Hand Talkers

Plains Indian Sign Language, American Sign Language, and the usage of nonverbal communication in Native American literature

I’m currently taking a class at Wofford on Native American Lit and noticed the use of sign language in a book about Indian baseball–Miko Kings by LeAnne Howe. But what struck me is that the players were communicating more than just instructions–something we as contemporary Americans understand as part of the game–but they were communicating to members of the community outside the diamond as well. They were speaking their own language.

As a learner of American Sign Language (ASL), I decided to investigate what I could about both languages and their interactions with each other, if they existed. What I found was that ASL is more French than I thought, and that Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) was probably better preserved, accepted as part of culture, and studied than ASL. The story of “hand talking” was much different than I expected. Here’s what I found.

Let’s start with the history of American Sign Language (ASL):

During the nineteenth century, the use of hand gestures for communication by deaf people was called manualism, and deaf Frenchman Laurent Clerc established the language of ASL in the United States by establishing the first permanent deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817 (Greenwald 558). French Sign Language (LSF) and ASL are undeniably linked, with certain sign families and gestures meaning the same thing in spoken English and French (Shaw and Delaporte).

Deaf linguistics were preserved in African American communities over time, but throughout American sign language was stigmatized like most foreign languages associated with immigrants, and “it was deemed a marginal language used by an inferior race… and suppressed in schools for whites,” though it thrived and was preserved in African American communities (558). Because of ASL’s “foreign” stigma, oralism (forcing deaf people to speak and read lips without the assistance of sign) prevailed in schools until the 1960s, when ASL was recognized as a legitimate language. The history of this shift is documented in books like Deaf Like Me, celebrating the acceptance of sign language as a way to allow deaf people to function more easily in society and create a vibrant culture of their own. “Yet the trends of mainstreaming, widespread use of technology, and the Americans with Disabilities Act have all contributed to the increasing cultural and linguistic isolation of deaf Americans,” argues Greenwald (559). At the very least, this shift has given ASL the space to exist, and for users to thrive. It will be interesting to follow this issue into the future.

The visual and tactile nature of the language prevented records of the language and its etymology until the first two decades of the 20th century, and written descriptions include personal variances and dialects—regionalism is common within the language, and makes proper documentation difficult. Today, ASL is seen as one of the best options for the success, happiness and achievement of deaf persons and is taught widely in schools, but also as a foreign language for hearing students who wish to learn to sign. Interpreter programs around the country certify hearing people to interpret for the deaf in school, medical, legal and social settings.

tumblr_lnhm7tLzBx1qjk4xzASL also appears in some instances of pop culture: the Freeform television series “Switched at Birth” features both deaf and hearing actors and utilizes subtitles for signing conversations. Some episodes are entirely silent–entirely in ASL, and much of the series involves hearing characters learning ASL.

[Shameless plug: “Switched at Birth” is on Netflix and it definitely helped me learn to read ASL. Check it out!]

But what about the history of native sign languages?

Colonists in the New World observed Native Americans using gestures to communicate, especially between tribes that spoke different languages. The most widely used variety of Native American sign language is known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), but is an endangered language (Indian Country Media Network).

But there are even older instances of European contact with Native signing:

“More than three centuries before U.S. officials ventured into the Far West, early modern Europeans had already come into close contact with Indian signs and complex indigenous systems of visual-kinetic communication in the context of the early colonization of the Americas. Their records of some of the nonverbal indigenous practices they witnessed strikingly resemble nineteenth-century observations of PISL and its role as an ‘alternate sign system’ being used alongside speech in hearing societies. A French Jesuit conducting a mission in seventeenth-century Guiana, for instance, noted that the Galibi Indians (modern Kali’na) ‘also use gestures to express what they want to say, treating and conferring with each other, without their being deaf and mute, however; which they particularly do to designate numbers, despite the fact that there are words to express several of them’” (Carayon).

These sign language systems, Carayon writes, functioned as an “internal auxiliary language”—a lingua franca shared by two or more distinct linguistic groups, allowing communication across language barriers. This this the language that explorers and colonists could have observed across the New World, utilized by multiple tribes. PISL, as a lingua franca, “also functioned as an ‘alternate sign system,’ by which is meant a separate, internal language that is completely autonomous from speech and is used by speaking-hearing communities who share the same dialect” (Carayon).

