The nights are getting longer where I am; the nights cover the land in a collective hush. The hush says: we are now approaching the time for wordlessness. The time in which to not fill up every empty space with words heard, spoken, written, read, or floating through the mind. Let it stay empty.
Wordlessness isn't quite the same as silence. One can be silent while filled to the brim with words. And conversely, there are all kinds of audible expressions one can make without need of words, like laughing, singing, crying out. I feel that wordless expressions are more powerful and concise than almost anything that can be said with words. I'm talking to you about this in words only because I don't know how to express it without words—not because words are better. Some writers have a genuine love for words, but I am not one of them. To me, words are a little clunky, a blunt tool for getting something across, but they will have to do.
The thing I call wordlessness is more than a momentary absence of words. It's more like the complete forgetting of words: forgetting there is such a thing as a word, forgetting that anybody should need a word or have any use for one if they happened upon one. In this state you can sleep, wake up, tend to your home; you can walk, sit, hear the wind, stargaze, draw, sing, cook, bathe. Wordlessness is where the animals live. And animals remind us that there was, and still is, a life without words.
Wordlessness predates history. One of the previous occupants of my dream house (thus, someone who is both me and not-me) is someone I think of as the wordless one. While others made text with words, for which they were remembered, she made textiles without words, for which she was not remembered. But her form of work was much, much older, and there is memory in that.
There is no history in gentleness. She gently found mushrooms. She questioned the authority.*
Without words she could more easily communicate with the animals, with the snow, with the house, and with the things in the house. Without words she couldn't convey what that felt like—not in a form that anyone was looking for—but only through wordless work. Through wordless work she made a life out of nothing. She was an alchemist. Books don't remember, but the house remembers.
I presume a housewife is someone who will stay and maintain the house, decorate, arrange, rearrange, prepare, wash, put things away, bring them out again—the house not being a site of accumulating production but a site of a series of simultaneous productions which bear no evidence of productivity—save for the fact that the home isn't falling apart.*
Much art is a matter of accumulating production, which lasts as long as the medium lasts—works that exist on paper, canvas, film, including "ephemeral art" that is nonetheless captured in a video or in an artist statement written on paper or a hard drive. But the work of a caretaker is even more ephemeral than that, and cyclical, happening again and again without being celebrated or immortalized at all. When she prepared food or cleaned the house, it would benefit the house and its inhabitants only briefly before it had to be done all over again.
The work of a caretaker is also one of those forms of work in which success is contingent not upon the work being noticed, but upon it not being noticed. That the beings she loved were fed and clothed, that they had the things they needed for their work, that the home wasn't falling apart. If she never wrote a word, these would be the productions of her life, and they would accumulate only in her memory and would die with her. She accepted this. (How many millions of people in history and prehistory have done unremembered work, so that their beloveds could do remembered work?)
She accepted it while marveling at the gravity of what it means to make a choice: how one is always, always giving up something else—and how the thing that's chosen somehow forever contains, as part of itself, all that was given up for it. Maybe that's why we call it "making" a choice: because the choice is created by and defined by what it cost.
When she wrote any words at all, it was in the form of diary or letters, those other "artless" forms of women's work. "Artless," I suppose, because lacking deliberate craft or any desire for that—and therefore almost effortless, like breathing. And "artless" because cyclical, returning to the same commonplace subjects day after day with no ambition for furthering the progression of thought in mankind. When she wrote, she wrote as if such progression were—not evil, but merely irrelevant.
We have a word that denotes one unit of cyclical work: a revolution. As in, one revolution around the sun. Not always cyclical, then—sometimes elliptical, which is the shape of the earth's work. Ellipse shares the same root (and the same plural form) as ellipsis, which means an omission of words, or the punctuation that signals such an omission. If someone calls your style of speech or writing elliptical, they mean very condensed or concise, maybe to the point of being obscure or ambiguous, i.e., characterized by extreme economy of expression. Somehow baked into our words is the association between wordlessness, repetition, movement around a center, and the work of bodies in nature.
Wordlessness is the renunciation of progress. I think we often feel that, through the accumulation of the written word, we are adding to this collective body of work, the work of all of literate mankind, this collective tree-like scaffold on which we can hang an infinite quantity of new combinations of words, adding new branches as we come up with them. We feel that this is necessary work, and that current and future humans will be better off because we've done it. That is, equipped with the words we've contributed, humanity is farther along the inexorable path forward to: somewhere better. And that this is both a way for each of us to be remembered and a justification for being remembered: according to this line of thought, the fact that I wrote something down is both a way to physically ensure that I will be remembered, as well as the reason that I deserve to be remembered.
But wordlessness says: I won't add to that body, today. I won't contribute to either progress or accumulation. I will put in no more than I take out, and take out no more than I need. A lifetime of simply breathing leaves a change without leaving an accumulation. In my lifetime I will have converted just so much oxygen to carbon dioxide, an exchange of equal quantity. If nothing else: I gave one human's worth of breath back to the trees. That can be enough.
Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing. ... Before long I learned that you had spent a lifetime equally devoted to the conviction that words are not good enough. Not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow.*
The first poem I ever heard read aloud to me by the poet began with wordlessness. It opened with song—a call, a cry, an incantation. In some sense poetry has never strayed from that for me, to this day. What is a spoken word, if not a succession of shapes the mouth takes, which in turn shapes the air that comes out of the lungs, so that another being can pick up on the shapes in the air, and in those shapes find meaning? The air doesn't originate from us, but we get to provide the shape for it, which is a special power. Sculpting emptiness.
"There is no history in gentleness..." Gertrude Stein, History or Messages from History.
"I presume a housewife..." Frances Stark, The Architect & The Housewife.
"Before we met, I had spent a lifetime..." Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts.