The Bronx River in Yonkers is a silt-brown color that rarely reflects the sky. The changes in its industrial tone appear when the surface is glassy, or when currents capture the surroundings, or when it is striped by lights falling from the hospital windows toward evening and dragged into waving orange ribbons. Today it is still, with pewter collars of ice along the edges. The man-made waterfall near the bike bridge is foaming with pollutants, gluey white, that attenuate as they bubble and break up downstream. It is dusk, but the sun is not visible. The few runners are mimetically absorbed in the gray ending to this January day. No birds are on the water.
I find myself here, not to do the lake, even by walking slowly. I want to look up. With runners checking their watches and wearing black gauges on their ankles, I see robots, in woolen hats. The fixed eyes of the joggers get on my nerves. We have become anxious people measuring ourselves.
I am here because I wanted to get out of our steam-heated apartment, to feel the wind, and, I admit, to look out of the corner of my eye for the white heron I saw late last summer on the day before I returned to Italy, where our house and work patiently wait.
Since Paolo, my Italian husband, and I returned to Bronxville for the holidays, the bird has been nowhere to be seen. Tonight, again, the elusive solitary is missing. It’s almost my last chance, since in another week we turn back to our life in Italy.
Nothing in particular seems in touch with me, unless it is my wistful mood. The cars from the Bronx River Parkway are at my back, their lights on high beam. The sludge of commuter traffic has started. The petulant geese are gone for the night. Some evenings last summer as they spread out on the grass in the park and dozed, they reminded me of cows I’d come across in Italian villages. They’d faded into the dark, but their smell, their rustle, made them suddenly emerge as a phantom herd, all heads pointedly turning.
There is definite silence in this falling darkness. It is an atmosphere rather than an objective lack of sound. It is a withdrawal, while at the same time the cover is getting closer, far closer than the day ever seems. The closing-with-us-inside nudges nature’s great loom. Silence rides not on the withdrawal of light but on its infiltration of the dark. Night is the tide, with darkness coming farther and farther in. When I manage to experience its approach, not from the tight frame of an apartment window or car, its shawl casts itself over my body. It holds me in peace, in spite of shifting movements in the dark.
Along the east bank of the river is a relic of a stone mill. Now it is little more than a ghostly suggestion of window frames in a wall. The plash of the river and then the whine of the water-driven engines were two different pitches defining this place. The sound of the metal blades hitting stone must have been deafening. The barely legible historical marker is a camouflaged whisper, while the signs for the police call boxes are large enough to convey menace. If they were of equal size, would we see past and present differently?
A melancholy question sits in my head, perhaps because I have not seen the heron and the crack in consciousness that I like to believe its appearance brings, perhaps because I am returning to Italy, perhaps because recent U.S. politics have been a reversal and deterioration of many patterns I like to count on as true. My question seems to be—where are we going?
Why I don’t ask the question directly about myself is strange. It would be appropriate. But I seem to need to make some distinction and at the same time to claim a collectivity. I am part of this land, these woods, this destruction, and this system of government. We have gotten used to ignoble numbers; our scales for value, our measures for time are weirdly banal. We add numbers up and most often they lead us to money. Many calculations are too small, too self-interested, too shortsighted. Numbers are grocery bills, stock earnings, the surreal dollars and cents of guns. Bargains and good deals. Test scores. Costs from one side only. Numbers are “likes” and immigrants massing at borders. Just standing here, my idea of a few minutes of silence has been taken over.
I always had an inner life: after I moved to Parma forty years ago, the intensity of the unspoken changed dimensions, as if a new, broader, steeper slope leading underground was now part of my everyday identity and awareness. The eleventh-century duomo in Parma, constructed of stone, held the center of the life I crossed every day, majestic and unchanging. My U.S. roots: the red roofs of Stanford University in California, the pea-green soup of Lake Wissota in Wisconsin, the turquoise night sky of Grand Central Terminal in New York City churned, unanchored. In the early Parma years, I was a married tree, a rooted transplant, with disturbed underground systems spreading out to make connections wherever I could. Feeling invisible, I drew surprising conclusions from the effort to define roots of any significance. Women and time, science and religion stirred questions and comparisons arising from my new situation and the old assumptions.