But were PISL and ASL ever studied together? Yes. About that…

With “decidedly evolutionist” ideas about sign languages’ inferiority to spoken languages, experiments were conducted comparing indigenous sign language to ASL in 1880. Lieutenant-Colonel Garrick Mallery brough seven Ute men to the National Deaf-Mute College in Washington, D.C., now called Gallaudet University (a well-established school for the deaf that’s been around since 1864). For this experiment, researchers observed what happened when deaf students told the Ute men scripted stories using ASL… despite a few inaccuracies and impasses in the translation process, most of which were attributed to cultural differences rather than communicative deficiencies, the men were able to understand the ASL.

But what at first seemed like an exciting revelation would result in some dangerous understandings of nonverbal communication, Carayon says. “Mallery, the foremost specialist of the time in the study of Indian signs, used the case study to argue that ‘what is called the sign language of Indians is not, properly speaking, one language, but … it and the gesture systems of deaf-mutes and of all peoples constitute together one language—the gesture speech of mankind—of which each system is a dialect’” (Carayon). Though the “gesture speech of mankind” is a phrase now used to praise sign language, the sentiment behind this statement is problematic for several reasons: “In this statement, Mallery captured the two most prominent and problematic concepts attached to the observation of American Indian sign languages in the modern era: the question of whether manual languages had ‘universal’ properties that could transcend cultural, geographical, and linguistic barriers, and the misguided conceptual association of Indian signs with the various nationally based sign languages of deaf communities in the industrialized Western world” (Carayon).

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Photo from http://www.inquiry.net/outdoor/native/sign/sentences.htm

N.B.: if we look at the featured image at the top of this blog post and reposted above, we see that sentence structure in indigenous sign language is different from the sentence structure we recognize as English. The sentence structure found in Indian sign language as described here is very similar to ASL sentence structures I have learned in the past–it does not surprise me that the experiment in 1880 went well. Those who sign are very good at understanding context and conveying meaning, even to those who do not speak the language, I’ve found.

Bringing PISL back

In 1930 the Indian Sign Language Grand Council was created as part of General Hugh Scott’s preservation efforts to preserve Plains Indian Sign Language, and was the largest meeting of elders and chiefs ever filmed. The films were lost “in the dust of the Great Depression and the unconcern of anthropology’s mainstream until Jeffery Davis, an “interpreter, teacher and researcher in the field of sign language/deaf studies, was stranded overnight in the Archives during a snowstorm in the early 1990s. Members of a Ken Burns documentary crew, also stuck overnight, had noticed the films and told Davis about them” (Hughes). The films were restored and posted online, however the link is too old to function.

The first Indian sign language conference in 80 years was held in August of 2010, in an attempt to “preserve Indian Sign Language through the cooperation of sign language linguists with deaf and hearing members of the North American Indian signing communities through research, video recording and a dictionary” (Hughes). There has been a revival of Native language learning in an effort to preserve its usage, but it is a language that has been described as nearly extinct–most fluent hand talkers are dying without passing on fluency to younger generations. Nevertheless, there are strong programs developing across the nation, such as the Crow Agency’s sign language learning program at Little Big Horn College, pictured below.

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Image screenshot from https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/education/native-education/sign-languages-a-forgotten-part-of-tribal-cultures/

PISL in film:

More attention is being paid to PISL in the arts, particularly in Native creative circles. Below is a promotional video for a short film screened in March of 2016 at INDIgenesis, a Native Film Series presented by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “Directed by Missy Whiteman, this sci-fi docu-narrative follows Charlie, who is forced to choose between joining a Native street gang or going on an epic pilgrimage. Featuring an entirely Native American cast, the film was shot in the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Phillips and Little Earth. ‘The Coyote Way: Going Back Home’ features Native American Sign Language and there is no verbal dialogue (“7 Great Movie Trailers to watch from the New Native Film Program: INDIgenesis”).

Meanwhile, in American pop culture, this is how Native American nonverbal communication is portrayed:

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GIF source

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans could do with a little education on both ASL and PISL; primarily, we need to recognize the inherent values of these languages and what they can do for the speakers, hearing or deaf. Hand talking is an art of its own kind, and one that should be appreciated rather than seen as inferior.

Nonverbal communication in Native American Lit:

Native American Lit: literature written by Native Americans… and also the name of the class I’m taking. I’ve gotten to read origin stories, some of the first works ever published in English by American Indians, boarding school narratives of Indians who were forced into schools that taught them Western ideals and culture, and more contemporary works of fiction and poetry by native authors. Here are a few examples of indigenous sign language and what it means for the story:

from Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story by LeAnne Howe:

“The wig’s supposed to make him look traditional, but Laemmle wove it like a girl’s braids. It’s obvious to the Indians that their producer doesn’t know the difference between the plaits of a powerful warrior and those of a little girl. Each time Laemmle’s back is turned, Hope’s teammates elbow one another and point at the wig. The men use sign language to call Hope Ohoyo Holba, like a woman but not.

