N.B. The copyright of this piece is solely the ownership of its author. The opinions expressed in its text are the authors alone.

 

In Search of the Ordinary

 

Tasha Chemel

Boston College, US

 

Two summers ago, my mother became intrigued with a snake that had made a home for itself in our front yard. Usually, she is not particularly fond of anything belonging to the “superordinate” category colloquially known as “creepy crawly things,” so we couldn’t have been more surprised when Dudley -- she named him for the street on which we lived -- became a permanent fixture in her summer routine. Early each morning she would wait for him to make an appearance. Besides observing his behavior, she often collected the skin he molted and traced its spirals with her acrylic paints. These sketches were the precursors to her most recent paintings, which resemble blocks of text one could find in a book. But my mother has made sure that none of the letters recognizably belong to the English alphabet or that of any other language. In so doing, she has given a new freshness to the act of reading. She becomes easily impatient with the stale minutiae of the real world, and her art is a reflection of this impatience. At our Rosh Hashanah dinners, for example, there are no apples and honey. Instead, there are apple wontons with caramel sauce and homemade apple ice cream.  Her paintings are not about the comforting familiarity of words but about the primeval journey we took as a species before there were words. The alphabets are composed of variations of the mandala, the spiral, the cross, all of which are universal symbols that can trace their origins to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, the stored knowledge of our species that dates to prehistory. The collective unconscious communicates with us indirectly through the archetypes. Ranging from the snake to the  shadow to the wise old man, the archetypes are spiritual demands that make themselves known through art, religion and our dreams. My mother is surprised to discover that her spirals bear a striking resemblance to the sketches she made of Dudley’s skin, that she has incorporated what once was viewed as a lowly creature into her art. As artists, both of us share a hypersensitivity to the nudges and caresses of the collective unconscious, in addition to our fascination with the objects of daily life. But while my mother seeks to elevate the ordinary, to find the complexity in what is simple, I embrace simplicity on its own terms. In this way, we are two magnets of indeterminate polarity. We repel and attract, attract and repel, seemingly at random, for we are too self-absorbed to know our sameness, and too close to know our difference.

 

Last week, I happened upon a forum in which other congenitally blind people shared their views on sight restoration. A resounding majority say that they would refuse such interventions should they become available, that they are “comfortable,” “well-adjusted” and even proud to be “totals.” “Does a woman miss having a penis?” asks Carol, a Jungian therapist at the University of San Francisco, when students want to know whether she misses having sight. Among the small group who would choose sight over blindness, the responses are suffocating in their stiffness. “Only if insurance would pay for it,” one woman says. “It would certainly make getting around much easier,” acknowledges another. No one writes about searching for sameness, about exploring his or her artistic talents, about wanting to look through the so-called windows of the soul. No one admits to feeling as transgender persons do, that they were born in the wrong body, that blindness, like femaleness or maleness, is a condition to learn from, but not to endure.

 

It seems as though they have dismissed sight as an ancillary tool, an ability that is sometimes helpful, sometimes enjoyable and often downright distracting.

 

For this reason, they have a strengthened immunity to the seductive whispers of the collective unconscious, the same voices that told Jung that what he was doing was art, not science. They have chosen to forget that there is a part of them that can see, just as there is a part of all of us who knows what it is to have a tail, or to fly or to breathe underwater.

 

I am all too familiar with the tantalizing pleasures of the collective unconscious and the power its visitations can lend to my writing. And this is why I cannot treat blindness with complaisance. Though my lack of vision often forces me to focus on details the sighted may overlook, like the way a favorite teacher seems to savor every syllable in her pronunciation of the word “literature,” even these brief triumphs are yet another reminder of my difference. Besides, they are not enough to shield me from the inevitable conclusion that blindness is the sworn enemy of my creativity. But when the clouds have lifted and the long wait is finally at an end, each new image is as transitory and as unexpectedly sweet as a raindrop caught by chance on a child’s tongue. One minute, while writing a poem that I will later call “I Often Wonder,” I am daunted by the possibility of describing the sunset, and the next, the lines will come to me with surprisingly little conscious effort: “Like so many fairies masquerading across the sky, each holding a flaming torch in her hand.” One moment I am waffling back and forth on whether “a grotesque display of store-bought cakes” could be capable “of weeping sullen, sugary tears at the indignity of not being eaten,” and the next, I am absolutely certain that, yes, in fact they could, and that the description is uncanny in its aptness.