I hear that silence and noise over and over in others. The resistance to telling stories that come from another place is palpable in the Nigerian women with eyes that dart and slide away like stones skipping across water, when they wind their way to a dusty room where I am holding a class for them as refugees in Parma, where they are safe to talk and write about what their names mean to them. The silence chokes them, it wells up and almost presses tears from their eyes while their lips stay closed. The intensity of the unspoken is down deep. They insist that they have no memories; they know nothing except that living on the streets in Nigeria was very hard.
My awareness of silence changed with my experience of changing languages and country, but this book will not linger on that development. Awareness of silence has grown far beyond words or myself. It is all around me and us. The spiritual dimension of silence can be like a shocking plunge into a glacial lake. If it continues, its enveloping presence makes us grow silent in fear and trembling. Sometimes I am a presence in it within myself. Putting that dimension of silence into words is a contradiction: it is the silence beyond all silences, the dark and light of transcendence. It is a search that began in the earliest rituals of human beings and continues: Stonehenge; Job; Saint Augustine; Joan of Arc; Ibn Arabi; Etty Hillesum; the mysteries of universes; the mysteries of love.
Instead, what drew me into imagining a book on silence, one in which I would use the first person in order to make it intimate enough to be believable, was a feeling that silence is a fear and a gift experienced by everyone alive. Mine is not a single point or point of view, nor an admonition that our world of cell phones and computers does not allow us to perceive or pursue it. Rather I wanted to make a tapestry of silences from the middle world: stories about how we think and how we think we know and how we continuously discover that we don’t know.
I wanted to suggest silence as a life-force underlying our sense of freedom and extending to all of evolution—a space inside a plum pit, an ocean covering volcanos. I wanted women’s silences, wordlessness through centuries and millennia, to appear in minute and exquisite detail. Their viewpoints, each voice, each story touching new ideas about what is real. Women’s versions of things often start from omissions, events covered by shadows. But they more often signal silences about priorities, complexities, intimacy, and healing that will change what is ahead.
Reading a book is a way of withdrawing into silence. It is a way of seeing and listening, of pulling back from what is happening at that very moment. For me, the pause is a space where awareness finds silence. In the pause, silence may appear as a new color, or as a tiny seed, or as a revelation.
Recently reading Alberto Moravia’s troubling novel Agostino, set in 1940s Italy, I sympathized with the American translator’s dilemma about a character who was referred to stereotypically throughout the novel in Italian. The terms moro and negro were interchangeable with his name, Homs. In Italian, moro is a color, for hair brunet, for skin brown. It was also once used for a familiar figure, an Arab peddler. It would be highly unlikely that Homs was a young man with black skin, that is, an African American.
Using this as an example of the complex and significant choices to be made, if the term is translated as a Black man or African American, it is historically inaccurate and alters the book. Yet it makes the character seemingly more familiar to an American English reader, who imagines a different history. The terrain in the English edition modifies and dominates not only what might have been intended but will be overlooked because it is not recognized as valuable. Losses and gains are a challenge and a dilemma for anyone who enters words to find their equivalents in another place and time, with different social consciousness.
I learned, living in Parma, that in the twentieth century, most Italians had never seen a Black man in a village until African American soldiers, in nonintegrated units, appeared as U.S. troops battled up the western coast of Italy in World War II. When Black Americans entered Italian village communities, the perception of African Americans as different was amplified because they were segregated in the U.S. military. Meanwhile, in the Apennines, Brazilians of all colors battled shoulder to shoulder in the same unit. Integrated Black Brazilians, from the first night their battalion swept through cramped streets among curious and frightened Italian villagers, were more apt to be accepted because the soldiers were seen as equally hungry, equally exhausted men, each of whom was offered a place at the table. Given human nature, separate but equal appears as a flawed legal concept before even speaking to its moral limits. Two different stories emerge from the silent shadows of that divide.
