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Power Made Perfect in Weakness

In Art, Arts & Letters, Communication, Creative Writing, Emerson, Essays, Humanities, Law, Literature, Poetry, Shakespeare, Teaching on August 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall

I wrote the following piece about three weeks ago, while I was vacationing in Destin, Florida, with my family.

If we expect others to rely on our fairness and justice we must show that we rely on their fairness and justice.

Calvin Coolidge

My wife and I are on vacation in Florida.  Yesterday morning, over a cup of coffee and a doughnut, sitting on the balcony and reading the newspaper amid sounds of seagulls and the grating roll of morning waves, I noted that one Michael Stone—a blind man, XTERRA champion, and 10-time Ironman triathlete who recently published a book, Eye Envy—will speak at the University of North Florida on August 13.  I haven’t read Stone’s book, but it’s apparently a resource not only for those suffering from vision-loss any degenerative disease.

Stone began to lose his sight in 2004.  His blindness is a result of a rare disease called cone-rod dystrophy.  Despite his handicap, he has accomplished amazing things, but not without the help of others.  During races, he relies on guides, who shout directions and warnings to him.

I’ll never understand why God makes some people handicapped and others not, why some must rely on others, and some must be relied on.  Someday and for a time, everyone relies on someone or something and is relied on by someone or something.     

In graduate school, I took a class on Shakespeare.  One of my peers was deaf.  I always wanted to ask her what that was like, but knew that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t.

And she, the deaf student, wouldn’t know what it was like.  Not really.  Because she didn’t know what it wasn’t like.  She’d never heard sounds before, at least not the way I had.  She had interpreters, and I always wondered how Shakespeare’s Early Modern English translated into hand signs and symbols.

Every now and then another student would read a passage or recite some lines, and the deaf student, not knowing which lines were being read or recited, had to rely on her interpreter to gather meaning.  But how, with a split-second to think, does an interpreter sign such words as “Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ’em i’th’ paste alive.  She knapped ’em o’th’ coxcombs with a stick, and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’”

We all, deaf or not, have limitations.  But by helping one another, we limit limitations, both our own and others’.  There’s justice in that.

Sign language is a medium of correspondence that’s physical and, it seems to me, fun.  It’s writing in the air.  I knew nothing about it as I sat in that class.  Here was this system, a spatial grammar and syntax, which I saw once a week for three hours or more, over the course an entire semester, but which I couldn’t learn by watching.  It had its downsides.  It drew attention to itself, for instance, and made others uncomfortable.  But something about it was beautiful.

My professor, a sweet man, tolerant to his own detriment, gave the deaf student carte blanche to do whatever she wanted.  He never asked her questions, never forced her to contribute to the group conversations.  And what good did this do her, or him?  Part of the pleasure of graduate studies is learning to ferret out answers on your own.  There’s something unjust about taking that pleasure away from someone—about not doing your job when someone relies on you.  But what is justice to the person who has lost her hearing through no fault of her own?  And what ought to be the role of the one relying and the one relied on, if learning is, as it ought to be, just?

I can imagine being deaf, but I can’t imagine being blind.  One of the best essays I ever read on the subject is Borges’s “Blindness.”  Borges describes his experience as a blind man, answering questions that the curious, for whatever reason, never ask.  “People,” he says, “generally imagine the blind as enclosed in a black world.”  But people are wrong.  In fact, Borges explains, the “world of the blind is not the night that people imagine.”  It’s actually kaleidoscopic: full of brilliant, undefined colors that may be difficult to distinguish but that flicker and flash like poems come to life.  If that’s true, I understand Homer and Thomas Blacklock and Helen Keller a little bit better.

The great writers and poets of the past have given us a stock of wisdom and insights that we can rely on to cultivate virtue and come to grips with life’s complexities.  These men and women recorded and enabled beauty and wisdom.  Beauty and wisdom are just.  It’s also just for God to give everyone some form of language with which to express themselves and understand others—with which to cooperate.

Folks say justice is blind.  That may or may not be true.  But “the judge,” as the townsfolk in Opelika, Alabama, referred to my Great-Grandfather, was blind—although he wasn’t a judge.  People just called him that because he was a good lawyer.

The judge was an erudite man who enjoyed an afternoon whisky.  He would recite poetry to my grandmother, Nina, when she was a girl.  Partial to the British Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats—he could also quote Shakespeare, Irving, Poe, and Emerson.

I still have the judge’s law books.  Some date back to Reconstruction.  One day, while thumbing through an old Southern Reporter, I found a folded, jaundiced sheet of paper—a place marker—wedged between some crinkling pages.  On it was a poem by Abraham Lincoln.  Nina says that the judge kept a portrait of Lincoln in his office.  This, I think, is revealing.  None other than a brave man would openly admire Lincoln in Opelika during the years leading to and following the Great Depression.  If I should meet the judge one day, after death, I will ask him whether he did not like the milieu in which he lived. On second thought, if I should meet him, I’ll ask him to recite poetry.  Something from Wordsworth.  That would be better.  Certainly more beautiful.

Mr. Stone is an inspiration to those who must overcome adversity, which is to say that he is an inspiration to us all.  We’re all handicapped to varying degrees and in ways we cannot control.  Whether that’s unjust is hard to say.  What is just, though, is being there for those who rely on us.  My classmate could not have discussed Shakespeare without her tireless, interpretive intermediary supplementing her personal determination to learn and making up for my professor’s failure to teach.  Borges could not have written without the influence of the great poets or the people who taught him the great poets.  My Great-Grandfather, the Lincoln lover, could not have memorized poetry, let alone practiced law, without someone, at some point, guiding him—and possibly without the influence of those same great poets on whom Borges relied.

The world is shot through with language and personal relations, without and in spite of which we couldn’t overcome our handicaps.  The justice is in the poetry; the poetry is in the making.

Yesterday, as I set aside the newspaper and the sun began to rise over the powdery white sand, populated by families and getting dashed by the fierce rise and fall of waves, I turned to my wife and told her about Mr. Stone and his triathlons and upcoming lecture.  When I finished, she said, “I’m not surprised that he writes.”  I asked why, and she answered, “Because we rely on writing to help us understand.”

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