I pick up the cane to put down the weight of not seeing, to hand that weight to the sighted around me.
It takes 198 steps to walk from my house to the little stub of Pearl Street. Summer days like this, no one sees my white cane, folded in my bag. Even nestled in that dark clutter, my cane still guides me. Its slight weight, thumping my thigh, reminds me to notice how acorns resist, then give way underfoot, how cement at the intersection slopes away to asphalt, how even through thick rubber sandals, I feel the pebbled texture of the curb cut. No car engine hum, no wheels crunching on graveled street. Crossing Pearl, I feel heat, rising around my legs, thick as prairie grass.
My cane helps even more if I pull it out and grip its rubber handle, shiny from nine years of my fingers’ grip. I could unloop the elastic shock cord, running through the cane’s hollow core, holding the folded sections nose to tail. I could give a practiced shake and feel the cane’s five sections—guided by the tensioned cord—stack themselves end-to-end—each piece locking into the next.
Unfolded, my cane measures 52 inches long. Held vertically in front of me, its tip on the pavement, the top of its handle reaches my sternum. My cane, under its reflective coating, is made of carbon fiber. Carbon, atomic number six. Carbon in my cane, in my bones, teeth, and blood; carbon in leaves talking overhead, carbon in acorns underfoot.
My extended cane tests the space in front of me. I sweep cane left to right, right to left, matching my stride. At street level, it finds fire hydrants, children’s toys, buckled pavement, sandwich boards in mid-sidewalk. My cane says nothing about low-hanging branches, strings of lights, the expression of an approaching pedestrian’s face.
My cane tip tells me whether a dark line is thin shadow or a garden hose. I can test whether the ground’s dry, wet, or icy. Dry sounds like a scrape of plastic against pavement. Ice is a slippy hiss. Puddles gurgle.
My cane does not see for me. My eyes still see—the black-green of leaves grown fat on rain; shadows painting pavement, the square of a for-sale sign, cut out white space against green lawn.
My cane and I build a map of sounds and feelings. With each step, each tap or slide, I gain another data point. A sound, a vibration, a resistance or its absence. I think of Seurat building a picture of the world with repeated movement, the painter adding tiny dabs of paint to a canvas.
Like 90 percent of other legally blind folk, my blindness is not complete. My seeing is far from what it was before tiny zones in each of my retinas began to fray in my early 30s. Twenty-five years ago. Becoming blind in mid-life has its score of losses, but the visual world still hums with moon-shadow, with the movement of a raptor knifing across a blue sky, with the way—after rain—the last of the day’s sun under-lights the tree canopies chartreuse against higher layers of leaf.
Also after rain, walking a shaded bike path, I often see a man dressed in black lurking in undergrowth at the bottom of the trail. But after years of experience, I know his name is not Creepy-Man-with-Knife. No, his name is Wet-Trunk-of-Maple-Tree. My eyes have become novelists, making drama out of rain and bark.
Nowadays, I toss cheerful hellos to whatever I pass: friends, strangers, mailboxes looking like neighbors bent over their flower patch. There’s plenty to see; the challenge is making sense of it.
What I remember of better eyesight is how the world assembled all at once, an effortless gestalt—the light, the distance, the dappled detail of shade, exact crinkles of a facial expression through a car windshield, the lift of a single finger from a steering wheel, sunlight bouncing off a waxed hood.
My vision loss began in 1993 with a subtle distortion in the vision of my left eye. A spot no bigger than a floater, an area of my vision where straight lines bent and everything was tinged a lovely violet. This little visual question mark signaled the first hint of my retinas giving way. My next decade was full of retinal hemorrhages, specialist visits, focus on each line of acuity lost on the eye chart, focus on each new bent line in my vision, focus on each microscopic patch of scar tissue. The upshot: Central blind spots in both eyes, measured in millimeters; a medical chart with a thickness measured in inches; abandoning print as a way of taking in information; abandoning reading facial expressions as a way of moving through social interactions; abandoning driving as a way of moving through the world. I vaguely recall the drama of those first visual changes. But the process took place over so many years, mostly so long ago, memory as well as vision grows smudgy, full of blur and gap.
I stopped driving some time in the 1990s. As my retinal rot progressed, even walking around in the world grew fraught. Nighttime became a jumble of pitch dark and glaring lights. Sunlight at the wrong angle made a bewildering dazzle. With each fine-focus cell in my retina that winked out, a quantum of depth perception also vanished. Curbs and steps leapt up to trip me. Car headlights stuttered toward me; everything turned out to be closer or farther away than my increasingly unreliable eyes reported. My blindness became, not a lack of sight, but an accumulation of stubbed toes, twisted ankles, jarred spine, bruises from bumping into the unseen.
My daily pedestrian commute evolved into an adrenalin junkie’s dream. I live in Minnesota, where winter commutes are likely to be in the dark; where sidewalks can be shrink-wrapped in ice from November into April, where crosswalks become narrow, slush-filled ravines between cliffs of packed snow.
