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Why I am Worried About Being at AWP
In 1987, something strange began to happen to me. My eyesight began to deteriorate rapidly. I was a graduate student in New Brunswick, Canada, and at the time, I could afford to see a specialist. They took me through a barrage of tests over the course of a year, and in that year, my eyesight got worse and worse. In a year, I was legally blind and spectacles could do nothing for me. I functioned, but the whole world seemed a veritable blur. People who came close to me, I knew, but those who were a few yards away were quite blurry. I could make out shades of skin and some features but I was struggling to see. It was frightening. Then, after many tests and long distant rides to St. John, New Brunswick from Fredericton, where I lived, I was fitted with a pair of gas-permeable hard contact lenses. I remember heading to the newspaper office on campus where I worked, and I saw people I had been working with for a year, for the first time. Some of those folks were stunningly beautiful, but many of them were startlingly ugly. There was a beauty in their softened blurred features, but with all that light and color running riot in my eyes, it was sometimes hard to bear so much reality. The prospect of sightlessness changed me, I think. For almost two years I was contending with the possibility that I, an English scholar and someone who hoped to be a serious writer, was going to have a hard time seeing at all. For much of that time, it was not clear from the doctors that anything could be done. I remembered that both my grandfathers were blind when they died–they had lived relatively long lives, but blindness came and consumed them; and now, here I was facing a similar fate before I was thirty years old. The contacts gave great relief. But their fragility and my sheer dependence on them left me with a tremendous sense of vulnerability that has never left me.
My problem was a congenital cornea disease that apparently skips a generation. Eight years after being fitted with the contacts, my eyes began to reject the lenses. I was told that there was little else that could be done except to have cornea transplants. By then I was enough of a poet to realize that sight, perspective, light, and shadow were being shaped into motifs for my work because of these treacherous eyes of mine. I now see through a stranger’s corneas and they have been faithful to me for thirteen years. I no longer wear contact lenses. I wear spectacles. But a crave light. I get very annoyed when I am assigned a basement classroom for my classes and I demand being put where there are large windows. I like hotel rooms with huge windows. I pick my offices for their windows. I am very happy where there is bright light. When i am asked what I need to be in place for readings, I say, “lots of light, a bottle of water, a podium or music stand, and lots of light”.
The problem with large hotels is that they have long dimly lit corridors. When these hotels are used for conferences, the corridors and lobbies are the meeting place, the town square, the place where you look for the stars and try to catch the eye of someone who may help your career, or you try to greet people who know you and who you may not have seen in a while. And at these conferences, they come at you rapidly, in waves of faces, bouncing, moving, bobbing and weaving through the shadow and slight light. All of this is exciting if you can see. For me, it is a nightmare. I look directly at people, I sense that they are smiling, but I don’t know who i am looking at. Sometimes the distance is far enough for them to get offended enough to drift further away from me when they are passing. Occasionally, they will come up to me and shout, “What you don’t know me again?” or worse, “Oh, you are too good to talk to your old friends now.” And it is all in fun, but I can’t explain that the truth is I did not quite see them. The problem is that I do see them, but what i am seeing is a shadow, not enough for certainty. Sometimes it is like what happens when I am driving at night, and the street sign hurtles pass, and I can’t catch in time to do something about it. Then it is too late. I have to turn around and get back to the spot and make my way in.
The problem also arises when I am reading. At readings, I look into an audience and I am able to make out the faces of the folks who are sitting in the first few rows. beyond that, I won’t be able to tell. Not really. And what folks don’t realize is just how much communication goes on with eyes, with lips, and with the turn of a head the subtle movement of a hand. It is lost on me. I never see any of it. So it can be quite embarrassing, really, when I have looked straight into someone’s face, and have not registered who he is. Usually that person has done the math, gone through the roller desk in the brain, come up with my name while they are checking me out at a distant. I have no such luxury. Usually, the second I recognize a face (“hey, I know this person!”) I am supposed to be able to say, “Hey, Joe!” Well, I am just now trying to work out who this face belongs to, where do I know it from, and what name is normally affixed to the name. Its that street sign, zipping away from me, all over again.
The thing is, I am not blind. I can see. And under most other circumstances, I function fine. But in this helter-skelter world of making connections at these conferences, trying not to offend, “networking”, schmoozing and all of that, my handicap makes me scared of those hotel corridors. So I would like to make a disclaimer right here and right now while I can for anyone who tries to make eye contact with me at AWP in one of the dark corridors. If I don’t seem to remember your name, or if I look blankly at you when most people who know you would start to show some familiarity, and if I struggle to remember your name, and if I walk past you without saying hello even though I seem to have been staring at you all along, it is not arrogance or the lack of social graces. I just can’t see so good. So do be patient.
ps. Confession: Sometimes being handicapped like this has its uses. At least I don’t have to keep coming up with small talk to fill up awkward pauses.