A Different Digital
I love reading with my fingers. I’m not blind, but I am, weirdly, an avid Braille reader. I learned it years ago when I had a blind roommate. Actually, I learned it visually first, because the dots cast these tiny shadows that make it possible to see them in the light. (Think of a country of igloos as seen from an airplane on a sunny morning in the Arctic.) It took me about a year to master the hundreds of configurations of dots that make up the letters, the punctuation, the formatting signs, and the contractions of Braille. And then, a few years after that, as though of their own volition, my fingers started gravitating toward those dots, trying them, plying them, and I eventually began reading Braille tactilely. I’ve been reading it with pleasure—physical pleasure—ever since.
Reading with my fingers—reading digitally, if you will—slows me down, in a good way. It’s a good thing. As a writer, and a reader, it’s one of the ways I maintain contemplation and focus and sanity in this digital age we all live in. On the subway, for instance, while most if not all of my fellow passengers are hopelessly—blindly—hooked up to their smartphones and tablets, I sit there with 40 bound pages of embossed Braille in my lap, serenely reading the latest issue of Syndicated Columnists Weekly with my right index finger, blithely scanning the poor, doomed, plugged-in ridership with my eyes wide open.
I like the idea of touching the words. I know that’s just a romantic notion—I mean, Braille readers aren’t more “in touch” with the words than print readers are—but I like it nonetheless. Though it took me some time to develop the sensitivity required to read with my fingers, I don’t think Braille has made me a more sensitive reader per se. But it has made me a more versatile one: I can read with my eyes closed; I can read with the book closed (my hand tucked inside it, reading); I can read in the dark when my wife wants to go to sleep and has turned off the light; I can read in the dentist’s chair while he’s drilling away; I can read while walking; I can read while driving—left hand on the wheel, right hand on the dots, eyes on the road—eyes on the road!
I used to worry that people who saw me reading Braille in public—on the subway, say, or in a Starbucks—would think I was blind or pretending to be blind. A sighted person reading Braille, after all, is a rare sight, wouldn’t you say? So, for a long time I was in the closet about my Braille reading. I only read at home, or in my car. Or, if I ventured out in public with my Braille, I would read it furtively, sort of cloak-and-dagger, Braille-in-coat-pocket, keeping it hidden under my jacket or inside my knapsack, fingering the dots clandestinely, feeling somehow vaguely illicit about the whole thing. At the Starbucks, for example, I would build a little fort on the table around my Braille magazine—backpack, cup of coffee, folded sweater, water bottle, phone—ramparts surrounding the treasure of the dots, hiding the Braille so that no one would see me reading it and mistake me for a blind person, or a blind impostor, or a blind wannabe.
I am not a blind wannabe. But I do love Braille. I love the physicality of it. There’s something deeply satisfying about using your sense of touch to access language, knowledge, the world. And I love the irony of choosing it—preferring it—over the digital technology that is everywhere around us shouting its claims of “the world at your fingertips.” Of course, there are Braille computers and Braille technology too—refreshable Braille or paperless Braille, as it’s called. But I prefer the paper myself. I’ve always preferred the paper. And while, admittedly, I am writing this little essay on my laptop, I do still have a manual Royal typewriter at the ready, with a fresh ribbon, for the times when we lose power (which has happened three times already this winter).
