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October 24, 2006

Language and Me

Disability comes in all shapes, sizes, modes, and effects. There are legally-recognized versions and emotional varieties. These, or any number of indeterminate cognitive and psychiatric peculiarities, can interfere with intimate relationships and social interactions. For instance, people look at me and see a woman with a mullet who appears physically fit. What do they know? No, I don’t meet the federal criteria of “impairment of a major life function” (Americans with Disabilities Act 1990). I can breathe, walk, grasp, talk, feel, think, and otherwise function within the range of physicality deemed normal. Who decided to limit “normal” and impose such a measure for judging character or the potential worth of one’s contributions to society? Individuals will not claim responsibility, of course. Such boundaries and markers of difference are established ‘out there’ by impersonal forces of culture. The representations are propagated through the media, religion, and a disturbing range of incidental, informal taboos and negative sanctions. Questioning these norms is often considered problematic, disruptive, or unpleasant. When I do wonder about the so-called normal, people situate me clearly: I am deviant.

Fitting few standard stereotypes, I have learned to live through language. Sentiments not spoken affected me first. Often, the untold still wounds me. The silence of non-recognition echoes in words I hear and reverberates in perceptions left unsaid. The speech of my family was self-focused and therefore distancing, functional not relational, unaware and unreflective. My parents opposed each other on gender's fulcrum: mom never swore, dad often did. Anger was the palpable emotion of my formative years. I checked out, merely passing as present. When I woke up, twenty-seven years of my life were gone. How can one speak from pain without blame? I yearned for a language I did not know.

I needed words I could feel, a language that would bring me into my body. I sought belonging among lesbian communities and found that we were not much better at handling distinction than the dominant heterosexual society was at accepting us. Our bodies, full of longing, could not manage questions of dis/ability: our own aesthetics, potentials, possibilities. What is valuable if the body itself is constrained? I have never consistently been able. I fail much more frequently than I succeed. I celebrate small triumphs with all the gusto of athletic championships. Why not?! Yet I notice how the smallest movements can invoke urgency, feeding speed, haste, a rush to . . . where? Meaning constructed by assumption, cues missed, opportunities lost: wisdom becomes elusive. How much have I learned from friends' contemplating solitary visual horizons, or analyzing power’s most intimate nuances? Stillness inspires depth. I lament how long it has taken me to learn to enjoy listening for its own sake.

I cannot explain the random movement of the universe (or the privileges of being white and middle-class) that brought me into contact with Deaf people and American Sign Language. I spent years training to interpret others’ words, to translate their meanings into sensibility for those who could not see. Through signing, I discover my own emotions, investigating the boundaries of my expressive capacities. This practice, of sensing and conveying the intellectual and emotional meanings of others, prepared the ground for me to expand my range. Through this visual-gestural language I excavated buried wounds and static ambitions. The embodied kinesthetics of signing ASL allowed access to hidden and repressed parts of myself.

Through friendships, relationships, teaching and parenting I have observed the effect of words to inspire or deaden, enliven or thwart, create or sunder meaningful relationships. Uttered words (signed or spoken) leave their imprint yet vanish into insubstantial memory. Written down, words are a commitment. I mean this, right now. Writing was not, at first, something I felt called to do. It does not come easily, as signing usually does. The labor of compressing four-dimensional geometrical perception into one-dimensional linear text remains a challenge. I practice daily. When I write, I feel the energy of my being streaming out into the world. I am here. I matter. I want to make a difference. I care.

I sign to know myself. I write to live.

Posted by Steph at October 24, 2006 11:04 AM


i enjoyed reading this :) i wonder... i wonder if all of this, if what language means for you and does for you has something to do with why your style is what it is.

some interpreters, who may be experienced and fluent in ASL, still can't avoid maintaining that presence that feels as if they're that parent who signs to their Deaf child whats going on in the room. the words and messages are never conveyed fully. its sort of like when you're in the same room with someone who's on the phone and they pause every now and then to tell you what the person on the other end of the line said. but your style is much more present for lack of a better word. and thus more engaging & the process feels more fluid (which is not to imply that it isnt work).

i think it is funny.. in a not so funny way that you probably sign more than i do in any given day of the school year. course, come holidays and summers that changes :)

Posted by: amanda [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 25, 2006 1:11 AM

perhaps it is not said often enough..

we are grateful that you are here with us...part of our community and all...im sure the others in other communities feel the same way about you.

Posted by: jake at October 25, 2006 6:00 AM

indeed. :) 'So much to be learned from this multi-layered essay. Where once there was no language, no connection-to-self, there is now transparency for those willing and ready, to understand. One would never imagine that this expression does not come easily. Your use of language, in both ASL and linear form, is masterful and powerful.

