It started as a discussion about my dad’s retirement. Not a year into retirement he has found a good use of his time: pacing. An even better use: screaming at innocent people in public. I was expressing my concerns about these things. He, understandably, tried to turn the tables using that old standby of parents of creatives: ‘You don’t make enough money now to survive on. How will you ever be able to save up money for retirement?’
I’d heard it too many times to register anymore. It quickly turned into a nightmare too terrifying to manifest in sleep. Then came my common retort, ‘Writers don’t retire; we work until we die.’ You’ve all heard this, right? Likely, many of you reading this have had this conversation.
But, reeling in sensitivity about retirement, misunderstanding concern for judgement, he determined he’d get the last word.
‘What if something happened– something like blindness?’ he asked. There the fight ended. He’d found a grip on any writer’s Achilles heel and tears sprang from my eyes as if he’d literally severed the tendon. For days I tried to heal the pain of having that nerve hit. The thought so terrified me that I’d never in my life allowed myself to have more than a fleeting thought of it. Now, here I was, days before Christmas, splintering my holiday spirit and making me eerily aware of the few writing moments I was able to parse out.
It was around that time I discovered Belo Cipriani. A recently blinded American author, his work in Diverse Voices Quarterly initially compelled me to read more. We got in contact. We exchanged some writerly sentiments via Twitter. Eventually I just had to read Blind: A Memoir.
One of Cipriani’s most redeeming qualities is his ability to enlighten sighted people through his new experiences as a blind man. His stories about developing community ties speak loudly. “Blindness is so isolating. And on top of that we depend on artificial voices to survive,” he writes. “I want to give hope. I want people to always know there’s something where they think there’s nothing.”
The book opens with a childhood story about a memorable day in school when, while the teacher was doling out Belo’s special gift, she also doled out a statement. It’s one of those statements adults say, hoping to have an impact on a kid, yet not quite realizing how that impact might stick like a hook in our hearts. Instead of merely allowing Belo to look inside a bag and choose what he wanted for his prize, she made him close his eyes and select without discrimination. Why, he asked, of course.
“Because some day you may not have your sight,” she said.
Not 20 years later, those words materialized. He was new into his career in San Francisco’s financial district. The assailants were fellow gay Latinos whom with he used to hang out in the northern California gay scene with. But let me not be a spoiler. Read the memoir yourself to find out more about that.
One of the forces preventing him from writing, he explains in his memoir, was the hope that he’d regain his sight. The second thing was typical for any memoirist: the fear of placing one’s self back into all those memories, those tragic moments that wreak havoc on life but work well for writing. He did write it, obviously, because, as he wrote in the introduction, “I hope to offer hope to the future generations of men and women who seek understanding and empathy.”
The narrative’s tension builds when Cipriani discovers who his true friends are not. The reader is left thinking the worst of humanity, yet he keeps the story moving via a roller coaster of humorous and elucidating anecdotes of the hardships of daily life as a blind person, getting back in the dating and work scenes, finding a Capoeira coach, and even grooming. One part that stands out was Cipriani’s discovering synesthesia by walking with a cane.
“I used my cane… and was surprised to realize how much faster I could move. It felt bizarre to touch things with my cane and automatically create a visual. I glided the tip of the cane on the floor and immediately saw the wooden boards in my mind. I felt the threshold and knew I would be making a right to exit my condo…. For the first time in months I felt connected with my surroundings and no longer invisible.”
The cane becomes a character in the book and in other pieces Cipriani’s written, but one that plays a supporting role once Madge, his guide dog, comes along. To paraphrase the author: The former is like a tricycle, the latter like a motorcycle. A dog may be smart but it can’t help you count out the proper amount of money at a restaurant– let alone discover what’s on the menu.
Laboring under the arduous effort of becoming acquainted with digital recorders, watches, PDAs, and other adaptive technology, he also realized that the road to independence mandated the use of JAWS. JAWS gave him the tools he needed to start writing Blind and his forthcoming novel.
Check out Cipriani here on his YouTube channel, twisting technology.
I’m thankful for my sight and for the ability to string words together in a sentence. I’m also thankful for my friendship with Cipriani and for discovering other blind writers through Robert Lee Brewer and Litopia After Dark. They’ve all inspired me to realize that blindness doesn’t stop a writer. Sighted or not, we all need community. And we all need someone to give us hope. We might never retire as writers but we certainly have our challenges. I applaud Cipriani’s strength and am curious to see how his writing develops over the years.
Tomorrow’s ArchitectureTravelWriter will feature a Q & A with Belo Cipriani. He will offer tips on the ever-so-coveted residencies and fellowships and introduce his new book.