Braille is a beautiful thing—a beautiful dying thing. Fewer than ten percent of blind people actually know Braille in this country. Yes, it’s still taught to totally blind children, but any child who has some usable vision or “low vision” will usually be steered instead toward large print and audio books. And if that child later loses their residual vision, all they have left is audio, which is especially unfortunate because being read to is not the same thing as reading. The latter is active while the former is passive and fraught with problems. For example, there are many things you have no access to when you are being read to. You can’t see how words are spelled, or where a paragraph begins or ends, or what sort of punctuation is being used (semicolon or period? Em dash or comma?). The use of italics, parentheses, ellipses, etc. is all invisible, inaccessible, if you’re being read to. But if you’re actively reading (print or Braille), then you notice these things, you see them, and you learn them and you grow fluent in them. With Braille, you can linger over a passage, savor it, reread it comfortably and easily. Not so with audio. It is possible for a blind person to be an audio reader all her life and remain functionally illiterate. And most blind people who have lost their vision in adulthood do tend to opt for audio rather than Braille. Because learning Braille is difficult. And the older you get the more difficult it is, just like with any language. Braille isn’t a language—it’s a code—but it can accommodate any written language on the planet. When I first learned it, I was in my early twenties and I had none of the attendant grief and/or denial that a person who is losing their vision will likely experience. For me, it was just a hobby, something to do, a game, a curriculum of puzzles. More than anything it was fun! It was all about words. And I have always loved words.
In Braille, there are over 200 contractions—or shortcuts—which means most words aren’t actually spelled out letter by letter, but rather contain these contractions that are symbols for clusters of letters or smaller words within words. As an example, the word “indistinguishable” contains 5 contractions (in, dis, ing, sh, ble). The contractions for and, the, for, of, and with can occur alone and also within words, such as the and in Andrew, the the in Catherine, the of in roof, the for in fork, and so on. In addition, almost every letter in the alphabet, when standing alone, stands for a whole word. B is but, C is can, D is do, E is every, F is from, etc. F with a dot five in front of it is father. M with a dot five is mother. M all by itself is more. There are also certain contractions (to, into, by) that attach to the subsequent word (though this does not occur in print), sort of latching onto it without a space in between, sticking to it like a barnacle or a burr, or (as I like to think of it), a baby sloth. Braille, like poetry, is all about compression, and there is a poetry of Braille that only a Braille reader can appreciate. All those words within words, and the tactile alliteration of a string of words that all employ the same kind of Braille contraction. In this sentence, for example, “You can do as you like but it’s just that people like us will not go,” all of the words are whole-word contractions (mentioned above), meaning each word is reduced to a single letter, usually but not always the initial letter. So, in Braille, that sentence would look like this: “Y c d z y l b x’s j t p l u w n g.” It’s the ultimate compression, distilling language down to the first letter of each word in the sentence!
For some time now, I have been trying to increase my speed because I’m still rather slow. Compared to someone who grew up with Braille, I am glacial. I’m only a little better than that third- or fourth-grader whom the teacher has asked to read aloud in class and who does it somewhat haltingly, occasionally stumbling over the words, having to sound them out when getting stuck. I remember watching my blind roommate Gilbert reading Braille all those years ago. He had grown up with it, and he read with both hands, fluidly, fluently, gracefully, and as quick as any sighted reader can read print with her eyes. The way his hands danced across the page, it was a beautiful choreography to behold: the left hand beginning each line, handing it off to the right hand halfway across the page, the right hand finishing as the left hand moved down to start the next line—left hand to right hand to left hand to right hand—expert, fleet, like a concert pianist, or like relay runners in a race, the handoff accomplished seamlessly over and over, line by line down the page, page by page through the book.
That sort of native fluency is something I will never be able to emulate. But still, my speed has noticeably increased over the years. And while I’m proud of that fact, I also want to remember this other, perhaps more important fact: reading Braille slows me down—and that’s a good thing. It’s one of the things I love about Braille. In a way, wanting to read faster runs counter to that desire for slowing down, for going slow, for being present, for being, literally, more in touch with the world. But I guess I’m only human, and we humans seem to prize speed, don’t we? So, I keep it simple: God is good. God is slow. Slow is good.
My contemplative practice is a mixture of Vipassana meditation, which I learned in Boston about a decade ago and am still learning; writing poetry on a daily basis, which I am also still learning, and will always be learning; and reading Braille.
I have published nine books of poetry, most recently, Is That What That Is (FutureCycle Press, 2017), and my poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. I make my living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and Braille instructor.
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