O, traveler. Traveler!
What a week that was.
Ten days ago I gave a talk about The Unheard at the League for the Hard of Hearing in downtown Manhattan. Not long ago I worked there, and it’s a good place though it has recently been painted an unfortunate muppet green. The color makes you think of special effects screens, Kermit the frog, bad acid. The talk was in stuffy room full of people with every variety of hearing loss and every kind of assistive listening device. It was hot and I was sweating through my sweater, which made me wonder, for the thousandth time, why they’re called that.
“I would have been afraid,” someone says.
“Don’t be afraid,” I say, or words to that effect.
“I would have come home,” someone else says.
The audience microphone makes its way to the back of the room.
A young man stands. “I feel alone,” he says, and I know him before he talks -- his face. “I’ve just lost my hearing. What do you do when you feel alone? What do you do when you feel shut out from the world? What do you do when it all hits you?”
He is far away and it is hard to hear him, but I know every word.
Traveler, excuse my words, I am sorry, words are all I have. Your story is my story. Your wound is my wound. We are sweating through lives we did not expect or place orders for, through losses we never saw coming, seeking connection, seeking happiness. Can you embrace your loneliness? Become the love you seek. These pitiful words. Would that I could take you in my arms.
“Last question,” the moderator says.
A tall woman in the last row stands up. The moderator brings her the microphone.
“So do you see yourself as a deaf person or a hard of hearing person?” she asks. Neither, I answer.
Later she sends me an email: “Because you take no position,” she writes, “how can I trust you?”
But pick, and what is lost in the choosing? Is it just what you have chosen against? Or is the real loss that your choosing has partitioned the one complete world into two, so it will forever be beating against itself, seeking to again be made whole?
A week later, I’m at Gallaudet, back for the first time in more than fourteen years. It’s a beautiful day. Fall, my favorite season (along with winter, spring and summer, my other favorite seasons) has come and been disposed of in a week. The campus has aged well, but the school has not. Stunned by the rapid technological and societal changes of the last decade, Gallaudet has struggled to figure out its role. And when it has figured it out, the moment has already passed. Like no other institution of learning in the world, its future is a mystery. The school stands at the start of an unpredictable journey.
But what is deafness but a journey? Traveler in a foreign world. But then when the world traveler can go back to his hometown, where does the deaf person go?
“All I’d like,” says my beautiful guide, “is for all deaf to get along. No more divisions. No more definitions. No more labels. Can’t we all just get along?”
I’d like to think so. But according to the news today, the original get-along guy, Rodney King, was shot. He was hit on his face, back, arms, and torso. How then the analogy? This, more or less, is what nine or ten of us talked about in a roundtable discussion in a small windowless room near the campus store. Ramming against a glass ceiling hung so low that it might actually be a coffeetable, we’ve been knocked down, they said.
But what is that ceiling? What if the limits we see in the world, are not in the world but in the seeing? Love -- what is the frequency?
My interpreter looks exactly like the wishy-washy guy from The Office. The deaf-blind man who I wrote about in The Unheard is still doing laps on the university track. I encourage the roundtable to reach out further, even though they’ve been hurt. The next morning the bright sky is the color of washed out denim. After breakfast with the school provost I say goodbye to everyone and board the bus to the train station. My guide worries that I will arrive there safely, and I explain to her that I’ve been on other journeys.
It’s been a good week. So many questions but much has been learned. Such as: you can pay an extra 70 dollars for the Acela and it still gets in late. Hearing and deafness are like two stray hairs on a blind man’s face. All journeys seek the same thing. And everything you touch turns to gold.