45 in 2016: What I read this year.

It’s been a busy year for me, but I’m proud to say I met my Goodreads goal: 45 books! Check ’em out! Some were duds, but most were wonderful. I’ve written brief reviews beneath the ones I really enjoyed.

  1. Provence, 1970:M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr
  2. Must Love Dogs by Claire Cook
  3. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
    Fun, fascinating, and entertaining! If you love food and history, you’ll enjoy this book!
  4. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
  5. Letters on Life by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Ulrich Baer)
    A meditative and delightful collection of Rilke’s prose thoughts on love, death, nature, art, and so many other wonderful topics.
  6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
    Funny, thoughtful, and surprising—I loved listening to Amy Poehler read this audiobook. There is real substance here.
  7. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
    Though this book is a bit slow in places, it is fascinating and thorough! Wilson begins before pots and pans, travels through French renaissance kitchens, and explores molecular gastronomy.
  8. Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry by Stephen Dobyns
    Incredible! Thorough, down-to-earth, and detailed. I underlined something on every page and stopped mid-chapter to write my own poetry. I recommend this book for all poets! I especially loved his final chapter on linguistics.
  9. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  10. Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich
    An outstanding narrative exploration of ravens! Compelling stories, philosophical observations, and exciting discoveries—all expertly written.
  11. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram
    Completely absorbing! Abram traces the evolution of the alphabet, the debate between oral and writing cultures, and the effects of the alphabet on our relationship to the wild world. Absolutely extraordinary.
  12. e.e. cummings: A life by Susan Cheever
    A perceptive and captivating literary biography interspersed with the poet’s work.
  13. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  14. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
    Listen to Meryl Streep read the audiobook. Totally worth it! It’s a cute, well written story.
  15. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff
  16. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet In Our Time by Eavan Boland
    Boland explores the struggles of being a female poet in the very male tradition of Irish poetry. This is a fascinating contemplation of a writer’s motivation and origin—how she can build something value from a tradition that has excluded her.
  17. Essays in Love by Alain de Button
  18. Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership With Nature by Tina Welling
  19. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue
  20. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  21. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
  22. Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
  23. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  24. Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller by Georgina Kleege
    Kleege is a reflective, capable writer. This book is a fantastic meditation on Keller’s life and cultural legacy!
  25. Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write by Gayle Brandeis
  26. Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography by Sherwin Nuland
  27. On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
    I’ve always enjoyed Sacks’s writing, and his autobiography was no exception. I appreciated hearing about his own struggles as a physician and writer, but I didn’t enjoy the overall structure of the book.
  28. The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder
  29. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening by Stephen Kuusisto
  30. Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life by Sylvia Boorstein
    Warm, inviting, and practical.
  31. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  32. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin
  33. The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
    I have a soft spot for poets writing prose and sci-fi/fantasy writers writing nonfiction, and this collection does not disappoint! Gaiman covers everything from journalism and film festivals to his favorite influences in science fiction and fantasy.
  34. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Love, Live, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
    Encouraging, systematic, and fortifying! I loved reading this book—it’s way too good to be called “self help.”
  35. Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle
  36. Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory by Guy Consolmagno and Paul Mueller
  37. The Geek Feminist Revolution: Essays by Kameron Hurley
    Ardent, biting, and analytical! Hurley’s collection of essays is full of passion and personality!
  38. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of English by Roy Peter Clark
    A lovely light read on English grammar and writing. I learned a lot and would love to assign this book to a class!
  39. The Three Marriages: Reimaginating Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte
    A rich and rewarding combination of personal history and literary biography.
  40. The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
  41. Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’Donohue
    This is a lovely collection of meditations on sensory experience. Though I enjoyed Anam Cara, I found Beauty much more engaging.
  42. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson
    An engaging introduction to presentation literacy. Anderson covers many of the how-to’s of setting up and delivering a TED Talk—as well as profiling several of the best TED speakers and talks.
  43. League of Dragons (Temeraire #9) by Naomi Novik
    A not-terribly-thrilling end to the fabulous Temeraire series. Solid but unremarkable.
  44. How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life by Ruth Goodman
    Utterly fantastic! Goodman covers Tudor fashion, food, living arrangements, and so much more! The book is well researched and well written! I enjoyed the meticulous details!
  45. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin
    Another book of fun and pithy kitchen essays. I love reading Colwin’s strong opinions on everything from picnic fare to gingerbread.

So what’s on the list for 2017? Probably more of the same. Books on poetry, food, language, birds.

Have a recommendation? A favorite book or a recent read? Share in the comments below!


October Interview: Scholar, Teacher, and Guide

Eric Harvey, age 34, is a Ph.D. candidate at Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. He studies the texts, religions, and cultures of ancient Israel, Syria, and Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq). He is writing his dissertation on a group of biblical Psalms which reused pieces of older texts. He lives with his wife Kristin, 2-year-old daughter Jane, and dog Faye in the San Francisco Bay area. For hobbies, he hangs out with Kristin and Jane, reads a lot, listens to too many podcasts, and enjoys strength training and yoga. Find him on Twitter and at his blog.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

Both. I have always had low vision, but in the past four years it has begun to deteriorate in earnest. I have a diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa, but it is unusual in that I am losing central vision first.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

Our dog is a good dog, but she’s not a guide dog. In fact, she’s kind of an anti-guide dog, and she can get me into trouble when I try to walk her. So I have a cane. I don’t use it all the time, but more and more often I feel safer with it than without. I always use it now when I venture far from home or take BART.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

The unpredictability. I have a degenerative retinal disease, and my vision varies wildly from day to day, even hour to hour. Some days I can see and do certain things just fine, and the next I can’t. Also having to retool every habit and workflow that I have ever learned.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

Oh wow—so many. My family and friends first and foremost. My wife is a huge support and cheerleader. Knowing my daughter relies on me to show up and care for her every day keeps me centered and focused on living life day to day. The rest of my family has also been incredibly helpful, but I don’t want this to turn into an Oscar speech!
Also, books. I’ve been binge-reading blind-lit for the past few months. I love to read memoirs by blind people who refuse to be held back by their blindness.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness? How would you change this belief?

I think a lot of people feel there’s no right way to talk to us, like if they open their mouths at all their foot will inevitably find its way in. It’s true that people say a lot of dumb stuff to blind people. Blindness activists in the last century rightly fought against the open mockery and condescension with which blind people were often treated. Now in the post-ADA world, the political and social climate is such that people don’t voice those noxious opinions as much (even though some still hold them). Instead, people tend to tell us how inspiring we are. But disabled folks have pointed out (again, rightly) how hard those comments are to hear over and over, how they objectify us and betray the speaker’s diminutive expectations for us. So now I think sensitive, thoughtful people are afraid to say anything at all, lest it cause offense, and this is not really a solution. It prevents dialogue and understanding, and leads to a greater sense of isolation among the blind.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem on a societal level, but for myself I take it as a challenge to be a teacher and a guide to sighted people. Those of us who are blind know much more than the sighted about blindness—what it is, what it isn’t, and what it means to live with it. We have thought through all of these things because we have been forced to. Most sighted people know no blind people, and meeting us prompts them to think about issues of blindness often for the very first time. Whenever anyone starts thinking about any topic for the first time, their thoughts are bound to be simplistic and naïve. They ask us the natural first questions, the simple questions that we asked and answered for ourselves long ago.

