I am a third-year graduate student in Creative Writing and yet, I was illiterate for most of my time in the program. I wasn't illiterate all my life--just for the past four years. Let me explain. In 1999, I began losing my vision due to what I'd find out later is a rare neuroimmunologic condition. The vision loss was gradual, taking eight years to finally settle on what my ophthalmologist describes as "CF at 1 ft.," meaning I can only count his digits if he waves them twelve inches from my face. Up until this point, I was using magnifiers to read fine print. But once my visual acuity diminished to a mere "CF," the magnifiers became obsolete. I grew cross-eyed from squinting at the unrecognizable text, the letters blending together into one nebulous blob. I was no longer able to read the paperbacks gathered on my shelf. I couldn't read my mail, the subtitles of foreign films, the prose I composed on the computer screen. It was 2007, and I was also in the midst of applying to MFA programs. The timing and irony of the situation were rather annoying.
Over time, I abandoned the foreign films, and I stopped making regular trips to my mailbox. I could not, though, let go of literature. In order to continue "reading," I dove into audiobooks. For awhile, I found comfort in these oral versions; it was exhilarating just to be "reading" again.
Only reading had become something inserted within quotation marks. I wasn't reading; I was "reading." A man who was also sight-impaired once told me that having someone read to me was not real reading, that learning Braille was the key to true literacy.
What? Learning to read again? No longer a puppy, I was well aware of the adage that it was hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Learning Braille would be like learning another language or, God forbid, learning how to read. I dismissed the idea, continuing to favor the mp3 files over the textured pages.
Last year though, while listening to a recorded version of Christina Garcia's Monkey Hunting, I found myself cringing at the reader's voice which was painfully nasally. The reader mispronounced words, even stopped mid-sentence to yawn. No offense to Garcia, but my "reading" experience was completely ruined. It was then that I made up my mind. I was going to learn Braille. I was going to be literate.
The tactile language was designed by Louis Braille in the 1820s. A cellist and organist, he originally intended for it to be a way to read music. One thing led to another, and almost two centuries later, Braille's system has become a communication tool used by blind people worldwide.
This past summer, learning Braille was my pet project. Grade One consists of uncontracted Braille where every letter is given its own character. It took me the entire three months to learn uncontracted Braille. In September, I entered Grade Two, or contracted Braille, where entire words and letter combinations could be represented by single characters. Learning Braille was not easy; in the beginning, my fingers tripped over themselves, these dots meshed into those dots. I frequently cursed Louis Braille and his wretched system. But not being one to give up, I continued plodding through the second grade. It is now the end of the fall semester, almost the end of the calendar year, and I am almost done with the second grade. Fortunately, the Braille curriculum only consists of two grade levels. After contracted Braille, I will once again be completely literate.
Sometimes I ponder the strange parallelism that is my life. At the same time that I work toward completing an English graduate degree, I am learning to read. I am both an adult and a child. Either way, I am learning. Whether it be epic novels or simply the alphabet, I am reading. But that's the funny thing about grad school: it can feel like kindergarten all over again. I'm often dazed and confused, my thoughts stumbling over each other, this word mashing into that word. The fear of leaving familiarity behind only to realize failure is not all that impossible. Sometimes I ask myself what the hell am I doing here? Maybe we all ask ourselves that question at one point or another. Maybe we ask it multiple times in a single day. What keeps us trekking along? Telling ourselves that--like the two grade levels in Braille, like the semester, like the degree plan--all things come to a close. Moreover, we tell ourselves we're doing it for the love of literature.
And so this post is meant to be a little nugget of encouragement, a small pat on the back. Too all the readers and writers and grad students out there, keep it up. Be literate, stay literate, keep feeling your way through those words.