The sky was a bit gray and cloudy, and people were hurrying along, drawing up the collars of their raincoats against the wind. I was waiting in my car at the light to turn left. This was a long traffic light, and in the late afternoon rush hour I waited for all those leaving the city to speed down the street past the gray monument and red brick rowhouses. The light hesitated a yellow, then flashed to red, and I waited the requisite 2 seconds to avoid a collision with the Baltimore driver’s last-minute speed through, and began to turn. I slowed immediately, and then watched a young lady, grocery bag in her left hand, long walking stick in her right, feel for the raised edges of the sidewalk that signify the crosswalk and begin carefully crossing the road. She safely makes it to the other side, shifts the plastic bag in her hand, and continues down the wind-swept street.
Several weeks before, I had been walking home from that same neighborhood grocery store on a Saturday afternoon, toting home my odd pairing of cinnamon sticky bun ice cream and mushrooms and dreaming of dinner that night, when I noticed a couple walking arm in arm on the opposite side of the street. Weaving between the sidewalk planters, the uneven pavement and alleyways hiding the occasional escaping car or two, a young couple was walking with their baby. She had light brown hair and a long walking stick, he was wearing a blue north face parka and carrying their toddler daughter who was looking around at a brightly colored potato chip bag on the street. They turned their faces, but not their eyes, towards one another while talking, speaking easily, with a precious blond-haired little one to cuddle and delight. They traveled together this way, the blind parents and seeing daughter, until they reached the bus, then carefully ascended the stairs and sat, lightly leaning on one another, chattering and listening to the stops called out by the mechanical voice.
I watch them, wondering at my dependence on my sight, on how many of my associations and assumptions are based on this one sense alone.
Without sight, would I stand in front of the mirror, examining my forehead and the lines folding on themselves with each daily concern? Would the age and change of others be so obvious to me? Voices retain their strength, often becoming deeper and richer with age, thoughts mature and soften with wisdom, smell and taste may lose some of their sensitivity but become more refined, worldly and discerning, hearing may become “selective” but does not truly diminish until much later. Sight, though, attacked daily by our addiction to computer screens, chronic diseases, smoke and strain, changes and fades quickly, myopia setting in and rendering glasses a necessary accessory for middle age.
Bereft of this anchor of sight, we grasp at even slight familiarity and retreat into known paths or lesser wisdom. For me, this is when impulse takes over. When sights and senses bring in too much information, obscuring themselves, I feel blinded, and feel more easily lost in the information I am forced to weigh. I lose the solidity of reason in the tumult, and I turn to impetuous decisions and quick, often unconsidered, action.
Then I remember that a loss of sense sometimes requires moving less quickly for a moment, assessing my life through other senses, and creating an order to the flow of information rather than having it congeal into something opaque. The necessity of careful consideration when crossing a street, the implications of listening clearly, filtering out the unnecessary noise, and feeling for the crosswalk rather than grasping in the darkness in panic become more real. Decisions are made more slowly, but also more thoughtfully, with less anger and directionless passion guiding their trajectory.
Realizing this, I close my eyes, listen to my thoughts, and begin again.