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!

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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.

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Uncommon Reader

On Friday morning, I sit across from Elena, a soft-spoken student with a thick Cuban accent. She is a cellist and a dear friend who struggles with writing in English. She explains that she needs help with an essay assignment for one of her music theory courses. Her voice is gentle and husky, full of warmth.

She slides her paper across the table, and I pick it up. The white sheets contrast strongly with the muted color of the desk. I begin to scan her work.

“Okay, some of these sentences are very long,” I explain calmly. “Let’s try to break them into shorter ones. That will make the essay easier on the reader.”

She picks up her mechanical pencil—identifiable by the sound of the lead rattling around in the plastic casing—and writes my suggestions on her paper. I guide her through the revision process, offering changes and listening to the changes she wants to make. When we finish the two pages, she turns to me and asks, “So that was easy for you to read?”

I want to reassure her, to let her know that her English is comprehensible. “Yes, I understood what you were writing about.”

“But the font, the size, you could read it? It was easy?”

“Oh…well, it wasn’t difficult, but it was a little small. I normally ask my students to print in size 18.”

“When I came in, you were reading,” she continues. “You are always reading!”

I laugh. I had been reading Georgina Kleege’s Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. I’ve been reading this book for a while—it’s the book I carry with me for incidental reading, reading while running errands or during odd moments at work. “I love to read,” I confess. It’s not much of a confession. Anyone who has spoken to me for more than 15 minutes knows I adore reading.

“I am glad you can read so well,” Elena finishes sincerely. “You love it, and I’m glad you can do it!”

She leaves and I pick up my book, flipping to the page where a large paper clip marks my place. I begin reading and thinking about reading, the book an inch from my nose.

I read from left to right. I read avidly. I read slowly. I read with one eye. My right eye tracks lines, recognizes characters, and takes me deep into a book’s pages. My left goes along for the ride, responsible only for keeping me in three dimensions.

As with most activities, I prefer to read by dim lighting. I’ve recently discovered yellow lightbulbs, which give my room a soft, Old World glow. When I was younger, Mom would come into my dim room, see me reading, and flip on a light, “Is that better?” she’d ask cheerfully, and I’d reply, “No!” in a surly tone.

When I was a child, all my reading materials passed beneath the weight of a glass dome magnifier. The magnifier, about the size of my fist, would gather light and enlarge the text. I remember its weight well—so many times, I fell asleep on my back, a book in one hand and the magnifier resting against my face.

Later, on advice from a low vision specialist, I exchanged the heavy magnifier for 10x bifocal bubbles in my glasses. These allowed me to read more comfortably; I could hold the book in one hand and a pen for annotating in the other. The bifocals are my current favorite because they help me read without distorting the appearance of text. Other, more intense magnifiers will change the color and contrast of text, but they transform the cozy warmth of the yellowed page into a digital encounter. These technologies are incredibly helpful when I must accomplish a large volume of reading or when the print is too small for bifocal access. But they do change the character of the reading encounter for me.

However, I am realizing that the shape of reading is infinite. Beneath the heading, “How I Read,” is a collection of processes involving several senses. I read books in print, listen to audiobooks, read texts in braille, engage with materials through text-to-speech software, and, more often than not, combine these methods to access a text. Reading for me is a dynamic encounter with printed, embossed, or typed material. Reading involves more than visually tracking letters. It’s the willingness to engage and be transformed by literary work.

Elena is glad that I can read, and I am excited by the thought of transformation. I can encounter poetry, prose, neuroscience, nature writing, books on linguistics, books on music, books on love. At any given moment, I have a pile of books on my desk that I haven’t read and a long line of audiobooks I’ve downloaded but haven’t heard. I have more than 200 titles on an online wishlist, waiting to be read. I have several volumes of braille poetry, waiting to be experienced. One volume sits on a shelf in my office, ready for a warm, sunny morning and an hour of free time. A retractable purple pen rests on the desk beside me, poised for annotation. I know it won’t bleed through delicate pages or smear as I underline. So, you see, I am ready.

I will let Virginia Woolf, one of my favorite authors, end this passage, with words from her essay, “How Should One Read A Book?”:

“Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’” *

* from The Second Common Reader, Woolf’s volume of literary essays.

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.

