Have you ever wished your wife would just shut up? Here's what happens when she does.
"So your dog with the pink leg, is that some surrealist message?"
I wanted to say, "If you're looking for surrealism, wait until you try to follow my directions." Instead I just smiled and walked away. Then I ran into a neighbor. I thought everyone on the block knew about Sasha, but he looked shocked and said, "What happened?" I rolled my eyes, shook my head, picked up Sasha, and ran back to the house.
For the last few months I've been writing a book, so it was easy to have a silent morning, since most of the time Sasha provides my only interaction with another mammal. But by midafternoon, I was missing even the minor human contact I usually had. I called my husband at work. After he said "Hello" and I didn't say anything, he said, "Oh, it's you. How's it going?" Pause. "That well, huh?" Pause. "I love you and you're very weird."
My plan for picking up my daughter was to grab her like a member of Delta Force on an extraction mission. I wanted to avoid the happy chitchat of the lingering parents that made the school such a nice place. My daughter was not in the room where I normally meet her. As I looked down a corridor I saw the back of a father who was a friend. Before he turned and saw me, I ran in the opposite direction, only to come face to face with him halfway around the circular hallway. Goodbye, Thomas Merton. Hello, Harpo Marx.
He said, "How are you doing?" I pointed to my throat.
"Laryngitis?" he asked. I shook my head no. Just then, my daughter arrived and explained I had taken a vow of silence. "I won't ask," he said, sensibly, if with a touch of suspicion.
On the walk home my daughter said, "Mom, if there was an emergency, could you talk?" I nodded yes. "Then you are better off than Helen Keller."
Because I was in the normal world and not on a retreat where we all greeted each other with virtuous gazes, I was getting enlightened as to what agony it would be to involuntarily be unable to communicate. My daughter raised a good point. No one paid money to put on blindfolds or earplugs for a few days. Yet forgoing speech was supposed to be purifying. I understood why "retreat" was as important as "silent." Fleeing from all acquaintances left me feeling less like a spiritual pilgrim and more like a fugitive.
That evening I met up with some Slate colleagues to see a movie at a D.C. film festival. The sidewalk was swarming, but I was late and they weren't outside. One colleague had bought the tickets in advance. I paced in and out of the lobby trying to figure out a strategy. What if they were already in the theater waiting for me? I realized I'd just have to leave; there was no way to explain my predicament to the ticket taker.
Then a big rush of people moved inside. I thought of trying to hide myself in the next wave to get into the theater, and I imagined my subsequent arrest. I had read that Mahatma Gandhi was such an advocate of silence ("[O]ne cannot help feeling that nearly half the misery of the world would disappear if we, fretting mortals, knew the virtue of silence ...") that for years he did not speak on Mondays. On one of those Mondays, the British authorities arrested him. He greeted them with a smile. The D.C. police probably would not recognize this historical reference when I smiled and refused to speak. They probably wouldn't even appreciate my literal-minded response to the "right to remain silent." I stayed on the sidewalk and finally my colleagues arrived.
After a few minutes trying to banter with me in the theater as we waited for the movie to start, the Slate colleague I was seated next to declared me a colossal bore. That night he sent me an e-mail presciently predicting if this went on much longer my husband would fly into a rage.