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Do you have any Deaf friends or family members? If so, I cannot think of any more inspiring reason to learn sign language.

Even if you don’t already know someone Deaf, gaining familiarity with American Sign Language (ASL), or one of its British, French, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, Mexican, etc. alternatives – is worthwhile.

According to one major translation and captioning corporation, the use of sign language extends not only throughout nations, but also to a variety of populations.

It’s the main form of communication for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community, but sign language can be useful for other groups of people as well. People with disabilities including Autism, Apraxia of speech, Cerebral Palsy, and Down Syndrome may also find sign language beneficial for communicating.

My wife, a special education teacher, recognized this early in her career. One of her greatest joys came from introducing a deaf, severely autistic teenager to a world where she could communicate for the first time. Although she could see, and learned to read with some comprehension, her transformation through learning ASL called to mind the miracle that was Helen Keller.

Before proceeding, it is helpful to clarify some terminology. According to the National Association of the Deaf website, “we use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language.”

The members of this group have inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society.

We distinguish them from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma or age; although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people.

This is an extremely significant distinction. So, people like me whose progressive hearing loss could conceivably lead to deafness, would not be members of the Deaf community. Unless, I suppose, we were to immerse ourselves in the Deaf (sign) language and culture. Even then, I imagine we would always be recognizable as “immigrants,” rather than native members of the Deaf family.

Another semantic consideration is the obsolete usage of the term “hearing-impaired.” This term is offensive to the Deaf community, and efforts continue to update the language of pertinent laws. The Cogswell Macy Act, which outlines educational rights for the Deaf and the Blind, is currently being revised.

In fact, the National Association for the Deaf is asking everyone to serve as advocates. One small element of the revision  will be to “change outdated terminology in current educational law from ‘hearing impaired’ to ‘deaf, hard of hearing, and DeafBlind.’”

Sign language is certainly not limited to spelling out words with individual letters. There are numerous words that have their own sign. A company named Start ASL offers online courses, and they offer video examples of 150 basic ASL words on their website.

One fascinating practice of the Deaf is the way many of them possess a unique “name sign” which identifies them in the community. Very Well Health has a great explanation about the way these names are given.

One aspect of Deaf culture is the use of unique, personal “name signs” as a way to identify someone without fully spelling out their name. . . . These names often reflect the person’s character and are usually devised by someone within the Deaf community.

Some people have a combination of initialized and descriptive name signs, like the first letter of their name that is swirling like a fish for someone who is a swimmer.

If you love a specific animal, like cats, your name sign may be the first letter of your birth name to then sign “cat’s whiskers” on your cheek. If you enjoy birds, your name sign could be the first letter of your birth name combined with the sign for bird.

The name sign given to my wife, Delores, was the letter “d” beside her “smile.” Quite fitting, since she is an extremely compassionate person who is seldom without one.

C.S. Lewis & the Deaf

Obviously, C.S. Lewis encountered a number of people who were deaf or hard of hearing. He mentions some of them in his correspondence. While there are now a “few students with hearing loss at Oxford,” I don’t know what accommodations would have been available during Lewis’ residency.

In “Oxford Student on Being Hearing Impaired at University,” we read “Deaf and hard of hearing students need to speak up at their universities if they want their needs to be taken more seriously and reach their full academic potential.” (Curiously, this 2019 article uses the outdated term “hearing impaired.” Perhaps the British find it less irritating than Americans?)

In 1953, C.S. Lewis responded to a letter from a student who had explained the Gospel to one of her Deaf classmates. She asked “how much of the teaching about Christ” she could present with the Gospel story itself. In his response he begins with a disclaimer about having little knowledge of the Deaf.

It is difficult to one, who, like me, has no experience, to give an opinion of these problems, which, I see, are very intricate. The story about the girl who had reached the age of 16 under Christian teachers without hearing of the Incarnation is an eye-opener.

For ordinary children (I don’t know about the Deaf) I don’t see any advantage in presenting the Gospels without some doctrinal comment. After all, they weren’t written for people who did not know the doctrine, but for converts, already instructed, who now wanted to know a bit more about the life and sayings of the Master.

Shortly before his death he explained to a writer that he had no personal photo to share. In his response, he uses the word “deaf” to explain (or exaggerate) the fact he was hard of hearing.

Sorry, but I’m out of photos. Which is perhaps just as well, for I look awful. Imagine a marsh-wiggle gone fat and red in the face. And deaf and bald. I talk far too loud. I’m so glad you liked the Narnian series.

