Defying Sense

Some years ago at an outdoor art festival, I sought shade inside a booth that sold blown-glass jewelry. The artist, a kind woman in her late sixties, encouraged me to touch each of her creations and welcomed my tactile perspective. She placed earrings in my outstretched palm with a detailed description: “These are small rose quartz, almost translucent…Now these are larger, blue-green Swarovski crystal—like the ocean really—and surprisingly light when you wear them.” She understood that I came to know each earring by its weight in my palm, its texture beneath my fingers.

Though she didn’t doubt my ability to appreciate her pieces, she was surprised and pleased when I called her jewelry “pretty.” To her, “pretty” was reserved for instances of visual pleasure. When I used “pretty” to describe the silky-smooth texture of round crystal beads or the subtle ridges of blown-glass shapes, she embraced my view as novel and exciting. But she couldn’t shake the strangeness of hearing me use her visual words in nonvisual ways, a strangeness emphasized by our environment. The booths around us overflowed with paintings, delicate glass sculptures, tapestries—all created by artists who discouraged touching. This festival celebrated vision’s undisputed claims on the beautiful.

Relegating beauty to the eye of the beholder sets blind people at a disadvantage. Some of us are unable to appreciate the visual pleasure of sunrises, starry nights, flawless diamonds, double rainbows, and exotic orchids. To the sighted individual reveling in daily encounters with visual wonder, our world must seem a dark and barren place.  Vision is a greedy sense that claims a central position in our culture: it demands control over all beautiful things. So where do the blind find beauty?

You will encounter a significant number who think that blind or visually impaired people cannot find beauty at all. This fear of a beautiless life veils blindness in tragedy. To live without seeing sunsets, the faces of your children, the sparkling waves lapping at the beach’s edge is to be cheated by beauty just out of reach. When the canvas of your world is wiped blank by vision loss, especially later in life, you forget that the world continues to exist.

Others may prefer the mystical conception of blindness, in which the blind are compensated for their loss by the gift of spiritual guidance—the ability to understand beauty in anything: a crust of bread, an empty can, a puddle of rainwater. In this view, the beauty we find in birdsong or the smell of impending rain is elevated to a saintly epiphany—a miraculous gem we find only because of our physical deficit. Our blindness shields us from worldly cares and wrenches our minds open—transforming us into vessels for the extraordinary and the divine. Every phrase we utter is a mantra to be treasured and practiced; every struggle we experience is justified as part of our sanctifying pilgrimage.

Whether you see blindness as eternal banishment from beauty or  fortifying holy laurel, both views enforce the same ostracism: they command you to draw a line that blind people cannot cross. I cannot say what occurs on your side of the line, but I can describe the activity on mine.

I don’t see the line (did you see that coming?), so I will venture my thoughts on what beauty is.

Beauty cannot be confined to one sense, one organ; it resides in the being of the beholder. To experience beauty, you have to be, to exist—mind and body aware.  Even the most glorious sunset must be placed within the context of our human experience. We cannot separate ourselves from our perceptions.

Nor can we claim to be only our sensory observations. You do not see the beauty in a sunset by virtue of your eyes; it is your mind, soul, spirit that translates beauty. Just as lively piano music speaks to your hands, your ears, your heart, even your feet,  the smell of jasmine or freshly baked bread reaches beyond your nose. Your senses don’t monopolize pleasure; they convey it.

The eyes, like the purveyors of the other senses, are only one way for beauty to enter into your body and mind: they are not the best way. But there is no best way. This is why the blind person is no more saintly for finding beauty through the other senses. If a room has five doors, you choose one. If a room has four doors, you cannot choose a fifth—unless you create it. But creating that extra door is a lot of work. It’s far easier to choose one of the portals already provided.

The sense-door is a clunky metaphor. I doubt whether each of our senses corresponds to one door only. I often “see” with my fingers, understanding the beauty of an object first by touching it and then seeing it. With my hands, I understand dimensions and geography much more quickly. I run my fingers all over a thing and, suddenly, I know where to look to appreciate its color, its brightness, its contrasts. In this way, my hands and my eyes help create knowledge: neither is independent, I use two doors at once.

Nonvisual beauty is not the domain of only blind saints and sages. What stops the average sighted person from exploring the tactile, the olfactory, the auditory, is a preoccupation with the eyes. We have much more body in the world. Why not put it to work seeking beauty?

Another problem lies in the cliché itself: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The “beholder” transmits an image of someone looking outward, only capable of seeing herself with a mirror. So throw away the mirror and the need to “see” yourself. Look, if you must use that word, look inward. Perceive inward. Explore yourself, starting with the spirit and the soul. We’ve all heard that mirrors lie. Be guided by your feelings and not your eyes.

It is much easier to be the spectator looking on than to make yourself the spectacle of your own hungry vision. Foremost among the senses, vision exists to create “safe distance”: we see imminent danger and avoid it. We can “look away” when situations become too painful. We “see” others as different from ourselves by not seeing ourselves as we really are.

To smell, to hear, to feel, to taste requires closeness, immersion, the chance to run our senses all over the thing we want to know. Couple this closeness with vision and we have a propensity for immeasurable beauty. Without vision, we still have that propensity. To find beauty, you must use your whole self, even if you don’t think that self is whole.

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Contemplating the Heavens

In fourth grade, I encountered a piece of assistive technology that looked like it belonged in a sci-fi movie. The LVES (Low Vision Enhancement System, pronounced “Elvis”) was a weighty headset that obscured the upper half of my face, resting against my nose with sweat-inducing foam pads. A battery pack of several pounds accompanied the bulky headset and contained all the controls for flying the device. I relied on the LVES for distance vision; it enabled me to finally read what was written on the blackboards of my elementary school years. Though it had a mounted camera that could be angled for close-up tasks, I mainly used the LVES to follow board-work during math classes. It also featured a neat cable that could hook up to a TV, allowing what appeared on the screen to appear on the two square-shaped viewing panels inside the headset. This feature was useful when my teachers showed films in class.

A state-of-the-art contraption in 1997, the LVES contained all the staples of many assistive devices today: inverted or adjusted color modes, adjustable contrast and brightness, several levels of magnification, and auto-focusing cameras. The LVES was on the inconvenient side of portable. Packaged in a thick black carrying case, it equaled the weight of an extra backpack. So it traveled with me to school and back home again; I rarely took it to social functions. I was used to living without accurate distance vision; I only acknowledged a need for far-seeing eyes in the schoolroom.

