Living with blindness

Strangers are kind but the enforced passivity makes one a second-class citizen.

Blindness is enveloping. It's beyond belief to step outside and see so little, just a milky haze.

Indoors, a smothering dark. It means that you can't shed a mood of loneliness with a brisk walk down the street because you might trip, fall and break something. Nor will you see a passing friend, the sight of whom could be as cheery as an actual conversation. Sights, like sounds, randomly evoke a surge of memories ordinarily inaccessible that lighten and brighten the day. "Who are you?" I may already have asked 10 people who have spoken to me. Their body language as well as their smiles are lost to me. Human nature is striped with ambiguities, and you need to see them, but like a prisoner, I am hooded.

I lost my sight once before, to cataracts, a quarter-century ago, but it was restored miraculously by surgery. It then went seriously bad again until, reaching 80, I needed a cane. Tap, tap. Ambulatory vision is the technical term.

Everything becomes impromptu, hour by hour improvised. Pouring coffee so it doesn't spill, feeling for the john so you won't pee on the floor, calling information for a phone number because you can't read the computer, or the book. Eating takes considerable time since you can't see your food. Feeling for the scrambled eggs with your fingers, you fret about whether you appear disgusting. Shopping for necessities requires help. So does travelling on a bus.

The kindness of strangers is proverbial - a woman leads me through the bustle of an airport towards the taxi stand, a waitress hands me back a $50 bill I mistook for a $20. Blindness is factually a handicap, yet an empathetic one, because other people can so easily imagine themselves suffering from it, sometimes even experiencing a rehearsal for it when stumbling through a darkened house at night. I remember how in school we teased students with Coke-bottle glasses, but didn't laugh at blind folk whose black glasses signified that they couldn't see at all.

LEARN HOW TO FALL

Everything becomes impromptu, hour by hour improvised. Pouring coffee so it doesn't spill, feeling for the john so you won't pee on the floor, calling information for a phone number because you can't read the computer, or the book.

The ears need schooling as a locator. I search for the bathroom at night, guided by a ticking clock whose location I recognise. As you go blind, exasperating incongruities arise, but also the convenience of this new excuse for shedding social obligations not desired. And you can give your car away.

Like Plato's Cave, your brain consists of memories flickering on a wall. The phenomenalities of sight are now memories, but my sixth sense has helped. Call it intuition; and I've never felt despair, any more than when I was a kid who couldn't talk.

I know about handicaps harder to cotton to, having stuttered terribly for decades, my face like a gargoyle's, my mouth flabbering uncontrollably. Blindness is old hat. In Africa, you still see sightless souls led about by children gripping the other end of a stick. Blindness in its helplessness reassures the rest of us that that oddball is not an eyesore or a loose cannon. Being blind is omission, not commission; and you'd better learn how to fall. Paratrooper or tumbler training would be useful. A tumbler can tip sideways as he lands so his hip and shoulder absorb the blow.

The ears need schooling as a locator. I search for the bathroom at night, guided by a ticking clock whose location I recognise. As you go blind, exasperating incongruities arise, but also the convenience of this new excuse for shedding social obligations not desired. And you can give your car away.

Hearing snatches of conversation from invisible voices, everything becomes eavesdropping. Have I seen my last movie? Is the vision gone from television? But I can still see daylight and bipedal forms, tree crowns and running water, swirling, seething leaves against the sky-blue heavens, which remind me of 80 years of previous gazing on several continents. Eternal instants on Telegraph Hill, Beacon Hill, or Venice and Kampala.

Splendiferous mountain vistas of greensward and cliffs scaffold my dreams, drawn from memories of sheep pastures in Sicily and Greece, rich with textured sedges or tinted canyons, then bombastic skyscrapers, or Matisse's Chapel. So it's flabbergastingly impoverishing to wake up in the morning. Faces are no longer seamed, nor are raindrops stippled on the windowpane, cats high-tailed in a turf war, postage stamps vividly illustrative. I forget my condition and grope for my glasses, wherever they are, as if they could solve the emergency. Blindness is an emergency; the window shades are drawn, and one deals with it in myriad ways.

Instinctively I reach out to touch everyone I talk with, heightening the moment of contact. Shoulders I go for, as gender-neutral, companionable territory, but most folks don't want to chat for long with anyone whose deficits are front and centre. There's sympathy fatigue, though allowances must be made, an elbow gripped, and perhaps the menu read aloud in a restaurant. Poor guy; be considerate; tell him what the headlines were in the paper today, but if he's not Helen Keller, let the next person take a turn at being nice.