As I walk, my body vibrates with knowing. Knowing I’m only a bag of skin holding water, bones, and jelly-organs. Knowing how easily the winter ice trips you, tips you, makes you kiss its hard face. Knowing even sighted friends’ litanies of injury—the splintered tibia, another’s hand a permanent loose fist from nerve-mangling slip. Even in summer, the body insists on remembering near misses. And the body knows even at this sleepy intersection with Pearl, I might not see the UPS truck gunning too fast on our side street, its driver pressed, by invisible algorithm, to meet an ever-tightening squeeze of time points.
One winter before I got a white cane, I hung a battery-operated bike light from my backpack and wore a reflective jacket to be more night-visible. But even if drivers saw me, I could not see them—whether they were waving me across a crosswalk or hellbent on home.
As a pedestrian I’ve only been hit by one car, the merest of taps by a distracted driver at a dark Saint Paul intersection, decades ago. But my body remembers blaring horns, the puddle spray, the air whoosh of near misses.
Even now, with my cane, my rabbit body quivers at busy intersections, ears twitching to take in sounds, the hairs on the back of my neck raised in salute to engine wheezes and brake squeals. My body writes story after story of startle.
What drew me at last to the cane was not blindness but vision. Magpie-like, I was drawn to the white cane’s shine. The cane’s reflective coating would flash bright in the headlights of an oncoming car and I wanted that gleam to protect me as I navigated my streets.
I bought my cane to signal the sighted moving past me; I had no idea how much it could show me. My cane helps me stay in my skin. Whatever has startled me, I can shake my cane loose to its full length; tap left tap right. I feel my face relax. The cane reminds my eyes they don’t have to guess everything. Tapping becomes meditation. The carbon cane connects me with the earth, even through pavement. The cane soothes my body into walking forward into the world.
If my cane is so wonderful, why is it so often folded in my bag? Sometimes my remaining vision and other unaided senses are sufficient to the situation—daylight; flat places; summer; quiet, familiar streets. Or I might want my cane walking home from the grocery store on a rainy November evening; but I don’t have enough hands and shoulders to juggle umbrella, cane, and grocery bags.
And some days I would rather bump into people than bump into their responses to blindness. I understand their confusion—they see my un-tinted eyeglasses as a badge of vision and my white cane as a badge of blindness. They seem to associate blindness with slowness, so they are befuddled by my quick, confident stride with my cane. I have had years to adjust to the shifting non-binary nature of blindness. Most people I bump into are coming upon it fresh.
I pick up the cane to put down the weight of not seeing, to hand that weight to the sighted around me. But instead, cane in hand, I am handed people’s discomfort. That parent, yanking a child out of my path—some days I only feel someone’s desire to be helpful, to avoid tripping me. But I lived sighted long enough that some days I feel in the swoosh, that vacuum created by that harsh tug on a child’s arm, the fear of contagion, contact with misfortune.
Some days I grow tired of people waving their hands close to my face or grabbing my arm without asking. On these days, I fold up my cane, take my chances with the unsettling whoosh of a bus passing closer than I expected. Sometimes I snark to myself that amid all the sighted people with their heads bent over the glow of their phones, paying no attention to their environment, it’s easy these days to pass for sighted.
For years, I’ve wondered why that little rump of street that crosses mine is called Pearl. Not because any of the five houses that claim its address gleam. They do not. Not much gleams on this January afternoon, a few ticks past four and already almost sunset. Cane weather. My house already in shadow. Underfoot—salt over slush over ice. Even with my cane out, I shuffle forward, shoulders slumped. One hundred and ninety-eight steps past nine houses to Pearl.
A few days ago there was new snow. As I took my walk around the park, at the warmest part of the day, 15 degrees, I slid my cane over the snow, leaving a sine wave. The graphite core of my cane dreaming of being a pencil.
But today the snow has thawed and re-frozen and half-succumbed to the salt scattered like shards of broken windshield. I sweep my cane slowly, feeling sloping patches of ice with cane and then with my booted feet. My cane relieves me of enough of the burden of finding my footing that I’m free to use what’s left of my eyesight to look up at the last of the late light. The sun hangs low, for a few minutes walks at human height. Pearl funnels light along its shortness, as it dead-ends into the park. In this moment, I understand at last: Light pearls everything—one pillar of a neighbor’s porch glows. Across the park, on a grander house, two windows glint. One tree in the park stands up straighter and overhead Pearl’s beam catches the breast and wing of a goose in flight toward evening. Shot with light, that bird keeps honking, its feathers unruffled, its muscles warm in their cathedral of down, that beam of light only piercing air. The bird beats its way through the light. Gleaming and then gone.
Naomi Cohn is a poet and teaching artist who works with older adults and people living with disabilities. Her poetry and essays can be found in a Red Dragonfly Press chapbook, Between Nectar & Eternity, as well isin About Place, Fourth River, Hippocampus, Nimrod International, Poetry, and Water~Stone. She’s also written on urban watersheds for clients, including the National Park Service, American Rivers, and Friends of the Chicago River, among others. A Chicago native, she now lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she fantasizes about daylighting Bridal Veil Creek, the buried stream that runs under her neighborhood into the Mississippi River.
Header photo by by GCapture, courtesy Shutterstock.