Deliberate Communication

Subtitle: A letter for Henry

I have decided to break out the Perkins braillewriter. Henry and I are going to exchange braille letters with the hope of improving my braille skills. As the novice, I must write the first of these missives. Henry says this will force me to remember my skills, but I suspect he wants me to write first, so he can chuckle over my garish braille spelling.

I’ve cleared a space for the machine on my desk and pulled out four sheets of thick braille paper. The paper measures 8.5 x 11 inches and already has holes punched along the left margin. I flip back the two levers on the brailler and slide the first sheet of paper between the long, thin rollers. I flip the levers forward, securing the paper. I begin to turn the knobs on either side of the machine, causing the paper to retract into place.

There’s nothing glamorous about a Perkins brailler. It’s a sturdy, no-nonsense machine, built for endurance. Made of a dull, bluish-gray metal, it offers two rows of three keys, much like the Home Row on a print keyboard. Just before these rows sits the space bar. The “backspace” key sits in the “shift” position to the right of the two rows, and the “next line” key sits in the “shift” position on the left. To go to the next line, I press down on the small carriage and slide it to the left, across the front of the brailler. It dings just like a typewriter, but the click-click of the braille keys is lower, deeper, more sonorous.

The first row of three keys corresponds to dots 1, 2, and 3 of the braille cell. The second row of keys embosses dots 4, 5, and 6. Since the keys are arranged horizontally on the brailler and the dots are arranged vertically inside the braille cell, typing the correct letters requires a specific set of cerebral gymnastics.

With my paper in place, I begin my letter. October 9, 2012. I press dot 6 for a capital sign and dots 1, 3, and 5 for an o. Perfectthis is easier than I thought. Thinking of the word “October,” I type a t (dots 2, 3, 4, and 5)—and realize that I’ve already missed a letter. Immediately, I remember Henry’s stern commandment:

“You must think in braille, not in print.”

I realize that I have been thinking about the holistic look of the word October, not how it feels, letter-by-letter. I reach over the keys and feel the o, perfectly embossed, and the t, which shouldn’t be there. Carefully, I use the nail of my left index finger to scratch out the extraneous dots (2, 3, and 5). Then I press the “backspace” key and emboss a dot 1. Now, I have a c (dots 1 and 4), but, as I type the rest of the word, I remember another piece of our conversation:

Henry, grinning with the enjoyment of his superior knowledge, tells me not to bother with a braille eraser (a small wooden tool with a blunt tip for rubbing out extra dots). “Just press all 6 keys over your mistake,” he says calmly. “That will cross it out.” His tone becomes admonishing, “Don’t you dare try to scratch out your mistakes with a fingernail! I’ll know—I’ll be able to feel that for sure!”

Well, I am certainly not going to cross out a word on the very first line of my letter! I’ll leave the fingernail marks in there, just to see if he’s paying attention.

I continue with the letter, trying to imagine each word in braille before I type it. My fingers hesitate over the two rows, the balls of my fingers nestling into the indentations on each key. I feel like a four-year-old at the piano, excited and reticent all at once. As I move into the first paragraph, I am amazed at the effort needed to press each key. My fingers start to ache, and I’ve only typed three sentences!

However, the brailler offers certain aesthetic compensations. Each time I complete a line, I am rewarded by the musical ding of the brailler bell—which adds a strange spatial awareness to my epistolary efforts. I find myself choosing different words because I know their size and contractions. I choose shorter words when I’m nearing the end of the line. The hesitation and deliberation over each letter forces me to meditate on the words I emboss. When my thinking becomes too fast, I slip back into print and make careless mistakes. I type an sh (dots 1, 4, and 6) instead of an -ing (dots 3, 4, and 6). I must think word by word—breaking each word into phonemes, or sound-components.

In the middle of the second paragraph, I realize that I am typing much more quickly. Contractions I learned years ago are dancing into my conscious mind; I easily recall the shorthand for the, have, this, and just. The click of the brailler keys synchronizes with the rhythm of my thoughts, and the melodious ding at the end of each line keeps me aware of my place on the page. My mind fills with the notions of space and texture, and I occasionally check my progress with the index finger of my right hand.

At the bottom of the first page, I decide to stop. My hesitant thoughts have given way to cramped fingers. I feel a sense of relief, amazed that the braille seems so familiar after only a page of embossing.