Humanity’s Universal Deafness

Shifting our view from the physical to the spiritual, we see that all of us truly are Hard-of-Hearing. Christians understand the human inclination toward selfishness and sin as a consequence of “original sin.” We can be rescued from our sinful state, of course, and that is what the doctrine of the atonement is all about.

We’re not discussing theology here, but I say that to explain why deafness and blindness are metaphors in the Scriptures for being unable to hear or see the Truth.

For example, through the Prophet Isaiah, God describes unfaithfulness of his people in the following way.

Hear, you deaf,
    and look, you blind, that you may see!
Who is blind but my servant,
    or deaf as my messenger whom I send?
Who is blind as my dedicated one,
    or blind as the servant of the Lord?
He sees many things, but does not observe them;
    his ears are open, but he does not hear. (Isaiah 42:18-20).

When Jesus says “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15) he is saying that we should not be deaf to God’s call. And the deafness he refers to is our conscious choice not to hear God’s words.

It seems to me that most of us are at least slightly hard of hearing when it comes to listening to our Creator. If we weren’t – if we heeded God’s words – this world of ours would be a vastly different place.

C.S. Lewis describes the tragic end of someone who insists on remaining utterly deaf to God.

In The Great Divorce, he describes the withered soul of a person who had resisted every attempt of God to alleviate their suffering and lift them from death, to life.

A damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut.

First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.

No one reading this is at that point. So long as we breathe, we can uncover our spiritually blind eyes and unstop our spiritually dead ears, to receive his words of life. Admitting that we are all sometimes hard of hearing is a good step toward growing in our faith and anticipating the gift of eternal life.

You will find a list of resources below, but before exploring them, there is one more amazing C.S. Lewis connection that needs to be mentioned. In 2018, the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf adapted The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the stage in ASL. Pretty amazing! “Narnia’s Latest Adaptation: Sign Language” tells the story and includes a delightful short video featuring several of the performers.


Resources

There are a number of interesting and useful resources available for those interested in this subject.

For charts displaying different sign language alphabets, you will find one collection here.

For those who share my interest in fonts, you can download a free ASL font at this website. And, for those Down Under, you can find a free font featuring your version of sign language here.

As you can see from the animated graphic above this section an example of the ASL animation generator available at signlanguageforum.com – This one spells “resources.”

There are several sites online where you can type in your own words or phrases using fingerspelling. For example, with either American Sign Language or British Sign Language (BSL).

Have you ever carved your initials, or some other pictograph (perhaps a heart?) in the bark of a tree? I never thought much about such things until I learned about the key role played by their bark in a tree’s health. Now I tend to consider this arboreal graffiti* as unfortunate.

I haven’t found any reference in C.S. Lewis to such carvings. However, I suspect that due to his love of nature and hiking, he would discourage the wounding of trees in this way. And there is another reason I believe the Inklings would be wary of this practice. More on that in a moment.

Tree carvings can actually record history for preliterate peoples. I even learned a new word, the meaning of which is easy to decipher from its parts—dendroglyphs. Not all tree scars are considered dendroglyphs. Just those, as Brittanica says, “the dendroglyph [is] an engraving on a living tree trunk. Carved in the usual geometric style, dendroglyphs featured clan designs or made references to local myths. They were used to mark the graves of notable men or to indicate the perimeters of ceremonial grounds.”⁑

One unique people group living “at the edge of the world” faced the fate of most pacifists who are not protected by a benign power. The Moriori lost their island home to the Māori people to whom they were related. Some of their stories survive, partly due to their dendroglyphs.

An academic article on the subject of dendroglyphs is available here.

Dendroglyphs are distinct from scarred trees, the former being decorative marks cut into the bark or heartwood of living trees, while the latter result from resource use, such as bark removal for making implements, obtaining native honey or hunting. A further distinction can be made between two types of dendroglyphs: Indigenous dendroglyphs and dendrograffiti.

Indigenous dendroglyphs are a form of visual expression that reflects affiliation with the land and special cultural association with the landscape and its resources. Dendrograffiti are carvings made by land users, such as shepherds and pastoralists, and often display names, dates, symbols and images that mark boundaries, communications and light entertainment.”

The image above comes from an ancient Australian tree. You can read more about it here, but this is the myth it portrays:

The tale behind the tree has been passed on for generations. It’s the story of two Western Yalanji men who have gone over into Eastern Yalanji country and tried to get a woman. . . . The family of the girl they were trying to take pursued the men.

