On stilled voices and visualising silence

Yesterday my 100 days project word was ‘silence’ — and I have to say it was possibly the most challenging to date.

Partly that might be because I’m away from home, without access to my normal work tools and archives and reliant on my iPad. Partly it’s just because silence is something I find difficult to visually convey.

Eventually I realised that the most profound silence is not an absence of sound, but an absence of communication. Last year, on my trip to Scotland, I visited a number of cemeteries and kirkyards, looking for the headstones of ancestors. I found more than I’d expected and will always treasure those moments with those tangible symbols of my lineage.

But alone in those bleak, quiet places, I also felt the profound loss of lives stilled. I come from ordinary folk who don’t in general leave traces of themselves in recorded history. Once those who knew them stop sharing stories, their lives are silenced.

If I learned anything from my kirkyard visits, it is to speak to family members now; record their stories and share them with the next generations.

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19 thoughts on “On stilled voices and visualising silence

  1. A brilliant interpretation of silence, Su! I must admit (at the risk of sounding maudlin) I love old cemeteries – graveyards, as they are so mysterious and atmospheric. But when you walk around and read the headstones, it is so sad to see the number of children who died in past eras.

    • Thank you so much Lee-Anne. I also quite unashamedly love cemeteries, but like you, am sometimes moved to tears by the sad stories. Symonds Street Cemetery in central Auckland is huge and rambling and was the largest graveyard in the city (disused since 1940s I think). So many settler families with large numbers of children who never made it to adulthood.

      • Yes, it’s heart rending and makes me glad I inhabit the 21st century. Although that said, there is a reduction in Australia of vaccinating kids by some who fear the side effects. If too many people don’t, all those horrible diseases will return. I hope NZ is more sensible!

      • So many diseases are returning; NZ has high rates of rheumatic fever and skin diseases that are related to poverty and over-crowding. The real fear is antibiotic resistance though; so much use in meat production. Within a few years even basic surgery could be fatal because of all the super-bugs.

      • Yes! I saw a documentary on superbugs recently and it scared the daylights out of me – enough to never step into a hospital or go overseas! :(

        But I do try not to be paranoid…if I can’t fix it I try not to stress about it. :)

    • :-) Kirkmichael in Perthshire. It was such a wet day; no one around and I spent ages wandering around the yard, not even knowing if I’d find a stone for my relatives. A wonderful place.

  2. Love this post Su. I, like many others, love being in cemeteries. I am not often moved to tears (although I completely understand it)… it’s more of a feeling for me. The extreme sense of loss and sadness. In one small family burial ground I was in in Co. Antrim, Ireland two years ago; I was overcome with sadness. To the degree that I didn’t want to be in there alone; which is very strange for me. Since being there I realized that many of the names in the small burial ground are connected to my paternal line. If one or two are connected to me, they all are! It’s a short walk from where I stay on my trips “back home”… so, I’ll be returning in a week and half; and will record all the graves to see how/where the families connect to me. Maybe the profound sense of sadness and loss that I felt in 2012 was “someone” trying to tell me “something”! :)

    • I think I understand that feeling; and the awareness in small burial grounds that you’re surrounded by your own past. Good luck with your next trip “home”. I hope your research goes well and you find some peace in that graveyard.

  3. Very well said. I too feel the weight of silence from generations past whose stories haven’t been heard. I particularly liked the line of “profound loss of lives stilled”.

  4. This gives me the shivers in the best possible way. I love old cemeteries because they are both peaceful and intriguing–not a commonly found combination.

  5. “Once those who knew them stop sharing stories, their lives are silenced.” It took me a decade to summon the commitment necessary to produce “Wayne’s Journal”. It was my father’s small diary from 1944/45 that spurred me on. Wayne was his older brother; both were aerial gunners. One in the South Pacific with the 13th Air Force; the other with the 8th Air Force in England. The experiences and things that happened to them had reverberations throughout our family and still they echo through the generatioins. It occurred to me in reading Wayne’s writing that was true for many people. The stories and mentions of men in Wayne’s Journal and their reporting on the Internet mean that somewhere, some time, by someone who reads reads their names, they will never be forgotten: http://waynes-journal.com/the-people/.

    • I think your project is such a valuable way to honour your father and uncle, and those who knew them. You are so right that their experiences reverberate down the generations and unless we try to understand and share those experiences, these things that shape us cannot be really understood nor the consequences dealt with. I’ve Ben fortunate to know and talk to some of my older relatives, but realise with hindsight I didn’t ask enough questions. And there are so many more I didn’t know. No diaries or journals have turned up yet, but there is a family legend that my husband’s great uncle’s WWI diary exists somewhere amongst family papers. He died in France in March 1918, so it would be wonderful to know more about his experiences.

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