I cannot ignore the contrast between my slow, deliberate embossing and the rapid, intuitive process of typing on my familiar laptop keyboard. Something is blossoming in my consciousness: an awareness of the effects of the medium on the process of writing. It is not that the brailler makes me think more slowly or choose different words; using the brailler, exerting more physical effort when I write, changes the shape of my thoughts.

Now, I want to attempt a writing task using different media—pen, computer, brailler, and even slate and stylus (the pen and paper method for braille) to see how each would change the timbre of my writing.

Braille Fail: On the Blink Investigates the Dotty Placement of Elevator Embossment

Now that I am traveling independently on campus, I am responsible for opening doors for myself and calling for my own elevators. I do not mind these tasks; I use them as an opportunity to rejoice in my own autonomy. I reach eagerly for the high-contrast chrome door-pulls and jab resolutely at the glossy roundness of the elevator buttons.

If I find that I’m alone while waiting for an elevator, I employ the time in exploration, letting my fingers slide all over the panel in search of the familiar braille  text that labels each button. The elevators on campus seem to be short on dots – I have real trouble finding the braille on the panel of buttons that covers the wall to the right of the elevator doors. Where is the braille? I ask myself over and over. It should be here…

I am feeling for the braille in a sensible place. Like the braille that accompanies the print text on signs outside classrooms and bathrooms and the similar braille on drive-up ATMs – you know, the braille that makes most sighted people ask, “Why would you have BRAILLE on a DRIVE-UP ATM???” – the braille that labels the elevator controls should be located just below the pictures or the buttons themselves. In fact, once I get inside the elevator, I feel for the 2 button, and (what a relief!) the button has braille text below “2.” I feel the number sign (dots 3, 4, 5, and 6) – it resembles a backwards L – followed by a lowercase b. Comforted by the endearing embossments, I ride up to the second floor and wander into my office. The elevator’s interior meticulous labeling dissipates its exterior negligence.

But perhaps you are distracted by my “number-dropping” and talk of l’s and b’s. Perhaps you really do want to know why there’s braille on drive-up ATMs. Maybe you just want to know why I don’t take the stairs. Very well, I will explain.

Braille is a writing code, not a language, and each character occurs within a braille cell. The braille cell is made up of 2 columns, each with 3 dots. The dots are numbered 1-6 and the configuration of a braille cell looks like this:

1  4
2  5
3  6

So why the number sign and the b?: Naturally, with only 6 dots, you can make a very limited number of patterns. In braille, numbers 1-10 are achieved by placing the number sign (the configuration that looks like a backwards L) in front of the characters for a-j. Similarly, you capitalize a letter by placing a dot 6 before it. There just isn’t room in braille for a separate set of patterns for upper and lowercase letters.

And why the braille on drive-up ATMs?: True, we are not yet in a society where blind people can drive independently, but our day will come! In the meantime, we do take taxis and employ many other ways of getting around. A drive-up ATM does not have to be used by the person driving the car. A blind person can easily access the ATM from the backseat, thereby rendering her/him independent – able to draw cash on-the-go!

Just take the stairs!: Well, I do – regularly – but there’s no braille on them.

Returning to our tale…

Because braille heralds the approach of most important locations, I know it must be somewhere on the elevator. The elevator sits a few inches inside the wall, its metal doors edged in several inches of the same dark, glossy material. By chance, I let my hand slide along the edge of the elevator-shaped indentation – the edge is rounded by its metal sheath – and I discover familiar dots. Just inside the alcove, only inches deep, on the wall perpendicular to the elevator entrance, a small embossed “2” and its accompanying braille text comes under my fingertips. And now, I echo the droves of sighted people who ask of ATM braille, “Why is that there?”

Clearly, this elevator label was not Designed with the Blind in Mind – it is not in a sensible location. What blind person would risk damage to her fingers by groping into the elevator’s alcove to search for the braille label? Why is the label in a different location from the panel of controls, which is placed at a safe distance from the rapidly opening and closing elevator doors?

Placing the braille accompaniment to print text in an impractical or perilous location is just as foolish as putting the dots out of reach. What good is braille if we can’t reach it? What help is a braille sign if it’s in a location that doesn’t make sense?