 

When I was five years old, I watched The Little Mermaid with as much rapture as anyone else in my kindergarten class. But unlike my classmates, I had little sympathy for Princess Ariel and her desire to be human. It was the sea witch Ursula who I identified with, Ursula whose craftiness I applauded, Ursula who I pined for at the film’s end. And it was not because I couldn’t see what she looked like; Pat Carroll’s gravelly voice should have been enough to deter the sweetest of little blind girls. No, it was because, even then, I resented Disney for its categorization of characters as either “good” or “evil.” The barrier between these two subsets seemed as impregnable to me as the barrier between my sighted peers and me. Only a cherished few would grow to look past my most salient characteristic, to understand that I, too could transform drifting autumn leaves into pajamas and party dresses, just as few children would take the time to contemplate whether Ursula could shed tears behind her tentacles. “It’s just a story,” my father would say in an effort to reason away my grief.  But for me, it is never “just a story.”

 

Fourteen years later, I attempted to resurrect Ursula in my writing, this time in the form of a vampire who offered to restore the sight of a young blind girl in return for her psychic energy. In one of the few instances where my characters were more than “a Victorian mustache-twirling villain and its unwitting victim,” as my creative writing professor liked to call them, my classmates praised my story for its unwavering attention to realism. In one scene, shortly before the vampire is going to take energy from our protagonist for the first time, the two women are sitting in her kitchen, drinking jasmine tea of all things.

The girl cradles the teacup. It is soothing, it is warm, it is tangibly, delightfully mundane. Her story-fingers trace the path from rim to handle to base, finally coming to nestle in the meeting place between cup and counter, good and evil, the consumer and the consumed.

 

The mundane is hard to come by in the genre of disability literature. Society has imposed upon us a need to overcome, to inspire, to stand as shining examples of the power of the human spirit. Even neurologist Oliver Sacks unconsciously propagates stereotypes about blindness, especially in his earlier writings. In The Anthropologist on Mars, his use of phrases such as “behaving like a blind man” or “eating like the blind” to describe how one of his patients responded to the restoration of his sight later in life is questionable, if not overtly condescending. Equally problematic is his statement that the compensatory activities of the remaining senses, working in conjunction with fragmentary visual memory, leads to the presence of “a mind’s eye” in the blind. In his New Yorker essay entitled “The Mind’s Eye: What the Blind see,” Sachs describes how these multimodal perceptions, when used to their full advantage, and when combined with the powers of imagination, eventually becomes the “gift of blindness.” The title of Sacks’ essay is misleading, for it does not address the matter of blindness, in the profoundest sense of the word. It is not about how those of us who have never experienced sight survive in the visual world, but rather about how blind people who have lost their sight, or the sighted who are born without the   faculty of inner visualization, can still thrive in a world that appears, at first glance, to  be driven exceedingly by the visual. Sachs argues that there is little difference between Zoltan Torey, an Australian psychologist who continued to fix roofs even after losing his sight, and John Hull, a geologist who lost all concepts of visual imagery along with  his sight. Referring to Torey and Hull, Sacks writes, “Even though the paths they have followed might seem irreconcilable, both men have: “’used’ blindness … to release their own creative capacities and emotional selves, and both have achieved a rich and full realization of their own individual worlds.” After all, Sacks argues, if sighted people such as Sacks himself, who seem to have no faculties of inner visualization, can become painters and architects, it must be imagination, not sight, which wields the true power. This assertion is a logical one, except on one crucial point. Sacks has chosen his examples in such a way that he inadvertently trivializes sight and romanticizes blindness. By only including the stories of people like Jacques Lusseyran, who were born with at least some residual vision, he is failing to make an important distinction. He neglects the question of how ordinary people who are born without sight or who lost it early in life, those humble  souls among us who cannot multiply four-digit numbers in our heads, construct a mind’s eye. How do we function? How do we write? Maybe Sacks is unaware that he is failing to make this distinction. Maybe the battles waged by congenitally blind artists are too anticlimactic or too unsavory for his audience. More likely, however, it is because there seems to be a paucity of congenitally totally blind writers who somehow withstand the paralysis of doubt brought on by taking that precarious step into the visual realm. So many of us avoid this problem altogether by pandering to society and writing to inspire, while so  few are brave enough to write about disability for its own sake, to engage, provoke and disturb their readers on an emotional and intellectual plane.

 

“I want to see you,” I tell my muse, the sensual feminine force that spins the silken thread which she uses, all too occasionally, to mend the rents in my visual knowledge.

 

“You won’t like what you will se,” she says. ”This is why humans do not communicate directly with the collective unconscious. It is too raw, too primitive for your consumption.”

 

“I don’t care,” I say petulantly.

