My body was alive with the hum that you get only after a good workout, and I hardly felt the sun that beat down the back of my neck. That was when it happened. Movement in the distance caught my attention and I waited to see what it was. It was something brown that seemed to lope closer.
With excitement I cried, “Look, a doggy!” There was a beat of absolute silence before my companion began to laugh. It wasn’t a soft chuckle or a giggle; it was a throw-back-the-head type of laugh. Naturally, I hadn’t a clue what was so funny. There was a dog, and I liked dogs. So what? I gave my companion a blank stare. Obviously she had gone totally insane.
When she regained her composure, she managed, “There’s no dog.” Perplexed, I tried to focus on the object again. When we were close enough for me to see it clearly, I began to laugh too. Score one for my companion: what I thought was a dog in the distance was in fact a man climbing up the stairs to our level. The dog was the brown hat he had perched at a jaunty angle on his head.
I spend so much time recounting this incident because it directly relates to my background and how I have come to be the writer that I am today. When I was three-and-a-half years old, a medical mishap resulted in me losing almost all of my senses. I couldn’t move, couldn’t see, couldn’t speak. Many years of training changed that. I regained most of my senses, but my sight remained severely limited.
I am much like a wolf, experiencing the world through smell, sound, touch, and taste before sight.
I never gave my visual impairment much thought; it was just a part of me, something that couldn’t go away. I lived with it and I grew up with it. That was until I entered Matt’s first-year creative writing class. The topic was imagery. How could I write unexpected and striking imagery without using sight?
I argued this with Matt one day. His reply was as cryptic as they come: “Your greatest weakness is also your greatest gift.” I left confused and frustrated. Matt seemed to respond without having understood what I was saying. It was not until I replayed his words again and again that they finally began to make sense.
Some may think my disability a loss. After all, we do so much through sight: read another’s expression, enjoy a movie, take solace in nature. With sight gone, what would I have? I have a key to a whole different world. In summer, I hear the starlings argue hidden in dark foliage. I know my English teacher recently passed by a room by the scent of cologne that lingers in the air. I let my fingers find the grooves on the basketball, spinning it slightly as I leap and shoot, hearing the whispered swoosh as it passes through the net.
When you must rely on more than one sense to survive—listen to traffic to keep yourself safe while crossing the road, take in the smell of rushing water and the perfume of wildflowers on a hike, rely on your nose to tell you who is speaking to you, use what sight is left to you to stop seeing leaves as just a mass of green, instead noticing their patterns and the dappled shades they paint—then you start to live.
As I began to write, I recognized the gift I had received. My inability to see as well as the average person enhances my voice. I am forced to focus on sound, smell, taste, and touch. I also realized something else: without sight as my dominant sense, I live with greater intensity.
I am a lone wolf in the city. My disability forces me to hunt for opportunities to fulfill my potential, to live, and sometimes just survive in an environment filled with obstacles. Writing as myself, however, without trying to emulate those who can see, presents a key to a whole new world. It is time I open the door with it. I wonder what I will find.
Elisa Ip is in her second year at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She is equally passionate about literature, biology, and writing. A glimpse of her bookshelf would reveal titles from the romantic poets, Orwell, Conrad, along with the latest biology research and Doctor Who. Elisa is a self-professed walking contradiction, for despite her physical and visual impairments, she enjoys rock climbing, football/soccer, and painting. She believes in living with intensity, to live every moment to the fullest and to find beauty in peace and adversity. For as Keats says:
“beauty is truth, truth beauty
That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”