Later incarnations of the same technology were renamed and resized. By the year 2000, I was sporting a device called a Jordy (yes, it was named after the Star Trek character), which was about a third of the size and weight of the LVES, with improved magnification, contrast, and picture clarity. In 2002, the Jordy 2 was released—and the headset finally lost its hot, uncomfortable spongy padding because it was no longer needed. The Jordy 2 was compact, petite, and effective, and these new advantages won it a spot in my social pursuits as well as my academic ones. When my chorus saw Beauty and the Beast on Broadway in 2004, the Jordy 2 allowed me to zoom in on characters from my seat in the third mezzanine. To my sighted companions—who never had to rely on such technology—I bragged, “I can see Belle’s shoes!” The Jordy 2 accompanied me to many more performances fitting inside a large camera case, its batteries weighing around 4 ounces.

But the LVES gave me something that its later, more convenient cousins never did. One clear night, I took the LVES outside to gaze at the full moon. I’ve always been able to see the moon quite well without glasses, even if I can’t distinguish its exact shape or phase. It’s a bright spot in a dark sky—nature in high contrast. I can sometimes pick out stars too, if they’re bright enough. The night sky’s effortless inverted colors—pale splotches on a dark background—have always fascinated me.

So I stood in the backyard, wearing the LVES, and tilted my face to the sky. The brightness of the moon filled the square viewers inside the headset, and I turned the large clicking knob to increase the magnification. As the LVES took me closer, I began to see cracks and fissures across the moon’s pale surface. I went as close as the magnification would let me, and then I realized—with the slow dawning clarity of low vision—that I was looking at lunar craters.

I’ve never forgotten that fascination, that intense visual intimacy with space. I’ve never forgotten feeling transfixed by that moment, standing in the cool quiet of the backyard, looking at a moon so big and bright. The LVES made the moon defy depth and distance or me, and I was convinced that I could reach out and touch the cracks and craters, feel the smooth bright surface.

Since then, my experience of the sky and its colors has been varied and incredibly narrative. During all stages of the day, I often ask others to describe the sky to me. Unable to spontaneously identify sky and cloud colors for myself, I want to understand what makes sunrises, sunsets, and storms so remarkable. I want to understand the value of a clear blue sky, a cold gray day, or a crisp and bright winter sun.

Friends have told me that the morning is made of pinks and yellows, the evening made of reds and purples. On the morning rides to school, Dad explains how low-hanging clouds change the sky and how the sky predicts the weather. We swap adages about when a sailor should take warning and predict where and when the reliable summer rains will fall. In the evenings, Mom pulls me outside to see the harvest moons and supermoons that hover above our chimney, describing their shapes and colors.

I can make the best use of my vision at dawn and dusk, when the world is covered in a hazy half-light. My vision fails me in sunny circumstances—at the beach, on a bright day, at midmorning or mid-afternoon when the sun is waking up the world with merciless rays. Autumn and winter sunshine treats me better than the summer sun coveted by tourists, but I’m the most happy under the soft gloom of a gray day.

All my life I’ve heard of the beauty of sunsets, something that is invariably lamented when people speak of vision loss. Though I’ve watched the sun set a few times, I haven’t been able to appreciate the beauty of it—I couldn’t distinguish the bands of melting color and I couldn’t stare at the sky long because of the sun’s brightness. Recently, however, I’ve experienced two sunsets in very distinct ways.

When I graduated with my Master’s in 2012, Suzanne, a family friend and honorary aunt, presented me with an 11 x 14 canvas depicting a beachside sunset over the water. Knowing that I’d never be able to freeze a sunset long enough to see it—and that I couldn’t bring a sunset “up close”—Suzanne took a photo of a beautiful Fernandina sunset and had it transferred onto the canvas.

Now, on my wall, the picture radiates its warm dusky colors. The sun is a bright white and yellow ball in the upper right, its perfect circle smeared by passing clouds. The sky around the sun fades from yellow-orange to dark orange, then to gray-purple. The sun is reflected in the water below, rippling down the side of the page in bright flame. A dolphin and two boats inhabit the water, while blurred dark plants claim the foreground. Knowing that I wanted to write this blog, I asked Katie to describe the picture to me. She repeated the colors of the sky, being meticulous in her word choice, as I took rapid, confusing notes. Later, I reviewed my notes and gazed at the picture, trying to marry the verbal description with the visual reality. Though I can’t dissect the colors of the sky, I’m still amazed by the incredible life of the burning sun and the shining water.

The second sunset came to me purely through words. A week ago, Stephen and I were having dinner when he glanced outside and remarked on the sky. “It’s a perfect sunset,” he said with appreciation. “Can you see sunsets?” I explained that I could see them but that I didn’t really know how to appreciate them (mostly for the reasons I listed above). I asked him to describe this one to me.

He told me that the sun was bright, just getting ready to set, and surrounded by a patch of perfect blue sky. Bands of reddish-orange and purple tinged the edge of the sky—but the remarkable thing, as he said, was the sky blue around the sun. The strong contrast between the vibrant delicate blue and the intense, saturated reds and oranges of the sky’s edges—that’s what made the sunset so gorgeous.

I continue to be fascinated by the sky, though I prefer to gaze at the evening or night sky and avoid the glare of midmorning and afternoon. One day, I hope to go stargazing somewhere without the light pollution of a large city. I can’t wait to see what I could really discern in a dark night sky. For now, I’m content to look at the moon whenever she appears. I enjoy her in all stages, but something about the full moon is incredible to me. Perhaps it’s because she’s so bright and intense against the sky—I can see her so well. I never tire of looking at her.

The Character of Sound

In his book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John Hull calls himself a “whole body seer,” one who lives in a world seamlessly comprised of four senses. Like many blind people, Hull can detect seemingly visual features of his world through senses other than vision. He can understand where and how the rain falls by ear. Undoubtedly, he can tell whether he walks into an empty room or a room filled with furniture – just by how the air in the room feels as he moves. Describing how the brain of the blind person processes voices, he writes, “For the blind, people are not there unless they speak…When you are blind, a hand suddenly grabs you. A voice suddenly addresses you. There is no anticipation or preparation…people are in motion, they are temporal, they come and they go.”

I frequently experience Hull’s brand of vocal navigation. I am aware of an approaching person only by his or her audible personality. I must weave a narrative from the sounds around me. I will present two vignettes.

The first vignette places me in an environment where noises abound. Katie and I have plans to meet for coffee, and I arrive early. I sit down at a small, round table and pile my bags on the tabletop. I wait for the familiar jingling of keys that indicates Katie’s approach. As I wait, a person approaches me–through sound. A voice happens upon my ears. “Hilary? Is your name Hilary?”

I look up and search for the speaker. This is a complex spatial calculation; my mind places the woman in front of me, diagonally to my right—at two o’clock. I ask if she is speaking to me.

“Yes,” she says. “There’s a drink up for Hilary, so I wanted to see if it was yours.”

I explain that I am not Hilary, and I assume she walks away. She grows silent, so she ceases to hold my attention.

Moments later, a second voice emerges on my left—another woman, another courtesy. “Emily, I want to let you know I’ve just mopped this area. So be careful.”