 

“Very well,” she concedes. “Put out your hand.” And so, for a moment, I push any pretenses of social niceties aside. I become D. H. Lawrence’s blind man, exploring the corporeal form of the woman who has given me my flaming torches and weeping cakes. The skin is paper-thin and marred by a network of scars, but even without these blemishes, it was never a pretty face. The eyes are set too far apart; the nose is too long, the chin too pointed.  I wish     that none of these things had bothered me, that I had knelt before her and brought my lips to that crumbling brow, just as Leo Vinci had done in Henry Rider Haggard’s Victorian fantasy, She.  But I remove my fingers within only a few seconds of contact.

“So you too find me ugly,” she says, but there is no smugness in her tone. Her voice is an echo of a former coworker of mine, Eric, with his facial deformities and love of Le Guin, when I made my excuses for not taking my lunch break with him on my last day: “So you’d rather go to lunch with the others, and no one thought to invite me.” Just as I did then, I part my lips to reply, what I would have said I do not know, only to discover that I am alone with my thoughts and the images that will not come.

 

So what is the fate of the “average” congenitally blind writer? The closest I came to finding a kindred spirit who could shed light on this question was Ved Mehta, another New Yorker contributor. (Mehta, who was born in Lahore, India in 1934, lost his sight at age three and a half due to meningitis.) I relegate the details of his blindness to parentheses, as Mehta himself does at the beginning of each of his books, along with the translations of Hindi words, the age at which Indian youths started college in the late 1940’s, and some trivial particular about this acquaintance or that cousin. In the early volumes of his Continents of Exile series, Mehta recounts his struggles to be accepted by his sighted siblings, his determination to teach himself to ride a bicycle and fly a kite, and later, to gain admission to an American school for the blind. But Mehta manages to avoid the trap of coming off like a character in a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” story. Though one of his reviewers said that his descriptions rings with a sort of clairvoyance, Mehta would be the first to dispute this claim. As a teenager, he became resentful when his chess-playing abilities were overly praised and outraged when newspaper reporters staged a birthday party for him. Most interestingly, even in an age when victim literature by disabled authors is barely tolerated in educated circles, Mehta is not afraid to express a desire to see, a desire that is almost as enigmatic in a person who lost sight so young as it is in someone like myself, who was born without sight. When describing his feelings during a dance at the Arkansas School for the Blind, Mehta writes, “In the gymnasium, … dancing with Barbara, to the record 'Mona Lisa,' her hand lightly resting on my shoulder and a bracelet she was wearing tinkling in my ear, I had a new attack of an unpleasant old thought: Would I be better off with a more desirable date than Barbara? Then it occurred to me that everyone now and again thought the grass was greener on the other side, but that our grass was without color. At that moment, more than ever, I wanted to see grass-- also to see Barbara's face…. I no longer trusted the pleasure I took in Barbara's hand on my shoulder and the tinkling of her bracelet in my ear.” Here is a challenge to a stereotype of blindness, namely, the notion that our ears will always be as faithful to us as your eyes. 

 

Mehta has no sixth sense, no mystical powers of inner visualization that he can count on to give him all the answers. He has challenged the stereotype still further by writing on subjects that are totally removed from blindness, ranging from the politics of the Nehru family to the craft of essay-writing to the universal human drive to own land. This latter is the central theme of the penultimate installment of his memoirs, Dark Harbor: Building House and Home on an Enchanted Island, which tells of the trials and tribulations of building a house on an isolated island off the coast of Maine, a project that he cannot realistically afford. Mehta’s reviewers are quick to dwell on how his “condition” makes this undertaking all the more poignant, while I see it as no more and no less than the story of an eccentric artist chasing after a dream. In an interview with NPR’s The Connection, Mehta is asked how he is able to describe the visual world. His answer is nothing extraordinary; he says that he must rely on his knowledge of literature, his listening skills, his imagination and his intuition, or what I refer to here as the collective unconscious. However, unlike so many others, Mehta does not pretend that these methods are infallible. He readily explains how, as a result of the number and variety of its windows, when viewed from the ocean, the house on Dark Harbor resembles a human face. A few minutes later, in response to the host’s unabashed awe, he is just as quick to admit to his fear that these and other renderings are not accurate enough to please the architect who designed it.

 

To counterbalance this tension, Mehta’s memoir is filled with humorous anecdotes. At one point in the planning phases of his project, Mehta was considering moving a house that was already built from one nearby island to another. His insurance company balked at such a suggestion. They told Mehta that they would insure the movement of the house by land and by sea, but the most dangerous stage of the move would occur between land and sea, when the house would be transferred from a truck to a barge. Mehta’s insurers refused to acknowledge this in-between place.

