Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dark Corners of Grateful Hearts

There's nothing unusual about the southwest corner of 9th Ave. and 23rd St.. It's just another corner in an innumerable series of corners that form whenever two streets meet on the island of Manhattan. I have stood on that corner at every hour, during every season, under every conceivable variant of precipitation, through every extreme of temperature, waiting for countless lights to change, nearly being hit by bikes going the wrong way on the wrong side of the street. The corner is, as far as corners go, unremarkable.

Until tonight.

     Tonight I was waiting for the walk signal when I heard some commotion to my right. I turned to see a group of six people, all forming a single file line, with their left hands on the shoulders of the next except the front two who had walking sticks. These six were all blind. It was literally the blind leading the blind.
The signal changed, giving me lighted permission to cross the street. Instead I stayed put. I wanted to see the ones who couldn’t see as they navigated this corner. I wanted to watch how they made their way, how they worked as a unit to communicate where they were going and how they would get there.

    It isn’t unusual to see the blind in New York, especially on 23rd.  Selis Manor, a 14 story residence for the visually impaired, sits between Sixth and Seventh Avenues and its residents navigate the streets with the aplomb of sighted city dwellers. I have a blind acquaintance that lives in the building who puts my running ability to shame with the many marathons he has run. In fact, José’s perception is so attune that you’d not know he was blind if it weren’t his white cane or guide dog.
    What is unusual is seeing a group lined in a row, a full two long avenues west of Selis Manor, making an effort to cross the street together. They had apparently just deboarded the Access-A-Ride bus, the City’s paratransit system that operates to help those with disabilities for whom the subway and standard buses are not easily accessible (though I’m constantly surprised at the amount of blind passengers on the subways). The bus driver, who was also on the corner, did not help them get wherever they were going. And, from all appearances, the group preferred it that way.

     Such an encounter would hardly prompt me to write an essay. If I wrote a piece for every highly unusual thing I saw, I’d not have much time for much else. This city, for all its legend and pomp, and in all its supposed scrubbed-clean-Giuliani-Bloomberg glitz, is still a uniquely strange place to live. No, it wasn’t the group of six visually impaired people holding on to each other to get where they were going that led me to write, though that is truly a remarkable thing to happen upon.

What was remarkable was their joy.

     New Yorkers are notorious for their hurried pace, the seeming speed with which they move to get from one place to the next. There's a determination in their eyes and God help the person that unknowingly gets in their way or slows their step. It's a tough city, and its occupants are hardened to fighting their way to get where they're going. The word ‘joy’ would scarce be used to describe a typical New Yorker on a typical commute.

       Which is why the six were so remarkable. Not only were they reliant on each other as a group, they were joyful in their pursuit. 

When the two leaders with their white canes both ran into the same trash can at the same time, the group erupted in laughter.

       When they realized they needed to navigate around a light pole, the group heaped words of encouragement and instruction, one to the other.

      When they needed to listen intently to the sounds of traffic, the group hushed in unified determination.
       And each of the six did each of these things smiling, holding on to each other, never once snapping or moaning, never once with a hint of giving up.
        I wonder sometimes about my capacity to endure. I often let my mind drift to scenarios that find me struck blind or deaf or without the use of my extremities. And just the thoughts of such things strike me with such fear, I can't imagine what actually living them would do.
        But I do know what I do now. I do know when a group of tourists flank the sidewalk and shorten my gait, I default to anger. I do know when a person has the audacity to sit in the empty seat next to me on the subway, I audibly groan. I know that when the trains are late, or the baby cries, or an elderly man boards -- prompting me to get up, not out of sense of respect (though there is surely some of that) but out of a sense of wanting the entire train to see my noble action or at least not see me stay seated -- my whole demeanor resents every second.

      I know that at any given second in any given morning can turn on nothing more than a funny look from a stranger. I know that when I ruminate on my life, my ruminations dwell in the messy spots, on all that is wrong, on all I don’t yet have or haven’t yet experienced. The money is never enough, the friends are too superficial, the loves too shallow, the needs too great.

       And yet the six without supposed sight turned my world alight with a lesson on what we do when life doesn’t live up to all that we expect it should. These six, all smiling, bumping and fumbling on their way, had more sight than most any sighted person I saw today. And the lesson they taught me was this:

     Be grateful, not for what you have, but for what you don’t. Be grateful for the friends who will travel with you along roads of darkness, and be grateful for the ones that won’t. Be grateful for the lack of money because you’ve seen what it does to those who have it. Be grateful for disease because the illness taught you things that health never could. Be grateful for the lack of anything beyond your next breath because it made you trust in the unseen things that are more real than the air you breathe. Be grateful that the world didn’t give you anything close to what you had imagined because what you had imagined was far less than you could ever have dreamed.

     Be grateful for blind joyfulness, for the smiling few who will never see another smile, the ones who laugh when they stumble and the ones who quiet when the world rushes by. Be grateful for the six who knew beyond anything I have ever seen how to see things beyond which I will never know.

     And finally, be grateful for the dark corners. Because there you see glorious, illuminating joy etched on the faces of a wonder filled few for whom a guiding light is seen, not with their eyes, but with their hearts.
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