Semester of Silence

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Sometimes the ideas we wrestle with are too strange and bulky to examine in our own minds. For most writers, this is no problem. But what happens when you run headlong into something–a idea, perhaps, but not exactly–something that you cannot express in the written word. What happens when you are so changed that you can no longer express what you think or feel or intuit? What happens when writing and speaking suddenly are no more useful than recording nonsense syllables and hoping to play back some helpful advice? When every big thought you have is too big–too complicated and dangerous to explore. When pushing your mind to consider anything meaningful is like poking the proverbial hibernating bear.

What happens when, as a writer, words become meaningless?

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but more often than not, that’s how I felt. Every time I tried to explain how I was feeling or what I was thinking or why something suddenly mattered so much more than it did before–every single time I fell short. There were no words to explain to anybody else what was going on in my head. For that matter, I didn’t really understand why I felt the way I did.

As I pushed forward through the early days of reverse culture shock (for me, reacclimating to the US), I thought that keeping busy was the solution. All the advice I read said to do things with friends, to tell stories but not overdo it, to create new experiences. So I started an 18-credit semester with a brand-new job and threw myself into everything. After only being back in the US for a week.

Far from home and far from my Mexican family, I had work to do. If I could just concentrate, maybe the whole culture shock thing would go away. But instead, it festered. I got angry at people easier. Little things set me off. I was bothered by the gross indifference of Americans, especially those who wanted to change the world. And even with all of my reading about culture shock and my discussions with someone who had experience in this area, I was totally unprepared. I look back and can catch glimpses of the stories I read playing out in my own life. But up until this moment–literally months later–I couldn’t see that.

So I’ve spent a semester trying to write and failing. Writing but refusing to press “publish.” Typing and scribbling and letting my pencil trace random shapes across countless pages of notes. Months of forcing myself to sit and write and hating what I’d written. Poetry and prose and random words dancing across pages. But all my words sounded clunky. And forced. And ugly.

I pounded my mattress and banged my head against walls and cried on friends’ shoulders and wondered what in the world I was missing. After spending some of the best days of my life in Mexico, I had to wonder why I couldn’t enjoy the friends and life I had at school. Every moment of happiness was dulled by the constant pounding of thudding thoughts that I couldn’t understand.

And to be honest, I still don’t understand everything that’s been happening in me since I stepped onto that Mexico-bound plane in May. I don’t know all of what God has done and is doing in my life. And I don’t like not knowing. But as I spoke to a couple different youth groups recently, I remembered all the faces of my family in Mexico–and I remembered all the faces of my friends who provided me with the financial means to get there, the faces of everyone who prayed for me and read about my travels and cared about what was going on. I got to meet a bunch of teenagers who were excited to send me to Mexico, long before they ever met me or knew any of the Mexican kids’ names.

Just a few days ago, I was sharing some of these frustrations with a minister from my church back home. Based on his and his wife’s experiences, he encouraged me to stop hitting the delete button. Instead, he recommended that I write, let it sit, and edit. So that’s what I’m doing. I’ve ignored this post for several weeks now, but finally I’m hitting publish.

No more deleting. I’m going to start writing again. I can’t promise that it will be pretty or even make sense all the time, but I’m going to stop dumping countless words into the virtual trash bins and start exploring who I am and what this reverse culture shock thing is doing in my life.

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