Several years ago, I practiced massage for a living. Today, and for the last several years, I spin my own yarn and prepare my own fiber to do so; I knit with the yarn I create, and am learning to dye, crochet, and weave.
I am a very gestural talker. I love textures, and am forever reaching out to touch them: wool and silk, tree bark and dry grasses, piles of flour and pie crust, dust on the mantel, salt on the tabletop.
Touch and using one’s hands in building and healing ways are important for human mental and physical well-being. Being tactile and using my hands to build or create every day is possibly the one most emotionally important practice in my life. It helps me listen to and find my own voice and my own path. It makes me feel like myself. After twenty years of losing myself to alcoholism and fifteen years of subsequent sobriety and repair, knowing who I am, tapping my own voice, and being within myself are very important to me.
Because of all this, I thought ASL would be a fun and interesting challenge, but before stepping into my class, I knew positively nothing about it. Less than zero.
My first reaction at seeing this language being used and using it—however haltingly—is that my brain-pan is blown off my head by the reality of it.
You don’t usually touch another person while signing, yet signing is nevertheless an incredibly tactile act. Your hands touch and interact with one another, with your face, your arms, with the space about you. Grammatical sense, humor, and punch are conveyed by timing or the force of the sign.
Communicating in ASL uses a different part of the brain than speech. I don’t say that as a scientist, but instead base it on my own feelings when watching ASL signers. Watching a signer, especially a good one, is like watching a story unfold. It feels similar to reading, wherein words on a page stimulate moving pictures in our heads of the characters, the actions, the scenes, and the emotional contents. We all know how powerfully a picture can transmit emotion. ASL is like that for me: a picture story with wholloping, non-verbal emotional content, plus the added satisfaction of constant tactile feedback. It’s super intense, and super exciting.
Sign language is a transcendence of the hearing world, in that it uses brain routes other than those used for speech, resulting in communication that is very different from speech, and that to me, feels strongly, humanly healthy and joyous.