[nfb-talk] Fwd: NY Times: Feeling my way into blindness

John Heim john at johnheim.net
Fri Nov 18 15:17:09 UTC 2016

On 11/18/2016 09:13 AM, John Heim wrote:
> Sheesh! The NYT has been running a series of editorials from disabled
> people. Some are worse than others. I hate to think of what effect an
> article like the one below will have.  Maybe we should start encouraging
> people on this list to send in some more positive articles.
> -------- Forwarded Message --------
> Subject: NY Times: Feeling my way into blindness
> Date: Fri, 18 Nov 2016 00:30:49 -0600
> Blindness is enveloping. It's beyond belief to step outside and
> see so little, just a milky haze. Indoors, a smothering dark. It means that
> you can't shed a mood of loneliness with a brisk walk down the street
> because you might trip, fall and break something. Nor will you see a
> passing
> friend, the sight of whom could be as cheery as an actual conversation.
> Sights, like sounds, randomly evoke a surge of memories ordinarily
> inaccessible that lighten and brighten the day. "Who are you?" I may
> already
> have asked 10 people who have spoken to me. Their body language as well as
> their smiles are lost to me. Human nature is striped with ambiguities, and
> you need to see them, but like a prisoner, I am hooded.
> I lost my sight once before, to cataracts, a quarter-century ago, but it
> was restored miraculously
> by surgery. It then went seriously bad again, until, reaching 80, I
> needed a
> cane. Tap, tap. Ambulatory vision is the technical term.
> Everything becomes impromptu, hour by hour improvised. Pouring coffee so it
> doesn't spill, feeling for the john so you won't pee on the floor, calling
> information for a phone number because you can't read the computer, or the
> book. Eating takes considerable time since you can't see your food. Feeling
> for the scrambled eggs with your fingers, you fret about whether you appear
> disgusting. Shopping for necessities requires help. So does traveling on a
> bus.
> The kindness of strangers is proverbial - a woman leads me through the
> bustle of an airport toward the taxi stand, a waitress hands me back a $50
> bill I mistook for a 20. Blindness is factually a handicap, yet an
> empathetic one, because other people can so easily imagine themselves
> suffering from it, sometimes even experiencing a rehearsal for it when
> stumbling through a darkened house at night. I remember how in school we
> teased students with Coke-bottle glasses, but didn't laugh at blind folk
> whose black glasses signified that they couldn't see at all.
> I know about handicaps harder to cotton to, having stuttered terribly for
> decades, my face like a gargoyle's, my mouth flabbering uncontrollably.
> Blindness is old hat. In Africa you still see sightless souls led about by
> children gripping the other end of a stick. Blindness in its helplessness
> reassures the rest of us that that oddball is not an eyesore or a loose
> cannon. Being blind is omission, not commission; and you'd better learn how
> to fall. Paratrooper or tumbler training would be useful. A tumbler can tip
> sideways as he lands so his hip and shoulder absorb the blow.
> The ears need schooling as a locator. I search for the bathroom at night,
> guided by a ticking clock whose location I recognize. As you go blind,
> exasperating incongruities arise, but also the convenience of this new
> excuse for shedding social obligations not desired. And you can give your
> car away.
> Hearing snatches of conversation from invisible voices, everything becomes
> eavesdropping. Have I seen my last movie? Is the vision gone from
> television? But I can still see daylight and bipedal forms, tree crowns and
> running water, swirling, seething leaves against the sky-blue heavens,
> which
> remind me of 80 years of previous gazing on several continents. Eternal
> instants on Telegraph Hill, Beacon Hill, or Venice and Kampala.
> Splendiferous mountain vistas of greensward and cliffs scaffold my dreams,
> drawn from memories of sheep pastures in Sicily and Greece, rich with
> textured sedges or tinted canyons, then bombastic skyscrapers, or Matisse's
> Chapel. So it's flabbergastingly impoverishing to wake up in the morning.
> Faces are no longer seamed, nor are raindrops stippled on the windowpane,
> cats high-tailed in a turf war, postage stamps vividly illustrative. I
> forget my condition and grope for my glasses, wherever they are, as if they
> could solve the emergency. Blindness is an emergency; the window shades are
> drawn, and one deals with it in myriad ways.
> Instinctively I reach out to touch everyone I talk with, heightening the
> moment of contact. Shoulders I go for, as gender-neutral, companionable
> territory, but most folks don't want to chat for long with anyone whose
> deficits are front and center. There's sympathy fatigue, though allowances
> must be made, an elbow gripped, and perhaps the menu read aloud in a
> restaurant. Poor guy; be considerate; tell him what the headlines were in
> the paper today, but if he's not Helen Keller, let the next person take a
> turn at being nice.
> Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, the
> Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.
> You get somebody to scan your mail for you outside the post office, and
> supervise paying a bill in the return envelope, maybe even writing the
> check
> for you to sign. Improvising keeps one alive, and at the beach you can hear
> the surf thump if not exult in the spindrift's curl. The tide tugs your
> feet. At 4:30 in midsummer you hear the birds' morning chorus, nature
> primeval and ascendant. You dig when you're blind, fingering for roots,
> then
> for what the roots are connected to. Curiosity does tip into tediousness,
