Monday, December 10, 2012

On Writing: Ellen Hawkins

On Writing

“‘He also serves who only stands and waits’,” my husband said with a wry smile. We were in the waiting area of an eye clinic where, five days earlier, an ophthalmologist had done laser and cryogenic surgery on his right eye to repair a detached retina.
            “Milton,” I said, ”On his Blindness.”
            We fell silent, the word sitting between us like a nosy child. Blindness. I was reminded of the April meeting of the International Association of Chile, where a volunteer worker had described the freezing conditions in the Colegio Helen Keller, and how mittened students struggled to read Braille. From there it was no distance at all to Naomi.
            For a time Naomi, who is blind, came to our weekly meetings. She’d been published in Spanish but was studying, and now writing, in English. At first we found it difficult to separate Naomi’s blindness from who she was, for she came with Plato, her guide dog, who stretched out under the table by her feet. She traveled by bus and metro and found her way to the house by asking for help.
            More awkwardly, when we got out our notebooks and pens to write, Naomi picked up her tools. If we found the clacking sounds distracting, these soon blended with the hum and thump of passing traffic. That she could express her thoughts by punching holes in strips of shiny paper–and read what she’d written without losing track of the sequence–filled us with admiration. 

            As the weeks passed, evidence of her courage grew. She wrote of having been selected as a candidate to get a guide dog; of how she’d flown to the US to meet, then spend months, with Plato; of her anxiety that he should be ‘the one’ she was looking for: a perfect match.
            Like all of us, Naomi missed an occasional meeting. Then she began to attend less often and finally stopped coming altogether. We kept in touch by email–for she normally wrote on her computer–but by way of explanation she said only that she’d been busy.
            Yet I often wonder if the real reason lay elsewhere. Not in the hassle of getting to meetings, nor in finding her voice in the cultural hodgepodge of our group. But that she was writing in a foreign language. Many of us struggle to express ourselves adequately in Spanish, even just to order pizza. Imagine wrestling with English, a complex shifty tool whose words elude and betray us sighted native speakers, and writers, every day.


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