The Sacred Invitation of Impairment

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Kelley J. Leigh -Sacred Invitation of Impairment3By Kelley J. Leigh | Twitter: @KelleyJLeigh

I. Barriers

I am hearing impaired.

Much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I can’t hear without the assistance of hearing aids and lip reading. I need to sit close to faces to see words as they form on lips and teeth. I rely on external amplification to hear any meaningful message in a world full of noise. Over time I’ve grown accustomed to the daily hunt and gather of words.

Words are the glue and mortar of relationship. Clear words extend bridges between shared stories. Discernible words give form to our loves, fears, hopes, hatreds, passions, and all that we believe. Without the ability to hear words, spoken sound simply becomes a pile of random bricks, an incapacitating barrier to connection.

Over the last couple of years, my disability has worsened. This degeneration has increased my sense of disconnection or isolation in larger groups and community gatherings. In formal meetings, a speaker’s words often blur. I have to rely on people next to me for clarification of missed punchlines and jumbled instructions. I am in the process of upgrading insufficient hearing aids. Which is why, after deciding to attend a large women’s gathering in British Columbia, I felt nervous.

The Rise Up, Sister event attracted my heart because I wanted to be with strong women with a shared passion—radical women who wanted to gather to talk about loving God and people in dangerous and reconciling ways. Truth be told, I was unclear about what the event would be. I simply knew in my gut I was supposed to go, like a magnet pointing to true north. So I made reservations to attend, tensed at the unknowns of my impairment and wondered, “How will I compensate for my loss?”

***

II. A New, Unexpected Language

The early morning circle of warm sleepy women sit in stackable conference chairs. A single candle flickers on a stool at the center of the circle. The tiny flame quivers small in a big carpeted log lodge room full of still feet and bowed heads. The woman leading is gentle, grounded, contemplative, and soft-spoken.

Somehow I heard this optional morning meditation described as a silent prayer time. I misheard the instructions. The time was slated to include lectio divina, a Benedictine practice which alternates reading, meditation and prayer around a certain passage of scriptural words. In a group, time is left open to share what may have been heard or received during the meditation.

The leader begins to read lectio divina instructions from a paper on her lap. I cannot see her lips. Words twist into smoky blurred sounds. At this moment I realize I will not be able to connect with what’s happening here in the circle. I will hear the shapes of words, but I will not find their meaning.

In order to hear, I must stand and move closer to the source.

Women hum and murmur their insights.

My feet shuffle cautiously between a chair maze. I situate myself pretzel-legged on the carpeted floor behind the leader. My ears strain to hear her voice. I still can not hear her, still cannot discern any full sentences from the women. I resign myself to sit among the random bricks and barriers instead.

My mind releases any expectation of understanding.
I mull over the suggested spiritual quote, and listen to the sounds in the room.

Random phrases or words emerge clear in a sea of blurry sounds.

Hmmmm. Hmmmm. Hmmmm. “Peace…”
Hmmmmm. Hmmmm. “Abide…”

In the hum, I begin to hear odd metered clicks and singing rhythms.
Then it happens—the tilt and shift.

The indiscernible foreign words that float around me in the room begin to change.
I hear raw sound
Apart from meaning, words become a guttural music

Muddled and untranslated words transform into beats of meter.
Long long short.
Long.
Short short short.

Words morph into music
with rise and fall,
piano and forte,
rest and hold.
staccato and slur,
sweet long prayer ballads like lullaby.

Muffled syllables sing
High soprano voices.
Long short long.
Alto word notes peppered with actual words.
“Spirit”
Sing song notes
“Love”
Hummm Hummmm Hummm
“God”
Short short
“Abide”

The prayer leader speaks and women begin to respond to her question.
I hear an antiphony of theme and response.
A word from the woman over there,
A sentence from the lady across the circle.
Another woman begins with paragraphs like her own cadenza and several women sigh and hum in response.

They sing this music in quietest tones, some in reverence, others in hesitation.
And I feel a connectedness, the sharedness of all that is being said, sung into the air we are all breathing together. I am given a gift of inclusion.

I am a breathing, singing part of this circle, even though I don’t understand the specific words. The prayer leader gives a prompt like a conductor at a podium all heads bow for a single solo.

I hum my yes into the air.

***

III. Imagine

Later that day, I will carry this gift into larger groups. I will hear a loud cacophony, a choir of voices like a room full of xylophones, plinking mallets on liquid keys, all watery chirps and feathers flying.

