Ursula K. Le Guin
Should my tongue be tied by stroke
listen to me as if I spoke
and said to you, “My dear, my friend,
stay here a while and take my hand;
my voice is hindered by this clot,
but silence says what I cannot,
and you can answer as you please
such undemanding words as these.
Or let our conversation be
as mute as patient amity,
sitting, all the words bygone,
like a stone beside a stone.
It takes a while to learn to talk
the long language of the rock.”
When I think of kindness and connection, I sometimes think of a man I met in Vietnam. I don’t remember his name. I called him chú. We never said more than two words to each other, and they were always the same two words. He would shake my hand with a warm, supportive strength, he’d smile at me with a loose affection, bottomless as the sea, and I’ll remember him forever.
It was in Hue, halfway down the Vietnamese coast. I was traveling alone, and one of my stepfather’s friends sent an email to a family who lived there. The parents didn’t speak any English, and they let their two teenage children (a daughter who was a little younger than I was, and a son who was a little older) speak for the family. I didn’t speak any Vietnamese.
Sitting in front of their house, they started to teach me. “Chào em,” they said. I repeated it: “Chào em.” I asked the daughter what it meant, and she said, “Hello.”
Then the daughter said, “Chào ahn.” We played, laughing, until I could pronounce the new sounds well enough.
“What’s it mean?” I asked.
“Hello,” she said. And her brother started teaching me: “Chào chú,” he said. I practiced, and asked what that meant; “Hello,” he said. I was confused for a little while. Then I understood. In Vietnamese, “hello” changes depending on who you are talking to. So they weren’t just teaching me “Hello.” They were teaching me to say, “Hello little sister,” “Hello big brother,” “Hello aunt” and “Hello uncle.” They were teaching me to be part of the family. Every time I came back to the house, the father would hold out his hand and smile, and I would say, Chào chú. We wouldn’t say anything else to each other for the rest of the evening, but I would see the smile in his eye, and I’d feel his kindness, his consideration, his quiet, well-meaning company.
Le Guin’s poem has a darkness to it, a sense for the kind of loss that leaves us unable to talk. When she wrote this she was getting older, and I can feel death behind the lines; but she doesn’t seem to fear death. The poem isn’t about death or the dying. There is something in the mute silence of “patient amity,” even for the young and the wild. Looking back, I wonder if chú was teaching me a little of “the long language of the rock.” While I can talk, I’ll talk, while I can listen I’ll listen; while I can look, I’ll look. But if it were all I had, I think simply sitting side by side with you would be enough, once I learned to do it.