A closer translation of Moro might be imagined as a man physically like Meursault, a North African Arab, whom Albert Camus invented in The Stranger. Camus’s North African also is touched in English by associations with Shakespeare’s Moor in Othello. Making the choice is apparently not an earthshaking decision, especially now, most readers today would say. Much prose, even literary prose, has favored contemporary recognition over irreducible, historical textures. Yet small decisions in using languages add up to different impressions, destinations, and accumulated effects. Novels are intricate compositions that can be shredded and blurred.
In the Italian novel presenting the boy of color on the beach, whatever shade of skin we give him, as a literary character in 1940s Italy, he carries the burden of negative Western stereotypes and the negative implications of darkness. Rooted in the prejudices of a place and time, no translation can erase these shadows, nor take back the effects of those words. They loom, painful and ominous. However, not long ago, consciously or unconsciously, they were not spoken about. Now that implicit silence is challenged and filled with resistant and audible speech. The text remains, but the society reading the text can challenge it in new light.
There is such a thing as the right to remain silent. This refers not only to the legal protection not to incriminate yourself, but to a more personal need. Putting experience into words is to make something of it—and that means to let go of many of its subtle layers and complicated aspects. It means telling a story.
There are many motives for remaining silent.
The right to remain silent, in the way I intend it now, does not even vaguely refer to self-incrimination or story-making. It refers to feelings that are real. “The right to silence” in these instances is not a tactical defense, but a personal need to use silence as a treasured space to preserve something, absorb it, sort it through, offering speech only when the receiver has been identified as worthy of trust. The right to silence can be, in many instances, a cherishing. When I first started to write, it was a private thing. Written words were like breathing on a glass in an unheated room. Seeing the circle condense was a miracle that I would then smear and erase.
The decision not to let the world touch a precious essence, fearing or knowing that when it is passed on its intense wordless significance will be dissolved or distorted, holds important freedom. The decision to cherish was a common experience for me, in spite of the pull to tell, to share something good or something that shone on me. The desire to keep silent because there was no one to receive it without altering it was deep. I knew that my words rarely touched all the light that I often felt. I also knew that my mother might take what I said and, like a string of pearls, snatch it and watch it break.
As a kid during the Cold War in the late 1940s, keeping silent under torture was a narrative in our games. We twisted each other’s arms to see if we were capable of resisting Communism. In our forts behind the garage, a few more years were needed to abandon such piety, learning that not only Communists tortured. “Keeping silent” gives various shadings to the word “nerve.” “Nerve” means courage, pluck, temerity, transgression. “Nerves” can also mean anxiety. Making such distinctions were often pastimes on long summer days in the Midwest, when Scrabble might be the evening entertainment for an adolescent girl and her two brothers often cut off from their peers and hoping to reach, with an obscure word, a space with triple points.
The Sunday walk along the river in Parma has been skipped for a week. I have been in Geneva, teaching. I am curious to see what has changed. Rains have been heavy, thus instead of the dry June gravel bed with festoons of water here and there, the aquamarine flow of water is still abundantly powerful.
A friend has mentioned she is having dreams that are all about water. She sees waves, not terrifying, but strong, and there are large expanses, even water colored red. Dreams about water have been conventionally interpreted as a symbol of the unconscious. To borrow a thought from Virginia Woolf, dreams are a resource of “blue-gray silence.” Without any limits, dreams appear and take over a waking state, revealing slits in what is in front of our eyes. Certain dreams give the sensation of a portent. Such singular dreams arrive with the same force as a sudden kiss in life or the pained look on an oncologist’s face as she accepts telling the truth to a patient. In a powerful dream something is announced; often the information is already in motion, half present, declaring that something needs to be seen.
Two weeks ago, the grass along the riverbanks was cut. It had wrapped the pheasants in protection while the females were nesting. How rapidly it has grown back. The male pheasants are still here, red crests, white collars, spaced in the grass one hundred feet apart.