I thank the unseen employee, whose voice is vaguely familiar. Unable to read her name tag, I don’t know who she is. I only know I’ve made small talk with her while she took my order and prepared my countless soy chai lattes.

Soon the jingling of keys – I think they’re keys, they sound like keys  – alerts me to Katie’s approach. Without fail, I can calculate about 3 seconds between the musical sound and Katie’s equally musical, “Hey Em!”

The second vignette finds me in a calmer, quieter place: the classroom. Here, I learn the location of students by the unzipping of bags, the shuffling of papers, the crunching of granola bars, and the beeping of cell phones. On final exam day, a new sound signals an approaching student—the chattering ice in a plastic Starbucks cup. I can construct a probable scenario from this ice, rattling as the student walks past. The noisy beverage tells me two things: the student was up late last night and the weather is hot today.

For the curious, I’ll add this: you can tell what kind of cup the student is carrying by listening to the ice. The ice in a plastic cup rattles more noisily than the ice in a styrofoam cup. You can also guess the quality and amount of liquid in the cup, depending on the speed and attitude of the rattling ice. I know from the sloshy rattling that my students are drinking iced coffees, iced lattes, or iced green teas. Frappuccinos, because of their smooth, blended texture, do not make a lot of noise until you get to the last few, desperate sips.

As students approach my desk to drop off their exam papers, I marvel at how many carry iced coffee drinks. To me, these students present identical audible profiles; each drink rattles in much the same way. When a student chooses to give a parting word, I can distinguish him or her from the crowd of iced coffee drinkers. I wonder if they realize their own anonymity in this case.

John Hull’s description of hearing voices makes the blind person seem like a solitary figure, suspended in a passive sea of sound. Unable to control who and what comes near, this auditory observer must discern and build his world. And from this perspective, this world-building seems like a lonely, vulnerable task.

However, building a world from sounds can create powerful realizations. Whenever I attend a concert, I intentionally sit far from the stage so that I won’t be distracted by scraps of visual perception. Sitting several rows back, I listen and find a place where the music itself rises upward—a unified fabric of sound, infused with human vitality. I often forget that the instruments, both human and man-made, are attached to human bodies. For me, the music becomes a seamless presence. Somehow the human endeavors are elevated, transformed. I forget about individuals holding bows, pressing keys, bringing the air that fuels the beautiful tones. I forget that the human voice resides in a human body. I can’t hear the boundaries of the human body, so the sound has no boundaries.

Beginning as perception, the boundlessness of music becomes poetry for me; it becomes the cornerstone of my musical philosophy. I immerse myself in the collaboration, only to be carried upward beyond my own body. In the audience, I forget that musicians are tied to the earth; as a performer, I nourish my sound on this perception.

My auditory world-building exceeds the task of telling me who is near and what they’re doing. It creates or conveys the personalities of others and shapes the deeper core of my understanding.

Touching the Wild Shape of Poetry

Well, this essay was supposed to enter a contest, but it doesn’t meet the specifics. So I’ll share it with you instead!

*****

Last semester, I returned home after a long day of teaching and found a large flat box on my bed. I could just make out a logo in the top left corner, the stamp of a local organization that provides free braille materials. I quickly grabbed a pair of red-handled scissors and opened the box. I pulled out four massive braille volumes and one small print book. In large, rounded capital letters, the print book bore the title Seamus Heaney: Poems 1965-1975, and its 230 pages corresponded with the four thick volumes in the box.

I had requested the Heaney poems in braille because I needed the reading practice. Though I learned braille during high school, I preferred large print materials and text-to-speech software. I regularly employed braille for labeling household appliances, school notebooks, and makeup, but I did not do serious reading in braille. The only braille book in my possession was a piece of choral music, collecting dust on a forgotten shelf.

Then, in the summer of 2012, I discovered a need to reexamine braille. Working in a program for blind and visually impaired teenagers, my co-teacher and I led our reluctant pupils through extensive touch-typing exercises. As I examined each student’s progress, I noticed that the students who used braille frequently misspelled words when typing on a print keyboard. To address the issues, I initiated a braille spelling bee, asking one student to contract a word and the next to spell it out.

Though the contests helped students address incidental spelling confusion, I wanted a long-term solution. I questioned students and vision teachers about existing braille materials, hoping to find a system that re-oriented braille users to print spelling. I found none. I decided, then, to brush up my braille skills; I hoped to develop a system to guide braille users through the convoluted field of print spelling. I began a routine and pragmatic review of the braille contractions I had learned years before.

The braille users around me recommended that I order a familiar book in braille, and I thought that poetry would be a less daunting choice. I ordered Seamus Heaney’s North, a short collection of poems I adored. However, the women who brailled my book could only find a copy of his larger collection, which included North and three other short books. I found myself running my hands over the extra volumes in delight. I took North to work so that I could read it whenever I had free time. Because I teach several introductory composition courses and tutor writing, free time comes at unexpected moments. Seamus Heaney’s braille volume sits in my office, waiting for twenty extra minutes between classes. When this time appears, I treat it as a gift. I leave my office – a space I reserve for grading, student conferences, and other obligatory work tasks – and search for an amiable reading space.

When I am looking for a good place to read a print book, I must consider the lighting of my environment. Because I am extremely light-sensitive, I prefer to read in dimly lit areas. I am unable to read print in any bright environment. Despite my long-cherished desire to nestle against an old oak with a volume of Romantic poetry, I cannot do it. Behind my favorite dark sunglasses, I still see words as faint scribbles on pale pages.

Remarkably, the arrival of Heaney’s poems in braille has changed my reading experience. I have been able to carry the book into any environment. Whether I’m sitting by a sunny window or in a patch of sun on a garden bench, I can comfortably read the poems. While on campus, I can carry them deep into the nature trails or settle into the wide bench swing beside the small lake. Since my hands are not disturbed by the presence of light, I can enjoy the warm Florida sun, casting glaring rivulets across the wide, white pages.

Previously, I had approached braille as a means to an end – a step I had to take before my students’ grammar could improve. I prepared myself for hours of dedicated reading, annotation, and memorization. I welcomed the task in the service of good writing. I did not expect a serious confrontation from the neat rows of small dots, pushing themselves against my hands. Thinking that I had already met everything on the printed page, I could not predict the wild transformation that braille would bring.

Braille has given me a new kind of accessibility – not just access to a text, but the freedom to experience that text in its most fruitful setting. What once functioned as a utilitarian method for labeling everyday items has entirely altered the way I read, imagine, and compose poetry. Still learning, I read slowly and carefully, and this deliberate contemplation, this meticulous immersion, carries me deep inside each poem. I think all poetry, regardless of language, is meant for braille and outside reading. The tactile act of reading braille poetry, of imbibing its potent words through my fingertips, is a kind of meditation. To read poems in braille outside is to allow my whole body to celebrate the ability to feel.