Perhaps these estimable sign-placers don’t realize that braille is primarily used by the visually-impaired. A sighted person can easily scan the elevator area to find a poorly-placed braille sign, but a braille user’s hands cannot travel quite so far.

Here’s an easier way to think about it: If you’re looking for braille, you’re doing it wrong.


On the Blink

The rain, a cane, and a hint of Spain

Tonight, around 6:00pm, Ozzie begins to bark, sounding the signal of an approaching car. I sling my large pink floral purse over my left shoulder, check for my cane, sunglasses, wallet, keys, and cell phone, and head toward the front of the house. I open the door and try to keep Ozzie, the curious cairn terrier, from running out onto the landing to greet Javier, who has arrived to pick me up. My efforts fail as Ozzie slips past my legs and through the narrow opening – he is relentless when there are new people to greet!

After he has paid his respects to our pup, Javier offers me his arm and we descend the front steps. It’s sprinkling and we tromp through the wet grass to get to Javier’s car. Javi opens the door for me and I slide in. We begin our trek in search of Thai food, driving through an intensifying downpour. Luckily, Javi has a snazzy umbrella that will accommodate both of us.

We arrive at the Thai restaurant and hurry inside. Our waitress greets us and says, “Nice to see you again!” I do not recognize her voice, and I wonder how she recognizes me. Though I enjoy their food, I haven’t been to this particular Thai restaurant in a while.

This evening, Javi and I are of one culinary mind; we agree on vegetable spring rolls as an appetizer and end up ordering the same entree – Phad Se-yew with chicken,  mushrooms, and carrots. The spring rolls arrive already cut into 2-bite pieces. They are arranged in an asymmetrical design on a square plate. A round cup of dipping sauce with peanuts sits in one corner of the plate, while a colorful garnish occupies another. After we have each eaten one piece of spring roll, I stare hard at the plate and reach for what I hope is another piece. I am relieved as my fingers brush the crispy surface of the roll. As I dip it into the peanut sauce, I remark, “Oh I’m glad those are more spring rolls on that edge. I thought that was another pile of garnish.”

“Oh yes,” Javier replies devilishly. “It’s all garnish. Don’t eat it!”

When the entrees arrive, I take a few bites before remembering to search for the garnish, a bunch of shredded raw carrots twisted into a decorative design, that lingers somewhere on my plate. I know this from past experiences. I cannot count the number of times I’ve lifted a forkful of phad thai to my mouth and gotten a messy clump of raw carrot caught up with the rice noodles and scallions! We finish our meal, and Javier helps me spoon my leftovers into a small white takeout box. We pay at the register, where the cashier puts my debit card onto the counter in front of me (instead of placing it into my outstretched hand).

Full of excellent food, we decide to run some errands at the Town Center. While we search for a parking spot, Javier reads the names of passing stores – Apple, Pottery Barn, Artsy Abode…Switching from his pleasing Madrid accent to a low, exaggerated French impression, he intones, “L’Occitane en Provence.”

“What! They have a store here?” (I am excited. Because I cannot read store signs and don’t regularly check maps of the Town Center, I lose track of the stores on offer.)

“Yes, it’s right there.”

“Can we go in?”

“Sure…”

We enter the shop, and the first thing I notice is the size. The store is not very deep and the ceilings are not very high. I am not sure how I know this – it must have something to do with how the air feels and how the sound of the radio, playing “La Vie en Rose,” behaves in the space. As I step through the door, the sales assistant calls from behind the counter, “Bonjour!” I barely notice her greeting. I am overpowered by the heavenly smell of warm, soothing Provence lavender.

For lavender enthusiasts like me, Provence lavender has a very distinct scent – entirely different from the pointy, medicinal smell of the typical jar of lavender bath salts. Lavender grown in Provence has a relaxing, full, floral aroma that calms my mind and makes me think of sun-drenched meadows of lush green grass and soft, inviting blossoms.

This whole shop smells like lavender, probably because, as Javier informs me later, there are bunches of lavender for sale by the entrance. As we wander around, the woman comes from behind the counter to offer her assistance. I ask her how long the store has been here and she says, “Just over a year.” We chat a little about the products I’ve tried – the shea butter lip balm and the lavender hand cream. I tell her I am there to explore the whole store.

Suddenly, she comes closer and says, “Oh! All our products have – I don’t know what they’re called – those dots that spell things!”