The new appearances are herons. White herons. Two in the water, with their distinctive way of pulling back their heads and, almost like a hinge, resting their trapezoid skulls on their necks. Another is fishing in white gravel. Going along the path, another heron, like a balloon losing air, hunches precariously in a tree. At first, I thought it was a torn plastic bag. Once Paolo identified it, the heron transformed in my mind into a slightly magical oddity, a benevolent, beady-eyed creature in a Bruegel painting.
Another two herons, like elegant vases, their necks extended, stand in the churning water, and water birds circle from river water to tree, while javelin swifts dip down and flip away. Suddenly a pheasant flies straight close to the ground, as if it were a flat Frisbee traveling at great speed. A hare leaps through the grass running as fast as the pheasant flew. The herons rise. A romping, unleashed dog explains the panic. Until it was let loose, all the river life was going on in its own way.
We’ve been back in Parma for a few months, unable to decide when to turn around to New York. I don’t teach there until the spring. The Alps in the distance, the wide bowl of sky, the church bells banging in unison, with different iron and recorded clangs, make the moment seem coherent—a scene, something captured in pleasant bucolic engravings hundreds of years ago and now sold as inexpensive mantel-sized reproductions to tourists here. Only the most superficial glance would say the panorama hasn’t changed from when the engravings were conceived. But the mind is satisfied by the outlines of the river and the buildings following its curves; it can say of the fairy-tale city in the print, I’ve been there. Memory erases and without any particular reason embraces what pleases it.
Every form of art gives space to silence.
Painting describes it.
Music uses it for what precedes the first note and follows the last. Notes mark what would otherwise be silence.
It is the primary material required for concentration.
Silences hold the most obvious places to look for hypotheses in science.
Silence echoes everywhere on the longest, most worn paths to God.
Paolo forgot his smartphone, leaving it on my desk. The clever engineers who designed the sound for alerting users about the arrival of emails made the note an eyelash longer than a single beat. The sound he elected is not alarming, not hectoring. It plays into my attention.
Soft single sound.
Each pling enlarges a sense of curiosity—of wanting to know what’s been left on the phone.
Pendulous sliding drop.
The depth of the word “unknown,” which was beginning to unfold in relation to silence on the preceding page, is dissolving in the fusillade of unread messages.
Making a list of silences is not how I want to make vivid what I wish to convey. A list moves too fast, it compacts too many generalizations. Any person could make such a list.
I don’t want to suggest to a reader that she can master silence or sort through its contents and move on, as if silence were a logical argument or a prescription that in five steps will change your life.
Silence takes time to notice. I want to create the sense of pling myself, to offer small alerts or awakenings. I want to develop, in stories and non-stories, the missing, the assumed, the forgotten and unremarkable, the world with its infinite trapdoors covering the hidden. What follows then might become an entirely different dimension.
When my neighbor in Parma began losing her ten-year fight with breast cancer, I volunteered to be part of the group helping her to die at home. Every morning as the doctor and nurses came, crowding in the hall, cramming into the bathroom to wash their hands before measuring her temperature, blood pressure, before giving the morphine and washing her, I came to massage her feet. No matter how long I pressed the skin and gently moved her toes, added cream and ran my thumbs under her arches, it was never long enough. She often slept through the massage, but when I stopped, her eyes opened instantly. She always said the same thing: So soon? Are you stopping so soon?
The day that was her last, the phone calls increased between those of us who were helping. Her Jewish landlady said that we needed to prepare a linen shroud. Although she’d asked to be cremated, and the Jewish rabbi did not want to perform the burial ceremony because cremation was against Hebrew law, we were to find the linen sheet. That was the rule and practice. One woman would do the washing of our dear neighbor and she would then anoint the body with precious oils. My neighbor’s finely shaped bald head would be covered, her body wrapped like a swaddled baby. Her bed would be moved to the center of the living room, where she would be laid out. The night before, the friend who had stayed with her had opened the window to let in the light of the full moon. The light on the bed was nearly blinding, the helper said. It was not soft, bathing light. It was like a spotlight on her alone.
Copyright © 2021 by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965 by Mary L. Hampson.
Copyright © 1964, 1971 by Angelo Ravagli and C. M. Weekley, Executors of the Estate of Frieda Lawrence Ravagli.