Quiet Ways: or How to Speak Without Words

I was talking with a friend, herself emerging from chemo treatment and who had been checking in with other friends in worse situations than she was, about how to be with someone in their suffering. How to be present enough with someone else, even as we each go down our paths alone. We are creatures of words and yet words are so inadequate sometimes. The ritual of prayers seems to help some people but I think that on oft-repeated prayer becomes less the words in it than the sonority and familiar rhythm of it. And if repeated with others becomes a communal song of drone, rhythm, percussion and sibilance — “as we forgive those who trespass against us” (if that’s the way that prayer is said nowadays, “trespass” probably replaced by something more modern, but I like that sense of forgiving someone who crossed some boundary line unauthorized). Being present is what my friend Pierre tries to do with the dying. But what do you do in the threshold? How tiresome it must be to a dying person when someone bustles in and says a usual opener like “how are you today?” How does Pierre manage passing under the lintel between being in the world and being in the world of the dying? What is the password to presence? On the phone with my friend, who admitted to her own suffering, I am not sure I was able to convey presence enough, nodding into the phone. Silence at a distance is ambiguous — can you hear me? Did my murmurs of assent say strongly enough “I hear you, friend”? I think often of a sketch an artist friend made, a pencil drawing of a rolling landscape stretched over a long sheet of paper, two tiny figures making their way down the road, one bent from age or pain, the other bowed in aid. The long white page, the fine line dividing them, joining them. Mmhm, I say. Mmhm.

2 thoughts on “Quiet Ways: or How to Speak Without Words

  1. Presence is right. I wish there were a code for getting it right, but there’s a good deal of juggling: medium of contact (phone, letter, text, FB, visit, not in that order), germs you may be carrying, what to say, what not to say. Your friend no doubt appreciated your willingness to listen. Sometimes that and praying are most of what we can do.


    • Well, for those of us who do not believe in an entity listening on the other side of prayer, listening is all we’ve got. Sort of reverse-prayer, etymologically.


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