Quiet, Powerful Women

I am fascinated by quiet women.

I, who have always been afraid of being too loud. Too big. Too much.

“You have a lot to say.” A second grade teacher once told me. Tell me about it. I grew up understanding that there was a shame in silence. Be quiet. When you had an opinion a teacher didn’t like. Be quiet. When a grown-up didn’t want to answer your question. Be Quiet. When a parent was angry with you. Silence was never a kind of freedom for me. It was a prison. A punishment. And so I grew-up believing in full-disclosure. Believing that “not going there” is simply a coward’s way of pretending that there does not exist and I refuse to be afraid. Afraid of my own experiences, my own heart. Or perhaps what I fear the most is becoming invisible.

Quiet women challenge that fear.

They frighten me. In the best sense. I am captivated. I collect them, in my head. Women who can nestle themselves at a party in one spot, genuinely comfortable in the knowledge that there will be people who will start to orbit them. Or not. Who cares? I flit from familiar face to familiar face, eager to feel connection. I have trouble sitting still at parties because I worry that it means I am growing boring. And so I speak up. If I hide nothing, I will be ashamed of nothing. So the logic goes. In announcing to other people that my voice is worth hearing, I announce it to myself.

A woman takes a risk in being quiet. The risk that people will see her as only a body, maybe a face. The assumption that she is quiet because she lacks opinions, insights, ideas. I have spent twenty-seven years fighting the possibility that people might see me as just a silly girl. And so these women that I gravitate towards, their silence, to me, is brave. In fact, it is the very choice to remain silent, to let the space fill with other people’s clamor rather than waste breath on pleasantries that I find so intriguing. How is it, I wonder that these women convey their brilliance with so little effort? Simply existing in it until the moment that some passersby chooses to engage in it. By trusting in it, I suppose.

The desire to be heard is why I fell in love with the theatre. Visibility seemed a given, connection a basic requirement. Whenever you go on stage you are asking someone to connect with you. It is a request but also a bargain, an offer, and this power differential is one I could sit with. At times demanding look at me. At others, holding back to wait and see what sort of emotional offering your audience has brought you. But even in the theatre I was obsessed with quiet women.

I became obsessed with roles that were subtle. Quiet. Predicated on a subduing of passion, a fire bubbling beneath the surface without overflowing. Elizabeth Proctor. Desdemona. Sonya Alexandrovna. I did not play these roles. But I desperately wanted to believe that I could. I was Clarice, the wailing lover of Commedia. I was Adelaide. I was Medea. A professor once told me that she questioned my ability to play a more subtle character. It haunts me still.

There is a certain beauty in the theatre of playing to your strengths – discovering the parts of yourself that are echoes of others– giving new life and new history to your own being. And then there is the uncertainty of what it is to be typecast. Boxed in by who you are in a way that implies a lack of transcendence. No matter how hard you act, they will only see a loud girl pretending to be quiet. It is both the joy and the heartache of acting that you must simultaneously embrace wholly who you are and then be able step outside of that. We dance between self-acceptance and self-avoidance. How neatly art imitates life.

Often when we look at other people what we are really trying to see is ourselves. Am I that smart? That strong? Do I nibble my fingers when I get nervous like they do? Would they see me? Would they like me? We think the best mirrors to our own hearts will be another person’s, forgetting for a minute that they, like us, are trying to see the forest through the trees. Trying to place themselves in some great struggle that everyone is fighting. I wonder if they know how powerful they are to me, these quiet women. How loud and clumsy my noise seems in comparison. Or do they look at me and see someone whose strength is simply carried loudly, while theirs is not? Do they see my strength and not their own? It’s possible. At this point, I have stopped trying for subtlety. Or silence. I will never be the gentle force in any room. But I will never stop seeking that power, never stop wanting to have a look through those eyes.

I will never tire of finding the most stand-offish person at a party and vying for her attention. Sometimes it’s secret, and I don’t even go so far as to talk to her, just maybe orbit the kitchen where she stands, refilling my jar of Franzia near her elbow. And sometimes I am bolder, carrying myself brusquely, announcing an invitation to chat with a question or remark. Living in the possibility of a conversation. Knowing that I might not get one.

I am learning to accept the silence.

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