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Wordlessness

Recently I was staying in a dark place. Nothing to do with spookiness - just quietness, stars and stillness. I don't think many of us are good at appreciating silence - we fill it with activity or noise or words.

Soon after I qualified in medicine I was working in a psychiatry unit and one of the patients asked that she did not have to see me again because I talked so much. I was surprised that she voiced her request as she was almost mute and I KNOW that I talked. I was trying to fill the awful voids. Over the decades I think I have learned a little about holding silence. Often though, I use too many words. That is one of the reasons I have been trying to write short stories which I have put onto my website - challenging myself to write a story in exactly 100 words, or even shorter - a tweet-length tale. Can it really tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end? Or are they just one-liners that fall some way short of a joke?

For a while I have heard accounts about a man described as being 'a man of few words'. Recently I was introduced to him in person and I found that he was, in fact, a man of no words at all. My presence was acknowledged with the slightest twitch of an unidentified muscle in his chin and then he moved on. I was reminded of Geordie, a shepherd, who often let me accompany him into the fields when I was about 10 years old. He was also a man of few words, but somehow he taught me the names of all the grasses, how to locate nests of moorland birds and identify their eggs. I can only vaguely remember his voice, but clearly recall his toothless smile and his chortling laughter.

Statistics are often quoted about how much of communication is not about actual words but about how they are delivered. That can be misleading, however, as words carry weight. I moved to New Zealand to work as a Junior Doctor for 18 months and shortly after arrival was timetabled to work on Christmas morning which I didn't mind. What I did mind though was during the ward round, being asked by the professor, "Why haven't you done this you bugger?" He was laughing, but no-one had ever called me that before and it took me months to realise that I was probably being teased. Later that same Christmas day I had been invited by one of the nurses to join her family for a meal. I have never sat at such a silent meal-table. This family did not utter a word and to me that was alien. I did not have the sense that my presence was resented, but I did not feel at ease. Our words can be mis-interpreted as can our silence.

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