The Sounds of Silence

Two weeks ago, we had the opportunity to attend a silent weekend for an immersive ASL experience. Lindsey found out about the weekend first and immediately forwarded the information to Sarah. There was no question in our minds that we would go. We registered ourselves so quickly that we nearly forgot about another obligation for the same day. Our sense of team spirit kicked in, and we decided that Sarah would attend the entire weekend with Lindsey joining in on Saturday activities. And what a weekend we had!

All participants of the silent weekend signed a pledge to keep our voices off. Even at the end of the retreat, no one used voice. We found ourselves imagining how each person must sound. It was actually quite fun to have that remain a mystery. The two of us took the pledge a bit further, swearing off of using English in any form as much as possible. We worked around the challenge of necessary “I’ve arrived and I’m safe” text message updates by sending along pictures. Taking a weekend to use non-verbal forms of communication exclusively challenged us to see the world a bit differently. If you’re a hearing person who hasn’t experienced silence often or at all, have you ever wondered what silence feels like?

In the silence, we felt energy. What would you do if you wanted to get a person’s attention without shouting? What if you wanted to get an entire group of people to pay attention? Over the weekend, we saw a great variety of strategies. Sometimes, things worked like phone trees with everyone getting the attention of 2 or 3 people immediately nearby. Other times, the facilitators would flick the lights on and off. Our favorite strategy was dancing around the room while waving both arms to say, “Hi! Hello!” In the silence, there was movement everywhere.

In the silence, we found community. Everyone present wanted each and every person to be successful communicating in ASL and meeting individual goals for the weekend. It didn’t matter that we have only been studying ASL seriously for a few weeks. People helped us to tell them our story of Sarah’s hearing loss and our efforts at developing alternate forms of communication. They identified the progress we’ve made in a few weeks and gave us insights into how this language works. We loved learning about classifiers and other grammatical concepts. Sarah also learned a heap of new vocabulary just by being immersed in the language for a few days. It was Lindsey’s first fully immersive experience, and Lindsey left Saturday feeling much better equipped to have voice-off conversations in ASL. In the silence, we could dialogue about our hopes, our fears, and our feelings as we negotiate the complex elements of rapidly progressing hearing loss.

In the silence, we experienced joy. When everyone had their voices off, Lindsey heard sounds that neither of us had ever noticed before. A smile after two people successfully move past a struggle to communicate has an up s sound when the air held as bated breath gets released through the lips. We observed that other hearing people try and carried themselves more lightly so they didn’t  unintentionally interrupt a conversation by stomping their feet. Lindsey heard clothing crinkling as people enthusiastically used their bodies in various ways to interact with the entire retreat community. And best of all, Lindsey heard the laughter of the group much more robustly. Sarah experienced joy in an entirely different way. On Saturday of the retreat, Sarah was having a particularly low hearing day. But for the first time, it didn’t matter. No one noticed because there was no expectation that talking with another person requires being able to hear. Our experience of silence that weekend was vastly different from Sarah’s other experiences of silence: it wasn’t terrifying or distressing. Instead, it was totally normal. It was the reality of that moment in time, and we embraced it. In the silence, we realized that being silent changes how a person interacts with the world. The silence is neither better nor worse than noise; it’s just different.

In the silence, we experienced the beginnings of healing. The silent weekend provided us with a blessed 48 or so hours of feeling understood and loved. We met lots of people: others who have lost their hearing, family members, interpreting students. For the first time ever, we met people who could say to us, “I get it. I really do. And it’s not always going to be so hard.”

The past several months have brought about many challenges for us, and it has been difficult for us to find spaces where others appreciate those for what they are rather than assuming what they must be. While we’re deeply appreciative of all the emotional support that friends and readers have extended to us, Sarah has been surprised at how often we’re told, “I’m so sorry about the hearing loss. That must be frightening,” and how infrequently our loved ones see that vertigo–not a hearing problem–is the disabling part of Sarah’s Ménière’s disease. Being wiped out and flat on the floor for hours at a time is what keeps Sarah from living fully, and in some ways the hearing loss itself is a blessing. It’s been hard for us to talk with others about this because the vast majority of people we know see deafness as a disability rather than a different but equally valuable way of life. Granted, Sarah is experiencing some grief over not being able to interact with the hearing world in all the same ways as before, and is still figuring out how to cope with feeling stuck between two worlds. But we’re finding that there are positive aspects of hearing loss. Sarah has begun to notice visual details more acutely, and is also starting to recognize that there are wonderful nonverbal ways of being an extrovert. We’re taking in mounds of information about Deaf culture that we never would have known otherwise. And learning ASL is so much fun. It’s not a chore or an obligation. At the silent weekend, all of this was accepted and valued. There was no “poor deaf girl” or “you’re such a hero for facing this” rhetoric. We were just two regular people existing with other human beings and letting the silence apply its balm to our souls.

Because of our experience at the silent weekend, we’re noticing with every passing day that silence is a gift from God. Hesitant as Lindsey was at first about learning ASL, we’ve begun to develop a love of silence. We have our own silent evenings at home now, and those are some of our most precious times together. We love going out in our city and being able to hold basic conversations with each other from across large rooms and in environments with lots of noise. Though we couldn’t have imagined this before we actually went, our silent weekend experience was not simply a resource or a practice session. It was the start of a new adventure in our life together as a family.

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