My interactions with braille poetry have not changed the shape of my daily reading. I continue to use large print materials in digital and paper form. But braille offers me the freedom to take poetry to the places that feed my creativity and fire my imagination. With braille, I escape the prosaic routine chosen from visual necessity. Breathing deeply, I retrace the words of the original poet, against the sun and wind.

Illumination

Fifteen minutes before class, I prepare to leave my office. I place a stack of 25 graded student essays into my large bag, wrap my soft red scarf around my neck, hang my small brown purse from my right shoulder, and slide my sunglasses over my regular glasses. I pick up my keys and unfold my cane. When each of my two bags is balanced on my shoulders, I tuck the final item, a thick volume of braille poetry, into the crook of my left arm. I switch off the small gray and silver lamp, lock the door, and head down the hall.

Today, I must leave the room while my students complete their instructor evaluations, double-sided scantron forms that ask them to rate my effectiveness in communication, demonstration of course concepts, and use of course time and materials. I will have fifteen minutes to enjoy—a quarter-hour to spend off the academic stage. I have decided to spend my time gift with Seamus Heaney and Louis Braille.

After designating a student to administer and collect the evaluations, I gather my things and leave the classroom. I round a corner of the short, nondescript hallway and find a secluded bench near a window. I sit and arrange my bag beside me. I spread the large, white 11 x 11 volume on my lap.

This is one of four volumes that comprise the braille transcription of Heaney’s Poems: 1965-1975. The ladies who brailled this edition for me intuitively divided the book into its four smaller collections: Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, Wintering Out, and North. I am reading North.

I open the volume and flip past the first few pages; I recognize the table of contents by the neat lines of single dots between each poem’s title and page number. I turn to the first poem in this volume and let my fingertip travel slowly over the poem’s title.

I can’t read it.

The line contains contractions I learned years ago and cannot remember. I resist the temptation to “scrub” at the dots with my forgetful finger. Instead, I retrace them, cell by cell, consoling myself when I successfully identify single letters.

My fingers travel over the rest of the poem as I balance the wide volume on my lap. I use my left hand to mark the line while my right travels across it. I recognize morphemes here and there—bits of words, like “ea,” “ch,” “ar,” or “ing.” My fingertips find many dot 5s and 6s, indicating heavily contracted words. I make amateur mistakes; I read an “m” as a “u” and think, How is that possible? I do not feel like I am reading a poem—I feel like a first-grader stumbling over a children’s book.

Four lines down, I find an unexpected treasure, a word without contractions. Sunlit. I find sunlit. I read sunlit. I can’t believe it—I retrace the word over and over, making sure I didn’t misread it. Yes, I feel the “s,” a pattern of 3 dots: dots 2 and 3 are stacked vertically while the letter reaches diagonally up to finish with dot 4. The “u,” another 3 dot pattern, begins with dot 1, skips dot 2, and ends with dots 3 and 6, side-by-side. The angular “n” starts with dots 1 and 4 side-by-side, drops below dot 4 to cover dot 5, and then drops diagonally to hit dot 3. The “l” is a straightforward pattern of 3 dots in a vertical line; it contains the left half of the braille cell. The “i” is demure and little, like its vowel in sunlit—it’s a wee 2-dot diagonal pattern between dots 2 and 4. Finally, the “t” juts across the cell like a lightening bolt, starting with dot 3, moving vertically to dots 2 and 5 on the same row, and finishing with dot 4 alone on top.

Sunlit becomes a tactile beacon on the white page before me; it seems to encourage the other cells to attention, demand that the words reveal themselves. As I read, I find wall, east, water, summer, reddening, and hands. I begin to assemble Heaney’s poem from the bottom up. Wading deep into his poetics, I discover each sound independent of other sounds. Every “st” or “ch” comes under my fingertip and floats beside me, bobbing up and down in my conscious mind. I experience his poem as a material thing, crafted from tangible particles of noise and breath. I am traveling inside the poem, my fingertip tracing its concentric rings.

At the end of fifteen minutes, I have read two pages—a handful of words and a deluge of sounds. I must close the book and return to other sensory obligations. I pull awareness from the small space where the ball of my finger meets the bright braille page and swing the large 11-inch cover across the front of the book. I carry the volume in the crook of my arm, my hand curling around the uncut pages, and contemplate the transcriptive power of the cells.

Green Tea, Green Time

I am sitting in a heavy, hard-backed chair, at a small bistro table, a few feet away from the stairwell. Tucked into the corner of the elevated sidewalk that hugs my department building, the table provides an ideal place for listening to the sounds of the courtyard below, the passing students, and the occasional birds. My large dark blue schoolbag sits by my feet, my cane lies folded across the table’s lattice top, and my bright blue thermos stands in front of me. With its subtle hourglass shape and sturdy handle, the thermos holds about 20 ounces of green-ginger tea. The early autumn breeze flicks the dangling tea tag against the side of the thermos, a soft shff shff shff in the quiet afternoon.

I pop the top and enjoy the resonant click of the plastic lid. The tea is piping hot, surprisingly welcome on a warm, breezy afternoon. Green-ginger has become indispensable to me; its spicy, fragrant flavor soothes my sore throat and relaxes my body. It’s a good tea for contemplation.

As I place the thermos on the table, I wonder how soon I should return to my office. Can I justify a half hour of quiet meditation out here? I decide that I can. After all, the green time will make me more productive.

Since I’m wearing my sunglasses, I begin visually exploring my surroundings. I can clearly see the stairwell, the rails, and the elevator doors to my left. I look to the right, where something dark and scraggly nuzzles against the side of the sky, its shape uneven and coarse. It must be a tree. I turn my head, and the corners of another building come into focus. Strong right angles and a medium unknown color set off the building’s roof.

Both the tree and the roof draw my eyes to the contrasting sky, the pale, translucent backdrop that makes each separate piece of this landscape so visible to me. I tilt my head back so that the sky fills my entire visual field. Through the dark glasses, I see that the sky is comprised of two textures: something sheer and slightly darker and something puffy with a shiny brightness. The puffy material stretches across the sky in patches—or does the sheer, smooth material stretch across the opposing texture? One of these textures must be clouds, but I can’t decide for certain which one.

I think about how often we invoke clouds in literature, film, and other art—how often we reference clouds in everyday speech. I remember countless scenes in novels and movies where two people—friends or lovers—lie on their backs in the bright green grass and find significance in the sky.

To me, the sky looks like an optical illusion, the kind where two images exist inside one frame. Is it the single vase or the two faces? Do the clouds lie along the sky or does the sky push through the clouds?