The Western Yalanji men were chased and speared. One of the men that got speared . . . became a lizard, crawled up the tree and became that carving.

History aside, cutting bark should be avoided in general. And, should you visit a national forest in the United States, be forewarned—“carving into trees is illegal in all national forests!” As the National Park Service pleads: “please respect the law, the trees, and your fellow public land users by not carving words, initials, or anything into tree bark!”

Other Places Where Dendroglyphs are Dangerous

The United States isn’t the only place where a person desiring to mark a tree with a blade should be cautious. This activity is generally inadvisable in both Narnia and Middle Earth.

At Narnia’s very creation, Aslan bestowed sentience on some of the trees of that blessed land. “After Aslan gave certain animals the gift to speech, he declared to the Narnian creatures; “Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

And their creator loved their company. Later we read: “Aslan stood in the center of a crowd of creatures who had grouped themselves round him in the shape of a half-moon. There were Tree-Women there and Well-Women (Dryads and Naiads as they used to be called in our world) who had stringed instruments . . .”

Yet, as gentle as these dryads were, the Witch was able to deceive some of their number. As Tumnus warns the children, “the woods are full of her spies, even some of the trees are on her side.” Still, most continued to follow Aslan, and some of these dryads were among the stone statues restored to life by their lord.

In one of The Last Battle’s saddest scenes, King Tirian is addressed by a tree nymph who warns that Aslan’s imposter is cutting down the forest.

King Tirian and the two Beasts knew at once that she was the nymph of a beech tree. “Justice, Lord King!” she cried. “Come to our aid. Protect your people. They are felling us in Lantern Waste. Forty great trunks of my brothers and sisters are already on the ground.”

“What, Lady! Felling Lantern Waste? Murdering the talking trees?” cried the King, leaping to his feet and drawing his sword. “How dare they? And who dares it? Now by the Mane of Aslan—”

“A-a-a-h,” gasped the Dryad, shuddering as if in pain—shuddering time after time as if under repeated blows. Then all at once she fell sideways as suddenly as if both her feet had been cut from under her. For a second they saw her lying dead on the grass and then she vanished. They knew what had happened. Her tree, miles away, had been cut down.

Narnia is not the only land where trees are damaged at one’s risk. J.R.R. Tolkien populated Middle Earth with amazing creatures. Among these were the Ents.

Ents are not actual trees. They are ancient “shepherds of the trees,” who care for the forests. (The Entwives preferred to care for smaller plants, such as gardens.)

When the hobbits awake Treebeard, he mistakes them for little orcs and is prepared to crush them. Orcs, after all, are destructive by nature and always deserving of a good stomping. When they explain their quest and inform the ancient Ent of Saruman’s burning of their forests near Isengard, he calls on his brethren who respond to the threat.

Treebeard is pleased and says, “Indeed I have not seen them roused like this for many an age. We Ents do not like being roused; and we never are roused unless it is clear to us that our trees and our lives are in great danger.”

I can almost hear Treebeard calling out now, “the Ents are going to war.”

We’ll close now with the marching song of the Ents, and let these words provide a sharp warning to those among us who might contemplate violating trees in the future.

Though Isengard be strong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars—we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom,
with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!


* I came up with the term “arboreal graffiti” myself, but was pleased to find that other creative minds have also used it online. This post on the subject offers an interesting twist, and is well worth the quick read.

⁑ This quotation is taken from their article on Australian aboriginal art.

Discussing Awkward Subjects

January 18, 2017 — 4 Comments

toilet-house
Toilets may not be glamorous, but they serve a very important purpose. One might even argue they are a necessary foundation stone for civilization.

There is value in knowing something about toilets, especially when traveling, where it is worse than awkward to be caught unprepared by a “squatting pan” in Asia or a “smart toilet” in some high cost hotel. This helpful article on “sanitary ware” briefly describes the differences. And this European travel site offers critical information travelers to Europe should consider before hitting the road.

These sites offer examples of what one might call “good” toilet info. Reasonable, even helpful. There are also informative articles such as this post on “Dangerous Slang” that provide beneficial information.

Where the subject grows weird, is when curiosity transcends the boundary between sensible and peculiar. I’ll avoid calling this “bad” toilet info . . . although the label “odd” most certainly applies.

A recent piece in the newspaper pointed out a prime example of toiletology gone awry.

