beautiful thing. And then my heart asked a tiny question: What words were said again about the mustard seed?

This question, so naive, so small, so innocent, and yet so Biblical, made me brave again. A question, a good one, becomes like roots, allowing one to releaf, again; to see, again, how words can still make good things and see the stories they make and the way stories make you and I. It reminded me of my sacred duty to the work of building a world with my words, knowing that they are but a fraction, a shade, a sister to truths that cannot be escaped. I cannot lie about what I find even if the words are hard for what I find. We live, we die. But in the middle—ah, in the middle—in the middle is freedom.

The words come and teach when one is ready to learn again. And then, suddenly, lo and behold, the words came. Like manna from heaven, arriving just when one thought the hunger would never end. It was one line that didn’t signify any real thing. Just this one line: She needed to learn how to hold glass.

Was it for a story? Was it for an essay? Was it for prayer? Was it meant to be sung? Was it a mantra? A curse? A blessing? My soul was back in the work of its original longing—that longing to create a sentence that becomes a path, a walkway, a way through—to what, who knows? Or I know. Or I know again. All utterances lead back home.