Posts Tagged memories

Now you see it, Now you Dont: Blindness and the Nostalgia of Visual Memory

Just the other day, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and sipping my coffee, expertly avoiding work, and suddenly I paused on a friend’s tweet describing a perfect sunrise captured in a photo while jogging. I read and reread the tweet, closed my eyes, tried to mentally pull the image into focus, and as I did, I felt a twinge somewhere deep inside; I wanted to see it. I had that fleeting moment—one that comes far more often than I’m generally willing to admit—in which I wished I had a switch that would allow me to turn on my eyes for five minutes, even five seconds a day.

Over the years, I’ve learned to live without my sight, and at the risk of sounding complacent, I think I’ve adapted fairly well. Those who know me can attest to the fact that I’ve embraced my blindness like a quirky personality trait, and I’m generally the first one at a party to dust off the Stevie Wonder jokes. Yet I realized something in that moment the other day, trying to remember just what the sky looks like at sunrise. One of the questions I often get—the one that makes me far more uncomfortable than most—is usually along the lines of: “If you could see anything, anything at all, what would you want to see?” Having been born with partial sight, I find the answer to this question difficult to try to unpack. You would think, wouldn’t you, that I’d want to see all of the things that have come into being since I lost my sight, because I’m aware that the world looks different now: Facetime and webcams, touch screens and HD TV. The truth is, though, that the things I want to see aren’t necessarily the things I’ve never seen before. I’m curious to know how things look; I’d love to be able to appreciate the clarity of watching my favorite film in high definition rather than, as a friend once put it, “all weirdly pixelated”. Yet I don’t feel like my imagination is lacking in filling in the gaps.

What I want to see, what I sometimes wish I could see, are the things I remember seeing—the things in my memory that I haven’t quite forgotten, but that naturally, with time, fade around the edges: sunshine on the water, rainbows, autumn leaves. It’s a kind of…visual nostalgia, I suppose, and I think that as I grow older, and layer upon layer of dust obscures those memories, it’s a longing that is entirely natural. I think that, having had some minimally usable vision, I sometimes inhabit two worlds: the one in which I see, and the one in which I don’t. Sometimes I think I want to return to those memories, take them out, dust them off, look at them again (literally and figuratively) because I have some deep, unspoken longing to reaffirm my experiences as a (partially) sighted person, to confirm that that world I inhabited was real.

I’m no longer sure to what extent my imagination has colored in the blind spots in my visual memory, but maybe that doesn’t matter. We’re all guilty of revising the narratives our memories tell. No memory is entirely accurate. Our memories are a kind of image-text of a literary biography. The basic facts are verifiable, but we’ve colored in the gaps with details that might be true, or might just be stylistic flourishes intended to reinvigorate the memories for ourselves when we relive those moments.

Question: what is your most vivid visual memory?

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Just a Little Smile is All it Takes: Happy Birthday Colin Firth

Winter, 2008: the near-end of my first semester as a PhD student. In the midst of end-of-semester insanity, I’d gone home for the Thanksgiving holiday to see my family. While everyone else in the family gathered in the living-room to decorate the Christmas tree, I sat curled on the sofa watching the BBC television adaptation of Jane Austen’s /Pride and Prejudice/ for a seminar paper due two weeks later. My father, as he so often does when I visit, wandered into the room at intervals to inquire about my progress and whether or not I needed anything (AKA another cup of coffee…or a tranquilizer). What he discovered probably made him suspect I’d require the latter. There I was, feverishly pecking at the keys on my laptop: pausing, rewinding, scribbling, rewatching, and—it goes without saying—occasionally attempting, without much success, to suppress a fangirlish squeal of delight.
“Research?” Dad asked delicately while I manufactured an expression of intense concentration.
“Yes, for my Jane Austen course.”
Dad’s gaze swiveled to the wet-shirted, dripping delight that was Colin firth and then settled back on me. “Well
, I’m glad your graduate studies are being put to good use.”
Just then, my mother joined him, took one look at the television, and declared, “So this is why you declared a specialization in nineteenth-century literature. Suddenly it all makes sense.”

My fascination with Colin Firth has been something of a family joke for as long as I can remember. One long-ago Christmas during my childhood, a distant relative I no longer remember sent me a gift that at the time, they’d probably only picked out because it was the nearest to hand: a video of Hallmark’s 1987 television adaptation of “The Secret Garden”.

The day after Christmas, I sat curled on the rug in front of the television, the distant shouts of the neighborhood children trying their new bikes and roller-skates drifting in through the open window. At that moment, it didn’t matter that they never included me in their games—that I couldn’t ride or skate or run as quickly as the rest of them; I was far too engrossed in the story unfolding on the screen in front of me. At the time, I still had enough usable vision that if I sat close enough to the screen, I could still distinguish faces. Suddenly, in the final scene, I found myself scooting as close to the set as I could without actually pressing my face against the glass.
“This wasn’t in the book,” I thought as I watched, intrigued. A grown-up Mary Lennox was standing in her garden with Ben Weatherstaff, and suddenly from behind her came a voice, tender and caressing, and slightly crisp at the edges—a summer breeze with just a hint of fall: “Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.” I shivered as Mary turned and saw who it was, and as I caught a glimpse of his face, I thought, “That’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.”

Why? Why that man? Why that face? There wasn’t anything immediately remarkable about it; neutral in appearance, passive in expression, but with a hint of something rippling beneath the surface like a lake stirred by a light breeze. That was what intrigued me—that carefully modulated reserve, that passion kept in check. Then I watched him kiss her, and I think my heart spilled into his hand then and there.

That was the first time I saw Colin Firth, though it wasn’t until quite a few years later—after I’d become much more familiar with his work—that I made the connection. Since that moment, I’ve been mesmerized and a bit haunted by that face—a face I’ve never forgotten, though it’s been years (longer than I feel comfortable admitting) since I’ve actually seen it. Over the years, I’ve made (and have been the subject of) plenty of jokes about this…lifelong love affair, for lack of a better term: that Colin Firth is the reason I can’t walk past a fountain or make an omelet without smiling; that (according to my mother) I’ve taught so much of his work in my courses I should probably list him as a guest lecturer; that he’s the reason why I refuse, on principle, to accept a marriage proposal that does not begin with or contain the words, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Admittedly, in fairness to Mr. Firth, even though I can no longer reread /Pride and Prejudice/ without hearing his voice, I really think the blame for that last one should be laid at the feet of Jane Austen, since it was she who wrote those words.

The truth is, though, that I’ve cherished a long admiration of his work that has deepened as I’ve been given opportunities to study it more closely, both in my own work and with students. He reminds me daily that passion for one’s work is often more rewarding than recognition (though he’s certainly deserving of every accolade he’s received) and I love his obvious appreciation in so much of his work for the value and utility of literature. I cannot reiterate enough that I think the roles he’s had in literary adaptations are some of his best performances. (And before anyone asks, yes, I have had the privilege of listening to his recording of Graham Green’s novel /The End of the Affair/, and I was entranced).

I don’t know why I feel compelled to share this story; it isn’t a remarkable one by any means, but it’s one that never fails to make me smile. In my mind, I associate Colin firth with some of my last, and clearest visual memories. Over time that image, like so many of the others, has begun to fade, but whenever I hear his voice, if I close my eyes, I can just see that face—can just picture that tantalizing half-smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. Maybe I’m no longer the best judge, but that smile is still one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

The happiest of birthdays to you, Mr. Firth, and many happy returns!

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