It described a large home in South Korea built by Sim Jae-Duck. It is modeled directly upon the shape of a toilet, something that apparently overshadowed the poor man’s entire life. It appears that he was obsessed with the device because he was born in one. (This is not as unusual as one might think. At a “mature” age, my wife’s grandmother delivered her youngest child in that fashion, unaware that she was pregnant.)

Returning to Mr. Sim, he was successful enough to eventually become mayor of Suwon and a member of Parliament. He founded the World Toilet Association and was its president until his death in 2009. One might expect the peculiar home to quickly be forgotten after its creator’s passing, but that is not the case.

Affectionately known as “Mr. Toilet House,” the structure now houses a significant museum and a “theme park” of sorts.

This collection from an Australian expert on toilet photography offers an impressive tour of the museum for those unable to travel to the Republic of Korea for a personal visit. (Just avoid clicking to the second page of photos which includes statuary that’s too realistic for anyone but the most curious toileteer.

Toilets and the Inklings

The Inklings were normal men, which means they used them . . . and they did not write about it. However, as a young man Lewis did include a humorous comment in a letter to his brother, Warnie. In 1928 he proposed a walking trip to “the most glorious village on the edge of the Stroud valley . . .”

The Bathurst estate beyond Cirencester is a place we must revisit when you come home. You can take the whole breakfast to lunch walk in the glorious woods and then emerge into the open in time to lunch at the most glorious village on the edge of the Stroud valley, which winds away as far as you can see, delightfully wooded and watered.

(The first Lord Bathhurst, I am told, was raised to the peerage for inventing a new kind of toilet paper for Queen Anne.)

A final note on the matter comes in the form of an interview about The Kilns, where the Lewis brothers resided in Oxford. The Assistant to the Warden for The C.S. Lewis Study Centre at The Kilns answered an odd query “usually [posed as] a joke.”

Question 4: Did Lewis use the current toilet in the Kilns?

You’d be surprised how often I get this question.  It’s usually a joke, but I play along with it anyway.  But the actual answer is yes and no.  He used the toilets in the home (the two original ones), but the original toilet seats have been replaced.

Is Fantasy Foolish?

April 26, 2016 — 13 Comments

lion of lyonSome of the smartest people around dismiss reading fantasy as a crazy waste of time. At the same time, many of the most brilliant people I know love nothing more than passing from their mundane lives through a magical wardrobe into a land of wonder.

On a recent episode of the television series Castle, the eponymous Richard Castle,* a best-selling author and private eye, has a great line. Castle is defending his hyperactive imagination (which frequently leads to the solving of the crime of the week).

A suspect calls him “reality-challenged.”

To which he responds, “I prefer fantasy-augmented.”

Now, there’s a description that would fit most readers of Mere Inkling. We’re “fantasy-augmented.”

It would also fit most of the Oxford Inklings. Not all of them, of course. Some of them, like C.S. Lewis’ brother Warnie, were more oriented towards factual, historical literature.

The fantasists among their ranks were not lacking as writers of nonfiction either.

However, it was the fact that they were “fantasy-augmented” that has led to the inclusion of several of their members in the first ranks of twentieth century writers.

Narnia and Middle Earth are as real to many people today as Ogre, Latvia, Humpty Do, Australia, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales, and Frankenstein, Missouri. (Perhaps more real!)

In 1936, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to Charles Williams, praising his recent novel.**

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.

I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life–comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

The following day, Williams wrote a letter of his own to C.S. Lewis. It began:

My dear Mr Lewis, If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed. It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me. My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day. To be exact, I finished on Saturday looking—too hastily—at proofs of your Allegorical Love Poem.

William’s reference to coincidence is poetic. He doesn’t rely on the timeworn “divine Providence,” which is so prevalent in literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Returning to Lewis’ missive, we learn exactly how Williams’ fantasy so deeply impressed him.

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life—comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

There are layers and layers—first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then, what is rarely (tho’ not so very rarely) combined with this, the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification.

It’s unlikely that any of us should ever author a work that would equally impress C.S. Lewis. Still, what a grand goal for any fantasy-augmented writer to strive for!

_____

* Castle is played by Nathan Fillion, who captained the spacecraft “Serenity,” in a delightful series entitled Firefly.

** You can download The Place of the Lion in a variety of formats at ManyBooks.

The illustration above is used with the permission of its creator, Charis Tsevis.