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.

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.