Hope watches his teammates joke at his expense. He signs back that he’s the hero of this story: ‘Out of 157 games played this season, I’ve started in 45, completed 40, won 35, and lost 8.’ He signs the number 8 again for emphasis.

The men snicker. Hope signals Blip Bleen, the Miko Kings’ player-manager. ‘Tell them I’m the hero,’ he signs” (Howe 7-8).

This is the prelude to the story, in which the team and their usage of sign language is first introduced. It is clear that signing is not just about baseball, but a full language utilized by all members of the community. Later in the novel, sign language is used to communicate from the field to the stands, when Blip the catcher notices that something is wrong with Hope’s pitching and Bo Hash seems to be involved:

“Blip signals to Henri and Lonnie Johns in the stands, then points to Hash. Get him, he signs. Find out what he’s doing with Hope. Hope sees Blip’s signals and looks at him with pure hatred. Blip senses it and wonders if Hope knows what happened with Cora… Hope can see that Ezol has come down from the bleachers and is standing close to the dugout… Their eyes meet. Stop, don’t do it, she signs. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. She keeps signing and screaming, trying to be heard over the roar or the crowd, yelling, ‘Throw the ball!'” (196, 197).

At the conclusion of Hope’s life, he is known as “No Hands”–they were chopped off at the wrist, observes a nurse (198). Nevertheless, he is still filled with the passion for baseball and his former skill… his hands had been perfect, he remembers. Perfect for baseball–but also able to communicate on another level than just speech.

This novel’s use of sign language tells us, indirectly, the same information I learned about the language’s history: it was used in addition to spoken language rather than instead of it; the language was understood widely and therefore well-preserved; and others could learn and understand the language. Nonverbal communication encompasses any form of communication (body language, facial expressions, micro-expressions, sounds, and formal sign languages), but sign language is one that is often omitted form fiction. In Miko Kings, the story comes from and transitions between spoken and unspoken words–and between ghosts and living people–seamlessly. This works well for a book that explores the physics of space and time surrounding baseball and the Choctaw language.

from House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday:

In House Made of Dawn there is no sign language, but there is a great deal of mention of hands, body language, and positioning: Abel’s hands are broken–again, purposeful violence against someone’s hands–and Tosamah the Priest of the Sun remembers his grandmother in “postures” rather than in stories:

“I see my grandmother in the several postures that were peculiar to her: standing at the wood stove on a winter morning and turning meat in a great iron skillet; sitting at the south window, bent above her beadwork, and afterward, when her vision failed, looking down for a very long time into the fold of her hands; going out upon a cane, very slowly as she did when the weight of age came upon her; praying. I remember her most often at prayer. She made long, rambling prayers out of suffering and hope, having seen many things. I was never sure that I had the right to hear, so exclusive were they of all mere custom and company… I did not always understand her prayers; I believe they were made of an older language than that of ordinary speech” (Momaday 117).

Some of the most impactful scenes of this novel do not include words, but body language, such as when Abel kills an albino man and it seems to be with consent–even by request of the albino man… but the words that might have been said don’t matter. The meaning is there–though maybe not for the reader–and it needs no words.

References: 

Céline Carayon; “The Gesture Speech of Mankind”: Old and New Entanglements in the Histories of American Indian and European Sign Languages. Am Hist Rev 2016; 121 (2): 461-491. doi: 10.1093/ahr/121.2.461

Greenwald, Brian H. “Significant Gestures: A History of American Sign Language – by John Tabak.” Historian, vol. 70, no. 3, Fall2008, pp. 558-559. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.2008.00221_31.x.

Howe, LeAnne. Miko Kings: an Indian Baseball Story. San Frnacisco, Aunt Lute Books, 2007.

Hughes, Pam. “First Indian Sign Language Conference in 80 Years Will Be Held in August.”Indianz.com, Indian Country Today, 18 Aug. 2010, indianz.com/boardx/topic.asp?ARCHIVE=true&TOPIC_ID=41328. Accessed 17 May 2017.

Momaday, Navarre Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York, HarperPerennial, 2010.