Walking

“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is–I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

Wearing my sunglasses, I descend the front stairs and Dad offers me his arm. Already, Ozzie pulls at the leash in Mom’s hand. We traverse the small sidewalk that bisects our front yard and reach the curb. “Curb alert!” Dad says cheerfully. He steps off the curb and waits for me to do the same. When we are both on the road, he turns to the right, and we begin the first lap.

Mom leads the stroll, holding Ozzie’s leash as he tries to investigate everything at once. Shortly, we arrive at a small grassy area, where Dad and I wait in the shade as Ozzie explores each tree and bush. When he is finished, we resume, following the curve of the road as it rounds the neighborhood. Dad narrates various characteristics of our surroundings, commenting on the state of the trees, the construction of the houses, and the weather. With my hand firmly wedged into the crook of his arm, I glide forward, appreciating his commentary. My cane scratches along the level pavement, and I don’t have to think about where we’re going. Relying on my guide, I can relax into ambulatory reflection.

I am excited by the certainty of my steps – the rush of confidence as each foot obeys the commands of proprioception – and the comforting sensation of warmth as my muscles come to attention. I feel the ground through my feet, and the invigorating pressure of each step dispels the drowsiness in my legs. A small breeze, not powerful enough to rustle the leaves, cools my face. The sun seems to exude less heat; the air is not oppressive. I can smell the beginnings of autumn – an unlikely aroma on a September day in Florida. For us, fall is rarely a season of dramatic foliage and crisp air, but some strange hint, some spicy undercurrent, recalls the inspiring nature of autumn afternoons.

In a remarkably short time, I notice how our strides have aligned. Dad and I easily fall into an identical pace, keeping an equal distance behind Ozzie and Mom. Our small pack seems cohesive, determined, and relaxed. Traveling with this group – social ambling – calms and comforts me. I am soothed not only by my own steps, but by the audible footfalls around me and the sound of Ozzie’s small legs persevering along the road.

I think about the nature of strolls and the muscles we use to create them.  I wonder how much of the stroll is made in the legs and how much of its emollience comes from the walking-place. Walking by myself, I rarely have the luxury of reflecting as I move; I deploy my cognitive resources and sensory observations in the task of traveling safely. Among the group, I can abdicate these duties and appreciate what I imagine Thoreau appreciated in his familiar woods and fields.

It takes some practice and more leisure to become the kind of walker Thoreau describes. It is not enough to engage in the mobile preparation, to possess the ability to move and direct your own course. I believe that Thoreau’s kind of walking, the spiritual experience of movement through the world, demands a level of sensory commitment and mental calm. You must know the path you’re traveling – you must be able to travel it with relative ease so that you can lose and find yourself in the walk. Without the foundation of sensory familiarity and muscle memory, the walk cannot take place.

If I say that I walk more with my mind than my body, I run the risk of dismissing my sensory, physical experiences of the world. So I will not say it. I think that the mind and body make the walk together, so that walking itself does not depend on legs, but on the idea of them. It depends on a person’s willingness to stroll by any means, to embody the mind’s need to rove.

Intimate with Print

When venturing in search of new (or used) books, the Serious Bibliophile requires a few essentials: canvas bags for carrying the books home, a bottle of water, a dedicated and equally bibliophilic companion, a list, and a lot of time. The canvas bags are necessary for two reasons: 1) they won’t tear when you cram them full of books of different shapes, and 2) they represent environmental consciousness. Using the cloth bags will help you resolve your eco-guilt from bringing home a dozen print books. The bottle of water will keep you hydrated as you make use of the ample time you’ve allotted for this session. When you want to go dashing down every aisle, whisking books off shelves with the irrepressible glee of a 5-year-old on a sugar rush, the list of titles to look for will help you to exert some self-control. The companion will also help you make use of your time; her enthusiasm for finding and reading the books you desire will the hours disappear quickly.

My most frequent book-buying companion is Katie, and she is meticulous about observing the rules above. We regularly schedule trips to one of Jacksonville’s largest used bookstores, our canvas bags, shopping lists, and protein bars in hand. If the trip to the bookshop occurs somewhere in a long day of errands, we have learned to eat before we step across the sloping threshold. Book-buying on an empty stomach is a dangerous business. Combine our crankiness from hunger with our desire to buy four times the amount of books our budgets allow, and we represent a serious threat to ourselves and all other customers.

Because I am a lover of literature – poetry and prose, drama and nonfiction – you might assume that a book’s content is the only thing that matters. However, accessing literature is a multi-sensory experience, an indulgence for the hands, eyes, and nose – as well as the mind.  The books I purchase are stories I want to read, in formats I can easily access. So, aside from interesting content, what am I looking for in a good book?

While shopping with Katie, we wandered into the Classics section in search of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I had read the book eight years ago, for my AP Language & Composition class, but I’d somehow lost track of my beloved copy. Katie found the card with “WOOLF” printed in large, blocky lettering, and began to scour the stacks for the book I wanted. She found several editions, published by different companies – their fonts, pages, and binding wildly varied.

Our process is a simple one: Katie pulls an edition off the shelf and hands it to me, I open it to check whether the print is easy to read, and Katie uses my observations to filter the books she passes to me. I rarely require books in standard large print (size 18), because I apply a collection of magnifiers, reading glasses, and bifocals to texts I read. For me, ideal print is dark against the page, not a spidery or blocky font. Fonts like Courier New that echo the look of a typewriter are a recipe for disaster, while seriffed fonts like Times or Garamond are easy on my eyes. (WordPress tells me that the font I’m using now is Times.)

The quality of the page is also important. Often, I prefer to shop for used books because the yellowing pages are easier for me to read. Bright white pages can be glary, making the letters difficult to distinguish. Yellowed pages, on the other hand, soften the glare of overhead lights and contrast well with most fonts. If the book has any markings in it, it becomes exponentially more difficult to read. Occasionally, I can read a text that has underlining throughout, but, if someone has highlighted in the text, forget it!

The book’s spine is worth considering as well; if the book does not open easily, it will be difficult for me to get close enough to the pages to read them. When I was younger, I used a dome-shaped glass magnifier to read print. Now, I prefer reading glasses with 10x bifocals; I don’t have to worry about wedging a heavy glass dome in between the pages, but I do need to get about two inches away from the printed text to read it. Since I regularly underline in books, I must be able to get close to the text.

Because of my necessary textual intimacy, I have to give all my books the sniff test. Unless a book smells appealing – musty, old, and well-loved or crisp, new, and papery – I am reluctant to read it. I once avoided a textbook for my Mark Twain course, because, when I got deep into the pages, I could only smell the acrid glue of the binding.