Posted by: dd at October 25, 2006 7:00 AM

Jake! What a pleasure to see you here! Been wondering 'bout you. :-)

This "personal identity narrative" has been long in the making. The writing began two months ago, this version is influenced by terrific feedback from students in freshman writing. I'm not sure it's "done"; some of my students will take another go at it.

If, however, success in writing can be measured by degree of vulnerability (!), then this ranks right up there. Oy!

Thanks for the kind comments. :-)

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 25, 2006 7:14 AM

Hey steph, I really appreciated this post! --kathy

Posted by: museumfreak [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 25, 2006 10:02 AM

Reading your post reminds me some of a short conversation you and I had about writing. I stated that my shortcomings in writing embarrass me be others are reading what I would imagine is of so interest to others. You said that maybe this will enlarge me to get better at my writing.

Well like you, writing does not come easy for me, but unlike you that awkwardness is much more noticeable, your writing has a flow and a purpose.

I get the idea you present about writing being a translation of some higher dimensional place into a linear form. For me it kind of goes like this

you can show a 3D object on a 2D Screen it will look different, bit you can identify the object. Then you Can. translate this even more down to a single dimensional line or wm to a point. Each step of the way information is lost in this process, while at the same time the complexity is decreased (you need one less dimension each time)

Some people are skilled enough to reduce the amount of data loss and get their concept across in a clear fashion. others keep the message simple and reduce what could be lost. others have trouble even imaging this place with fewer dimensions, a lack of depth, and how it is possible to translate the grand idea into a replica that lacks the part that makes it not an outline.

Posted by: julia at October 25, 2006 3:50 PM

Two responses, Julia. First, my writing has improved over three years of intensive effort and six years of practice. I don't struggle with as much of the basic grammar, but that fact alone doesn't make for effective, purposeful writing.

In an English class I'm interpreting, a young man wrote a compelling piece about judging people based on looks. The idea was sophisticated; I was totally impressed. I knew what he meant even though the grammar wasn't flawless. The difference between writing that "flows" because the grammar is good yet says nothing, and writing that gets in its own way but says something meaningful is the distinction that matters. Sure, if one can combine good grammar and purposefulness, then you may enhance your reach. :-)

Second, I really like how you broke down my geometrical model on a dimension-by-dimension basis! You are right, with each reduction, information is lost. The "trick" (which is quite a challenge, such that it does seem magical when successful) is, with each reduction, to retain or present the essential information that is necessary to enable reconstruction of the next dimension back "up". Many factors here: audience, subject, mutual construction of meaning...so complicated!

The students in my writing class and I keep discussing the differences between "induction" and "deduction." Somehow, one has to figure out which "direction" one's thoughts are moving while developing a point/argument/purpose. THEN one has to repackage one's own natural development so that others can follow it. THAT is where my writing usually breaks down, precisely in the compression process when selecting sequence. You describe this as keeping the message simple by reducing what could be lost - therefore not losing it. :-)

I'm eager to talk with you more about the concept of a pivot, because I woke up from a dream about it the other day. I perceived my life chances shifting: the entire geometry around me rotated, like one of those matrices revolving around a pivot. I'm not sure which row or column (!), and certainly have no clue how the realignment will play out, but it was way cool to "see" such a matrix in combined mathematical and phenomenological terms. :-)

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 25, 2006 4:22 PM

There are some interesting parallels here with writing a computer program. There is a language with a grammar. The idea is to write something that conveys a larger picture to the end user. And like you point out you have to figure out what the end goal is and then work on how one is going to accomplish that.

Some writing is elegant on many levels, there is code that just warms you heart when you look at how it works. There is writing that makes your head hurt trying to understand it, well in programming we call that spagheti code.

From my past I can relate a piece of code that I wrote that speaks to what you are talking about. I wanted an exisiting program to do something that was radically different from what it was designed to do. I came up with a solution that was extremely elegant, in about 4 lines of code I changed it in the way I wanted. For a decade after I am getting emails about that hack. The point is it wasn't the amount of code, it was how it was inserted.

Posted by: Julia [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 25, 2006 9:37 PM

"The point is ... how it was inserted." Hot dang grrl you are so right on! Media folk would talk about sound bytes. Mediators and others about interventions. Managers label it strategy. One could just call it power. One of my favorite discourse analysts calls it voice.

The question of how. Yes. Now - do we move on to philosophy or practice? :-)

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 26, 2006 4:26 AM

Brilliant essay, I loved it. Glad to know there's other freaks out in this world :D

Posted by: Dave K at November 2, 2006 2:36 AM

yea, Dave, it's true. You're not alone. :-)

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 3, 2006 9:37 PM

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