heart on your back

By Dana Gornall

And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine on until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

~ The Beatles


I used to work as a sign language interpreter.

I still interpret from time to time, but no longer do it as a career. Learning American Sign Language (ASL)—a visual language that has its own syntax and grammar and in no way mirrors spoken English—was an interesting feat. You see, ASL primarily focuses on visual imagery and uses grammatical markers through facial expression, body shifts and intensity of motion. The language we speak lacks so much character in comparison.

Learning to take this visual-based, poetic language and transform it into a more rigid verbal discourse, was like taking my brain and slicing it into pieces. Interpreting English to ASL is done in an almost simultaneous fashion. While the person is speaking, I absorb the message, translate it into concepts, figure out what signs would best represent the meaning, and then start putting that out onto my hands while I am taking in the next few sentences that the person is speaking.

This requires a lot of multi-tasking in the brain.

While interpreting a college Psychology course one day, I listened and signed to the Deaf student as the professor explained that the human brain was unable to hear two conversations at once and absorb both stories. He then decided to demonstrate this theory by playing a recording with both a man and woman speaking at the same time on two different topics. I leaned toward my left to represent the male conversation and then leaned right to represent the female conversation and signed both sides without missing a beat. When we were done, I looked up to see the professor gaping at me.

“Someone should really do some research on you,” he said, mouth hanging open in a shocked expression, “you shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

“I think maybe someone should study the profession of interpreting because this is what we do,” I answered, signing to my Deaf student what I just said verbally.

This was true. I learned how to listen and think and act all at the same time. I learned how to pay attention and think about something completely unrelated to what was going on around me because it was what I did for a living.

Most importantly, I learned how to shut off and detach from any emotion in my surroundings. Just as I stood and translated the words of a police officer as he questioned a rape victim, as I saw the hands and took in the meaning of a Deaf man’s words from his death bed and heard those words come from my lips as he spoke to his wife and family.

I learned not to let my mind, body and heart feel as I signed the questions from a social worker as she asked a child if anyone touched her in places that weren’t supposed to be touched. I taught myself to disconnect from the reality of things that were happening all around me. I became proficient at separating my brain into many different pieces as though I were watching all of these things from an outside view, and more importantly, not letting my heart attach to any of it.

I got really good at this. I had to be.

Attempting to sit with my thoughts now—trying to learn how to meditate—is like rewinding all of those skills I have collected over the years. The idea of meditation sounds wonderful. The ability to make space in my mind and find peace from the constant inner chatter which are usually voices that bring up insecurity and fear, sounds like a respite both needed and deserved.

Getting from point A to point B and actually honing this ability is another story.

Yes, I know that for many the ability to meditate takes time. I know our minds have a tendency to run loose like a 10 year old boy with ADHD at a video game buy back store, and that this pinball machine mentality is completely normal. I also know it is something I will need to put into a regular practice in order to make strides and that if I do, the results will most likely be worth it.

Yet as I sit, eyes closed with the hum of silence filling my ears and the prickling sensations of itches that need scratching and beatings of my heart that seem to pound heavy and low, my mind does not want to go there. It does not want to connect to my heart or to make space or to reach into quiet places. Making space in my mind means opening up those boxes of thoughts I have packed away neatly and left in places long forgotten.

I’ve gotten really good at packing away thoughts. I had to be.

Except now I can’t sleep at night. It isn’t that my mind is too active like some that deal with insomnia. It isn’t that I lie awake for hours recounting the the things I’ve done and the things I need to do (although I have done that before). I just wake—usually around 3 or 4 am—sometimes from a dream that has left my sheets torn up and heart beating fast and sometimes just because I wake.

So maybe it’s time to sit. Maybe it’s time to allow my mind to make space. Maybe it’s time to bring myself back into my body and connect all of the pieces of my brain that I have so long ago learned how to separate. That would mean allowing my heart to connect once again, and that I find a little scary.

As I sit here now, I close my eyes and reach in to find my heart. It’s still there beating quiet and slow, unaware. Holding my mind in one hand and my heart in the other, I wait on baited breath to see if I’m ready to connect again.

I’m ready to let it be.


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