“When someone hears our story, we feel seen, we know we matter, and we instantly realize we’re not alone,” writes Jennifer Rudolph Walsh in her new book, Hungry Hearts: Essays on Courage, Desire, and Belonging. For two decades, Walsh was the worldwide head of literary, lectures, and conference divisions at WME. As one of the most respected literary agents in the industry, she’s shepherded some of the world’s bestselling books and writers, including Oprah and Brené Brown, and she knows that the best stories—the most powerful ones—are often the ones from deep inside the heart. Which is why Walsh eventually launched a touring storytelling event, Together Live, where writers and artists, including poets and musicians, could come and experience the raw power of storytelling together. A community soon grew out of these events, and then an anthology.
Hungry Hearts is a collection of sixteen essays from writers, creators, and thought leaders exploring the truths they hold within, exploring topics like losing friendships and finding purpose again. In this excerpt, activist Natalie Guerrero confronts her own unraveling after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and the silences, both big and small, that eventually become deafening.
By Natalie Guerrero
I’ve had a few broken hearts in my life. Some big, some small, but none as massive as those that were self-made. None as impactful as those I married to my silence. None as harsh and as tender as those I swallowed down, never let breathe, or adamantly shielded from the light of day.
A few years back, after I learned the hard way that first love doesn’t always last forever, my heartbreak took the shape of a plane ticket to Paris. Can you imagine? 3,367 miles all just to get away from myself.
I had been dying to visit Shakespeare and Co., the renowned bookstore in the heart of the city. So one Friday morning, I picked my sorry self up and ventured out. As I scanned the shelves for something that screamed UNBREAK MY HEART, my eyes met a tiny pink paperback. The words on the cover were deliberate. Focused. And speaking straight to me. In big white letters I read, AUDRE LORDE. And then—YOUR SILENCE WILL NOT PROTECT YOU.
I stopped dead in my tracks. That can’t be right, I thought. My silence is the only thing that has ever protected me. And then I felt my stomach flip a little bit. Like something inside me wasn’t so sure that was true. Was I wrong? Had my silence been the breeding ground for the ways my heart was breaking? Was it doing more suffocating than serving? And if my silence wasn’t protecting me, what was?
Before I knew it, I was sitting upstairs on a green cushioned stool, the store cat next to me, devouring Audre’s words for the first time. My heart was beating fast. It was like looking in a mirror, seeing all the words I never gave myself permission to say. It was like finding a road map. One that I’d been searching years for. One that actually seemed to belong to me, instead of the great big world outside myself.
Maybe Paris was working, I thought. Maybe I had escaped all the ways I was swallowing myself whole. Maybe I was done with the small game. Maybe, I thought, today was the first day of the rest of my life.
By the end of the night, I decided there was a God. And her name was Audre Lorde.
On the plane ride home, in a game I’ve since named Audre Lorde Meets Life, I made a list of a few times I had been silent. It read:
Yesterday, when I wanted red wine but the waiter had already opened the white.
Freshman year, when I swore nothing bad happened to me in that frat basement.
Last April, when my boss told me I had only been hired because I was “skinny and pretty.”
On the playground in fifth grade when a boy named Bobby called me a n*gger.
On the Metro-North from Larchmont to New York City, when I fainted instead of saying I was too hot and needed to sit down.
God, it was starting to feel like I had spent my entire life in the quiet car.
I read this list over and over for what must have been the entire nine hours to New York. I looked at myself on that piece of paper with fear, a little bit of empathy, and a whole lot of commitment to stop behaving like my silence would protect me. What struck me most about this list was the way my silence didn’t pick and choose only small moments to show itself. Instead, it reared its head no matter where I went. It was ever present no matter what the stakes were. Silence, I came to discover, was my master. And I had been waiting on it hand and foot for fear that the alternative would be crueler. If I let it continue, I realized, that same silence would sabotage me.
When I got back to New York I felt fine for the first few days—that magic dust from Paris was still all over me. I felt it at the coffee shop, when the barista handed me an almond milk latte and I quickly said, “Excuse me, but I ordered oat milk.” She looked at me, offended, and as she dumped my coffee down the drain, I heard her murmur, “Or you could just drink it.” But that was exactly it—I couldn’t. I had decided to stop drinking down whatever life served up for me. And isn’t it funny how the world finds us to be so unpalatable when we start to ask for the things we actually want?
