Silent Retreat

Buenos Aires, Argentina                                 

When I moved to Argentina, I lost my voice.  It’s not that I didn’t know Spanish – I had studied Spanish in college and even spent a semester abroad in Spain.  It’s that I didn’t speak Spanish.  And I certainly didn’t speak Argentine Spanish.

Yet, despite my inability and reluctance to speak, I began to make friends.  One of the first things that I did when I arrived in Buenos Aires was sign up for classes.  Rather than enroll in a Spanish course, I took dance classes – an activity of few words.  In addition to teaching me the parts of the body, giving structure to my life and allowing me to develop and explore hidden talents and passions, I met people who had similar interests.   And they began to invite me to do things.  Particularly things that didn’t require a lot of speaking like dancing, watching movies, eating dinner with a large group of Argentines, and listening.

Truthfully, I never understood why anyone would possibly want to hang out with me.  I could not have been less boring. I spent a lot of time questioning people’s motivations and doubting myself – was I was just the token foreigner, the pet yanqui, a status symbol, a chance to practice English, a potential hook-up?  I also spent a lot of time faking it – smiling and nodding vaguely, laughing when it seemed appropriate, and matching my facial expression to the mood in the room.  And when I got really tired, I resorted to staring blankly.

I felt invisible. Many of my best qualities are expressed orally – my sense of humor, intelligence, wisdom, and empathy.  If I couldn’t make jokes, give advice, discuss politics and philosophy, ask questions, or tell stories, who was I? I hadn’t just lost my voice. I had lost my personality as well.

Except that you don’t suddenly stop being you when you stop speaking. People can still see you even if they can’t hear you.  The things you do, the places you go, the way you act and react, your walk, dress, and body language all say as much, or more, about you than your words.

Words are not the only way we have of communicating who we are. Sense of humor is evidenced by how often you laugh, especially at yourself, as well as by how often you make others laugh.  Intelligence is measured by how quickly you learn, as well as by how much you already know. Who I am was understood, even if it was never clearly stated.

In fact, during my vow of silence I discovered that language had been holding me back.  I used to talk about doing things rather than actually do them.  I used sarcasm to conceal my emotions.   I analyzed, evaluated, and justified every action. Without words to hide behind, I was more exposed than ever. I couldn’t talk about who I was, I could just be. And I learned that if you are a person worth getting to know, people will invest time and energy in getting to know you. Even if it does require patience and the occasional game of charades.

With time, I learned Spanish, recovered my voice, and began to talk again.  A lot.  Especially since I now have much more interesting things to say and twice as many ways to say them.  But sometimes, I still prefer to just listen. 

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