Darkness. I go to sleep in darkness and I awaken in darkness. But it’s not total darkness. It’s near-darkness, punctuated by pinpoints of light. The thermostat, the kitchen stove, the bedside alarm clock, the modem, and other devices that alert me to the presence of electricity and tell me enough to allow me to get my bearings. And there’s the vaporous mist of light from the reflection of the nearby street light; that light transforms blackness in deep, dark greyness. I use those tiny beams and washes of dim light to guide me, to help me avoid crashing into walls or doors. They don’t really illuminate my path; they just offer imprecise orientation for movement.

On those rare occasions, when the power is out long before or after the sun has disappeared from the sky, and those miniature guideposts disappear, I have nothing to serve as my pilot. Then, I understand blindness. I realize what it’s like to navigate in a known space whose parameters I’ve not bothered to memorize. I remember that there’s a wall somewhere in front of me, but I don’t know just how far. I recall that a table may be in my path, assuming I have correctly oriented myself to the space I occupy.

How long, I wonder, does it take to acquaint oneself to one’s environment in the absence of light, in the absence of sight? I suppose it doesn’t take long to get used to living space. Hyper-local distances are measured in easily recalled inches and feet. But what about neighborhoods and towns? How does one get used to dealing with longer distances in the absence of illumination? I remember, not long ago, seeing a television program that featured an architect who lost his sight but continued to practice. His work changed, though. He now practices architecture with the blind in mind. He understands that architecture is about touch and sound and texture and shapes and dozens of other expressions of place. I thought I’d written about that program on my blog, but I can’t find it. After I finish here, I’ll see if I can find it online. It’s worth seeing; it helped me come to grips with how people who are blind interact with their environments.

I once observed, on this blog, that time turns mountains into valleys and granite into sand. As I consider what the experience of blindness might be like, I have another observation. Darkness turns sound into distance and touch into sight. With enough time and practice, a sightless person can use differences in sounds to calculate or estimate distances. The clicking of heels on a tile floor sounds different when the walker is nearby than when she is far away. And the changes in those sounds indicate whether the walker is approaching or departing. A sightless person can use a cane to determine important characteristics of a walking surface. Is it soft or hard? Is it flat or on an incline? Is it smooth or rough? Without sight, other senses become more pronounced. One comes to depend more on touch and smell and sound. I’ve known this, intellectually, for a long time. It’s not new information. But for some reason, it resonates with me this morning. It is no longer simply data in my head; somehow, emotion is now attached to it and I think I understand it better.

It’s healthy, I think, to explore new things. It’s equally healthy to explore old understandings in a new light. Or, in this case, in a new darkness. That’s my opening salvo in the battle to make today one in which I learn more about the world and/or myself.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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