> though, when there's no new material.
> Blindness as a metaphor is not flattering. Blind drunk, a parent blind to
> the misery of her children, a politician blind to the needs of his
> constituents. When blind you can neither read text nor frowns, but if
> somebody starts talking to you and you can't see them, hang loose till you
> figure it out. Equilibrium is the key.
> Eyedrops of several descriptions and optical devices accumulate as each is
> superseded by another. You used different hand lenses for different phases
> of magnification. Since a book or film is not in the cards, blindly groping
> for succor in your boredom can be a danger. That comfy stranger on the
> bench
> may be Mr. Ponzi. Discipline is required. In all your parts, do you still
> enjoy being alive? Crossing your legs and twitching an ankle, savoring
> cherry tomatoes, then sweet corn and lobster.
> Nights can turn bright if the world mysteriously whitens, as though one's
> optic nerves were rebelling. It's odd when one part of the body dies but
> the
> rest does not. In blindness we don't cast off our eyes, but continue to
> consult them in thwarted ways, much as amputees feel their lost parts
> almost
> function.
> Feeling a chill wind, I'll look at the sky for a forecast, but triangulate
> the slanting breezes for the message I can't see. I smell the rain
> before it
> comes, and the sun speaks to my skin like a finger stroking. As, in my
> view,
> joy in people may be analogous to photosynthesis in plants, this is quite
> logical. But wet days can be delicious also, a cool drink for dry skin
> <http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/symptoms/dry-skin/overview.html?inl
> ine=nyt-classifier> , restful in its implications; good weather has its
> pressures. Less is expected of a rainy day; you can hole up a bit with
> yourself.
> Like Plato's Cave, your brain consists of memories flickering on a wall.
> The
> phenomenalities of sight are now memories, but my sixth sense has helped.
> Call it intuition; and I've never felt despair, any more than when I was a
> kid who couldn't talk. Blindness resembles a stretched-out stroke.
> Functions
> wither as your walking slows. Muscles atrophy and sensibilities, too. You
> can't size up a new visage, yet the grottoes in your head have more to
> plumb
> if your sight was lost midlife or later. You can go caving.
> Where are my eyes, I suddenly think, as if I'd left behind my coat.
> Landscapes become impressionistic, eliding details. Abbreviation is at the
> core. Input is so precious - the conversations other people pause to grant
> you, beyond the barest niceties, describing piquant scenery you can't see.
> Strong sunlight is needed for a newsstand headline but muted illumination
> has subtler uses, and in pitch dark a blind man is at an advantage.
> The personality of the street, hubbubed with hurry, invites strolling.
> Slatted fences, orange lilies, SALE signs in a window. "Outta sight!" a guy
> exclaims. I seek a bench I know about, remembering a whole gallery of
> friends who have died by now. Older than Mozart, younger than Bach, they
> engulfed my life with love and commitment, and on a good day permeate my
> mind. My sexual fantasies invoke an alloy of wives and friends. But
> anonymity has swallowed me like Jonah's whale; I grope inside.
> Sunlight beams turn the street radiant for a quarter-hour. Two of my
> mentors
> ended their lives by suicide, and I remember their dilemmas
> sympathetically.
> One jumped into the sea, the other the Mississippi, but I wonder in each
> case whether the sun was shining or they'd waited for a rainy day. Our
> elements return, in any event, to the oceans to re-form as other life.
> Nature is our mother, if no longer our home. We couch-surf in rented beach
> houses, with green belts as habitat for other creatures that remain. How
> many of us have watched a possum "play possum" or a goshawk swoop after a
> blue jay? We feed pigeons and hummingbirds, then have done with it. Nature
> has become a suburb. Of course I can't see the cardinal at the feeder out
> the window, though tidal forces still operate. The leaves natter even if
> you
> can't see them. Your ears report their bustle, ceaseless until dormant
> for a
> span of moments. The pulse in your throat signals that in your torso all is
> well; it will beat till it quits. That concordance of organs lives
> within us
> like sea creatures throbbing on a coral reef, strung there as on our
> skeleton as long as conditions allow.
> Novelty is the spice of life and salts our daily round even when we lose
> our
> sight. Your eyes don't steer you as you saunter, yet your lungs, legs, arms
> feel as fit as ever. For simple exercise, I hoist myself out of each chair,
> or bicycle in bed, though then unfortunately may pick up two completely
> different shoes and try to squeeze them on. My socks don't match either.
> But
> why am I not crankier? a friend asks. I'm helpless; I can't be cranky.
> Blindness is enforced passivity. I have become a second-class citizen, an
> object of concern. Crankiness won't persuade people to treat me
> thoughtfully. Disabled, that dry term once applied to so many others
> over my
> lifetime, now applies to me. As best I can, I'll make my peace with it.
> Edward Hoagland <http://www.edwardhoagland.com/>  is a nature and travel
> writer, and the author, most recently, of "In the Country of the Blind
> <http://arcadepub.com/arcadepub/titles/11766-9781628727210-in-the-country-of
> -the-blind> ," a novel.
> Disability is a weekly series of essays, art and opinion by and about
> people
> living with disabilities. The entire series can be found here
> <http://www.nytimes.com/column/disability> .

John Hei	m
john at johnheim.com

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