The olfactory pleasure of books prevents me from switching to an all-digital experience of literature. Arguably, many more books are available online as e-books and free texts, but I know how desperately I would miss that Good Book Smell. Plus, my tactile relationship to texts helps me to navigate them with ease. I often remember where a passage is located because I remember reading it halfway down the page, on the left side, in the second column. My spatial awareness of text on a paper page disappears when I switch to texts on my computer. Audiobooks, however, are a welcome addition to my library, and I enjoy listening to a book while following along in the print edition.

If you’re thinking that my preferences sound like a load of cumbersome specifications, you’re very close to the truth. It is certainly easier on my eyes when I have an audiobook doing the reading and I can simply skim the pages with a pen, underlining as I listen. Yet I continue to gravitate to the printed page, even in the absence of audio recordings. Something in the experience of curling up with a good book – my nose, without exaggeration, deep in the pages – conveys a coziness, a tranquil absorption. As my body performs the posture of reading, the book is a reassuring weight in my hands. Getting my fingers around the edge of a page, sliding my bookmark into place, drawing a thin bracket around a particularly moving passage – these gestures comprise the sensory pleasures of a revitalizing experience.

Hearing Voices

It’s the first day of classes for the spring semester. I am a graduate teaching assistant for a Disability Studies course, and my professor wants to introduce me to the rest of the students. Skillfully, he guides me to the front of the room, and I greet the class. I explain to them that, while he will be matching names to faces, I’ll be learning to recognize their voices. My professor turns to me and says, “Oh, are you good at that?”

Here, I am tempted to respond, “Not really, but I like to stick to the same method whether it works or not!” Instead, I decide to say, “Yes, I am good at it.”

My simple declaration is rewarded by a student in the front row who exclaims, “That’s amazing!”

I demur, but time does not permit me to explain why my ability to recognize voices isn’t really amazing. The human ear can recognize and distinguish a staggering number of voices. I think that my ability must seem amazing and other-worldly because the average sighted person prefers or prioritizes visual recognition.

With this particular class, I am surprised at how quickly I learn their names and voices. As a student, I don’t feel pressured to learn my classmates’ names, but, as a TA, I feel compelled to know them. I am anxious that I will be violating some kind of sacred teacher-student code if I can’t identify my students after they utter a few words. As I’m trying not to be so hard on myself, I also ask the students to say who they are when they speak up. I slowly start to pin down their vocal characteristics.

Here’s how I begin to work it out:

  • There are 3 guys in the class. Two have very distinct accents and one does not. One has a very Southern accent, one has a slight Spanish accent, and the third, whose speech is not so drastically shaped by a different accent, rarely speaks up.
  • There are two girls with the same name. One speaks up regularly and always sits just behind me. She has a strong accent, and her voice is low, with a cool, crisp edge.
  • A talkative and intelligent girl who sits on the right side of the room (if I am facing the front of the class) uses a lot of frontal resonance when she speaks. This means that you could pinpoint locations around her mouth, teeth, and cheeks that give her tone a bright, young sound.

Observations like these come to the forefront of my consciousness when I am learning new voices. After I’ve learned to recognize a voice, the classifying thoughts slip beyond my conscious awareness. I can still unearth them if I sit and think about what makes each voice unique.

If I replay the voices that I really enjoy, I notice a series of recurring characteristics. I love bright, sunny voices – people who greet you as if the greeting and your name are their favorite words. My Disability Studies professor and my friend Katie epitomize this characteristic. What particularly delights me about Katie’s voice is that its consistent sunniness contrasts drastically with how her voice sweeps into a lower register when she’s disgruntled.

Other voices appeal to me for their texture or timbre (tone color). Voices that sound thick, substantial, and lively are particularly enjoyable. When I hear them, I ask myself, How can such a big voice be so agile and expressive?

I always appreciate when people tell me who they are. Because a greeting is usually brief, only a handful of syllables, I may not recognize a voice right away. Sometimes, I need a few full sentences before I can accurately identify a person. When I converse regularly with someone, I learn to recognize his or her voice pretty quickly.

Other times, I only need a word or two, especially if the person greets me in a unique way. A woman in my chorus always sings my name so that I will know who she is. Another told me, “I am going to keep saying my name until you can recognize my voice,” a statement I greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, there are still people who insist on saying, “Hey Emily, do you know who this is?” or “Can you recognize my voice?” Though they may not intend to test me or put me on the spot, these situations are frustrating. Once, a former classmate spent a few minutes quizzing me about her voice and refusing to tell me her name, until my friend Melissa broke in, saying, “Emily, don’t you find it annoying when people won’t tell you who they are?”

Now, when people ask me if I can recognize their voices, I feign delirium and say, “Jesus, is that you?”

Another common frustration occurs when people try to disguise their voices so that they can test my “amazing” skills. Unfailingly, each person who attempts this maneuver thinks that he or she is the first to think of it. People distort the pitch of their voices and say, “Do you know who this is?” In these situations, I don’t hold back. I usually respond, “I forget the name but it’s someone really annoying” or “Some inconsiderate person?” (My friend Crystal says I should swing my cane in a wide arc and shout, “No, you weirdo! Get away from me!”) When people disguise their voices so that they can be dazzled when I correctly guess their identity, I feel like a low-budget carnival attraction. Do they realize that their antics are thoroughly insulting?

I find it endearing when people announce who they are long after I have learned to recognize their voices. Occasionally, someone – a professor, classmate, colleague – will start a conversation with me and add their introduction as an afterthought: “It’s Dr. So-and-so, by the way.” These little attentions are endearing because they’re considerate. They show me that the person speaking can empathize with the agitation I feel when I don’t know who is talking with me.

It is interesting and challenging to attempt to put my auditory perceptions on paper. I find that we have a rich and fairly consistent vocabulary when we’re talking about someone’s appearance – we rarely dispute characteristics like tallness, eye color, or skin tone. We agree that redheads are redheads.

When it comes to voices, I like to talk about resonance, placement, texture, timbre, and speech patterns. The terms I haven’t snagged from linguistics courses and singing lessons are usually my own, tailored to my perceptions. When I say that a voice is “thick,” “honey-colored,” or “bevelled,” I can’t expect others to know what I mean. I’m trying to pin words to the sound-feelings in my head. For this reason, I particularly enjoy writing poetry that explores the voices that stay with me.

For most, I think that the voice is an undervalued aspect of our sensory experience. When a voice captures my attention, I am willing to listen for hours – so that I can analyze patterns of pronunciation, inflection, and timbre. When I find a voice I like, I can’t wait to tell someone about it, hoping that they will appreciate it with me – in the same wild, fanciful language.

Rich, warm, wavery, or light, voices invite me to understand how people feel at any moment of utterance. They invite me to ask, How does this person sound? How does she/he want to sound? I believe that our voices hold more expression than we realize.

Impossible autonomy

Some days I feel like a substandard ecopoet. I have only walked the UNF Nature Trails twice in my six years’ experience on this campus. Yet each time has brought forth the same conclusions, thoughts that have been steeping awhile and now must be given a voice.