 

“You have inherited from your mother’s side a difficulty in detecting the boundary between fantasy and reality,” said Bertrand, a psychic and spiritual teacher with whom I recently had a telephone consultation. I was immediately excited by these words. Finally, I have found it: the link between my writing and my mother’s art, a link whose existence my mother has attempted to deny for all these years because my desire to become her, to appreciate her as an artist, is just far too painful.

 

“I don’t quite understand what he means by that,” my mother said when I shared Bertrand’s words with her.

 

She made this statement while attempting to put a carton of Tropicana into our shopping basket. “You bought orange juice yesterday,” I reminded her. Sometimes, her inattention to detail, especially when it comes to the workings of technology, can have ironic and unforeseen consequences. In the home videos she took of our family vacations to St. Martin, unfocused shots of passersby and palm trees often vied with members of our family for the starring roles.  The background becomes the foreground. The significance is consumed by the artist’s need to apologize for her uncertainty. My mother does not realize that my uncertainty as a writer is equal to hers as an artist, that I am essentially an artist born blind, an artist whose pictures come only at the oddest and rarest of moments. For my mother, the mind’s eye is always at least partway open.  Her pictures might gleefully flaunt their power over her. They might silently taunt her as they dance provocatively behind her eyelids, dissolving into opaquity at the crucial second, but her brush will eventually beat them into submission.

 

   Ironically, it was my father who seemed to best understand my loss. And while my mother made frantic phone calls to incompetent special education bureaucracies, my father trawled the Internet for individuals and organizations who were researching my rare eye condition. He attacked the problem with a mixture of a scientist’s logic and a dreamer’s optimism, the same combination that had led him to pursue, among  other schemes, a machine that would repair divots on a golf coarse, a method for creating flavored dental gloves, and the possibility of opening a popular South African Tandoori chicken franchise in the United States. He learned all he could about the cause of my blindness, a retinal degenerative disease called Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. Ten years later, I would perform these searches myself, and a chill would run through my veins at what I read, at the fate I had so narrowly escaped; kidney failure, motor deficits, developmental delays and epilepsy being but a few examples.

 

My father’s efforts were not in vain. One Sunday when I was ten or eleven, two men from the Foundation Fighting Blindness came to our house to talk to my parents about the progress that has been made in curing LCA.

 

The men commented on the beauty of our dining table. “I like the country look,” I remember one of them saying. I was never aware that anything in our house would have a “country look” because any item of furniture of that description would seem incongruous in the home of my immigrant parents. Years later, I would learn that my intuition had been correct, that my parents had purchased this dining table only out of necessity, when the furniture store, in the throes of liquidation, had inadvertently sold the antique table they had put on reserve at an auction. The people running the auction kindly allowed my parents to choose another item, and, according to my mother, the oaken table was the least hideous of the lot. Like any writer, I enjoy these specimens of family trivia; the picture my mother and father must have made as they pleaded their case to the auctioneer, one indignant, the other clinically calm.

 

“If there was a way for me to see, and it was very expensive, would you still pay for it?” I asked my father after the men from the Foundation had left.

 

“Of course,” he had said. “I would sell the house if I had to.” The vehemence of this conviction was reassuring, yet strangely frightening in its intensity. In his silently subtle way, my father had given voice to the sheer extent of my unhappiness.

 

“Just make it up,” my mother says, when I ask about the color of the car that almost ran me over while crossing Harvard Street last Wednesday, and the furnishings of our hotel room in St. Martin. Or, “That isn’t interesting,” when I press her for details on our two dining tables, the one we have now and the one we were to have had. Her determination to convince me to be satisfied with my own talents and to stop lusting after hers has made her blind to the fact that, for good or ill, the page has become my canvas, and I must choose my words as deliberately as the painter chooses her colors. The damage could be irreparable. Without the steadying hand of the collective unconscious, or intuition, or powers of observation, whatever you wish to call it, my deliberation is gone, and I fear I will teeter into the realm of the ridiculous and the implausible.

 

 Would I experience less anguish and feel less incomplete if I were to forsake the world of the visual and embrace my blindness? Certainly. But once I have tasted that forbidden sweetness, it is impossible to give it up.  I continue to await its arrival for the same reason a conditioned lab rat continues to press down on the lever when it as not been reinforced in days, for the same reason I continue to brave the treacherous sidewalks of the Brown campus as I hurry to class in my three inch heels, for the same reason Ved Mehta continued to ride his battered bicycle through the streets of Simla. If I have done it once, I can do it again. The reward far outweighs the risk of disappointment or injury.