When I hear those questions, I try to remember that this is what’s going on, and that this is a chance for me to teach someone about something new. I try to have an answer ready to questions that I hear more than once—not a snarky witticism that shuts the conversation down, but an answer that invites them to rethink their assumptions. It’s not easy, because a lot of these questions poke at our exposed nerves. It requires a kind of strength and self-awareness from us that the people we engage with often do not demonstrate. But I think the effort is worth it, if it leads to more engagement and connection between the blind and sighted worlds.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

I seldom reread books, because that’s time I could spend reading a whole new book. I’m a novelty junky. I do have the strange urge to reread a book right now, though, so I’ll mention that one: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It is a beautiful, nuanced depiction of family, generational strife, American religion, and small town life that unfolds in a series of letters from a very old Midwestern pastor to his young son. It ends up being about something unexpected that reframes the whole work in a surprising and poignant way.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

Honestly, I don’t know how to answer this one. I feel centered with my wife and daughter, or when I’m reading and engaging with new perspectives or new information, or when I’m alone and chewing on ideas from things I’ve read or heard, or when I’m doing yoga, or… I guess a lot of things make me feel centered. I feel decentered when I’m overwhelmed or pulled on from too many different directions.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I want to finish my Ph.D. and get a job teaching somewhere.

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

No clue. This is my first one!

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

I’m happy to discuss anything: my field, adapting to blindness, fatherhood (I’m the primary caregiver for my 2-year-old daughter), hobbies, the history of language, etc.

Exceptional Fallacies

At the beginning of my classes, I ask students to define rhetoric. I teach one of two classes—Rhetoric & Writing and Rhetoric & Narrative. And even students who have taken one of these can’t voice a handy definition for the term in the title of their class.

They’re not alone. This is not an exercise in student-bashing. The thing is, we use rhetoric all day, every day, but who besides English professors keeps a tidy definition in their pocket? And why should they?

Let’s start with my definition. I tell my students that rhetoric is communication designed for a particular audience, context, and purpose. Some may argue whether rhetoric is deliberate—or just the spontaneous effects that our audience, situation, and purpose have on how we communicate—but I think it’s deliberate. Sure, there are factors in our personal communication styles that we can’t consciously control—how we learned to read, write, speak—but we can call on specific resources to get a particular message to a distinct group of listeners, viewers, or readers.

Intent vs. Interpretation

Why should we know what rhetoric is? Because so often, we set out to say one thing and  end up saying another. For example, someone means to pay me a compliment, so she says, “Oh honey, you look really good today! Who helped you with your makeup?” This utterance has two levels: the message and the metamessage. The message is literally what’s on the screen, but the metamessage is the subtext, the tone, the “between the lines” meaning.

The person offering me this compliment thinks she is sending a message of affirmation. But because she asks who helped with my makeup, she’s conveying this metamessage: You need help to look good. If I say, “No one helped me, I did it myself” she will be appropriately surprised. “Wow, really?” Again, a metamessage: blind people can’t do makeup, so Emily is an exception.

This is a snapshot of why disabled people rarely bask in the lavish compliments of others. So often they contain a subtext that says, “I never expected you to be able to do that, so good for you!” We’d rather have the belief than the astonishment.

If you find yourself in a sea of communication mishaps, they’re likely the result of a conflict between your intended message and the metamessage that you inserted—or someone else interpreted. Really, it’s a miracle that language works as well as it does!

What frustrates me the most is when someone sends out a message of encouragement, solidarity, or affirmation with a metamessage that undercuts the good vibes…and it’s all to do with their logic and grammar!

“I’m the Exception!”

Lately I’ve seen a lot of social media posts that are trying to be disability-positive, trying to send a powerful thrust of “Disabled people are awesome” out into cyberspace. But I don’t share them on my page because these messages don’t work. Sometimes it’s a disabled person promoting herself or her services:

“Martha doesn’t let blindness keep her from being stylish!”

“Though he’s a paraplegic, Reggie is so in tune with his body!”

Another meme I did not pass along used the line “This is what blindness looks like,” and presumably showed several diverse, stylish people. The person who shared it (not actually a friend of mine, phew!) said that she and her other blind acquaintances were super awesome because “we don’t look like the stereotypical blind person.”

What is “the stereotypical blind person”? A person with a cane, dog, or dark glasses? Or do they mean someone who is stumbling, lost, confused, or poorly dressed? Either way, the stereotype, not the exception, wins, because it is still being used as a piece of logic rather than a convenient half-truth.

A Fallacy for Any Occasion

Do any of these statements rub you the wrong way? If they do, it’s because you’re tuning into a fallacy—a faulty line of reasoning, or a leap that doesn’t quite make sense. Fallacies come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be emotional, logical, or ethical. Scare tactics are a fallacy. Hyperbole is a fallacy.

So let’s spell out the fallacies being invoked in these seemingly positive statements. First of all, exceptionalism in marketing yourself isn’t a bad thing. If I’m trying to get published or hired, you can be sure I’m going to say, “Hey I’m a fabulous teacher, and I have a superb and unique grasp of grammar. Hire me!” But in this self-exceptionalism, I’m pitting myself against colleagues, discussing comparisons that are actually relevant.

The exceptional fallacy that’s happening in the above statements on disability, however, is invoking disability as a relevant trait when it’s not really relevant.

If Martha says, “Hey I don’t let blindness cramp my style,” I and many other blind people feel compelled to respond, “And why should it?” If Reggie says, “I’m a paraplegic who can still appreciate my body,” we say, “Duh—why  shouldn’t you?” When disabled people use exceptionalism to say, “I’m way cooler than those other disabled people,” it’s a slap in the face—not a gesture of solidarity.

And here’s how I see it. The ADA, passed in 1990, allowed me to be mainstreamed throughout my fantastic education, got me the services I needed—but that’s not legislation I fought for. I wasn’t crawling up the steps of government buildings; I did not picket in those early days before disabled people had their civil rights. Others fought for me to have the access I currently enjoy. I don’t believe I have the right to promote myself using the same stereotypes that my colleagues and cohorts have been fighting since before I was born.

Perhaps these statements are logical fallacies, but I also see them as ethical fallacies. Relying on the common stereotype of disability as incompetence: that’s an unethical choice for a disabled person to make. None of us invented the world we work in, so let’s use language to build more empathy and respect.


April Poet Profiles: Emily K. Michael

April is National Poetry Month! Even though poets and poetry-lovers will find any excuse to celebrate poetry, it’s fabulous to have 30 days set aside, especially since there’s a popular idea that poetry is dead. So even though we love poetry every day, let’s treat April as a feast-month, a sacred space to honor poetry!

To that end, this post is the first in a series of brief poet profiles. I’ll be sharing a short bio and a few poems by poets local and distant: some friends, some distant colleagues, some strangers. I hope you enjoy this series—and take this chance to let poetry into your life.

As this is my blog, I’ll go first…

*   *   *

Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, Breath & Shadow, Compose Journal, Bridge Eight, Artemis Journal, Disability Rhetoric, and I Am Subject Stories. She recognizes poetry as an ethical and aesthetic challenge—as a place to express her experiences and to question cultural silences. Her favorite poets include  Rainer Maria Rilke, Adrienne Rich, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Seamus Heaney. She offers two poems:


It captures the sound of the earth,
creaking with the burden of revolution,
and the roots of great trees reaching deep inside,
curling round the axis. It sounds the dappled,
the luminous golden-green of thick foliage, of sunlight
lapping against wide, aged trunks. It rises,
richly sonorous, and pulls at each filament
of the spirit with familiar notes – the soft mellifluous timbre
sliding like warm honey into perception. Thick, supple,
sweet, an old voice lives in the wood and the strings,
a cantor of primal invocations, of heart-melodies.
Tracing the gnarled bark and the wandering roots
to set the earth reeling for rebirth.

Green time

Soft sun, wool coat, warm coffee, crisp wind.
Raucous laughs – two distinct
          Strangers in passing.
          I don’t know.
Golf cart loud music lawnmower
     spilling leaves.

Inside a swell of familiar sounds
we sit close
     on a wooden bench,
          with morning dew.
I lean into your orbit
     and inhale
          woodsy cologne
             of orchid and plum.
Through my shades,
     your blurry outline
          ripples as you toss
          your head.


“Cello.” Artemis Journal 21.1 (2014): 19. Print.

“Green time.” Bridge Eight 1.1 (2014): 63. Print.