“Braille?” I ask in a small, hopeful voice. There’s no way it’s braille, I think to myself. Nobody has braille on all their products.

“Yes, braille!” She sounds excited. She snatches a box off a shelf and offers it to me, placing it in my outstretched hand. “Here you go!”

My fingers travel over the smooth surface of the box. I feel an upraised print logo, and, as I turn the box over in my hand, my fingers come across the beloved, familiar dots! It is braille! Worn down and not terribly easy to read, the braille quietly proclaims, “peony eau de toilette” (No caps).

“That is too cool! Well now I have to buy something from your store,” I tell her.

After a bit more exploring, I leave L’Occitane with a new perfume – the peony one. Blame it on the braille. How could I refuse something so temptingly embossed?

The peony perfume is a warm, fresh floral scent that smells incredible! It carries hints of damp earth; it smells like the depths of a garden.

The braille and the perfume are not the only catalysts of my future shopping experiences at this store. As the saleswoman rings up my purchase, she wraps each item in tissue paper that she has misted with perfume. When I hand her my card, she swipes it and places it in my hand. She slides the receipt across the counter to me, verbalizing each move she makes.

Maybe the presence of the lavender makes her more empathic and open-minded. Maybe she is a kind and considerate person by nature. Or maybe it’s the braille, the small rows and columns of unobtrusive, resilient dots marking each sweet-smelling box that calls her attention to the needs of her customers.

Dishing up Something Special

Sunday brunch at the Casa Marina Hotel is an impressive sensory affair. As you ascend the front steps and enter the lobby, the smell of salt-infused wood greets you. The hotel is so close to the beach that the smell of the sea has permeated every room. You know that the dining room is on your left, because tantalizing aromas waft out in heavy, warm gusts. You can hear the clink of serving utensils, the splash of ice water pouring into petite glass goblets, and the satisfying pop of champagne corks.

We are ushered into the large, sunny dining room, where light from the copious windows spills onto the white tablecloths and reflects off the metal dish covers along the buffet. To cope with the brightness of the room, I wear my sunglasses as usual, but I’ve added a sand-colored cloche hat, trimmed on one side with flowers made from coiled silk ribbon. The hat’s bell shape and wire-lined brim cut just enough of the glare, so that I can remove my sunglasses when we reach our table.

As I pull out my chair, dark against the white of the tablecloth, I assess the table before me. I can barely make out the slim shapes of two forks, a knife, and a spoon on either side of my folded napkin. I cannot see the napkin, because it camouflages perfectly with the tablecloth. Instead, I see a lumpy something in the middle of my place setting, and I guess (rightly) that it is the napkin. Just beyond my silverware stands an invisible glass of water – a clear glass holding a clear liquid atop a white tablecloth in a bright room is a recipe for invisibility. Once I’m seated, I cautiously feel for the glass. I want to know where it is so that I don’t spill it.

The server asks for my drink order and I request coffee. By this time, the buffet is now open – the newly-available food made audible by the metallic clang of dish covers sliding away and the creaking of chair legs dragging across the floor as other patrons leave their tables. The buffet architecture is always the same, though the food on offer may be arranged differently. At the end farthest from the initial entrance into the dining room, a chef stands making omelettes to order. Next to the omelettes stands a carving station for prime rib. Just beyond these two specialty areas, a series of long tables bisects the dining room. Placed end-to-end, they hold a spectrum of food starting with breakfast dishes (grits, hash browns, sausage, bacon, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and eggs benedict), morphing into richer, heavier entrees (baked queen snapper, seafood with rice, mashed potatoes, and sauteed veggies),  and fading to light, cold foods like fresh fruit, shrimp salad, pasta salad, three-bean salad, and boiled shrimp. The last section of the buffet, a table offering a wide selection of desserts, stands apart.

I begin at the omelette station, where the chef obligingly tells me all the ingredients he has to offer. I appreciate this courtesy because I can barely distinguish the ingredients on display. While I could easily ask, “Do you have mushrooms?” and receive an answer, his willingness to read off the list of ingredients makes the whole process much more efficient. After I request an omelette with cheese, bacon, and mushrooms, he assures me that I don’t have to stand and wait for it. He will bring it to my table – a kindness I did not expect.

