Sunday, September 24, 2023

Being blind doesn’t mean you can’t see

Butterfly in my garden

I had an epiphany reading about how a blind man could still see – and, surprisingly, in a more profound way.  Stephen Kuusisto enlightened me about this in his memoir, Planet of the Blind, as described by the poet Mark Doty.

“Kuusisto describes a moment in Grand Central Station when he and his guide dog have just gotten themselves lost in the great urban hive of transport. Steve sees a dark, suggestive blur of shapes and colors…His dog is new to the intricate passageways of the station, crowded with ranks of commuters… Steve could reasonably be terrified. Instead, he reports this as an occasion of pleasure, a perceptual adventure; both he and his companion animal are exhilarated, and having, as we say, the time of their lives.”⁠1

My revelation was that while blindness can indeed be an occasion for adventure, so can growing old! 

Like the suggestive blur on Steve’s retina in Grand Central Station, the accelerating cacophony of incoming images I encounter each day arouses me, even though they flash by too quickly for my old mind to read the fine print. If I don’t panic at this barrage of strangeness – if instead, I take a deep breath – then the sum of all this chaos can sometimes feel exciting and alluring, suggesting that something bigger than we can imagine is about to unfold. 

Samuel Beckett, perhaps the most famous  playwright of the 20th century, confessed to experiencing something similar about growing old during a 1987 Paris Review interview with Lawrence Shainberg:

“It’s a paradox, but with old age, the more the possibilities diminish, the better chance you have. With diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence—what you, I suspect, would call ‘brain damage’—the more chance there is for saying something closest to what one really is. Even though everything seems inexpressible, there remains the need to express. A child needs to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense to him. In old age, with only a few grains of sand, one has the greatest possibility.”⁠2 

Beckett was seventy-four years old at the time. I’m 78. Perhaps we are discovering that putting words on things can keep us from envisaging a greater truth. Or, as the artist Robert Irwin has summed it up: “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”⁠3  


Because when I name something, I separate it from what comes before and after. Doing so puts the multiplicity of ongoing life on pause, turning it into a frozen fact. I've witnessed the consequences: Putting words on my awe at encountering a fluttering, kaleidoscopic butterfly, removes her from the immediacy of the now, pinning her forever, static and faded, in the museum of my mind.

Young children, on the other hand, have an uncanny intuition about the true nature of the cycles of life because they have yet to be separated from the rhythms of the universe. My son, when he was about four, declared with utter conviction something that mystified me at the time: “When I get big, you will become small again.”

Now I see the truth of his prediction.



1 Doty, Mark. The Art of Description: World into Word (Art of...) (p. 4). Graywolf Press. Kindle Edition.

2 Exorcising Beckett   Lawrence Shainberg

THE PARIS REVIEW NO. 104 Fall 1987,to%20what%20one%20really%20is.


Thursday, September 14, 2023

My Obsession with Hurricanes

Sky off Fort Foster
CC Jean Stimmell: 2013

As I write this, Lee, a major hurricane, is slowly churning northward off the eastern seaboard. While it’s too early to tell where it will make landfall, it now looks like it will at least brush New England. I am following the storm closely, coming as I do from a hurricane-obsessed family. 

Our weather addiction started with the hurricane of 1938 before computers existed to track storms. September 21st, 1938, started out like any other. No one knew that “one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history” was bearing down on us, according to The National Weather Service⁠1.

The storm has been called New England’s Katrina; it had sustained winds of 120 mph with a maximum recorded wind gust of 186 mph at Blue Hill Observatory, MA. The peak storm surge was 17 feet above normal high tide and a 50’ peak wave height at Gloucester, MA. Across the region, 700 were killed and 8,900 homes and businesses destroyed, resulting in damages exceeding 41 billion (in 2010 dollars).⁠2

Over the region, the hurricane destroyed an estimated two billion trees. The damage was still evident decades later in the woods behind my grandfather’s house where an entire mature pine forest was ripped asunder with the trunks haphazardly coming to rest against each other as if a giant had been playing a game of pick-up sticks.”

My father was mesmerized by this cataclysm materializing like black magic out of a blue-bird bright sky. It turned him into a weather nut. I remember growing up watching him, hunched over his crackly AM radio, monitoring the forecasts morning and night. He was not about to be caught with his pants down again.

According to my father’s calculations, he determined we should expect a hurricane every 20 years.  When I was nine, history seemed to be bearing  him out. In 1954, “A tropical one-two punch that was almost unimaginable hit New Hampshire,” according to WMUR TV.⁠3

That’s when Hurricane Carol, a fast-moving hurricane following almost the same track as the Hurricane of 1938, ripped into us. Again, it arrived unannounced, as far as my mother, brother, and I were concerned. My father, away on a business trip, missed a chance to warn us – if, in fact, there was any official warning to give.

On that day, we had driven to Hampton to visit my grandmother on what we thought was just a run-of-the-mill, rainy day. But throughout the morning, the wind strengthened, getting serious by the time we started home.

My mother was a white-knuckle driver under the best of circumstances. This time, it was warranted. The old metal bridge spanning Great Bay was swaying back and forth in the wind as we crossed. Driving back through Northwood, trees were toppling over along Route 4.

Then, just 12 days later, Hurricane Edna slammed into NH with sustained winds over 60 mph. The ground, already weakened by Carol, added to the damage, bringing down even more trees and power lines.

That’s when the hurricane bug was passed on to me. But now, much of my enthusiasm has fizzled.

Back then, we were innocent bystanders, standing in awe of the transcendent power of Mother Nature. Now, we are all co-conspirators who are responsible for adding to the destruction destined to rain down upon us through our short-sighted daily actions.




2 ibid.