I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as I stared at them over the screen of my laptop. I paused my iPod in order to hear their silence.
They walked into the coffee shop as a pair, but I didn't know which kind of pair. They could be brother and sister or girlfriend and boyfriend or friend and friend. She was dressed in her own unique attire, expressing herself in nearly every way she could since she couldn't use her voice to do so. He dressed like nearly anyone else with jeans a T-shirt and tennis shoes. Her black and red combination of tights, a skirt, a jacket, a hat, and piercings said a lot.
I watched them sign to one another. He used a lot of letters to spell things, hinting that he might not know as many words as she did. I was privy to their coffee shop theater as they moved their hands and arms while waiting for their lattes and espressos to be made. I had a front row seat to their ordinary drama called conversation.
I wondered if he learned sign language for her or if he already knew it. I wondered why she was deaf. I wondered if they sent a lot of text messages to one another. I wondered how they could communicate when their hands were full of stuff at the store or while rearranging furniture. I wondered how he could drive and carry on a conversation. I wondered what her silence sounded like.
Sure, lots of communication – indeed the vast majority – is nonverbal. But in a world plagued by iPods and 24-hour news, the sounds of things provide the white noise of our life. We try to drown out the noise with even more noise. Or, we take vacations to remote spots in order to hear the silence. Hardly anywhere, however, is immune to planes flying overhead or the ringing of cell phones.
We think silence traps us. We're scared of it, as if it will make us listen deeply to the sound of our own conscience, our inner voice, or our deepest dreams – nearly anything we've been neglecting with our noise-making tools of today. We're so frightened by what we might hear when we're not listening to anything in particular that we're always so deliberate with what it is that can fill our eardrums with anything at all – anything but silence.
I wondered if her silence liberated her. I wondered if not being able to hear anything at all allowed her to hear who it is she truly was. I wondered if turning my iPod off in order to better concentrate on their rapid exchange via the bending and moving of fingers was a discipline worth practicing even when they weren't around. I wondered if I'd been neglecting the voice inside of me because I could hear.
We've got to move past the gift of our own hearing in order to get to a place where we can listen to who it is we're supposed to be.