Essay: “Stylish Negotiations”

My latest essay, “Stylish Negotiations,” was published in the March issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. This essay decodes the submission guidelines of several disability-related journals and magazines and offers a course of action for handling stories of disability. It begins as follows:

“Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Perhaps because I seek out publications that share my interests–ecology, feminism, disability, music, language–all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s ‘About’ page and submission guidelines. Here is where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, ‘send us your best work’ or ‘we only publish good poetry.’ I won’t let my students use ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as standalone terms for evaluation, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the work of writers with disabilities…”

Read the full essay here.

Surprised by Disability

This essay appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, a journal published by Johns Hopkins University. The issue’s theme was “living with the label ‘disability.'” As the issue is no longer in print, I am sharing the essay here.

*   *   *

Today I am meeting Diana, one of my young blind students, for coffee. Soon she will enroll in our summer program that teaches blind teenagers independent living skills and self-advocacy. Her teachers explain that she has prepared questions for me.

“So,” Diana begins, as we follow the uneven sidewalk toward the restaurant. “What would you do if you wanted to go outside without your sunglasses?”

I can guess why she poses this question, but I conceal my theory for now. Instead, I smile and adjust the large, dark sunglasses that fit over my regular glasses. “Why would I want to do that?”

“I don’t know…Just say, you wanted to,” she finishes diffidently. She walks slightly in front of me, the familiar sound of her white cane scraping and tapping against the bricks laid in the sidewalk. I rarely travel with other blind people, so the sound of her cane comforts me.

“I’m so sensitive to light that I’d be miserable without my shades,” I explain.  I’m careful with my tone here. Like me, Diana is unable to read facial expressions—she listens attentively to vocal cues. She is a smart thirteen-year-old, and she will notice if I start to sound preachy.

“Okay, so what if you wanted to go out without your cane?”

I’m ready for this one: “Diana, my cane keeps me safe. I’m happy to have it with me.”     The cane alerts me to vital environmental changes, like the textural difference between sidewalks and streets. Unexpected curbs, sudden stairs, perilous signposts, and wayward children become apparent to me through the white cane. It is as if the cane helps sketch the boundaries around me; its contact with objects creates a vivid spatial awareness.

I sense that my responses fill Diana with a mixture of defeat and frustration. I have not validated her reticence to use the shades or cane. Nor have I handed her a rhetorical placebo, a catchy phrase she can pull out whenever she feels uncomfortable with her disability. Resisting her white cane and dark glasses, she loathes the idea of looking different. Though neither of us can see others staring, we feel the judgment and pity—and the occasional sense of wonder from those for whom we’re still a novelty, the ones who want to point and exclaim, “Look Ma, a real blind girl!”

Both Diana and I carry emblems of blindness that are easily recognized from a distance—visible signs of disability. Other disabled people can “pass” as nondisabled. If they don’t use wheelchairs, crutches, canes, dogs, or braces, no one will know that they have disabilities. Hence, the disabilities that don’t require visible accessories are called “invisible disabilities”—a term that strengthens the connection between disability and appearance.

Diana doesn’t want to “look” blind. She wants me to give her an out, to divulge the strategies I’ve devised for leaving the house without my cane and shades. Underneath her casual questions lies the prevailing obsession, “What’s the secret to looking normal?” As a successful blind woman, I must have it figured out. The secret, Diana, is easy to articulate and difficult to enforce. I can write it more readily than I can live it.

The secret begins with  a very broad spectrum of acceptance. First, I must accept myself as a blind woman who needs a cane and dark glasses to travel in safety and confidence. Then I must accept that these mobility aids are uncommon and highly visible—which means that, almost every time I go out, people will approach me. And lastly, I must accept that the attitudes of others do not determine who I am, that their idea of blindness does not define my experience of it.

The white cane was not always easy for me to carry. Though I have been legally blind from birth, I did not use the white cane in my daily life until high school. Before my freshman year, I could pass as nondisabled. At high school, I found myself on a large, crowded campus with only six minutes to travel to and from classes. The cane supplemented my limited visual fields, letting me know about approaching stairs, curbs, potted plants, and people. In a blink, I was visibly disabled, consistently referred to as “blind” or “legally blind” instead of the mild and familiar “visually impaired.” With the cane, this new “blindness” brought me braille and the dark glasses. As I picked up the cane, put on the shades, and placed braille labels on all my textbooks, I began to learn that everyone saw my blindness differently.

When I became visibly blind, strangers started to approach me with more regularity. I received unsolicited comments that revealed the discrepancy between who I was and who everyone thought I should be. Unable to mask their disbelief, people said, “You don’t look blind!” or “If you hadn’t used the cane, I’d never have known you were blind.” I wondered what it meant to “look blind”—did they expect me to stumble, to spill food or drinks all over myself, to grope for the objects around me? Absolutely they did. Some exclaimed, “Wow, you dress so well for a blind person!” while others consoled, “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time too!”  (For the record, I rarely run into walls. That’s what the cane is for.)

To outsiders observing the blind experience, blindness is signified by shuffling feet, stained clothing, wild hair, and a general lack of confidence. A blind woman should look lost, frail, and naive. No wonder Diana and my other students are afraid to look blind; they know the stereotypes and dread fulfilling them.

The prevailing attitude is that blindness, and any other physical (visible) disability, indicates an eternal deficit—a life clouded by insurmountable tragedy in which the disabled person can never accomplish her goals and ambitions. It’s not difficult to imagine the heart-wrenching scenes created by sympathetic ableism: the wheelchair user who dreams of being a ballerina, the blind man who wants to be a neurosurgeon, the deaf person who longs to hear music. Often, popular ideas about disability create images of disabled people whose genetic lottery pits them against impossible desires. And the righteous sympathy that nondisabled people are supposed to feel for these tortured “innocents with disabilities” emerges when real nondisabled people encounter real disabled people.

Called slippage, this attitude insists that the disabled person should be inept at all tasks. Slippage is the idea that an impairment in one area, such as blindness, causes all other abilities to deteriorate. Perhaps this is why some people choose to speak to me in loud voices, slowing their words, while others seem amazed when I move without encumbrance. Because I carry the cane, the performance of routine tasks—swiping my debit card at the grocery store, tying a scarf around my neck, or walking down a hallway—wins me the most effusive praise. This problematic attitude moves indiscriminately among disabled and nondisabled people. Even disabled people can believe in their own incompetence.

My experience with blind teenagers shows me how easily they internalize the cultural attitudes about disability. On the first day of our summer program for blind teens, I stood in front of the class and introduced myself. I said that my name was Miss Emily, that I had my Master’s in English, and that I enjoyed singing and cooking. I added, “I’m also blind. I have some vision, but I use a cane.” On nearly every day of the six-week program, I walked to students’ desks, using my cane, and sat down, folding the cane. Every blind person recognizes the familiar clicks of a cane folding or unfolding and the subtle pull of the bungee cord as the user slips the loop over the folded segments. So, imagine my surprise, when in the following weeks, my students exclaimed, “Hey, you use a cane?!”

Their disbelief communicated many things to me. They couldn’t believe I was blind; they were surprised by my disability. I wanted to know what they expected from a blind person and what made me so unexpected. Did they expect never to find a blind woman in the teacher’s role, speaking authoritatively? Did they never expect a blind person to sound confident, to reprimand their bad posture, to know when they were working or slacking off—as I did?

Like my students, Diana acknowledges that the label of blindness conveys a more-than-visual deficit. Many have accepted the message broadcasted by the sighted world: impaired vision means impaired judgment. My students are in the process of learning the power they can exert over their own labels. I want Diana to understand this power: the white cane does not represent one idea of blindness—it signifies all ideas of blindness. Diana has the unique power to embody blindness for others, and she can decide what kind of blindness it will be. I want her to know that she can use her cane and shades in innumerable ways—as implements of independence, as shortcuts to the assistance she needs. I decide to tell her the following story.