When I return to my table after a trip along the buffet for some blackberries, raspberries, and cantaloupe, I immediately notice that our server has brought my coffee. Situated in its pale cup atop an equally pale saucer, the black liquid stands out against the whiteness of the table. I hesitate to add cream to the coffee, knowing that the cream will make the beverage lighter and more difficult to see. The cream itself is not easy to distinguish; it comes in a tiny silver pitcher that is hard to spot on the bright table. I add it to my coffee slowly – so that I won’t spill it and I can see how much I’m adding. I am able to judge the quantity of cream because it contrasts easily with the blackness of the coffee and I can monitor the decreasing weight of the tiny pitcher.

So far, the berries are the smartest visual choice I’ve made. Because of their dark color and manageable size, they are easy to spot and spear with a fork – which means that they don’t give me the kind of trouble that lettuce does. When it comes to desserts, I make another smart visual (not nutritious) choice – a dense chocolate cake with dark chocolate icing. It contrasts nicely with the pale plate and the silver fork, which means I’m less likely to spear a bite that’s too big to handle.

Normally, two champagne drinks come with the brunch, and you have your choice of a mimosa (orange juice and champagne – lovely pale orange color) or a poinsettia (cranberry juice and champagne – an even lovelier dark red color). Today I abstain, but, when I’m in the mood for something bubbly, I prefer the poinsettia for the same reasons as the coffee, the blackberries, and the chocolate cake. In its slender, nearly-invisible glass flute, the red liquid is easy to find on the white table.

However, I cannot always rely on the visual discernibility of my food. Though I enjoy red grapes, brown bread, and spinach for their flavor as well as their visual convenience, I prefer white wine to red, white sauces on pasta, and white pizza. Luckily, the white pizza at my favorite pizza restaurant comes on a bright silver tray, but white wine, served in clear glasses, is consistently hard to spot.

Maybe I will invent a new type of wine charm for the blind with bright red beads and braille tags that identify the kind of wine in the glass (sb for sauvignon blanc, r for riesling, pg for pinot grigio, pn for pinot noir). The charm could fan out across the bottom of the glass and snake up the stem, which is usually the trickiest thing to spot. While I’m creating, I’ll come up with a book of tips on entertaining guests with low vision. First, I’ll completely do away with white table linen and clear glasses. Glasses will be frosted, if served on a dark tablecloth, or tinted green, red, or dark blue, if served on a pale tablecloth. For the stubborn hosts and hostesses who cling to their pristine white tablecloths, I’ll insist on colored runners and bold napkins. Napkins in dark reds, purples, and blues will contrast especially with the silverware. I’ll suggest that the place settings follow a few simple rules of consistency: forks on the left, knife and spoon on the right, and water glass placed just above the knife – instead of floating out in limbo. I’ll ask for dishes in contrasting colors: serve the alfredo on dark plates and the cream-based soups in dark bowls. Serve the chocolate mousse in white, yellow, or powder blue ramekins.

Most importantly, I’ll insist upon a tactic I regularly employ: The Buffet Buddy. When I am in a buffet line, like the brunch of today, I take someone with me – not just anyone, but someone whose descriptions are reliable and informative. It’s not helpful to be traveling a buffet with a companion who says things like, “Um they’ve got this green stuff in a bowl…” I want a companion who knows food and can describe what he or she is seeing: “It looks like some kind of salad with raisins, pine nuts, spinach, and crumbled blue cheese.” It’s infinitely preferable to have a buffet guide who is also a foodie.

I am lucky to have a large supply of competent buffet companions in my life. They’ve helped me navigate countless self-serve situations, from the mysterious lanes of the potluck dinner party to the well-ordered tureens of the Casa Marina.

Disclosure and Fascination

When you carry a white cane, a very visible marker of disability, you receive a lot of free information about other people’s lives, especially their medical history. Whether you believe that the white cane signifies impairment or independence, its presence is hard to ignore. Sometimes, it elicits a troublesome graveyard silence from onlookers – which is mildly irritating because I rely primarily on auditory cues to navigate my environment. Usually, however, the cane promotes a spontaneous socialization within its vicinity.