You get somebody to scan your mail for you outside the post office, and supervise paying a bill in the return envelope, maybe even writing the cheque for you to sign. Improvising keeps one alive, and at the beach, you can hear the surf thump if not exult in the spindrift's curl. The tide tugs your feet. At 4.30 in midsummer, you hear the birds' morning chorus, nature primeval and ascendant. You dig when you're blind, fingering for roots, then for what the roots are connected to. Curiosity does tip into tediousness, though, when there's no new material.

NIGHTS CAN TURN BRIGHT

Blindness as a metaphor is not flattering. Blind drunk, a parent blind to the misery of her children, a politician blind to the needs of his constituents. When blind, you can neither read text nor frowns, but if somebody starts talking to you and you can't see them, hang loose till you figure it out. Equilibrium is the key.

Eyedrops of several descriptions and optical devices accumulate as each is superseded by another. You used different hand lenses for different phases of magnification. Since a book or film is not in the cards, blindly groping for succour in your boredom can be a danger. That comfy stranger on the bench may be Mr Ponzi. Discipline is required. In all your parts, do you still enjoy being alive? Crossing your legs and twitching an ankle, savouring cherry tomatoes, then sweet corn and lobster.

Nights can turn bright if the world mysteriously whitens, as though one's optic nerves were rebelling. It's odd when one part of the body dies but the rest does not. In blindness, we don't cast off our eyes, but continue to consult them in thwarted ways, much as amputees feel their lost parts almost function.

Feeling a chill wind, I'll look at the sky for a forecast, but triangulate the slanting breezes for the message I can't see. I smell the rain before it comes, and the sun speaks to my skin like a finger stroking. As, in my view, joy in people may be analogous to photosynthesis in plants, this is quite logical. But wet days can be delicious also, a cool drink for dry skin, restful in its implications; good weather has its pressures. Less is expected of a rainy day; you can hole up a bit with yourself.

Like Plato's Cave, your brain consists of memories flickering on a wall. The phenomenalities of sight are now memories, but my sixth sense has helped. Call it intuition; and I've never felt despair, any more than when I was a kid who couldn't talk. Blindness resembles a stretched-out stroke. Functions wither as your walking slows. Muscles atrophy and sensibilities, too. You can't size up a new visage, yet the grottoes in your head have more to plumb if your sight was lost midlife or later. You can go caving.

Where are my eyes, I suddenly think, as if I'd left behind my coat. Landscapes become impressionistic, eliding details. Abbreviation is at the core. Input is so precious - the conversations other people pause to grant you, beyond the barest niceties, describing piquant scenery you can't see. Strong sunlight is needed for a newsstand headline but muted illumination has subtler uses, and in pitch dark a blind man is at an advantage.

The personality of the street, hubbubed with hurry, invites strolling. Slatted fences, orange lilies, SALE signs in a window. "Outta sight!" a guy exclaims. I seek a bench I know about, remembering a whole gallery of friends who have died by now. Older than Mozart, younger than Bach, they engulfed my life with love and commitment, and on a good day permeate my mind. My sexual fantasies invoke an alloy of wives and friends. But anonymity has swallowed me like Jonah's whale; I grope inside.

Sunlight beams turn the street radiant for a quarter-hour. Two of my mentors ended their lives by suicide, and I remember their dilemmas sympathetically. One jumped into the sea, the other the Mississippi, but I wonder in each case whether the sun was shining or they'd waited for a rainy day. Our elements return, in any event, to the oceans to re-form as other life.

Nature is our mother, if no longer our home. We couch-surf in rented beach houses, with green belts as habitat for other creatures that remain. How many of us have watched a possum "play possum" or a goshawk swoop after a blue jay? We feed pigeons and hummingbirds, then have done with it. Nature has become a suburb. Of course, I can't see the cardinal at the feeder out the window, though tidal forces still operate. The leaves natter even if you can't see them. Your ears report their bustle, ceaseless until dormant for a span of moments. The pulse in your throat signals that in your torso all is well; it will beat till it quits.

That concordance of organs lives within us like sea creatures throbbing on a coral reef, strung there as on our skeleton as long as conditions allow.

Novelty is the spice of life and salts our daily round even when we lose our sight. Your eyes don't steer you as you saunter, yet your lungs, legs, arms feel as fit as ever. For simple exercise, I hoist myself out of each chair, or bicycle in bed, though then unfortunately may pick up two completely different shoes and try to squeeze them on. My socks don't match either. But why am I not crankier? a friend asks. I'm helpless; I can't be cranky. Blindness is enforced passivity. I have become a second-class citizen, an object of concern. Crankiness won't persuade people to treat me thoughtfully. Disabled, that dry term once applied to so many others over my lifetime, now applies to me. As best I can, I'll make my peace with it.

NYTIMES

• Mr Hoagland is a nature and travel writer, and the author, most recently, of In The Country Of The Blind, a novel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Living with blindness'. Print Edition | Subscribe