On Friday afternoon, the tutoring center is noisy and crowded. Since our official tutoring hours have finished, the peer tutors gather for our monthly training, queueing by the sign-in computer. I thread through the lobby, my white cane catching between the thin chair and table legs, and walk toward the computer. I’ll ask for help signing in as I do every time I clock on and off; unlike my personal computer, the sign-in computer isn’t equipped with assistive technology. I stand near the computer, waiting as the tutors in line ahead of me sign in. I begin listening for familiar voices.

“Hey, do you need some help signing in?”

The voice belongs to a dark looming shape that has just appeared on my right. I look up to see a broad-shouldered guy in a dark shirt. His facial hair, contrasting with his skin, makes it easier for me to find his face. The friendly voice and the eagerness to assist make him familiar to me. “Hi, Patrick! Sure, could you type in my ID?”

He obliges, holding my cane and purse while I enter my password. He walks with me into the meeting room, where he helps me find a seat among the indistinguishable tables and chairs. Unable to identify colors by sight, I can only attest that the low-contrast hues of tables, chairs, and carpet make the room a challenging place to navigate. After helping me find a seat, Patrick retreats to his customary place at the front of the room, where he interprets for our deaf tutors.  When I stand up to avail myself of the refreshments, Patrick meets me at the snack table. “What would you like?” he asks, offering me a plate. He narrates the contents of the refreshment table and puts the requested items on my plate. Again, I haven’t asked for his help, but I appreciate it.

As he leaves, I marvel at two things: how quickly he spotted me and how readily he assisted me. Technically, Patrick isn’t at the meeting for me—and that makes his attentions seem especially considerate. Unable to ignore the graceful and unexpected help he gave, I begin to analyze the circumstances that brought Patrick to my aid.

I reason that Patrick must have seen me come in. Among the tutors, I am the only one using a white cane and wearing dark glasses. Because of my extreme sensitivity to light, I am also wearing a gray cloche hat with a bow. Add that to my dark purple coat, and I suppose I become pretty visible. So, Patrick spotted me readily, and, because of our long acquaintance or his own personal merits, he came over to see if I needed help.

Patrick doesn’t see the cane and dark glasses as signifiers of eternal deficit. His offers of assistance are kind, even-keeled, and respectful. He doesn’t patronize, snatch items out of my hands, or insist on helping after I’ve refused assistance. He respects my agency, my ability to know what I want and need. In essence, Patrick lets me define myself. Perhaps because of his work with disabled people, Patrick has come to understand the absurdity of the stereotypes. Patrick responds to the needs I voice, rather than the issues he perceives. Through these interactions, I remember that I experience disability on my own terms.

To navigate the language of disability, a disabled person must develop a resilience to the commonplace reading of the terms. Instead, she must advocate for the signification she desires. Accepting the labels of disability and blindness signifies my commitment to expanding the space around such labels.

My letter to the Purdue OWL coordinator

Good evening, [Moderator],

My name is [Modwyn], and I’m teaching a business writing course at [my university]. My students are beginning a unit on appropriate language use, and I’m directing them to the OWL’s excellent entry on this topic.

While reviewing the entry on stereotyped and biased language, I couldn’t help but notice the omission of any language relating to disability. As a disabled writer, I’m well aware that the language used to describe disability is highly contested among disability rights activists and scholars. Though members of the disabled community may not unanimously vote for the same terms or the abolishing of person-first language, I can safely say that a list of offensive terms definitely exists. I bring this to your attention because mainstream sources often employ and laud these terms: “differently abled” is a fine example.

I imagine that adding disability to the categories already listed on this page would be an ambitious project, but I believe it’s a worthy one. Many students may find themselves writing for disability services organizations or medical organizations that regularly address disability and disabled people in less-than-human terms. Many professors who frequent this page may realize that the commonplace language of disability – so rarely chosen by the people it discusses – is just as inappropriate as the linking of intelligence and hair color. Even a short paragraph addressing some of the flagrantly passe words and phrases would be a gesture of inclusion to any reader connected personally or professionally with disability.

Thank you for maintaining these excellent resources and helping us share in the delight of teaching writing.

With best,

Interview: “Dialogue on Blindness and Writing”

With other disabled writers, I participated in an interview for the September issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature:

“Jill Khoury, Emily Lund, Emily Michael and Kristen Witucki are four writers whose work in poetry and fiction has openly addressed issues of physical disability. Wordgathering invited them to take part in a discussion surrounding issues of craft and publication for writers with visual disabilities.”

Read the full interview here.

Exploring a Writing Tutor’s Magic

This article appeared in the National College Learning Center Association (NCLCA) Summer 2014 newsletter under the section, The Tutor’s Voice.

*  *  *

The lobby of our campus tutoring center resembles a doctor’s office. Students occupy moderately comfortable chairs, waiting to hear their names from the friendly voice from the writing room. A writing tutor steps forward, calls the student’s name, and leads her into our small space. I am the only tutor who performs this ritual with a white cane in hand.

I imagine that some students are perplexed to see that their tutor is blind. My questioned competence hangs in the air, but “Will she be able to read my paper?” changes quickly to “How will she read my paper?” Students want to know how I will judge them – their ability to write. Their competence, not mine, becomes the central question.

I begin with brisk instructions: “I’m Emily and I’ll be helping you today. What are you working on?” The student offers a nursing paper, a teaching portfolio, a literature essay. Whether a student brings a digital or paper copy of her assignment, I ask her to read it aloud. My request inspires several insecurities; students are self-conscious about their voices, affected by accent or infrequent practice. I insist that they won’t be the worst reader I’ve ever heard; everyone feels awkward when reading aloud.

As we read, I get used to the students’ voices. Some are slow and meticulous, correcting every slip of the tongue, while others read so quickly I can barely catch each word. I ask them to slow down, helping them laugh at their occasional spoken errors. The moment of pure triumph comes when they recognize that the out-loud process catches issues glossed over in silent reading. When the student becomes adept at hearing her mistakes, I’m an audience the student needs because she can’t imagine reading to an empty room. I am her writer’s training wheels.

To bridge diffidence and triumph, I emphasize the inherent power of writing: I shamelessly craft a persona of grammar mystic and blind magician. I love the revelation of audible punctuation.

A student reads a sentence aloud, and I ask her to stop: “Do you have a comma there?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

I meet this question with a silent smile.

“You heard it?”

“Of course.”
Other grammar magicians and linguistic wizards will not be surprised by this apparent talent of mine; punctuation wants to be heard. But students unfamiliar with descriptive grammar are dazzled. My ability to hear punctuation initiates them into the craft of writing. Using examples from their work, I transfer the gift – making them aware that they, too, can hear the place of punctuation. Though I use the rhetoric of revelation, I am only helping students discover what they already know. So much of writing is remembering – pulling disparate pieces of experience and knowledge together – and it is not a student’s voice that matters: it is her willingness to search for that voice. Schools frame this search as standardized obligation, but writers know the working truth. We find linguistic power from a place of dreams and fantasy.

Author bio: Emily K. Michael is a writing instructor and tutor at the University of North Florida. Her work has been published in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, and Artemis Journal.

An Unlikely Pair

This semester, I teach my three courses in two different classrooms, located on a back hallway crowded with benches, recycling recepticles, and lounging students. I enter the building, veer left, and travel down a long, wide hallway—dodging drinkers bending over the water fountain and near-invisible columns guarding arbitrary places. Just where the hallway begins to expand into a windowed sitting area, I take a left. Now traveling this narrower space, I keep to the right, listening for the sounds of shuffling papers, sloshing drinks, and zipping backpacks that indicate the presence of students.

Between the doors along the hallway, people sit with their legs stretched out. Students sitting on opposite sides will find themselves locked in games of inadvertent footsie; the hallway’s width won’t accommodate two pairs of outstretched legs. As I move closer to my classrooms, my cane tapping and sliding scratchily along the carpet, I hear pairs of legs retract—students attempting to slide themselves out of my way. Occasionally, when a student fails to move, I must say, “Excuse me,” in a voice of battlefield cheerfulness. My volume and inflection rouse the absent-minded, and the legs draw up quickly.