When walking with the white cane, perfect strangers have stopped to ask me all of the following (and more):

  • “Excuse me, are you blind?”
  • “So if you’re blind, what are your dreams like?”
  • “Do you have fainting spells? Is that why you carry a cane?”
  • “So…can you tell me why there’s braille on drive-up ATMs?”
  • “Are you going to get a dog? You should get a dog.”
  • “Do you read braille? *pointing to sign for women’s restroom* What does this say?”
  • “Do you know Stan? He’s blind too. We were friends twelve years ago.” [Here, I am tempted to reply, “Stan? Of course! I’ve seen him at the meetings!” To date, I have been able to restrain myself.]

At times, the cane moves people to tell you things or offer advice, rather than asking questions. This is usually because you’re waiting for someone or you’ve stopped to check your phone. At any rate, you’re stationary – which means strangers can approach and offer more in-depth conversation. Here’s where the extra (unsolicited) medical information comes in.

  • “My grandmother was blind too.”
  • “If you want to know when to cross the street, you can wait six seconds after the light turns green and go ahead. I used to be a crossing guard, so I know.”
  • “There is a blind guy at our church! He reads braille. He has a braille Bible and he brings it every Sunday. And he just…reads it!”
  • “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time and I can see!”
  • “Without my contacts, I’m like practically blind.”
  • “For a blind person, you dress really well! I would never have known you were blind…”

I know that things often fall out of people’s mouths before they realize what they’re saying or how it sounds. Most of the time, these awkward, clunky statements are a person’s way into the conversation – as if they want to say, “Hey, I’d like to know more about you and your disability” but instead, they see a cane and blurt out the first association they can think of.

The cane initiates a lot of dialogue, provided that people understand what it indicates (If you guessed fainting spells, you don’t get the prize money this time!). The cane does a lot of the talking for me. It’s a shortcut for disclosure; when using it, I rarely have to kickstart the explanation of my vision.

In one case, I was sitting in a theatre, the cane folded at my feet. The guy in front of me turned around and said, “What are those on the floor – numchucks?” I replied, “No, that’s my cane – it folds up. I’m legally blind.” He responded, “Oh. That sucks,” and I answered, “Not really.”

Another time, I was standing at the service desk in a crowded bookstore, inquiring after a rare title. The clerk was extremely helpful and offered to walk me to the shelf where I could find what i was looking for. She came around the corner of the desk and I stepped away from it, my cane out. When she saw me, she said,  “Oh!”

I cheerfully replied, “Surprise!” and she quickly recovered from her initial shock. She extended her elbow to me, offered to carry the stack of books I was holding, and complimented the flower in my hair. I concluded correctly that she had not been able to see my cane from her side of the desk.

I think that the cane’s presence makes people more comfortable discussing other disabilities around me. A cashier tells me about her autistic child; a colleague discusses her mother’s failing vision. In these cases, the cane represents disability as a canopy under which we can all relate.

Recently, I was talking to several people at a party – my cane folded and stashed in my purse – when one of the parents happened to mention that his son had Asperger’s syndrome. After an awkward pause, he quickly added, “But he is high-functioning. The doc says he has a 190 IQ!” Nodding, I said, “Oh really?” As I was fighting back curiosity, I noticed that the rest of the table had gone very quiet. I was not uncomfortable, but I could tell that a sense of unease had settled over the table. I can’t decide if the father or his audience was feeling the majority of the discomfort.

When the cane prompts people to share their family’s and their own medical history with me, they don’t attempt to minimize or verbally overcompensate for the disabilities they’re discussing. It is as though the cane is an emblem of safety – people who bring up their sons or daughters with autism don’t have to offer me a disclaimer. No one has to say, “My daughter has x but she is really good at y.” I imagine that the white cane is like a white flag, declaring a public acceptance of disabilities – even extending that acceptance to encompass other human quirks or frailties. (I am thinking of the bank teller who saw the cane and told me that she also ran into walls.)

I wonder how my party conversation would have changed if I had been holding the cane or checking the time on my braille watch. Would the dad have felt the need to assert his child’s value (a high IQ) if he wasn’t distinguishing his kid as the only disabled person in a room of “normies”*?

In an ideal world, we would not have to barter for acceptance by asserting our talents when we disclose our disabilities. In the same ideal world, people would not associate the word disability (and all the diagnoses that fall under it) with a life that is not a life, an existence of only suffering and failure. Clearly, we haven’t arrived at the ideal stage, but I am grateful that the cane, and other public markers of disability, opens a space in which we can discuss our humanity with frankness and fascination.