 

I have often tried to explain to   concerned friends and family that my negativity towards blindness and my fascination with the sighted world will never magically disappear, that they are a part of me just as blindness is a part of me. My difficulty in making myself clear on this point led me to further question my own motives—why were these attitudes so firmly ingrained—and to send a letter to Dr. Sacks himself. “Those around me often find themselves wondering why I am so intent upon mourning that which I have never experienced, why I act more like someone who has lost her sight later in life,” I wrote. “If my sight were to be restored at some point in time, would I have a different reaction than someone who has more fully adapted to blindness?” Sacks’ prompt response expressed his puzzlement. He requested clarification as to the nature of the onset of my blindness, points that I thought I had made explicit. “If you had had some vision early in life,” he said, “I can understand your desire for sight and would think that you would respond positively to the restoration of even a small amount of usable vision. But if you were born totally blind, such a desire would be intriguing, and I am not sure how you would react to sight restoration.” It is almost as if he doesn't believe me.

 

 Here   is an example of a brilliant scientist confused by a strikingly simple idea, that although I have never experienced sight, I live in a world, a family, wholly obsessed with the visual aesthetic. As Alicia Verlager, a disability scholar at MIT so eloquently puts it, “A cognitive psychologist such as Sacks might be able to explain something he already knows, but there is so much that cognitive psychologists still do not know about how the brain works or how a person works. I don't understand why they must dress such things up in mystery.”

 

   When I was thirteen, the popular psychic and author Sylvia Brown told me, in front of a thousand spectators, that one day, a miraculous laser surgery would enable me to see. I immediately forgot that she had prefaced these words with “I’m sure you see with your heart, honey,”  a statement whose high sugar content usually sets my teeth on edge,  and that lasers are nothing more than  fancy knives.  Last July, a nameless rabbi In South Africa told me that I was blind to atone for the sins of this generation, and that I would be healed only if I write songs of praise. I have not the foggiest idea what “songs of praise” are, and I do not hold much with atonement in the biblical sense, but anything is better than “seeing with your heart.” We can sing in harmony or out of key together, we can pray and atone for the sins of the Jewish people together. But to imply that I “see with my heart,” that is, that I judge people not by their looks, but “by the content of their character,” an assertion that those who know me well would be quick to refute, is to imply that I am inherently different from sighted human beings, that we lack a common means of understanding the world. What few stop to realize is that to be called pure, nonjudgmental, even “amazing,” or “inspirational,” to be labeled as “different” in such a profound way is to be deprived of our universal human qualities.

 

My mother’s snake, my sunsets and Mehta’s face all came from the same place. The fact that Mehta and I took a slightly circuitous, and some might argue, a more harrowing path to arrive at that destination, is interesting, yet irrelevant. The images we have created are extraordinary for the same reason that all forms of art are extraordinary.

 

I have been invited to read “I Often Wonder” at a fundraiser for the National Braille Press, a leading publisher of Braille textbooks and children’s literature. I am a bit curious as to why they are choosing this poem to untie the purse strings of the corporate donors if their goal is to present blindness in favorable terms. But to understand fund-raising is to understand psychology. Like all good psychologists, the event coordinators must be aware that as a species, we crave continuity and avoid contradiction. We see patterns where there are only dots and dashes, smooth contours where there are abrupt endings, closed geometric figures where there are none. When sandwiched between a little blind girl reading an excerpt from Harry Potter, and a motivational speech by the only blind man ever to scale Mount Everest, no one will realize that my poem cannot truly be a symbol of Braille literacy in action, that it is, in essence, a declaration of my refusal to be satisfied with the nonvisual, a tribute to the collective unconscious and her impossible gifts. When art is divorced from its meaning, it can no longer be called art. I am not meant to be a writer reveling in the delights of sharing her work with her audience. My slight bitterness at this conclusion, and the fear that one of my stilettos will catch on the temporary stairs, causes me to approach the podium with some trepidation.

 

Once I reach it, however, I am filled with an incredible sense of calmness and balance, for I can feel her hand upon my bare shoulder, and this time, I do not flinch at her touch. I have been forgiven. Here she is, my muse, the personification of the Collective unconscious, in all her untamed beauty and primitive ugliness, the genesis of the poem I am about to read, come to give me strength and courage, to remind me that despite my current circumstances, I did not choose this way of life to educate people about my differences, to bring light to their shadow, That I am not merely a vessel of inspiration for others, but that I know how to summon and channel inspiration in my own right.