Starting From Square One

I’m starting a blog again, in short because in the past I’ve found that blogging is a prime way to get myself to write, and also a prime way to circulate ideas. Some of my previous blogs have been rather content-specific; a few have been for sharing travel experiences, and I also kept a long-running blog about my personal experience of getting a cochlear implant. (Check it out here if you’re interested.) Here, however, I plan to address a broader range of explorations relating to deafness, language, literature, access, communication, and how those tricky topics figure into how we all live in the world. I’ve already learned, through conversation with others and through oft-fortuitous happenstance, that many of my thoughts and experiences as a deaf individual are not unique – even if I may once have thought they were. Others also share this complex subject position of straddling worlds, in their own ways, and of trying to figure out how to live and write and communicate and connect in between visual and auditory spaces. Writing about these complications, I’ve come to believe, is essential.

I’m going to start this blog from square one. Literally. Let me explain: lately I’ve been thinking about how to articulate the overall trajectory I have experienced in the past year, as I started my PhD, and how to express the complex dynamics and feelings this time has stirred in my life. Last August, I did something that I have done twice before, but that has always brought with it a healthy share of growing pains: I moved to a new city where I knew no one, and started a new academic program at a new university where I was the only signing deaf student. Somehow circumstances have never aligned in my life to take me to academic settings with many other deaf students and faculty – or perhaps another truth is that my academic interests to date have tended to range beyond universities where there is an established d/Deaf presence. C’est la vie. In whatever case, I was eager to start my graduate program this year, and also eager to take classes with professors at Emory and meet other graduate students. This move to a new place came with feelings of excitement and discovery. But it came with a unique sense of loss, too.

Over the last year, I’ve tried to devise a way to describe this feeling of transition, and for me it truly boils down to: Starting from Square One With Sign. This feeling is like a profound communicative homesickness. When I move to a new place and start from square one with relationships, I am experiencing nothing out of the ordinary; I am realizing how, in the hyper-transient modern world, putting down new roots is a common and challenging experience. For me, though, starting from square one is also essentially a question of communication and identity. When I move to new places where no one knows me and (virtually) no one signs, I find myself intensely missing the signing friends and family I’ve left behind. I miss their knowledge of how to communicate effectively. I miss the clarity and ease they bring me. Transitions are difficult for anyone, but I’ve found that I feel a particular anxiety about communication, about how I will sustain a healthy sense of myself while I work to find a new, accessible sense of community. My deaf identity becomes more salient to me during these periods: despite the speaking/lipreading work I do, and my ongoing confidence in my ability to navigate the hearing world, the truth is I need sign to feel like myself. Lipreading is exhausting, oral conversation after too long is alienating, and explaining myself over and over again starts to feel like a Sisyphean task.

Square One manifests itself in other ways: even if new hearing acquaintances are curious and willing to learn to communicate with me, they still don’t know anything. We still need to start with this is what it’s like to be deaf and this is how you fingerspell your name. (Yes, I know other deaf people rightly argue that it is not always the deaf person’s job to do this kind of educational work. I may write about this subject another time: in short, I’ve sometimes found, if I don’t work to create the kind of communication I want, who will? This is another strong argument in favor of widespread ASL classes, which unfortunately are not always easily available. More on that another time.) Teaching all this, to a new group of hearing people, is not easy. How many times can I teach the ABCs and basic greetings? How long can I walk when I just want to run? When do I teach, engage, and keep trying, and when do I let others go and educate themselves? The task of shifting people’s habits of communication, and carving out a deaf space for myself, feels overwhelming. At the end of the day, I give up and crawl into bed with my books.

I first experienced this feeling of Starting from Square One when I started college. It was a shock for me then: I moved away from my family for the first time and realized I would be living 24/7 among – hearing people! Who had no idea how to communicate with me! (In retrospect, I spent most of my undergraduate career trying, with varying degrees of success, to figure out how to address this question.) Cue that feeling, redux, when I moved to start a graduate program in the UK. Cue it, once again, when I moved to another unfamiliar region and started my PhD in Atlanta this past August. Through these various transitions, I’ve become more and more okay with admitting two things to myself: first, that starting over with communication is absolutely no fun, and second, that it is important and necessary. I am deaf, and I can and will present myself as such. There’s no way out, but there can be a way in, an opportunity to make inroads and connect with others in different and creative ways.

Because starting over does work out, I have learned. I’ve always been provided with the right friends and the right people in my life, during times of transition. I’ve discovered a faith that people – certain people – can and will step up, will learn how to become more accommodating, and will form solid and communicative relationships. The trick, at the beginning, is to be patient. Who are these people? Where are they? How will we connect? No way to find out, except to show up. For any introvert, this kind of social involvement is work. When communication barriers are also involved, it starts to feel like swimming upstream against a torrential current. Go to an informal social event (quite possibly without an interpreter if I didn’t have the chance to schedule one), talk to new people, many of whom may unwittingly present me with a maze of communicative obstacles, assert and advocate for myself all along the way? Sometimes I don’t have the energy. What’s more, sometimes it feels like the progress I make in these all-hearing spaces is woefully incremental. But, after various transitions, I can look back and say that change does come – if only with time, self-honesty, self-knowledge, grace, and a healthy dose of humor.

Will any future transition to another new, all-hearing setting be easier? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is another instance of The Way It Is. A large part also depends on the contexts I am in and the people I meet. But I also see promise for becoming better at setting my own agenda. Life as a deaf person in academia (or anywhere else) might be one chronic learning curve, but I’m fiddling with how to pursue the sense of purpose that I want in different places. The trick is figuring out how to lead, so that new hearing acquaintances become willing to try and follow…!

I spent a lot of time in Atlanta over the last year worrying about what it meant to start all over again. This was something I found difficult to explain to other friends, at times, without sounding overly melodramatic. But the first climb, the first hill, often seems like the worst, before the legs warm up and one finds a satisfying sense of rhythm. Now, daily challenges may remain – including, you know, getting through this entire PhD thing! – but I have my feet under me again. My eyes are up toward the horizons ahead.

Special thanks to those who have made it far beyond Square One with me this year (and in various other years past). Squares Five, Ten, Fifty (and beyond) are certainly much more fun!