“Native American Sign Language.” Indian Country Media Network, 3 Jan. 2011, indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/native-american-sign-language/. Accessed 17 May 2017.

Shaw, Emily and Yves Delaporte. “New Perspectives on the History of American Sign Language.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, Winter2011, pp. 158-204. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hft&AN=509293450&site=ehost-live.

Images and gifs:

A long walk

This January I spent three weeks hiking, camping, and hostelling through iconic California landscapes, and I am forever grateful for the experience. I’m blown away by how much there is to share and remember–and how much there is that I can’t put into words, but here’s the “short” list:

I learned to pitch a tent and cook dinner on a camp stove/fire in the dark, hiked through waist-deep snow with avalanches falling nearby, fell in love with Pinnacles National Park and its incredibly diverse ecosystems, drove “the one” along the Pacific coast until a landslide forced us to turn back, walked among massive elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park, camped next to strawberry fields at Sunset Beach, went tidepooling with marine biologists at Carmel Point and later by ourselves at Point Reyes, panned for gold and gemstones and visited Sutter’s Mill site, where gold was first discovered.

I hiked with elk on the coast near Point Reyes, walked among redwoods in Big Sur and giant, two-thousand year-old sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, toured Cline Cellars and enjoyed a wine tasting after petting their donkeys and learning about their sustainable farming practices, visited a petrified forest, squeezed through Yosemite’s spider cave in total darkness with no visibility and only the person in front of me to guide me, spent an afternoon on the beach at Point Reyes enjoying the sunset and campfire conversation, and greatly expanded my taste in music thanks to our lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng hours in the vans and our collaborative playlist.

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But the true highlight of the month was the wonderful humans who put up with my stench, made sure that I had nut-free food to eat and managed to avoid sending me into anaphylactic shock, loved me well when I got sad news from home, made me laugh with impersonations and rap battles, and were sources of endless deep and encouraging conversations about everything. I signed up for this trip entirely independently of my friends, and really, I didn’t know anyone well going into it. These four gals and nine dudes are family now, and while I never would’ve picked us out, I’m so thankful for them. We’re a diverse bunch, but we all share a passion for adventure, the outdoors, and the environment–and that bridges all other differences. If you’re reading this, team, I love ya. So much. Thanks for being you. Let’s go camping soon.

This month was full of the unexpected, but it was also full of rest and reflection. We rarely had service, and I was free to experience every day in the moment without the pressure of work, school or the ever-intimidating job search. Even the little things, like not wearing makeup for an entire month and not feeling any pressure to shave, was so freeing. I signed up for this class in order to fill some missing holes in my outdoor and environmental education, but also because it’s something I know my late classmate, MacGregor, would have loved. I wanted to honor her somehow, and this adventure seemed appropriate. It was–beyond my imagination. As we left Yosemite, I wrote this in my journal:

I feel that a bear has been watching us as we walk. And maybe it has… maybe MacGregor is with us. We’ve shared so many trails before–it feels wrong that she is not among the small cohort of women amidst the mostly male class. She should be here… she would be here, were she still alive. I’m convinced of it. So maybe she is here. Maybe she was the condor we knew was above our heads but could not see; maybe she was the bear hunkered warm in its winter place while we stomped and stumbled through waist-deep snow, pelting each other with snowballs and overflowing with laughter. Maybe she was in the wind, or among the redwoods in Big Sur where we found banana slugs on the slopes and hoped to spy the largest. Her adventurous spirit certainly was. Either way, I feel that something in me has been restored, though I can’t yet identify what. Maybe I should just keep walking. 

That’s what last year was for me: a long and unexpected walk among avalanches that seemed to barely miss me; bruises from falling through crusted drifts and dragging myself back to the compacted trail; gratitude for the trailblazers ahead of me and the satisfying crunch of snow beneath my feet; an exhausted body that protests my every effort to continue on the trail; crisp air that at once thrills and drains me as I struggle to drink it in; despair as I turn a corner to find yet another steep slope with no resting place in sight; the sudden, unexpected weight of snow dumped by a tired tree on my head, and the slow thawing process afterwards; and wonder–absolute wonder at the joy that comes from trusting your guide and briefly, finally understanding the purpose of the hike we’ve endured. And we have endured. We were made to walk this earth, to enjoy the view, to face plant in the snow, and to keep walking, however harrowing the climb. 

