Light to the Blind

Helen Keller, age 7The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.

On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch, and fell on my upturned face. My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the sweet southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle.

Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.

I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them “pin,” “hat,” “cup” and a few verbs like “sit,” “stand” and “walk.” But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is “mug” and that “w-a-t-e-r” is “water,” but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word “water,” first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy – set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “teacher” were among them – words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.

Helen Keller
The Story of My Life (1903)

Photo: Helen Keller, age seven, 1887

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On Being Blind

Blind Twins

In school the printed word scurries away from my one “reading eye” – words in fact seem to me like insects released from a box. While the class reads aloud, I watch the spirals of hypnotic light that ripple across my eyes when I move them from side to side. I do not belong here. My little body at this desk is something uncanny – a thing that belongs in the darkness and that has been brought to daylight.

But I talk, answer questions, make others laugh. I’m interested in everything and tell the class that I can spell Tchaikovsky.

Mrs. Edinger becomes the first saint in my life. She takes it upon herself to help me read. After school we sit at her desk, and with my nose jammed into the pages, we go over the words. And though I’m squinting and struggling supremely over each alphabetic squiggle, she has the patience of an archeologist, one who dusts the microscopic shards before putting them away. With her, I hold my eye very still and make out the words.

Years later I learn from my mother that Mrs. Edinger is a black woman and perhaps the first person of African American heritage to teach in this local New Hampshire school. We are mutual explorers as we go over the hopeless print. She’s noticed my determination and has figured out that I have a photographic memory. This probably contributes to her desire to see me read – she knows I’ll retain the words that I’ve struggled so hard to grasp.

Hours of after-school time are spent before I can match the class in reading. I have to hold my book an inch from my eye and try hard to hold the hot, spasming muscle. The exhaustion of this is like the deep fatigue drivers feel after being too long on the road. The ordinary effort of reading is, for me, a whole-body experience. My neck, shoulders, and finally, my lower back contract with pain. The legally blind know what it is to be old: even before the third grade I am hunched and shaking with effort, always on the verge of tears, seeing by approximation, craving a solid sentence. Then the words dissolve or run like ants. Nevertheless I find a lighted room inside my head, a place for self-affiliation. I am not blind, am not the target of pranks.

But leaving my reading lesson, a boy I think of as a friend steals my glasses and my panic brings me alive like a tree filled with birds: I navigate with my hands.

“Hey, Blindo, over here!”

He laughs along with several others, then they run.

I lunge with my arms straight following the sounds of sneakers. I’m determined not to cry: steel keys revolve and lock in my brain. Then I trip on a curb and cut my hands on a storm drain.

To this day I picture that boy clutching my glasses at a safe distance and watching me drift about. I learned early that with my glasses I’m blind, without them I’m a wild white face, a body groping, the miner who’s come suddenly into the light.

On this particular afternoon I am instantly put on display. Now, in one stroke, I am a jellyfish, measureless and unwieldy. More than thirty years have passed since that moment, but I’m still disconcerted by what it felt like to belong so thoroughly to other people, to be, in effect, their possession. There should be a book of etiquette for those who find themselves in the predicament of the monster. Robbed of my glasses, I was no longer an impaired boy who’d been barred from sports. I was amphibious.

I suppose he must have thrown the glasses to the ground and run away. Probably an adult was coming; I can’t remember now.

Stephen Kuusisto
Planet of the Blind (1998)

Photo by Jane Evelyn Atwood: Blind Twins (1980)
Photopoche, Extérieur nuit

On Keeping Love in Reserve

Sacred Heart

When we walked through busy streets together, people turned around to pity the blind man. People have pity in them for the infirm and the blind, they really have love in reserve. There’s an enormous lot of it, and no one can say different. But it’s a shame that people should go on being so crummy with so much love in reserve. It just doesn’t come out, that’s all. It’s caught inside and there it stays, it doesn’t do them a bit of good. They die of love – inside.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Journey to the End of the Night (1932)

You Will Sing This Song

Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)
Music by Leonard Cohen
Live Songs (1973)

This post is dedicated to slashers of social services.  One day you will sing this song, and by “you” I mean you, and nobody but you.

The Kindness of the Blind

A poet is reading to the blind.
He did not suspect it was so hard.
His voice is breaking.
His hands are shaking.
He feels that here each sentence
is put to the test of the dark.
It will have to fend for itself,
without the lights or colors.
A perilous adventure
for the stars in his poems,
for the dawn, the rainbow, the clouds, neon lights, the moon,
for the fish until now so silver under water
and the hawk so silently high in the sky.
He is reading – for it is too late to stop –
of a boy in a jacket yellow in the green meadow,
of red rooftops easy to spot in the valley,
and restless numbers on the players’ shirts,
and a nude stranger in the door cracked open.
He would like to pass over – though it’s not an option –
all those saints on the cathedral’s ceiling,
that farewell wave from the train window,
the microscope lens, ray of light in the gem,
video screens, and mirrors, and the album with faces.
Yet great is the kindness of the blind,
great their compassion and generosity.
They listen, smile, and clap.
One of them even approaches
with a book held topsy-turvy
to ask for an invisible autograph.

Wislawa Szymborska
The New Yorker, 9 August 2004