Occasionally I piece together an unconventional narrative from the sounds I hear on the hallway. As I walk, I notice the sound of fabric sliding on carpet: students are yanking their feet out of my way. Today I travel along the hallway, which is only half-occupied with students. As I near a girl whose legs seem longer than average, I don’t feel like saying, “Excuse me.” She should be able to hear my approach, but she doesn’t move her legs. My cane taps lightly against something hard—her leg? her foot? I have no way of knowing. I move beyond her and approach my classroom. While I reach for the classroom doorknob, a guy on the opposite side of the hallway addresses her:

“Did that hurt?”

A mumbled response renders no words. Ambivalence on the part of the afflicted.

The guy continues, “Yeah. She’s hit me before.”

I stand maybe two or three feet away from the conversation, easily within earshot.

What is my problem with this brief exchange? I will bring my literary training to bear.

Let’s examine the structure of the guy’s claim: “She’s  hit me before.” This sentence is a prime example of active voice, the grammatical pattern that sets up an “X does Y” relationship. In English, active voice is our storytelling voice. It’s the voice we use for quick-and-dirty explanations: “Rain falls in the afternoon,” “I go to college,” “Marcelle baked a cake.” This pattern assigns clear agency—the X is active, a doer with intentions.

In humanities courses, students are encouraged to write in active voice, rather than passive voice. Passive voice is the syntactical pattern used for scientific research. It follows the formula “Y is done by X,” and the “by X” is often omitted. There are several passive sentences in this paragraph. Passive voice finds its usefulness when someone wants to avoid blame: “Mistakes were made,” “A vase was broken,” “The data was collected.” We don’t know who the X, the agent, is, so there can be no agency.

So our hallway guy chose active voice, and with his active sentence comes an unconscious demonstration of preferences—he prefers the story to the study. But his story bothers me.

In his story, I am the attacker, the one who hits deliberately. He offers his sentence to the girl leaning against the opposite wall as a cocktail of bravado and consolation: “Don’t worry, girlfriend, I’ve been hit too. I am tough, but I understand your irritation. I’ve been there. We’ve both gone through something together.“

How do I know that all of this emotion was packed into just one sentence? Because he had to say it then and there—The blind girl hit me too! There was no humor, no wry smile, no “Isn’t that the worst? Well, what can you do?” There was a desperate reaching out, an utterance powered by empathy and a need to unite in the face of adverse circumstances.

Solidarity at the expense of civility.

I wonder if I’ll ever hear someone defend me during one of these exchanges.  Will I ever move a few feet away and overhear someone say, “Yes, she’s hit me before, too. But that’s what the cane is for. I don’t think she can see us.” At this stage in my experience, I doubt if I’ll encounter such perfect responses in the real world.

People are more likely to say, “No, she travels so well—I bet she isn’t even blind. She is just faking it.”

If we achieve human connection at the expense of others, what have we really achieved? How can we create a space for civil stories and inclusive explanations?

“Singing Over the Bones”: The Miracle of Art and Intention

If a friendship starts with a conversation about books, the two friends are hardly surprised when literature itself becomes a third, equal presence in the relationship. This is how things began for Katie and me. Katie became my first “college friend” when an orientation team leader asked her to look after me. Both Katie and I considered this an awkward arrangement; I felt like her baggage, and Katie felt like my babysitter. Without openly acknowledging the awkwardness, I took her elbow, and we tried to make small talk. In minutes, the all-important question arose: Do you like to read?

I cannot now recall which of us asked this question, but it sparked an enthusiastic discussion. After only a few sentences, we were excitedly trading literary recommendations, kindled by the realization of our mutual love of Jane Austen. Over the next seven years of our friendship, we’ve since encouraged each other to read hundreds of texts—from classical Chinese philosophy to modern poetry. We’ve reveled in wide-ranging discoveries—the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the folktales of medieval Iceland, and the latest books that blend neuroscience and the philosophies of yoga. When Katie gives me a book, I know it will challenge my mind and speak to my soul.

For my most recent birthday, she presented me with a copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s 1975 work, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. It’s a thick volume – over 500 pages – that offers anthropological, psychological, and spiritual commentary on the female psyche and the power of storytelling. In its first pages, Estés introduces the story of La Loba, the Wolf Woman, a mysterious crone who wanders the world and collects the bones of dead creatures, especially wolves. When she has assembled an entire skeleton, La Loba begins to “sing over the bones,” and her singing transforms the skeleton into a living creature. With each line of melody, the Wolf Woman imbues the dead bones with life, adding blood, muscles, skin, and fur, until the creature begins to breathe and move. With purposeful singing, La Loba can resurrect any creature from this throwaway material “in danger of being lost to the world” – its bones (23).

It is the connection between singing, life, and intention that draws me to read on. After presenting the story of La Loba, Estés insists that we must all look for our own “bones,” the integral structures of our spirituality, the framework of our souls. She writes, “[The story] promises that, if we will sing the song, we can call up the psychic remains of the wild soul and sing her into a vital shape again” (24). For Estés, and for those who respect the story of La Loba, our life’s work is to uncover and nurture our deepest selves. We must find the bones and sing over them, crooning them to life.

I find this tribal story compelling because it reiterates, or perhaps predates, what I have learned through my experiences: singing changes the world of the singer. The cultures who believe in some version of La Loba are not the only ones to acknowledge the power of singing. Throughout my Catholic upbringing, the adults around me encouraged my love for singing, citing the mantra, “Singing is praying twice.” Whenever I performed sacred music – or choral music in general – my experiences confirmed the truth of this adage. I felt, as I have said in previous blogs, incredibly connected with my fellow singers and with the divine.

I remember when I first heard someone talk about the connection between art and life in specific terms. My tenth grade world history teacher showed slides of tribal artifacts from Africa and said, “These people didn’t believe in ‘life for art.’ They believed in ‘art for life.’” She meant that every tool for daily living, every piece of practical houseware, was covered with art: vivid colors, carvings, runes. The members of this tribe used art to infuse everyday life with meaning and beauty. No article went without embellishment.

Believing in “art for life” gives each person infinite possibilities for enriching their everyday experiences. In his Letters to a Young Poet, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke conveys his enthusiasm for this ideal; he argues that if you can’t find artistic inspiration, you’re not looking hard enough. Rilke teaches that the real artist can draw inspiration from the most ordinary experiences. The dedicated artist uses art to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary in the service of life—to make our existence more sincere, more real. To help us understand the unbearable and celebrate the miraculous.

But art is not always a miracle cure. In her exploration of animal and human emotions, behavioral analyst Patricia McDonald relates a story about Ella Fitzgerald, in which Ella’s singing brought to life some unexpected emotions. Apparently, after spending a year singing the lyric, “I’m so tired,” Ella began to experience chronic fatigue, but she didn’t unearth the connection between lyric and feeling until she discussed the situation with her doctor. Her repeated lyrics became a kind of incantation—though I’m sure her physician didn’t use that word—telling her how to live.

Lyrics contain a transformative power. Often at the end of rehearsal, my chorus members heed the call to “Circle up!” We join hands, making a human chain, and sing one of our many Sweet Adeline classics. To prepare for international competition in Hawaii, we currently favor “Aloha ‘Oe,” a beautiful Hawaiian parting song. But when I hear about Ella’s “I’m so tired,” I can’t help but think of one of our other favorites, “Harmonize the World.”

The skeptic in me wants to interrogate this song: Does it really work? Can lyrics really harmonize the world? But I silence the skeptic by remembering my bones. Singing is praying twice, and words have power. Then I feel that I am really doing something by singing over the bones of harmony, calling up from the dust of old chords a vision of a peaceful, civil world—a world of constant, contagious music.

