Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Name, Fingerspelled H-I-L-A-R-Y: Humbling Lessons from ASL

One of the things about rainy Tuesdays that I love is that they give you time to reflect on everything you want to do. On a rainy day your mind fills with possible crafty things to do - knit, make paper airplanes, draw a masterpiece, write a novel, make up a board game. Rain makes me think of every book I've been meaning to read and haven't gotten to yet, and every piece of classical music yet to be listened to (I promise, Handel, I'll get there!), and every TV show I'm secretly addicted to that I haven't yet watched (where oh where have the Walkers landed on Brothers and Sisters?). Today my rainy Tuesday I was thinking about the project I've taken on this semester: learning American Sign Language.

Now I thought I had a pretty good (or at least fairly impressive grasp) of ASL when I arrived in DC. I could say the following things: Hi, my name is finger spelled H-i-l-a-r-y, my house is red, and I love you. Now there is the real meat of any good conversation, right? What else would someone need to know about me other than Hilary, red house, she loves me? And what would I need to understand beyond those things signed back to me?

Galludet University is located about 15 minutes away by bus (90 or 92 lines) near Rhode Island Ave, NE. When you get on the 90 or the 92 you will run into people signing to each other with a pace and an exuberance that makes you dizzy. They nod and smile and the conversation flies between their hands as fluidly as our words fly from our mouths. It became clear that my three phrases were not the same thing as being able to speak ASL. They would get me nowhere.

And I could have probably given up on sign language after a couple of weeks' enthusiasm. Like rainy days, sudden hobbies are regarded with some skepticism, as people wonder whether they will last through the end of the week or break in a few hours to clear skies and normal life. And I in my own mind thought that my excitement about ASL would fade, and I would come back from this semester with a few new phrases and a high and mighty sense of accomplishment.

I have neither. Sign language caught hold of me this semester. It's my bright blue "Signing Illustrated" book that I read on the bus every morning. It's my good friend Virginia who is fluent in ASL and who never fails to say something to me that I don't fully understand (luckily I know the signs for "again" and "don't know"). It's the joy I get from actually communicating with my body.

And I have been humbled by sign language. I thought I was good at learning languages, my still-decent French enabling me to read L'élégance du hérisson over the summer and even comprehend the occasional French speaker and the occasional (perhaps merely accidental) article in Le Monde or Le Figaro. And as many of you know, I love words and love to lavish them on people, in notes or letters or poems or papers or conversations. And I am not good at learning sign language.

I carry the book with me everywhere and I can't seem to retain 80% of the signs I practice. I finger spell at night before I fall asleep and I still can't make my hands flash in the air with ease or expertise. I still can't really understand what the signs are unless Virginia or someone else is also mouthing the words for me. I am diligent in practicing sign language, but I am not good at it.

And this is perhaps why I am so grateful that I am sticking with it. My high and mighty sense of accomplishment has been put through the wood-chopping machine; my few phrases have expanded, but not nearly as much as I thought they would. Learning sign language is a long, hard, and sometimes frustrating process: and I want to "just be good at it already!" so much of the time.

But it requires so much patience with myself. It requires grace for myself when I just can't remember how to sign "where" or "when". It requires a smile as I ask Virginia to repeat for the 10th time the sign for Christmas and THEN have her finger spell it while waiting in the Heritage Foundation lobby. It requires me to extend to myself the same laughing, gentle mercy that I try to extend to others. Sometimes in our efforts to be merciful people, sometimes in our showing of grace to others, and in our patience towards others, we forget to be merciful, gracious and patient with ourselves. My sorry attempts at sign language, and my hopefulness that I will eventually succeed, however long it takes, have taught me these important things.

So, on your rainy Tuesday, if there is a hobby or a language or a novel or a painting you are waiting to take up, learn, read, write, paint... begin! The work is humbling, and slow, and will require grace - for yourself.


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