My heart and my mind keep turning to M., my darling little neighbor. She doesn’t speak often and when she does, it is in a high, childish voice; one that belies her eleven years on this earth; one that sounds more like a little, tiny girl of, say, six or seven years. M. has selective mutism.
Speaking, except when in the safety of her own home, is not her thing.
I’ve been thinking of how it feels to spend time with M. Here are the words that best describe that time: Companionable. Nurturing. Easy. Calm. No pressure. Peaceful.
Moreover, I notice that as I spend time with M., I speak less. But we communicate more.
Commune, is the word I would use to describe our non-verbal time together. Commune means intimate communication, rapport, and often means a spiritual communion that is without words. Interesting. Does removing language from communicating enhance our heart connection?
This leads me to consider other times I use my heart and not my words to communicate. Presence. Being with. The way that we are in support of another’s being. I think of my granddaughter. My Mom was observing us and commented: “You’re so calm with her.” I thought about that. She’s right. The calmness comes from the energy I so want to transmit to S. I’ve got you. There’s nothing more important to me than you. I love you. Additionally, S. must feel my heart truth: There’s nowhere I’d rather be than with you. Surely when we are aligned with our being’s purpose, calm is the resulting energy.
When else do I feel that pervading sense of calm? When my husband touches my back as I’m driving and I feel my being flooded with relaxation. When I snuggle up with my husband at night. When my sweet yellow lab lays his giant head on me. When I’m near the ocean. When I listen to music. When I read. I used to feel this all the time when I walked through the woods in Maine. Swimming in a pond. Creating art with my studio mates. I used to feel this when I was doing crisis family therapy, using all of my senses to read the situation and to respond in a way that brought people together. Doing hospice work. When I am with my granddaughter.
And when M. and I hang out.
So clearly M. is both eliciting and responding to sacred space. That is REALLY valuable stuff.
It might also be that language inherently puts a demand on us, both in speaking and listening.
Why, then, do I care about M. being able to speak with more ease? I don’t care about it for our time together. I care about it so that she can more readily manage her contacts with our world. We live in an extroverted, loud, speech dominant world. For women, finding our voices is NOT a given; for this child, even more so. How can I assist M. in being able to speak up while also valuing her intuitive language, that which elicits communion for herself and for others?
I think about differences. My spouse is severely sight impaired. My heart is failing. My neighbor has cerebral palsy . My friend’s parents are both deaf. If they speak at all, it is accompanied by signing; the spoken word is never going to be their first language. My Bobah immigrated from Russia and had to adopt a new language, painstakingly. My nephew is non-verbal and autistic. My son has a disorder of written expression. Our nation of immigrants struggles to find words with which we can reach one another.
I value diversity so very much. Being able to HEAR the unique experiences of others is exactly why I loved being a therapist. It is also why I love jumping into other worlds via books. It is also why I love this big, crazy, noisy, speech centric world.
And it is also why I treasure quiet spaces, why time with M. reminds me of the inherent value in how she intuitively communicates.
Here’s another little snapshot: My granddaughter is a little over two years old. She’s besieged with instructions to use her words. At daycare she has had her share of biting and hitting. I observe her working so very hard to decipher her world, figure out expectations, figure out her feelings and respond appropriately- which means with words. What a tall order. And what a relief for her when she comes to play with M. M. allows S. to play quietly , both of them near one another. No demands. Just close proximity. This is, in part, the classic parallel play that toddlers engage in. It is also more than that because M. is older and is therefore able and willing to share. M. is also attuned to what S. might need. She is a nurturing and non-demanding presence. S. thrives in this context.
But what of M.? When does she experience such a non-threatening interaction, besides with her parents and perhaps for the hour a week she spends in play therapy? M. works so hard to communicate at school and with her friends….even with me as she finds the need to employ her high voice-whisper. I frequently have to ask her to repeat herself. I try to tell her I have old ears, to spare her thinking it is her speech.
I’ve been reading up on treatment for selective mutism. I consider myself to be a card carrying member of Team M, which includes her extremely able parents and a cadre of grandparents. I think I can come up with some fun activities that might also help M. expand her speaking repertoire. But I hope that I will never, ever lose sight of the intrinsic value of M.’s native communication style. She adds to the color of this world, inviting us to stretch our sense of how we can interact.
It never hurts to let this question sit alongside all that we do: Should M. be working to adapt to the speaking world or should the speaking world be working to adapt to her? I know the PRACTICAL answer to this question. But I raise this more for the apriori preconceptions behind the question. What are the inherent assumptions? That M. can grow in the spoken word (as opposed to insisting that the blind learn to see or the wheelchair bound walk); That the spoken word is somehow superior to other modes of communicating; That the dominant culture gets saliency; That diversity is not as important as conformity; That we’ve got to “fix” M.
What do you think?
I’ll leave you with a few words from Alison Krause’s song: “When You Say Nothing At All,”
It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart.
Without saying a word you can light up the dark.
Try as I may I could never explain what I hear when you don’t say a thing.
You say it best when you say nothing at all.