Each time I prepare to sing, I ask myself a series of questions. What will I make with my music? What bones have I collected? What will I sing to life? I marvel at the miracles wrought by art and intention—the incredible changes in mood and circumstance that singing can achieve. I find power not only in the words I sing but also in the action of singing, in the sensation of being surrounded by kindred spirits, in the sheer, primal resonance of many voices making harmony. Even the mechanisms of singing are miraculous for me. I am delighted and absorbed in this spiritual task of finding my bones and my voice—of experiencing what I can build with my voice and my beliefs.

Why Identify?

When I introduce or identify myself as a disabled woman, I often encounter surprised reactions. People frankly reply, “I don’t think of you as disable”—and why would they? For most nondisabled people (that’s “able-bodied” people in outdated lingo), the word “disability” summons a troupe of negative conditions. Suffering, impairments, trips to the doctor, the inability to hold a traditional nine-to-five job, designated parking spaces (that may or may not be the best ones on the lot), and inspirational Lifetime movies—these are the average pieces of the disability  word cloud. For those whose lives are untouched by disability, there is little incentive to see disability and its bearers in a different light.

However, once you “cross over” and become a member of that often-pitied, frequently misrepresented group called “the disabled,” your perspective on disability might change. Depending on how disability affects your life, you may start to rethink the language that you use—and critique the language others use to describe you. Perhaps you’ve lately acquired an impairment or condition that allows you to come among our ranks. Or maybe you’ve been disabled for years, but you’ve been hiding out with the “normies” (another term for the nondisabled). Attempting to conceal a disability and appear nondisabled is called “passing.” Successfully passing as nondisabled can be more feasible or totally impossible. Since I am a blind woman who employs a cane and dark glasses to safely navigate my environment, passing is not a practical option for me.

So, if taking shelter under the colorful umbrella of “disability” only broadcasts a swirling mass of negativity, why would anyone choose to identify as disabled? Wouldn’t disabled people prefer some euphemism, like “differently abled” or “physically challenged”? Why choose a term that only makes nondisabled people uncomfortable?

Under the umbrella, I understand the entire disability word cloud.

For disabled people, “disability” does not connote only suffering, loss, envy, and despair. Disabled people do not spend all their waking hours gazing longingly at the nondisabled counterparts who can perform the tasks that disability has complicated. Our lives are not Lifetime movies.

This is not to say that we don’t have our moments of intense suffering, pain, and frustration. I experienced my most recent feeling of “sight envy” at my sister’s wedding. Everyone present was torn between two incredible visions: my sister coming down the aisle, beautiful and smiling with a huge bouquet of yellow tulips—and her new husband, elated as he watched her approach. In such an intense moment, my low vision excluded me on two levels; I couldn’t see the joy that the bride and groom independently carried, and I couldn’t witness that joy multiply itself when they saw each other. It was a visual exchange that I knew I’d never share—the “first look” that characterizes the wedding experience. I felt deeply separated from the delighted onlookers in this scenario. I’ve since thought of ways to adapt this experience to suit my own abilities, but these adaptations don’t countermand the pain of that moment.

Despite the poignancy of such an experience, I would not describe my life as a constant refrain of sight envy. I have my routine frustrations—I can’t drive (yet), I can’t pluck my own eyebrows, I can’t readily identify colors—but I don’t focus on these things. Similarly, I don’t elevate my disabled experience as some delayed-release enlightenment. My disability doesn’t make me a saint or superstar. If I inspire others, let it be because I am myself, not because I am disabled.

My relationship to disability is symbiotic: disability is part of my word cloud, and I am part of its word cloud. It affects my perceptions, decisions, behaviors, and attitudes, and I contribute to its characterization.

People identify as “disabled” to emphasize a shared experience. This is not to say that every blind person lives the same life, with identical frustrations, joys, and fears. Some blind people program computers, climb mountains, enjoy talking watches, and refuse to use braille—all unappealing activities for me.

Ministries, education courses, and service organizations often insist that disabled people come together to bolster each other through the negative experience of disability, and the “support” groups that are fostered in these places respond to this negative bias.  I’ve been to support groups for blind people where, by way of introduction, people list their condition after their name: “Hi, I’m Joe, and I have RP” or “Hello, I’m Janet, and I have macular degeneration.” Groups that encourage this kind of introduction also encourage a “medicalized” focus: “We are who we are by virtue of our diagnoses. And we’re only here because our doctors thought it was a good idea.” This support emphasizes the “loss” in vision loss and encourages moments of sight envy.

Meaningful support encourages the sharing of all experiences, both positive and negative, significant and mundane. Effective “disability groups” offer a chance for their members to talk about all areas of their lives, because disability affects all areas of a person’s life.

By identifying as disabled, I can participate in the dialogue among disabled and nondisabled people. I can engage with the experiences of suffering, pain, and exclusion, but I can also enjoy the discussions of humor, surprise, and delight. Most disabled people can relate to the awkward approaches of curious strangers, but many can also relate to the new friendships born of a person’s curiosity—or the unexpected delight from an episode of graceful, unsolicited assistance. I will not go so far as to say that disability is a “blessing in disguise,” because many disabled people must still fight for their rights to education, accommodation, and—in some cases—life. However, to understand “disability” as a tag for explicit inferiority of mind, body, or experience is a serious and limiting decision.

For most of us, disability is not a choice, but the label is. We choose to identify, because we choose to share, to fight, to rejoice—to experience our humanity together.


* For a complex discussion of the vocabulary of disability, see “Reassigning Meaning” from Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998).



The Sensuous Semicolon—and Other Romantic Punctuation

If you are asked to dredge up the principles of grammar you learned in middle school, you might give voice to the following claims:

  • An independent clause can stand alone
  • A dependent clause can’t stand alone.
  • A sentence fragment is an incomplete thought.

When I hear these claims from grammar unenthusiasts, I notice two things. Firstly, these facts are easy to memorize but hard to apply. They don’t provide enough practical information to help the diffident writer navigate the churning whirlpools of grammatical variation. For example, an independent clause should be defined as “a clause that can stand alone because it contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete action.” But this definition is unwieldy—arming the reader or writer with a cumbersome and tedious checklist for examining prospective clauses. Any time the reader meets a new clause, she has to conduct the following tedious interview: “OK…do you have a subject? Where is it? And do you have a verb? Where is it? Oh, and do you express a complete thought?” Like most grammatical concepts learned by rote, this definition isn’t user-friendly, so users keep only what seems to be the essential idea—an independent clause can’t stand alone.

Secondly, these claims emphasize the inherently social nature of sentences. Certain sentence parts can’t stand alone—they need friends, cohorts, stronger companions to help them feel complete. Sentences just want to get together. That’s what writing is all about.

English teachers never want to talk about the secret romances of good writing, the elicit affairs of comma splices, the close-knit relationships enabled by semicolons. They want to discuss “subjects” and “main verbs”; they would rather pontificate on the principles of coordination and subordination. But the reality is that these terms are all part of a secret code, and every English teacher has sworn this oath: “I shall never reveal to my students the intimate social underpinnings of the words they use!” With true Victorian sensibility, they cover the sensuous material of language with elaborate and evasive terminology—grammatical jargon that effectively douses the expressive desires of most writers.

Well, I’ve decided to violate the oath and bring you the secret to syntactic harmony. All the time you’ve been reading and writing, you have probably noticed a certain chemistry among sentences—an inner music, a palpable cohesion. This is the sign of healthy grammatical relationships. So how do writers keep the romance alive?

The secret to syntactical bliss lies in punctuation. But first, let’s examine the power of independence.

We call a clause independent when it has a subject and verb that create a complete story. The story will be small, but the sentence makes sense on its own. If you run into a room and declare, “Albert went to the store,” your listeners will feel a degree of satisfaction. Curious bystanders may ask, “Which store?” or “What did he get?” or even “Who is Albert again?” but you have no obligation to answer these questions. You’ve given the necessary information. Someone did something. X accomplished Y. The story, however boring, is complete. We call this sentence a simple sentence—but we can also call it a sexy single. She’s a sentence who’s got it all. She can walk down the page, unhampered by awkward modifiers and unashamed to be solitary.