Jesus taught me so much about trust this January, and an old promise that once felt limiting is now so sweet to me: “The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent” (Exodus 14:14). There’s a lot in this world that I feel called to fight, and it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scope of these battles. I feel so small–the kind of small that we feel when submerged in the natural world, such as in the high peaks at Pinnacles or on cliff-lined coasts of Point Reyes, with waves crashing in a continuous thunder at their base.

But there is such freedom in this smallness, too: I can faithfully, joyfully do what I am called to do, and no more. The Lord will fight for me even when I am silent, and he will certainly work through my work, too. I just have to trust that my seemingly fruitless efforts are not in vain–that there’s so much going on around me that I cannot see, but will understand one day, some day.

So now what?

I hope I never forget the lessons and memories I gained this past year. I hope 2017 far exceeds my expectations–though January set the bar pretty high! I’ve got one more semester at Wofford before I’m on my own–with my horse in tow–but otherwise, the real world is coming up quickly. Before I graduate, I’ll have a novella published (through Wofford) and hopefully some creative nonfiction as well. We’ll see. I know this semester’s going to be a hike of its own kind.

With the EPA and National Parks Service (and basically all scientists) under attack, I’m convinced that environmentalism is as important as ever before, though I’m not sure what I’ll be doing a year from now. But that’s okay. I’ve got a whole three months to figure out where I’m going next… I just have to keep walking. No matter where I go, I know the view will be great.

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Writer, horse lover, Jesus-loving environmentalist for hire!

A Selfish Senior Year:

How I’m learning to actually take care of myself.

Someone told me recently that I seem like I’m doing “so much better” this semester.

While this statement was so encouraging to hear, I laughed a little, surprised. It’s true that physically, I am in a much healthier state than in years past. I can’t point to the reason excepting the grace of God… my current health is such a blessing after the past seven years. With that said, this semester has been anything but easy, and I’ve spent a surprising amount of my time crying. Ugly crying.

Somehow, I think this emotional turmoil is what’s made the beginning of my senior year so special. I am [forever] learning to be vulnerable with my peers. I am totally okay with not being okay. And, more importantly, I’m learning to take time to take care of myself in the very moment I need self-care, and not a moment later.

I have a tendency to dwell on the hurts of other people; my ability to see and observe the people around me is something that I often take for granted. Sometimes, though, the pain of other people is overwhelming, especially when there’s nothing I can do about it:

  • When friends and classmates die by suicide, and the empty chairs in [senior] classes are so distractingly heartbreaking.
  • When friends and classmates are so consumed by anxiety that they struggle to engage on campus.
  • When friends and classmates are homesick, sick, or just tired.
  • When neighbors are annoying and difficult but also destructive.
  • When I can see that something is wrong, but the pain is so deep and so secret that it will never be brought to the surface—or at least never revealed to me, the quiet girl on the other side of the classroom.
  • When family members need me, but I can’t come home to comfort them.

I can’t do much to fix any of these things—at least, not directly or wholly restore the situation like I’d love. The world is just too big and too complex. But I can love the people in front of me.

I can write newspaper articles to help people or causes I care about. I can be the kind, quiet girl on the other side of the classroom, and maybe I can even cross the room. I can be available to those who need me, over and over again. I can tell people that I see light in them, even as I see their pain. I can help students with their papers and show them their hidden giftedness with words. I can show them their own brilliance—one of my favorite jobs as a writing center tutor. I can take care of my Wofford family in so many ways.

But I must take care of myself.

It’s hard for me to say no. Selfishness is the last word I want attached to my name. I dislike selfish people. I don’t ever want to disregard or silence the needs and voices of others. I don’t like saying no, especially when saying yes helps someone else.

And yet, I’m learning to take care of myself first. I’m learning to be more “selfish”—in a new way. The kind of self-care I’m seeking after isn’t watching Netflix instead of studying. It doesn’t mean forcing myself to do more [good things] for self-care, like exercise: it’s allowing myself to do less.

Self-care is allowing myself to do less.

Sometimes that means I skip meetings of organizations that I love and enjoy. Sometimes I sleep in instead of finishing my homework… something my former self would abhor. Sometimes I turn in a paper that’s not my absolute best work, because it is the best work I could have produced in that moment. If something more important comes up, it takes precedence over my homework, and that’s okay. As embarrassing and difficult as it is to admit my own finiteness, it’s also exhausting to try and keep up with my own expectations.

Friends, I know what it’s like to trust that another cup of coffee is all you need to borrow against tomorrow (Believe me… I drink a lot of coffee!). I know what it’s like to abandon responsibility and call it self-care. I’ve done it for most of my adult life.