The first occasion, according to the dark green diary I kept at the time, was on October 2, 2010. (I am relieved by my own meticulous journaling these past few years.) I walked the trails with Angel, and it was the first time I’d ever done so. I felt elated, ready to revel in the green quiet and the soft earthy breezes, ready to be transformed. Like Thoreau planting his beans at Walden, I was prepared to accept a series of transcendental epiphanies.

And other than the beauties that surrounded me – the piercing clarion of the bird calls (birds I couldn’t name by the way since they only sounded in my perception), the soft, changing terrain underfoot, the idle cicadas by the water’s edge, the wind’s amorphous timbre as it stirred leaves of different sizes – other than these things, I found myself with one thought.

My cane is utterly useless here.

I had my cane gripped tightly in my left hand, while my right was lodged firmly in the crook of Angel’s arm. Because it was a warm October day in Florida, sweat started to loosen my grip on both items—and still I clung to the cane. I clung to it as it skittered futilely over roots, swung upward out of my hand, and caught along fallen branches. I clung to that long tube of intuitive material even as it distorted the ground beneath me. So why didn’t I fly about, trip along, stumble, tumble down into the soft uneven ground as the cane told me to?

Because my right hand had a firm grip on reality. It curled around Angel’s arm, and so, as Angel lifted a foot to circumvent a troublesome root, the arm, capturing the movement of his body, responded, and my hand received the signal. Pick up your foot. And I did.

With silent fluidity, the gestures continued to tell me what my terrain looked like, where to lift my feet, where to shuffle forward, when to stop abruptly. The cane continued to bob in my left hand with near exaggerated efforts – as if to say, “Look at me! I am still useful! Trust me!” But its responses in this place were so confusing and inaccurate, I finally stopped swinging it before me and just dragged it along.

Perhaps to the sighted among my readers, this does not seem a very drastic gesture. How can I underscore the utter unconventionality of this abandonment of the cane? Maybe I could tell you that there are only 3 places I can think of where I don’t use a cane: 1) inside my house, 2) inside my apartment on campus, and 3) in my front yard. Everywhere else, that cane is in my hand, informing my reality. It’s my fifth limb and if, by some hellish chance, I forget to grab it, I feel as though I’ve had half my body surgically removed.

So when I walked the woods 18 months ago and decided to ignore what my cane was telling me, I thought that surely this was a fluke, a rare occurrence, and a testament to my companion’s excellent ability to guide me. And this is all true.

But I ventured into the trails again today, this time with Katie, and found that, as before, the cane was of no use. Again, all the information that helped me stay on my feet and move forward came to me through the movements of Katie’s body, through my sweaty grip on her smooth elbow. I noticed also that the woods had a sedative effect on my mind; the busy brain that would normally have been lamenting and correcting my misplaced feet had been muted. I glided along, feet feeling the roots, boardwalks, soft ground, cane bumping awkwardly against the steps I had not even traveled. At one point, the cane swung up and caught a step that I would not touch with my feet for several inches—that was disorienting. To feel the cane suspended in the air, alerting me to a future situation, made me think that in some ways, the cane in the woods is like a delirious time-traveler.

What does it mean that my cane is unfit to travel these trails? I have never harbored any delusions that my cane and the natural world get along perfectly—when I return from my very infrequent trips to the beach, I have to shake the sand out of the cane’s segments before it will fold or unfold smoothly again. I know that it is not made for all climates. The cold weather makes it stiff and the segments difficult to separate.

But the cane is a simultaneous symbol of disability and of autonomy. The cane and I make One Independent Blind Woman. The cane says, “I can travel where I want.”

And the cane is utterly useless there, in the trails, where I feel such a prevailing peacefulness and delight. What can it mean that my cane won’t let me access this small piece of paradise?

How can it be that a human guide is better than a cane? No! I refuse to accept that. It can’t be! It must be that the human offers me something different, not necessarily better. Just…different.

Unless I was never meant to be autonomous in the garish, glossy, tourist-brochure kind of way. Maybe autonomy, which eludes me in this natural setting, is not something I even want.

Visual curiosity

I am reading an essay for class called “Beholding” that discusses the patterns and ethics of staring. It’s an essay that offers a few different ways to stare at things and people and also proposes a way for the “starees” to look back, to take control of the staring interaction and make something educational, productive, validating from it.

I find I’m asking myself, “What is the last thing you stared at? What is the last thing you WANTED to stare at?”

For me, staring – that consequence of visual curiosity – is something that doesn’t stay visual for long. When I see something or someone I want to know better, I suppose I stare at it. I’d have to have someone nearby to say, “Yes, there she goes staring at that thing again” to know if I am actually staring. Mentally, I zero in on the object/person and I start thinking of ways I can approach it. But I can’t imagine just staring at it. For me, it’s a very quick leap from staring to the thought, “I want to touch that.”

I want to get to know it with my hands. I want to trace it with my fingers and understand how it is put together. And yes, this applies to people too – but often I repress the urge because our culture isn’t so big on casual (or as I’ll call it, “informative”) touching.

I had an aunt who used to say, “Look with your eyes, not with your hands.” She always said this when we went grocery shopping and I would reach eagerly for all the brightly colored items on the shelf. Look with your eyes! What a barren way of looking! Imagine going through the world only getting to know things on a visual level! How drab!

I want to get to know things tactilely. Textures, dimensions, weights – touching introduces you to the substance of things, the materiality of them. Is this the kind of information that staring provides for those who can and do stare? If so, I think I begin to understand the fascination.

“Still Water”: Thoughts on blindness and nature-writing

I wrote this last year when I was TA-ing for an Ecocriticism seminar and thought I would post it here. I want to explore these issues further.

September 4, 2011

“Cry of shore-bird and crash of surf were the sounds of the edge of the land—the edge of the sea” (Carson 139).

Living in the Village apartments on campus affords me the experience of walking past a few small bodies of water on my way to class.  Usually, when I am walking to class, I fail to note any extraordinary features of the thicket of trees and small pond with its two bench swings.  I feel myself pulled toward campus — I experience a volley of auditory information, from strangers’ conversations to the idling golf carts parked along the sidewalk.  These cosmopolitan noises thoroughly distract me from the calmer world of the pond.

However, when I am returning from class, I notice a different set of sounds. For the past two weeks, as I have entered the residential area of campus and walked past the pond sheltered by the trees, I’ve felt and heard the change long before seeing it.  The air grows cooler and easier to breathe. I am able to hear crickets – in fact, they’re so loud that I marvel at my ability to ignore them during the previous journey.  I feel calmer too, less harried, more focused, as the industrial sounds of campus construction and landscaping move farther away.