And sexy singles like to hook up with other sexy singles. So if our first gal, “Albert went to the store,” meets a kindred spirit, “Betty went to the park,” they can go on several kinds of dates. If they are just getting to know each other, they will go on the grammatical first date—using a comma and a conjunction. A snapshot of their date looks like this:

Albert went to the store, and Betty went to the park.

This first date is also called a compound sentence.

As they get closer, their dates will look a little different. How are they relating to each other? If they’re clicking on several levels, they may keep that “and.” If they’re feeling contrary, they’ll trade it for a “but.” If they’re agreeing to disagree, they might use a “so.” And when things really start to heat up, they’ll invest in a really romantic piece of punctuation…the semicolon.

Albert went to the store; Betty went to the park.

Look how close and cozy they are! That semicolon allows them to settle down together on a comfortable sofa in front of a dying fire with mugs of hot cocoa. That semicolon means that she’s wearing a soft floral perfume and he’s been working out. They’re staring into each other’s eyes and talking about their childhoods. They’re leaning over a book of poetry, and one arm slips around another’s shoulders. They’re dancing cheek-to-cheek.

But the variety of their dates is infinite. They can also go out for a nice em-dash, a long hyphen that changes the mood of the situation.

Albert went to the store—Betty went to the park.

This isn’t as cozy as the semicolon, but it’s a fun time. Perhaps they’re going bowling with friends—its a date for these two, but the friends are there too. Maybe they’re at an amusement park, holding hands on the Ferris wheel. They’re at the movies, and it was her turn to pick. They’re eating Fondue, and it’s not his favorite—but he’s still having fun because they’re together.

These are all scenarios where the date is going well, but what if the date goes wrong? What if he’s on his phone the whole time or she’s talking about her previous relationships? What if the restaurant is shabby and ill-lit with dirty plates? What if, at the last second, she refuses to pay for him or he for her? What if it’s their 5-year anniversary and he takes her out for fast food? How would that look?

Albert went to the store, Betty went to the park.

We call this cheap date, this uncomfortable situation, a comma splice. Neither sentence has invested enough to make the experience pleasant. This isn’t an unexpected victory over adverse circumstances. This is a lowest-common-denominator event. This is grammatical settling, and neither sentence will be happy about it.

And what about when partners become indifferent? We call that a run-on sentence, and it looks like this:

Albert went to the store Betty went to the park.

They’re too blasé to buy any punctuation for each other. And you can forget about conjunctions; they’re just waiting for the relationship to fizzle out. Semicolons, colons, commas, conjunctions—these love-tokens strengthen relationships. But in the run-on or fused sentence, nothing holds our two singles together. They’re not moving toward each other; they’re just existing in the same space.

And what about clingy partners? Well, we call them dependent clauses because they’ve got a subject and verb but they can’t stand alone. They don’t want to be alone. They’re looking for a curvy, strong, confident clause to curl up with. Here’s our lonely single: “While I was at work.” Read it aloud and you can hear the desire for social inclusion; this clause wants to be part of something bigger. If she gets a date with one of our sexy singles (whose previous relationship dissolved because of too many run-ons), it will look like this:

While I was at work, Betty went to the park.

She’s leading our independent clause across the page, but what if the sexy single wants to lead her new, dependent partner? Their interaction will look like this:

Betty went to the park while I was at work.

When the independent clause leads the way, the sentence doesn’t need to buy a comma. The independent clause effectively clears a path for the dependent one.

It’s important to notice that these dates look different from our compound sentence dates. In these scenarios, called complex sentences, one clause gets most of the attention while the other becomes subordinate, less important. But since sentence parts love to be together, the subordinate clause doesn’t mind. Life is all about give-and-take, right? Sometimes we get to be the main clause; sometimes we have to be the subordinate clause. Sometimes we’re in the first paragraph, and other times, we’re in the footnotes.

I can’t end my description of cohesion, or sentence romance, without tipping my hat to that grammatical maverick, the sentence fragment. Edgy, unconventional, and occasionally irritating, this rule-breaker doesn’t worry about labels, dates, or promises. Fragments are just there—sitting in the corner in a beret, smoking a foreign cigarette, and reciting obscure poetry. Sometimes they breeze across your page, leaving you with only a faint hint of their exotic cologne. Sometimes you hear their husky inflections from around a corner—but you round that corner and they’re gone. They’re unpredictable. They won’t be pinned down. And most rule-following English teachers won’t even allow them in the classroom.

We call them “incomplete sentences,” because they may lack a subject or a verb. But they’re only “incomplete” if we elevate those self-reliant, intoxicating independent clauses as the gold standard for sentences, the complete package. Fragments have their place. Even if we can’t always say what that place is.

Overall, these numerous and varied sentence dates—these instances of cohesion—create a more stable relationship among all sentences. We call that larger harmony “coherence.” Coherence is when everyone is getting along, when each sentence is feeling connected and supported on all sides. Coherence is what we call the best grammar party you’ve ever been to, where the food is perfect, the music is not too loud, and the conversations are so riveting that, before you know it, you’ve spent seven straight hours talking to the same people.

I Only Have Eyes for…Grammar: Creating a Multi-Sensory Method for Teaching Writing

As a writing instructor with low vision, I spend my life trading between a large white stick and a small white stick. The large one, of course, is the cane that helps me navigate my work environment. I open my classroom door, cane in hand, and proceed to my desk. At the desk, I fold the cane and it disappears – a quick sleight of hand for the students present. Students who enter the room after me and leave before me will not know I use it. I trade the cane for a small white stick with a black cap, the dry-erase marker that enables me to convey my thoughts in visual language on the large whiteboard behind my desk.

Despite my blindness, vision occupies the central role in my classroom. In each class session, I trade one tool of vision for another—oscillating between the cane that compensates for my low vision and the marker that relies on the sight of my students. Even when I am not using my small white stick, my students complete primarily visual tasks.

In my first class, I guide the students through an exercise called Flash Peer Editing (FPE). FPE is something I created on the way to class, but I’m sure that the idea isn’t really mine. When you study, teach, and tutor writing, you forget who invented which pedagogy. However, I try to put my own spin on this exercise by incorporating aural and visual processes.

Flash Peer Editing works like this. Students bring two copies of their paper to class, keeping one in front of them and passing the other copy to their right. At this point, I use my little white stick to write a series of “rules” on the board, each brief rule corresponding to a round of rapid editing. At the end of each round, students pass the papers to their right. In Round 1, students should mark 3 things that are well executed in the paper, such as graceful sentences, apt word choice, or logical arguments. In Round 2, students should mark 3 sections for improvement—like awkward phrases, misspelled words, ill-defined concepts. They do not have to correct the problem—they just have to draw attention to it.

Round 3, another visual exercise, offers students the chance to search the paper for words from my Banned Words and Phrases list. The list contains 40+ words and phrases that tend to weaken student writing—phrases such as “The writer does a good job of X” or “The writer is just trying to Y.” Words like “very,” “utilize,” “totally,” and “huge”—and phrasal verbs like “talk about,” “back up,” “point out” and “go on to say”—are also on the list. My goal here is not to make students afraid or ashamed of using these words. Rather, I hope to show them that there are more descriptive words out there (and “out there” is also on the list). In Round 3, students readers circle any banned words that catch their eye as they read. They do not have to complete a meticulous search for every banned word in the paper.

Finally, in round 4, students experience their paper in a chiefly aural way. Students pass their papers to the left until each has his or her own work again. Then, they keep the marked copy of their short paper and hand the clean copy to a partner. Turning over the marked copy so that they won’t be tempted to look at the text, they listen to their partners read their work aloud. As the partner reads, students note any observations  they have about the sound of their work. They repeat this process twice, so both partners can hear their work aloud.