But self-care, itself, is our responsibility. Our bodies are temples, right? Let’s treat them like it! This looks differently for everybody, but it’s important. It took me a while to realize that forcing myself into deeper exhaustion with [excessive] exercise was just burning the candle from both ends, so to speak. Yes, self-care involves physical health, and exercise is so important! But are we making a deposit rather than a withdrawal in our self-care? For a while, I wasn’t.

Self-care is sleeping. There’s no other way around it. We are so much more resilient with sufficient sleep. I believe that we cannot even begin to exercise or wean ourselves from excessive energy drinks or achieve any other health/self-care goals unless we are sleeping. It took me more than three years to admit that I wasn’t being honest about the way my sleeping patterns were affecting my health. It’s still difficult. But it’s worth it.

Self-care is taking a break… A real break. Outside, or at least away from all forms of work or screens. How long can we go without our phones? Is it truly restful if we are still planning out our week in our break times? How many times have I sat outside without homework, just for the sole purpose of enjoying my surroundings? Not enough. The in-between can be great, but it cannot be our only source of relaxation. Let’s go relaxing, friends.

Self-care is processing with friends. I am so grateful for my friends and the way that we intentionally set aside time to check on each other as a group. In one particular circle of friends, each person gets to update the others on how things are going—how things are really going. It is one of the most wonderful practices of self-care that I’ve found.

Being vulnerable with friends allows for me to receive care as I give it to others. It’s beautiful, no matter how you slice it. I’ve got a lot of people in my life that love and care for me every day, in big ways and in infinitesimally small ways that I appreciate so very much.

It’s really hard to live restfully as a senior with four jobs, two majors, a capstone project, a team, and a four-legged child. I’m really bad at it, most days. I am tragically busy and overcommitted, still. But when my dear friend told me I seemed so much better than before, she was right. I can talk about difficulties in my life with such relief, now. I get to share the deep, deep grace of God as He works in my life. The healing and restoration I’ve seen around me is precious and beautiful, even if I don’t notice it at first. It’s there, friends. It’s there.

Ask me about it. Or don’t. But at least know that when I tell you I’m not having a good day, I am somehow also on my way to being very, very well.

Because my God is so good. And it is well.

Since I Last Wrote

I’ve done a lot of writing in the past four months – about 63,000 words, to be exact. It’s been a whirlwind! This semester was filled with many newspaper articles, a handful of personal essays and an as-of-yet unfinished novella. Don’t ask… I’m not ready to share yet! I will say, though, that I’ve learned a lot about myself during the creative writing process, and despite its messiness, I so appreciate what this semester has taught me. The Old Gold and Black garnered a record twelve awards from the South Carolina Press Association, including 1st place general excellence in our division! Personally, I was awarded the 1st place individual use of social media and 4th place feature story… I am so thankful and so proud to be a part of this newspaper and I can’t wait to spend one more year on staff. This spring, when I wasn’t writing, I was riding or teaching riding! Here’s the short version:

  • Dancer turned 10! We’ve been making what I’m calling mini-milestone victories in various areas of our relationship, from crossing water to accepting ropes around her head. I don’t get to ride her much, but each time I interact with her I’m reminded that I have to take the time it takes… the results are so rewarding! Going into the summer, I’m so excited to see what we can accomplish together, but I’m also just going to enjoy being with her… because that’s what I love the most.
  • One of my most versatile HALTER horses passed away, and for the first time in my career I had to tell my students that their equine partner wasn’t coming back. It was hard, it created all kinds of logistical problems and left me bitter that an incredibly healthy horse died so suddenly and left me struggling to fill the holes. It’s been challenging to navigate the rest of the session without him, and I sometimes forget that Beau isn’t available for Thursday afternoon classes when I need a horse that can do everything. I guess I’m learning to avoid making assumptions about the tools I’ll have at my disposal on any given day. But I still miss Beau.
  • The Wofford Equestrian team finished our second season, but we are still busy preparing for the fall! The Wofford administration has been so supportive of us this year and we are working closely with them to grow the team. If you don’t follow us on Twitter yet, you should! We are always reporting from shows and sharing pictures of our adventures. I’ll be working all summer to be ready for the novice over fences division!

What’s next?

I’ll be living, working, studying and riding in Tryon this summer – I’m so excited! I’ll be studying sustainable horse-keeping in one of the nation’s fastest-growing equestrian hubs… I can’t wait to share what I learn. More than learning, though, I’m hoping to live restfully – that’s the biggest and hardest lesson I learned this semester. I can’t do everything. So here goes… something.