With a mind to collect more data on these contrasting ambiances, my friend Katie and I spent Thursday afternoon sitting on the swing nearest the pond.  On the main part of campus, the air was unpleasant, hot, and sticky. But as we sat on the swing, we marveled at the breeze and the comfortable warmth.  Distance muffled the perceptible sounds of a busy campus to a low, indivisible hum.  At the pond, the only sounds I remember were the metallic creaking of the swing and the soft timbre of our voices.  Occasionally we’d hear the conversation of students passing by along the sidewalk behind us.  We sat at the pond for two hours, surprised at how slowly time seemed to pass. When we finally stood up, our legs were sore from working the swing.

After about an hour, Katie leaned over to tell me that a guy was fishing in the pond.  I hadn’t heard him approach and I could hear a faint plop plop, which I supposed to be the sounds of his fishing equipment descending into the water.  It disturbed me that I couldn’t gather more aural information about the fishing student.  It disturbed me that I couldn’t hear birds or the customary crickets.  As I sat there, feeling the afternoon air, I compared my experience to the vividness of Carson’s prose.  Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison because she has the entirety of the ocean to convey through multi-sensory imagery, but I felt that my experience, though relaxing, was incredibly barren.

I began to muse, and am musing still, on the prevalence of visual imagery in nature writing – and the necessity of visual acuity on writing nature.  I begin to wonder what I can convey without a friend, conveniently sitting beside me to tell me the color of the leaves and the names of the trees.  Faced with the task of conveying my experiences and the passionate drive to make something from them, I wonder what my depictions will “look” like.  I wonder what my contributions will be.

I think I must redefine my connection to the natural world just as I must find the validity in my own perception. I stand daunted by the compelling prose of Carson. She writes details I cannot perceive, concepts – like color – that I only understand in theory.  I think the task before me is to familiarize myself with the sounds, smells, and textures of nature that will facilitate a better understanding of the perceptions I want to convey. Whether I can experience the ocean as Carson does, it’s still water.

Carson, Rachel. Under the Sea-Wind. New York: Penguin Group Inc, 1941.

Heightened Senses: Smells (Part 1)

There’s a popular theory that when one of your senses is diminished, the other four (let’s call them four for now, but we can debate this later) are heightened, accentuated, incalculably brightened in some way. So I’ll be devoting a series of entries to exploring this phenomenon in completely un-medical terms, as it relates to me. I can’t really say how my low vision makes these sensory enhancements work – so I’ll focus instead on a qualitative delivery of the experience of living with the senses I have.

Today it’s smells, especially smells I love. I’ll give you a few examples. When a smell reaches my nose that I absolutely love, I feel the urge to tilt my head back and imbibe the air. I find myself compulsively smelling the item, if it’s close enough to hold, or wanting to compulsively smell it, if it’s not close enough. Here are some places where the smells make me weak at the knees.

The glorious thing about having low vision is that most smells surprise you; you can’t see the smelliferous object approaching, so its aroma greets you sometimes gently and sometimes with terrifying vigor – but always surprisingly. Even if I’m walking past a place whose smell I love and I know perfectly where I am, there’s no guarantee that the wind will bring me that glorious aroma!

At the grocery store, there are two areas in particular that get to me – one is seasonal (a fleeting pleasure!) and the other, thankfully, mercifully, is not. The first is the cinnamon broom display at Publix. The most delightful thing about this particular sensation is that I inevitably forget that I will experience it. I enter the store, get distracted by the metallic rustlings of the shopping carts, and start rummaging for my grocery list. Then the cart glides forward — I prefer to push the card while my shopping companion steers by leading it from the front – and I begin to be accosted by smells. Flowers, bakery items, and generic clean building smells are the first, and they’re totally unremarkable. Then we’ll round a corner and somehow, some fortuitous puff of air will send the cinnamon broom smell sailing in my direction. And I want to grip the cart and tilt my head back and smell it, forever. The scent is punchy and potent; it zips through the air with a terrible ferocity. It slices through all the other smells and makes me stop and tune out the rest of my environment. I want to ignore everyone, turn off my ears, close my eyes, and experience SMELL all by itself. Cinnamon broom. Exquisite.

I have one hanging in my apartment now and the smell has worn off. This makes my chance encounters with the c-broom display at Publix so wonderful. No cinnamon broom in the home could ever smell like one in the store. I expect it at home.

The other sense-stopping aroma at Publix can be found in the produce section. So much of grocery store produce is lackluster, deficient in smell and color compared with the fruits and veggies from a farmers’ market or organic store. But the apples! the apples! I entice my shopping companion to read me all the varieties, asking mildly which are on sale, all the while thinking, Please say fujis! Please say honeycrisps! Oh lord, galas! And if these favored varieties aren’t $3.29/lb, I start to examine them.

I pick up an apple, turning it over and over in my hands and feeling for blemishes. I don’t want to fall in love with an apple’s particular perfume only to discover that it’s dented, squishy, or discolored. Then I smell it! And that floral, crisp, inviting aroma lifts me off my feet. I can’t fight down the sighs here. Especially when it comes to the honeycrisps, I can’t refuse. My desire to smell apples is insatiable, and I think it has something to do with the timbre of the smell – if I can apply that musical word here. Predominantly, the apple smell is a light one, light, riding on the air, not heavy or weighty like some of the more showy, succulent fruit smells. Apples don’t smell like peaches – when you smell a peach, you smell the whole tree – flowers, roots and all. A peach smells like all of its components – its aroma is thick with juice and sunshine. But apples smell light and crisp, like themselves – they lack the earthy dampness of peaches. The apple smell is an easy intoxicant because it doesn’t weigh you down. I could smell apples for hours.

The third contender in my particular scent rundown is the smell of woodsmoke and campfires. I love the afternoons when I walk outside and I can smell someone heating up a grill. I’m not talking about the delicious barbecue smell here – I’m talking about the pre-barbecue smell. And in winter, the smell of a fireplace has extra special allure. I once sat around a campfire with some friends on a winter evening, wearing a turquoise hoodie (since we Floridians are so ill-equipped to handle the cold) and the campfire smell seeped into my clothes. I remember smelling the sleeve of my hoodie all the way home. I don’t think I washed it for a month. I didn’t even continue to wear it – I would just pick it up from time to time.  And of course, smell it!

Campfires and warm, smoky aromas draw me in. I find them infinitely inviting. This does not include the acrid smells of cigarettes or the sickly sweet funk of hookahs. I restrict my smoky preferences to the woodsy, green scents. However, I will grant special admittance to smoked paprika and lapsang souchong tea (a black tea whose leaves are dried and smoked). The tea especially smells like campfire heaven.

I could go on for pages, but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that there are way more interesting and fantastic smells out there to stop and enjoy. Forget the roses!

(Don’t really forget them. Just save them for later. I’ll do an entry on flower smells I love in the future.)