This round is undoubtedly my favorite because my classroom suddenly fills with the sound of self-conscious students reading aloud. Sometimes they adopt funny accents or pretentious voices to cover their unwillingness to read another’s work; other times, they read the writing faithfully and seriously, without attempting to alter pronunciation or inflections for comic relief. Invariably, the students listening to their own work begin to giggle and squirm. They seem to say, “Did I really write that?” Occasionally, the listeners express delight and surprise at the sound of their well-constructed sentences.

While this version of peer editing does incorporate aural and tactile elements—students hear their work aloud and mark another’s work—I am disappointed by its primarily visual nature. I want students to understand the importance of hearing their work aloud. Often, we edit as we read visually—our brain runs a sophisticated “autocorrect,” transforming hastily mistyped words until they resemble what we intended to type. Reading aloud thwarts this process, especially if you choose an unsympathetic reader who will stumble and stutter over your awkwardly worded phrases. Even if your reader can guess at your meaning, this guesswork takes some time; it will not occur within the first read-aloud.

I am spoiled by the text-to-speech software on my computer. During all the stages of my writing process, Alex, the obliging voice on the Mac OS, reads my work aloud—and, though he is remarkably expressive, he is also unsympathetic. He stumbles over my misspellings and convoluted sentences just as any human reader would.

In my second class, I again pick up the dry-erase marker to begin a highly visual explanation of sentence parts. I scrawl three sentences on the board:

  1. Today I got an umbrella.
  2. Sandra was driving to the store.
  3. Ms. Michael loves pumpkin spice lattes.

My students are having trouble with be-pattern sentences: sentences that use forms of to be as the main verb. These sentences look like this: Jane is sad, Andrew is in the car, Cecilia was angry, Marvin was the winner. Often, my students confuse these types of sentences with sentences like #2, “Sandra was driving to the store,” calling “driving to the store” an adverbial, a phrase that describes the verb was. I explain the difference in words, gesturing with my hands, but I am met by complete silence or the sound of a student tossing a pen aside in frustration. So I must illustrate the difference visually

I turn back to the board, searching for where I wrote my sentences. It is not always easy to find my own writing on the huge white surface. I ask students for the main verb in the sentence, and some courageous voice says, “Driving!” I draw a squiggly line underneath it. Then I point to “was” and ask, “So what do we call this?” Another brave participant says, “A linking verb!” and a student who has done her reading says calmly, “An auxiliary.”

I illustrate the incorrect labeling of sentence parts by drawing brackets around the sentences. I draw huge swooping arrows to convey which parts modify, or describe, nouns, verbs, or phrases. I draw boxes around subjects and squishy brackets around direct objects. I break up the sentences and write them in passive voice, drawing arrows to show how the subject is no longer doing the action.

As I scribble my version of grammatical geometry, I literally face the highly visual nature of my own grammar knowledge and instruction. I understand grammar in a visual way. Like many of my peers, I was forced through countless hours of diagramming sentences—plotting sentences on long horizontal lines and relegating modifiers and less important phrases to the space beneath the lines.

As I teach these lessons, I cannot help but think, What if I had a totally blind student? What would I do? How can I translate my visual understanding of grammar and my sight-based editing techniques to a nonvisual thinker? I harbor secret dreams of taking a braille essay and cutting out every individual word, so that the words could be plotted and rearranged on a large surface. Perhaps I could teach diagramming sentences in the way that I was taught the basic templates for street crossings. A mobility instructor arranged bright yellow strips of velcro on a large black felt board, making T and plus-shaped intersections and asking me to navigate the “route” with a finger. I felt like I was in kindergarten again, but I enjoyed this tactile approach.

Though my current methods are proving effective, I continue to strive for a multi-sensory approach. I cannot love the sound of poetry and feel of editing without wanting students to experience these sensations for themselves. When I draw complex diagrams on the board, I am visually representing what I believe to be the anatomical structure of living language—a structure that could easily become three-dimensional with the right tools. My task now is to find these tools and implement them. I want to make students take writing into their own hands, to feel their words in their fingers and break and remake sentences at their natural junctures.


In the autumn of 2010, I took one of the most fascinating and challenging courses of my entire graduate program, Introduction to Old English. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, was spoken by the inhabitants of the British Isles from 449-1066AD. A Germanic language, Old English is an ancestor of Modern English (what we speak now). During the first class session, the professor explained that we would learn the rudiments of Old English grammar and history, complete our own translations, and read canonical texts – including schoolbook dialogues between lords and shepherds, beautiful epic poems, medieval sermons, and charms to ward off a swarm of bees.

To begin steeping us in Anglo-Saxon culture, our professor insisted that we choose Old English names. We would use these in place of our legal names throughout the course, creating helpful place cards for our desks and writing them on all our assignments. To inspire us, the professor wrote a series of words on the board – things like “gar” (spear), “wine” (friend), “beorht” (bright), “æthel” (noble), “treow” (tree/true), and “cyne” (great/mighty). She said we could assemble a name from these 20-30 words or create our own, using our simple Anglo-Saxon/Modern English dictionary.  In true Anglo-Saxon style, we would craft an identity for ourselves by marrying two strong words together.

After some deliberation over the dictionary, I sought help from an enthusiastic friend. Katie and I found a database of Anglo-Saxon words online, and she suggested the name Modwyn. “It means ‘heart’s joy,’” she said. “Perfect for you!”

At the next class, our professor went up and down the rows, asking each student to spell and pronounce the Old English name he or she had chosen. With some students, she asked for an explanation – why had they chosen that particular name or what did they think it meant? For others, like the student who dubbed himself “Gar-cyne” (Great Spear), little justification was desired.

When it was my turn, I pronounced Modwyn proudly. I stressed the first syllable, gave a tall, elegant, long “oh,” and a playful short “i” in wyn. MOHD-wyn.

“Brave joy.” My instructor noted the name and the spelling and smiled at me. “Beautiful.”

“I thought it meant ‘heart’s joy,’” I said.

“It does,” she explained. “But mod is your heart, your mood, your innermost self. It also means brave. And wyn, of course, is joy.”

Perhaps because I adored the class and the language, I began to internalize the concept of brave joy, an inner joy indomitable by outside forces. I thought of my own happiness as a small, private ember that I nourished through music, learning, nature, and frequent laughter. It was an ember that rarely winked out, and, because I was happy most days, I thought, “I’m just a happy person.”

However, I know that thought is no longer true. I’ve lately remarked to my mother that being an adult really sucks. I have bills and responsibilities, and I’m a citizen of a world with an excess of violence and hardship. Sometimes I feel burdened by the problems that are too big for me to solve. Other times, I feel panic and anxiety because I can’t imagine the future. In these moments, I forget my own strength. I forget the joy that inspired my Old English name. I want to find delight in small things – birdsong, the smell of sautéd garlic, a friendly greeting – but I fear that my joy makes me seem naive or irresponsible.

Only when I am coming out of one of these difficult times can I remember my own strength and the resilience I’d like to have. In these moments, I realize that each day’s happiness is an act of courage, not an act of naiveté. To commit to living a joyful life, I must fight for the joy I want. I must put away the impressions of others. It is absurd to think that only naive people are happy, but this is a sentiment I face daily. Maybe because I am young or blind or female, others often take my happiness for granted. They look at me and think, “She is just a happy person.”

There is no such thing as “just a happy person.” Happiness is a daily commitment, and joy requires effort and courage. There is no name for weak joy or tired joy or craven joy. All joy is brave joy.

I’ve kept the name Modwyn because I want to commit myself to living with brave joy, a feeling that empowers me to handle my work and responsibilities with integrity and passion. I blog under the name Modwyn because this blog is where I display my commitment to courage and happiness. Anger and frustration will continue to motivate some posts, but I hope that joy will inspire many more.

This is my sincere expression of gratitude to the readers who have been with me so far and my extension of welcome to those just joining. I started this blog for myself; I wanted to encapsulate the funny and frustrating moments of my life. I expected only a handful of family members and loyal friends to take an interest. But now, as others read, share, and respond, I realize that it can be so much more than I ever imagined. I know that the brave joy will spread.