Eventually, though, that new-car smell started wearing off. It was slow at first. I’d find myself sharing a meal when I wanted my own, saying I was full when I hadn’t eaten a thing all day, going to the bar when what I really needed was a face mask and a night in. And then, suddenly, the silence was seeping into every big corner of my life. I fell back into relationships I’d sworn off. I made no time for myself. I worked until I could barely see my computer screen. When I woke up in the morning, my hands would be shaking, screaming at me to slow down, but instead I simply put them to work. I started doing everything I could to look away from myself. I volunteered, took on extra work, took weekend trips in an attempt to escape the sinking feeling I had every day. It never worked, but I posted about those trips on Instagram as if it did. But what I was really doing was letting go of Audre Lorde’s godly pages and slipping back into my smallness. Being small was comfortable enough in its familiarity to create a feeling of safety, of power even. But I could never surprise myself. I knew everything in this version of my life. I could predict every outcome, and here’s how it would go:
I never ask for anything, so I never hurt.
I say “I love you” because it’s the polite thing to do.
I marry the boy.
I drink coffee in the morning.
I drink beer at night.
I have three or five kids.
I’m successful, whatever that means.
I never say no.
I learn how to ski.
I am grateful.
But I am not content.
So there I was again, staying safe, saying yes when I meant to say no, saying no when I meant to say yes, showing up for everyone but myself. I was choosing what felt comfortable and familiar over what felt true and terrifying. There was a voice inside of me screaming for change, but I committed myself to pushing it down, smothering it with my need for control.
And so for the next year, I stayed silent. I watched my life like it was a movie. All the while, I wondered if I’d missed my one great big chance to live my life the way I wanted. I wondered if I had missed the boat and now it was too late. I kept thinking about Shakespeare and Co.—the way I’d lit up and seen glimpses of a life I could be proud of, a parallel universe where I never backed down. Where I was relentless in the pursuit of my own liberation. I kept thinking about the way I’d sat down and written away my silence on that airplane. How certain I’d felt that things would be different by now—that I would be better by now. I kept asking myself, how did I end up here . . .again? That’s when the shame crept in. And that’s when I sank further into my silence. It turns out that my shame and my silence were great partners in me staying stuck.
So every day when I woke up and stepped willfully into my smallness, I also wondered how I could reclaim that feeling—the one I’d been so sure of when I left Paris. And not only that, but how I could move from having the feeling to acting on it? I clung to one thing: I believed in Audre’s words to my bones. I knew that my silence wouldn’t protect me, but I didn’t know how I could break that silence. My knowing was not enough to change my behavior. Instead, it seemed only to fuel my shame and, in turn, my silence.
Then, one morning, I was walking in midtown Manhattan when I heard a couple fighting on the sidewalk. She was screaming and he was red in the face. Finally she stopped yelling, and then, faintly, I heard her say, “You never choose me.” I scoffed. There was something about the way she was begging him for acceptance that sat cold in my belly. And I thought, Sister, choose yourself. I looked at her, and then in her eyes I saw myself. She was me, holding her arms open, waiting to be chosen, giving up all her power until she was given permission to take it back. So now I stopped. And I thought again, this time telling myself, Sister, choose yourself. It turns out that I had been confused this whole time. I was telling myself that Paris was my permission. That I had lost it. But in this electric moment, I realized: What if I am my own? What if I belong to myself? What if the road map is not something to be found in a bookstore three thousand miles away? What if the road map is already within me? What if I stop running from myself and start running TO myself?
I started by asking myself: What can I do TODAY that will help me tomorrow? I left the relationships I had let fester, speaking the words I had swallowed down. I made the move across the country that I had always wanted to do. I cut out making plans with people who left me feeling alone even when we were together. Most importantly, I started speaking up when I saw something happen out in the world that didn’t sit well with me. It was really hard, all the unlearning. It was painful, and I lost people and I let people down. Sometimes I felt so alone that I started to question all the steps I’d taken. But I also began to learn that my answer is always somewhere in my voice. It might be unsure, or shaky, or half-baked, but now when I question myself, my voice is the thing that I turn to—not my silence. I had waited patiently for a God. Then I found Audre. Now it was finally time to trust my own mind to point me in the next direction.
Around the time I started to disown my silence, I took up running. I thought instead of running from my fears, I’d actually let my feet hit the pavement. My morning runs became the times I got most honest with myself. I can hear myself on a run. I can separate out the silences from the truth. I can ask myself big questions, like what I want from the world and what I think I can give back to it.