Again, I hear only short bursts of words. But I sit happily steeping in the strange new music. I recall music structure and meter I learned before the losses, in the years when I was an active musician. I hear the rhythms of phrases that rise audibly to the surface. Eighth note. Sixteenth note. Quarter quarter triplet in the random clear words spoken:

“Our most sacred moments are our most human”

“Above all is God”

“Imagine”

“Imagine”

As the rhythm and music of words spill in the room,
I imagine myself standing.
I imagine that I move close,
to stand behind
or sit at the foot of each one who speaks.
I see myself near, face to face, listening.

I imagine myself in a wider circle of women …

I am moving near to each one who has something to say,
because of my impairment, I must move closer.
Because of my loss, each woman must speak louder.

What would happen if I moved to stand by each woman as she whispered her response, her story?

What if I lived my impairment out in the open this way?

A few more clear words float above the universal music:

“Listen…

If God is
for us
who can be against …

nothing can separate

love of God.”

Without any available paper in the moment, desperate to capture the wild shift, I pick up an ink pen from floor. I begin to write the notes of this experience on my hand like a frantic composer.

Kelley J. Leigh -Sacred Invitation of Impairment5

When my left palm fills, I write up my arm.

This impairment is not a barrier
it is the glue, the mortar
the place of amplified voices
words and stories
shared louder,
discernible,
spoken with unaccustomed boldness
maybe for the first time.

The very nature of my impairment is an invitation for someone else to speak her truth a little louder.

Kelley J. Leigh -Sacred Invitation of Impairment4

I write the words in the last available spaces on my arm
In the inside curve of my elbow,
Under my wrist
Ink seeps into skin
The words of a miracle
Blur and bleed

Indelible.

________________

About Kelley:

Kelley J. LeighKelley J. Leigh is a freelance writer and mid-life mom of four sons. Kelley lives in the Pacific Northwest where she recently purchased a better pair of hearing aids. Find her over at www.kelleyjleigh.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KelleyJLeigh or on Twitter at @KelleyJLeigh.

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  • Kelley, thank you for sharing that experience so beautifully. I’m enriched by your clear description of what it’s like to live with a hearing impairment and I honor your brave pressing forward to gain all that you could from every spoken word.

    • Kelley J. Leigh

      Thank you, Michele.

  • Mim Winn

    Moving in close, speaking the truth in a louder voice…I hear what you are saying, I too want learn to move in closer and speak truth loudly.

    Also thanks for sharing your experience. ..you are amazing. Love Mim

    • Kelley J. Leigh

      The necessity of moving in closer. Yes. Exactly. Thanks, Mim.

  • Oh Kelley! Thank you for the gracious way you receive the world. Being the one who led the prayer time, I am challenged by your experience to be more aware of the diversity of impairments in any given group I might lead, and more so, to “speak my truth a little louder.” My prayer for the prayer times was that each woman might meet God in a deep way – and from your beautiful description of the music, I am blessed to know you were met. I am sorry I did not speak louder and it grieves me that you struggled to hear the words. I’m so moved by your reflection, “I was given the gift of inclusion.” So humbled at the grace extended to both of us. Bless you, dear sister! Xoxo

    • Leah Abraham

      “I was given the gift of inclusion.” I loved that sentence too!

      • Kelley J. Leigh

        : )

    • Kelley J. Leigh

      Olive. Thank you for this response! What an important experience we shared… I am grateful for your willingness to lead, and the gifts that manifested in that space. May we both speak a little louder because of it all. Best to you!

  • So much love for this, and for you. I hear your voice reading this. I feel your moments. I am with you there, and now. I just love this. Thank you so much!

    • Kelley J. Leigh

      I appreciate this, Angela. Thank you for reading … and listening.

  • Pamela Rapelje-Trapp

    You, Ms. Kelley, are one of my heroes. In February, you moved and stood near me, one who could barely whisper her story. And you held that whisper with such tenderness, i will never be the same. You give me courage to keep whispering. Thank you.

    • Kelley J. Leigh

      Pam. And you heard me quietly utter mine. And I will wait in expectancy, for the day that you sing yours … when you give voice to the song that pours out of the place where the whisper once lived. Thank you, friend.

  • This was beautifully written. Breathtaking really. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into your world. It makes me have more compassion and understanding for you friend, and those around me with hearing loss- I’m grateful for that.

    I really loved especially that last part that talked so honestly about how impairment was an opening for others to speak up. It made me think about how God shows up in weakness – how there’s more space for him that way.

    Thank you for writing this piece- I loved reading it so much tonight.

  • Shelly W.

    So thankful you were brave and listened to that gut feeling to go to the conference. So thankful that this was a significant “tilt and shift” moment in your life. You describe something so difficult to capture – how you heard the music of the words. It opens my eyes just a little better to hearing impairment. You have found a gift in your loss and have shared that gift with us – an invitation to speak louder. Thank you. PS The photos are powerful.