“Right up to that afternoon at my grandfather’s bedside, […] I believed (and for the most part still believe) that silence was darkness, and that naming shone alight. I believed that a secret was like a malignancy and confession a knife, a bright hot beam of radiation that healed as it burned. I believed it was good–this being among the few things that truly did go without saying–to ‘get it all out.’
Then I heard the bitterness of defeat in my grandfather’s voice […]. When it came to things that needed to be said, speech was always preferable to silence, but it was of no use at all in the presence of the unspeakable.”
-Michael Chabon, Moonglow
As a writer, Michael Chabon is in the business of naming, of speaking. Moonglow is his 428 page attempt to understand his grandfather by retelling large parts of the man’s life. It is as deep-hearted an attempt as I have ever seen to meld one’s heart with another’s. It is a revelation that revisits old wounds, and discovers wounds previously hidden. It is part confusion and part love song and very, very honest. On page 243, that honesty leads Chabon to question the value of finding the words, of “getting it all out.” Two-hundred and forty-three pages in, he questions the very task he’s doing.
I want to learn from Chabon’s courage. I think it’s important, every now and then, to step back and question some of your most fundamental beliefs.
Often, when I stumble into those questions, they hurt. I start wondering if my work (teaching, writing) is like trying to hold back the tides with sandcastle walls. I wonder if I’m like the child who moves his hands on the fake steering wheel of a rollercoaster, pretending that he’s directing the car. Asking that hurts me. Why doesn’t it hurt Chabon?
I think it does–but that’s not all it does. (And of course, our perspective can change the experience of pain. I don’t mind my hands hurting when I’ve been rock climbing. When I’m holding a friend who hurts, I don’t mind when I cry). Chabon’s questions do more because he’s actually willing to move, to reconsider, to learn. Hopelessness comes when I can’t trust words, and words are the only thing around to trust. Fear comes when I question my path, and still believe it’s the only path I could ever walk. If there are other things, if I could trust silence or music or movement, then learning that words can’t do everything is just an opportunity to learn more. If I’m willing to learn more, than questioning the things I believe in is an opportunity to look carefully and see some new facet, some new face.
A little sand wall probably won’t hold the wave–but sand, and rock, and grass will. The little boy on the rollercoaster isn’t driving the car–but he is part of the movement. He’s learning that things change, that there are things he can touch, turn. If we hit ourselves with the questions, then questioning what we most believe breaks apart our world. If we’re open to the questions, and thoughtful with them, then they lead us to new possibilities and refine the possibilities of what we’ve already found.
Speaking is wonderful. It isn’t everything. Words can do a lot. They can’t do it all.