• Amber

Hush Your Mouth


I'm not a big tea drinker outside of work, but somehow in the office I almost always say yes, and I almost always get given this mug:

I smile a wry smile and glances are exchanged, and I drink my tea and shut up for a few minutes. It's just the way I am - I'm a verbal processer. My parents have hours of video footage and hundreds of photos from my childhood and there I am, rabbiting away, bossing around my younger siblings or holding forth very seriously with the nearest adult. I always wanted to join in the 'grown up' conversation, so much so that my mum regularly had to shoo me out of the room when the subject turned to less than child-friendly topics, and if she didn't I was bound to loudly ask awkward questions. To my parents' credit I never thought there was anything wrong with this, although I have several distinct memories of being shut down by less understanding adults and feeling rather small and sorry for myself as a result. I suppose I must have cut an odd figure to the average grown-up, especially if they didn't have children - this bobbed beanpole with a very earnest face, full of loud opinions and overusing my favourite adjective of the week (I once told my grandma that a trip to the cinema had been 'absolutely horizontal!', which is still a go-to anecdote when they want to embarrass me). I will always be grateful that I was given the opportunity to channel my love of language in creative and engaging ways. My family let me story-tell to my heart's content, and my primary school teacher got me onto a creative writing weekend course aged eight, from which I came back with a whole book of poems and the firm resolution that I would become a journalist. I don't know why I didn't plump for novelist but I was getting into politics at this stage; also aged eight, I had marched across the road from my school to volunteer my opinion to the news crew who were reporting on the fact that local residents had prevented the school from buying the field immediately behind the playground, which meant that we had to be walked half a mile on country lanes to the common for sports. I just remember being propelled by a very strong sense of injustice, and while I'm sure there were plenty of people who understood the situation better than I did, I was the one who wanted to articulate it. Out of necessity I have of course learned to dial it down - my mum lived the example of a good listener and I watched her, learning to think before speaking and to make what I had to say count. 'Precis!' she would tell me repeatedly as I wriggled my way through long-winded explanations, or, in later years, homework essays. I never liked having to brutally cut out so much of what I thought was valuable description, but as I was told I couldn't always live in 'fairy land' (and I was insulted when it was implied I had no sense of practicality because I was always dreaming) I started to shut my mouth. Maybe I shut it a bit too much. In fact I know I did. It's such a fine line between effective communication and overshare, between creativity and pigs-may-fly, between what people will accept as whimsy and what makes them think you're just plain odd. I wanted to make people happy, that was all. I wanted them to like me. And slowly but surely that meant keeping my lips firmly pressed together, pretending I hadn't seen what someone had done, pretending I didn't have an opinion that needed airing, pretending it didn't matter when it really, really did. Because their eyes were judgemental and they would look at me as if to say, I dare you. What they were really saying was 'hush your mouth!'. You might be reading this thinking, 'well clearly she's given in to some kind of paranoia, and no one actually cares what she thinks/says.' I'll freely admit you might be right, and I am probably far more afraid of being considered irrelevant than opinionated or strange. Nobody likes to be ignored. But I'm willing to hazard a guess that some of this rings a bell for you, because you too have experienced that strange sensation of suffocation, second-guessing yourself and the value of what you want to say. We believe in free speech, we've seen people die defending it even this week, and it's not a straightforward situation at all. There are so many questions that need to be asked, but there's still so much fear of asking them. How will we know what's important and what we can impact if we're afraid to open our mouths? I don't tend to make New Year's resolutions, mainly because I'm making resolutions all year around; I need a kick up the backside more than once every twelve months! It just so happens that a lot of things in my life seem to be coming to a head in January; I'll call it serendipity. I guess what I want to say now is, if anything I've experienced and written here resonates with you, please join me in refusing to shut up. In your job; in your study; in your home; when you have something valuable to contribute; when you have truth to convey; when someone needs kindness; when something needs correcting; when the awkward questions have to be asked; when someone deserves congratulation and encouragement; when someone needs to be called out; when justice is lacking; when to bite your tongue would be to diminish your very essence - speak up. If I have a 2015 mantra it's this: I won't let fear be my master.

#culture #feminism #freedom #identity #personalhistory

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