*Cheeky term for nondisabled people

Revamping the Blind Cafe

Some years ago, I heard about the trend in “blind cafés,” places where customers pay for the experience of dining in the dark. Usually staffed with only blind employees, this lightless, sightless eating experience is supposed to a) simulate what blindness must be like, and b) generate empathy, understanding, and other feelings of goodwill and generosity toward the blind community. I take issue with this setup, especially since, as many blindies will tell you, the experience of blindness does not consist of a lifelong grope in the dark in search of necessary objects. In fact, blind people have usually developed a way of knowing what’s on their plate, where their water glasses are, and who’s serving them.

However, blind people have yet to acquire the skills to intuit the menu at any given restaurant and I plan to touch on the issue of The Braille Menu (or lack thereof) in a future blog. For now, let’s just talk about the eating experience.

I don’t know how it feels for sighted people to eat “in the dark,” but I would have no problem with it, especially if I’m eating food I’ve prepared for myself (in my fully accessible kitchen where tactile tape and puffy paint decorate all the appliances). If someone has prepared food for me, a dining companion of mine might use what I’ll call “the clock system” to tell me where certain foods are. He might say something like, “The lemon chicken is at twelve-o’clock, the broccoli is at three, the pork lo mein is at seven-o’clock, and the egg roll is at nine.”

Why did I pick Chinese food for this example? Because whenever my family goes to our favorite Chinese restaurant and we order lemon chicken, my kind brother piles unnecessary decorative lemon slices on my plate. This all started the first time we ordered lemon chicken. I humbly asked Sammy, “Hey, could you not put lemon rinds on my plate? They are hard to see and I end up spearing one with my fork and biting into it.” His response?

“You want MORE lemon slices? No problem!” So lemon slices found their way onto the edge of my plate, in the middle of my fried rice, and even into my water glass at the end of the evening. This is how he keeps me on my toes, always challenging me to practice my skills. No resting on my laurels here!

I can’t complain, though, because Sammy is an excellent practitioner of the clock system. Whenever he sits next to me at dinner, he cheerfully takes me through a tour of my plate before I can even ask for assistance.

But this entry is not just about actualities; it’s about fantasies.

So here’s the deal. I propose that we, the ranks of the blind and visually impaired, commandeer all these blind cafés and dine-in-the-dark establishments and replace them with what I would like to call…The Embossed Eatery.

I confess, this is not an original idea of mine. I am expanding on a piece of hearsay from my friend Karen, who told me that she read an article on Braille hamburger buns. Don’t believe me? Click here.

But I think we can braille more than just hamburger buns, although the buns do provide a tempting platform for lots of suggestive messages. Maybe our eatery can have a “mature menu” so that Little Johnny or Little Sally don’t get a basket of sliders with “touch my buns” written in the seeds.

(Maybe we could open an Adults Only franchise and call it the Dirty Dots Diner! Imagine what an interesting first date that would be!)

For now, let’s just stick with the Embossed Eatery, or perhaps Emi’s Embossed Eatery. I bet you never even imagined all the ingredients we could muster in our brailling endeavor! Chocolate chips, blueberries, raisins, nuts, seeds, capers, and so many more—anything small and relatively round will do the trick! We could make cupcakes verbal with sprinkle messages, leave a literary trail in the pecan crust on a halibut, craft a love note with the green olives on a pizza, or stash a secret code in the feta crumbles on a Greek salad. The possibilities are truly endless!

Like the blind café, I would keep the all-blind staff. And since we’re going for an experience of blindness, all braille menus! No print menus in sight, we’ll just have a board with blurry, low-contrast pictures so that our sighted customers will be forced into conversation with our blind cashiers, servers, and cooks.

Perhaps the Eatery can even take curious customers on a tour of the totally accessible kitchen, complete with braille appliances.

Maybe the Eatery could offer a selection of pre-wrapped items: chocolate-dipped Oreos with a sweet sprinkle saying, brailled candy hearts, muffins with a cheery Good Morning in blueberries, or pre-made sandwiches who announce their contents in caraway seeds along the crust. Perhaps takeaway items like these will become the hottest trend among blind sweethearts, eager to give their loved one food that really says something.

If food is an expression of love, then brailled food could be an expression of so much more!