Silence brought me a community and an escape – The New York Times | WHs Answers

Every evening when I return home, fall into my house and rip my hearing aids out of my head. No matter where I’ve been, the routine is the same. Sometimes I’m in such a hurry I can’t even bear to go through the settings on the power button, so I pop open the battery doors instead. I then stow them on a tall bookshelf out of my toddler’s reach, where they stay until the next time I venture out.

Taking out my hearing aids is a relief, much like freeing my feet from a long day in dress shoes, except what’s being squeezed is my brain. I choose to wear hearing aids in a variety of work-related or social situations, but they create a dull throb around my head. For all the technological power and utility the tools offer, I’ve found lately that their greatest value is in the joy of removing them.

I wasn’t always deaf. I grew up in a listening world and in a house full of music that had a much more imposing physical presence then – records, cassettes and CDs were stacked on the tables and shelves of every room; Stereos, boom boxes, and subwoofers lined the walls of our home office. Literally and without any athletic talent, I fell into the extracurricular choral and musical theaters: I was a decent singer, but more than that, my friends were there. Music classrooms had become my safe haven. That’s probably why, when I failed a school hearing screening around the age of 12, I tore up a pink piece of paper that said so much instead of taking it home as instructed. Like everyone I knew, I understood deafness as a deficit and saw myself as a broken version of who I used to be. I lost access to sound and others.

My hearing loss was a slow progression over the next decade. It would be even longer before I unlearned the prevailing wisdom I had internalized about the deaf world and instead learned to listen to other deaf people – and myself. I spent my high school years trying to survive, clinging to normality and worrying that losing my hearing would jeopardize the friendships I’d forged in musical spaces. When I finally discovered the deaf community and American Sign Language (ASL), I realized that silence doesn’t have to mean isolation—it could mean community and conversation, just like sound did before.

One Sunday when I was in college, I was feeling down when I walked into a church service and noticed a sign language interpreter in the front corner. She and the deaf parishioners signed as the band played, which caught her attention for a moment. I slid into the bench next to them, jingling with fear and excitement that I had found others like me.

I then introduced myself to one of the group using the Halt ASL I picked up from the internet. I can’t remember what either of us said, but after months of pouring every ounce of energy trying to communicate with hearing people at school, even this clumsy interaction felt like a relief. I didn’t hide anymore and he didn’t reject me. My poor drawing skills didn’t matter because he and most of the deaf people I’ve met since understand what it means and what it feels like to be in this body.

“The deaf don’t believe in silence,” writes deaf poet Ilya Kaminsky in his collection Deaf Republic. “Silence is the invention of hearing.” I offer a revision: fear of silence is the invention of hearing. I don’t believe in silence as emptiness. It’s additive, forcing me inward to engage with my thoughts without distraction, challenging me to participate in the world differently, to fully utilize my remaining senses in a way I certainly wouldn’t if I’d stayed listening .

Deafness has made me a better writer. As hearing people use music and podcasts to support them through their commutes, downtime, and everything in between, I let my mind wander and write sentences in the air. Sometimes it’s boring to be so alone, but the boredom encourages me to study the atmospheric details in my daily life: the sheen of broken bottles and bags of potato chips and the nosepieces of discarded masks in the South Philly gutters breaking the morning sun, when I walk the dog. Things I probably wouldn’t have noticed upon hearing—at least not enough to remember—now fill a rich store of images to choose from when I sit down to write.

The society claims I’m broken and has tried to rehabilitate my ears through various devices. But I’ve watched people plug their ears every waking moment, seeking what I already have: a buffer between the self and the overwhelming day. What I used to think was “normal” I now find to be a burden – never being able to stop, not even when I’m asleep. Deafness certainly poses a challenge in a hearing majority world, but I feel fortunate to have been given the ability to turn off sound. While I can’t exactly recommend deafness for what I’ve learned – to see different sensory experiences not as mistakes but as examples of human diversity; no longer confusing majority experience with superiority; Finding the good in what really scares you at first should be a lesson to all. Don’t turn up the headphones too fast. Embrace silence, or at least some time without constant consumption of content. You might even get bored long enough to hear what your mind is saying.


Sara Novic is the author of the novels True Biz and Girl At War. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.

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