A Love Letter to my Terriers

My heart has been torn into shreds the past few weeks. To be honest, the worst part of my life right now besides schoolwork is some chronic pain that hasn’t changed much in six or more years – nothing I’m not fully accustomed to by now. Nevertheless, my lungs feel too small for breath sometimes and my limbs feel to heavy to move, some days.

My heart aches for you, Terriers.

I see you.

I see you, the ones who can tell story after story of how you were… are belittled, attacked, or ignored by professors, classmates, fellow Terriers, and members of the Spartanburg community solely based on your skin. I see how hard you have to fight on a daily basis in order to be seen as a human being on this campus. I see you, and I’m sorry I haven’t been there to speak up.

I see you, friends, who spend so much time helping others only to feel like you haven’t done enough… you, who then reach out for help from others and are ignored. I see you, and I’m sorry I haven’t been there to help you in return.

I see you, classmates, who bravely face tragedy after tragedy, seemingly taking hits on all sides, and I feel absolutely powerless to help you. But I see you.

I see you, friends, who struggle with health problems that are difficult to understand and treat, difficult to live with and even more difficult to explain – I know so deeply those feelings of confusion, fear and pain but I feel so unable to make it better because I can’t help myself, either. But I see you. And I love you.

I see you, and my heart hurts so much for you.

 

I promise to smile at you every time I pass you on the sidewalk – or at least attempt to make eye contact because you are a human being and I want to let you know that I see you.

I promise to hear you when you have something to say, especially when you need help or feel helpless. Because your voice matters, and it matters just as much as the voices that sometimes drown you out.

(If you are the voice drowning others out, I will listen, too. But I might respond in a whisper, that you may hear your own volume.)

I promise to make you a cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate if you really need a place to sit and be safe – my relatively boring and somewhat messy dorm room is yours, if you need it.

I promise to listen to you if you just want to chat because you just need to.

I promise to convey to you with every fiber of my being – if not with my words, then with my actions – this:

That you are deeply and so very loved.

Even when you feel helpless, there is hope. Even when you can’t breathe – when fear has too tight a grip on your lungs and you feel like no one sees you – there is one who sees you and who WILL help you. Even when you are attacked and ignored by others, there is one who can and will defend you.

It’s not [always] me… It’s always Jesus.

 

Jesus is the only reason I have the hope that I do. Jesus is the only reason I can even attempt to love both the oppressed and the ones who seek to oppress – it is impossible without his never-ending grace.

Jesus is the reason I can be thankful even as we face one of the worst semesters of our college careers, friends… between natural disasters, conflicts abroad and the loss of life here on campus and in Spartanburg, there is still some hope.

Jesus is the reason I can be okay with the miniscule difference I make in the face of such overwhelming strife and pain.

Jesus is the reason I can sing. Jesus is the reason that I see you. And Jesus helps me say I love you. You are loved.

I hope you feel this, even if I’m too scared or too shy to say it aloud.

No matter how you feel about Jesus, let’s love people.

 

…Let’s love people.

No matter how you feel about Jesus, don’t be afraid to ask me for help.

No matter how you feel about yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

 

There are so many people on this campus who want so badly to tell you that you are valuable. There are so many people on this campus who want to let you know that they see light in you, even when you feel overwhelmed. There are so many people on this campus who will listen to you and hear you when you say you feel alone.

No matter how many people prove me wrong to you, don’t give up. The people that prove us wrong are the easiest to find.

I love you, Terriers. I’m here for you.

Even if it’s all I can do.

Falling trees and bleach fumes; the sad story of this week

Saturday, October 3, 2015

It’s so soggy in Spartanburg that a tree fell on campus last night – in a place known for its trees, this is a sad event. Roots can’t hold on to the earth if there is no earth to hold on to, and with soup for an anchor, just one puff of wind can flick the massive oaks past their point of balance and WHACK! Out come the chainsaws and other machines to clear the road. Just a sigh of relief that no buildings were damaged, and then no thought given to the hundreds of trees still left, tottering in the mud.

It’s been this wet all week – raining for longer. I’ve gotten so used to the constant mist and drizzle that I don’t pull my raincoat out of my backpack unless raindrops are running down my forehead into my eyes. Otherwise, I walk through the cloud-like moisture to class, ignoring it. My hair has become its own creature, and I do my best to compromise with the beast.