One morning last May I was visiting my family in my lily-white picket-fenced hometown and I went out on my morning run. I wanted to gain some clarity in this place that had both bred me and beaten me down. After all, this was the place I learned my silence. I learned here first what it meant to be Black. Silence in this town was a defense mechanism. I used it to hide away from my skin and my hair and all the things that made me special and stick out like a sore thumb. I learned to shrink in the hope that no one would notice I was different.
In between all the big thoughts filling my brain while I ran, I counted the mansions I passed, panting. Most importantly, I made sure to smile. When you’re Black in a white neighborhood, you have to smile. For some reason, on this particular day, I was painfully aware of it.
When I got home, I heard Ahmaud Arbery’s name for the first time. Here’s what I learned: On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was enjoying a nice run on a beautiful day, just like I had that morning. Ahmaud began to be stalked by two armed men. They cornered him. Shot him three times, eventually killing him, and then, as he was bleeding out, they turned him over to see if he was armed. After that they went home and stayed there for months.
Ahmaud died alone and in the street. Disposed of like a piece of roadkill. Ahmaud’s life was individual. It will never be replicated, or returned to us, or given the chance to become. And yet I knew that, in all his brilliant singularity, Ahmaud Arbery was me—counting mansions in a lily-white town. He was sporting my same skin, letting his feet hit the pavement, and I wondered if he too knew he had to smile.
From that moment on, it seemed selfish to focus only on dismantling my own personal silence. I had to take it a step further. I had to dismantle the way the world revolved in silence. So I thought, What is it about silence that lures us in so insidiously? How is silence making the world sick? How can we defeat it? And what part have I played in maintaining it?
And then there I was, thinking about Audre Lorde again. This time, though, I was thinking about how many ways we as Black people have been taught to stay silent. We have internalized all the same lessons I myself had fought to overcome. We’ve been taught to stay small in order to stay safe. To put our hands up and be still. Never to talk back. Never to look up. Never to make a sudden movement for fear it might be our last. To become invisible. To straighten our spine. Work twice as hard. Lower the volume. In short, we have been taught that our silence will protect us.
And that’s when I saw our nation like I saw myself: unraveling from a lifetime of looking away, and paying the price for all the ways we’ve been stuck in our silence. While my Black peers’ silence felt rooted in fear for their lives, the white silence I witnessed seemed to be rooted in fear of losing their power. It was that white silence that kept harmful systems alive. It was white silence that stood in the way of change.
In the next few weeks I felt myself boiling, all the time. I was calling my representatives, but I was also in the grocery store ripping through the shelves, outraged that they were out of my favorite cereal. I was stepping into my power, raising thousands of dollars in donations, but I was also at the airport seething because my flight was delayed an hour. I was writing, speaking more than I ever had, interviewing victims of police brutality, and posting all my words on the internet. I was also at the dinner table ready for war because my brother took what I considered to be my seat. I was a storm of emotions, and working on balance felt a bit like walking a tightrope. I was standing in front of all my fury and searching for a productive place to put it. Here’s what I didn’t know about silence until I popped the lid open: once you’re through with it, years of unexpressed rage bubble to the surface. Audre Lorde also says, “Women responding to racism is women responding to anger.” I would like to add that our response often sounds a lot like the screams of our caged voices finally being set free.
The subtext of my anger, as well as our nation’s, had everything to do with how comfortable we’d been in silence and how we were willingly letting our souls rot from the inside out. While I was outraged, I was asking, How much time have I lost because of my silence? At the same time, the nation was asking, How much blood is on our hands because of our silence? The answer was the same: too much.
I never knew how addicting it could be to stay small until I saw a glimpse of being bigger. I saw the way I buried myself in my smallness, and once I named that smallness, I saw how sick the world was with it too. At some point we have all succumbed to staying stuck. We have all succumbed to silence. America’s silence is the same soul sickness that lived inside me for years.
So when I look at who we are as a nation, I think about both my heartbreak and my silence. I think about the ways I swallowed it down, and then I think about the ways the United States has done that too. Then I think, Sister, CHOOSE yourself. It is our turn to find the road map home that lives within the soul of this place. We are the answer that we have been looking for—we just have to stop asking for permission to get there. We have to ask ourselves what we can do TODAY that will help us tomorrow. We have to break our silence—first inside our own lives, and then outside of them too. It may not inoculate us from heartbreak, but it will protect us from betraying ourselves. Because the only thing I’m sure of now is that when we break our silence and speak our truth, we don’t only free ourselves. We free the world.
Excerpted from Hungry Hearts: Essays on Courage, Desire, and Belonging. Copyright © 2021 by Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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