Oh Helen Keller, where were you when I needed you and your wise words? Why didn’t I know of your observations of the world when I went blind? You too have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing. But why do their voices loom so large in our minds? If only I knew that sight was of the soul then perhaps my light may have come sooner.
The thing that squashed my spirit when I went blind was not that I could no longer see, but instead others focusing on what I couldn’t do, rather than what I could. To me, the obvious way forward was not to focus on what I no longer saw, but on what I could still smell, hear, taste and touch. But why couldn’t other people see that? I soon realised, like you Helen, that my fellows who have five doors to their house are not more at home with themselves than I. I soon realised it didn’t matter what they thought, only what I thought, so I continued rehabilitating, learning how to use the phone with my fingers, the computer with my ears and the oven with my nose
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but suddenly my new way of receiving information was enabling my mind to focus on the present. Rather than live with my past and future thoughts in my head, I was noticing what was running through my body right now: in the immediate, in the now. I was being less distracted by what someone had said to me yesterday, or worrying about how I was going to cross the road safely tomorrow. Instead, I was constantly being distracted by what was coming through my remaining senses in the present: the smell of a spring daffodil, the chime of the town hall clock, the explosive taste of a cinnamon roll, or the feel of bumpy braille now placed under my fingertips.
But Helen, when I began travelling, it started up again. “How can you sightsee when you can’t see?” they would ask. “Because I can smell, hear, taste and touch,” I would reply. If only I’d had the wisdom to say:
the thousand soft voices of the earth will truly find their way to me.”
By the time I had visited my 50th country in my 50th year, I had explored the world extensively with my senses, not with my eyes. On our 107-day adventure last year, I sniffed fermenting barley in a whisky distillery in the highlands of Scotland, I stood on the bridge at Westminster in London as Big Ben chimed 12 noon, I ate the freshest German pretzel at the oldest cloister brewery in the world and in your country, the United States of America, I touched the world famous Liberty Bell.
Every day that I am away, I write a sensory diary, noting down one thing I smell, hear, taste and touch. Now that I am home, I continue the practice. Every night I join four female friends on an email list, where we share our sensory joy of one thing we smelled, heard, tasted and touched that day.
These are not blind women. They are sighted, and slowly they have begun to observe their world more intensely, through their non-visual senses, as if they were blind. In their moment-by-moment awareness of things non-visual, they too are experiencing the joy of blindfulness
Helen, I know you say that We differ, blind and seeing, one from another, not in our senses, but in the use we make of them, in the imagination and courage with which we seek wisdom beyond the senses, but it just may be that I’ve found some women with physical sight who also see the world like you and me, and have also discovered the joy of blindfulness.
Isn’t that exciting?
Big kiwi hugs.
(The words in italics above are adapted from the writings of Helen Keller.)
Julie Woods: In 1997 when she went blind, Julie Woods thought her life had ended. Little did she realise it had only just begun! Since then she has learned how to cook without looking, read braille and speak to audiences about her new life. She’s walked ten Papatowai Challenges, cycled the Otago Rail Trail, written her own book, refereed three games of nude touch rugby and visited the Seven Wonders of the World.
Julie is married to (sighted) artist Ron Esplin. Read his article about Braille Art here: Vision!