Hurricane Joaquin may be spinning away from our coast, but he’s spitting some record-breaking storm fronts right back at the South, almost as if to spite us for depriving him of a landfall. Wednesday was beautiful. I got a glove tan line from my hour-long riding lesson – it was hot and sunny for the first time in more than two weeks, not to mention dry enough to work in the arena without worrying about the horses slipping in the soupy footing. It was a beautiful mid-week blessing.

But Thursday, Wofford woke up to the news that businesses bordering our campus (at our feet, almost, buried in the hillside) had been flooded. The roads at the bottom of the hill were covered in mud, and the car salesmen spent all day power-washing their lots and wiping down their cars, which looked more like an army fleet than a colorful inventory of used vehicles. Everything was red clay-tinted, even where the water had receded. It kept drizzling most of Thursday, but nicely, as if the skies were apologizing for the damage they’d inflicted.

A person had died in the Thursday floods, I would learn. Trapped in a vehicle that got swept under a bridge. Multiple bridges were closed underneath, from silting or rapid water currents or maybe even instability – who knows? Somewhere else in the area, a bridge collapsed into the muddy waters below, looking a lot like a sinkhole although none of the reporters called it that explicitly, at least not that I heard. Wofford students were advised to remain on campus – our property is one of the highest points in Spartanburg, which both protects us and makes escape difficult.

I was supposed to go to a clinic in Pendleton today. After the heavy rains Friday night into Saturday morning, there was no safe way for me to get to where I needed to go. Too many dips in the road where I knew the road would be flooded, if not susceptible to collapse. I stayed in bed and pouted.

On Thursday, the dry-cleaning and laundry business that had been filled to the brim with muddy runoff was hosed down – much of that mud and water ended up in the streets, as if it needed any more. On campus, I was shocked to find that the grounds crew (or at least their supervisor) seemed to think it a good idea to power wash the cement outside my dorm – to clean the stone and the bricks that would in a few hours be rained on once again. They used more than a dozen bottles of bleach on maybe thirty yards of sidewalk, for lack of a better term. The bleach-bubbled water ran through the grass and down the walkway to the curb, flowing down into the system that already had too much water in it. Maybe some of the bleach ended up at the laundromat after last night’s rain… it more than likely ended up in Lawson’s Fork Creek or some other system, already overwhelmed.

All day, it smelled like bleach… Bleach, fertilizer, and rain. Why the fertilizer seemed a good idea, I don’t know. A guy on a tractor drove through the play-dough ground, leaving behind muddy tire tracks, shredded grass, and millions of little white pieces of chemicals that often missed the lawn and landed on the sidewalk – or in the puddles in the road. How much of that fertilizer stayed where it was spewed?

I don’t understand. I know there’s some sort of logic behind these decisions, but I can’t find it.

On Friday morning, I noticed six cigarette butts scattered on the covered walkway where the cement had just been bleached. The stone on the walkway, the cement on the sidewalk and the bricks in the courtyard all had a milky white film on them.

One butt lay swollen in the watery crack between two bricks – how far did its owner have to throw the cigarette to deposit it here? This one is a long way away from the covering, where smoke breaks take place right in front of the door so that I have to hold my breath on my way to class. I do so unapologetically – I’m an asthmatic, and smoke is one of my triggers.

Walking to class on Thursday and Friday, it smelled like chemicals more than anything. I inhaled diesel as I walked by workers with leafblowers – quite ineffective when the leaves are stuck to their spots – and I inhaled bleach fumes every time I left or returned to my dorm. I could also smell the fertilizer, even with a severe cold. How alarming.

Wofford gave tours all day Friday. Mentally, as each group passed by my study spot, I apologized for the smell. It’s not always like this. Not always.

As I write this, we have a pool in our courtyard, due to an ineffective drain. I wonder how long it will take for maintenance to bring out the bleach… how many hours after the floodwaters recede will they bring out the blowers? Mow the mud?

As a resident of this gorgeous campus, as a student, as an environmental studies major, as a human – I beg us to slow down. Look up, and watch for falling trees, lest we be in the trajectory as we power wash a sidewalk, adding more broth to the soup.

P.S.: I realize that the list of tasks to be completed by the grounds crew is overwhelmingly long and that there are many unseen factors that go into each decision. I am not trying to accuse anybody of being incompetent. I simply want to share a perspective. We have to be intentional with our maintenance: not despite our high and dry location, but precisely because of it.

What are your thoughts? Comment below!