On letting go of my visual life

A few years ago, I was offered a writing tip from a friend who was trying to advise me as to how to overcome writer’s block.  At the time, I was strung as tight as piano wire, unable to come up with a single creative word.  To add self-flagellation to injury, I was furious with myself for becoming the cliche of a writer who sat staring, paralyzed, at a blank computer screen.

Of course, in my case, "blank" is a relative term.  But I digress.

Anyway, my friend advised me that he used a technique that helped him when he found himself floundering.  He suggested that I forget about composing an introduction, working through the salient points and concluding with a profound thought or compelling call to action.  Instead, he advised, "Just begin writing, even if you begin in mid-sentence.  Write as if the thoughts had already been flowing for pages and pages.  Start in the middle of the document, and work your way back, or forward, it doesn’t matter.  This can trick your mind into believing that you have simply dropped into a continuum of free-flowing ideas, and before you know it, you’ll be able to begin at the beginning."

I was skeptical.  Frustrated, yet skeptical.

As it turns out, it is a trick I’ve used for awhile now.  Most of the time, it works well for me. 
it takes the pressure off of trying to come up with an attention-grabbing opening line, and I give myself permission to write in a more stream-of-consciousness manner, knowing that I can always go back and ruthlessly edit later.  another trick that has helped has been to keep a running open file of words, phrases, topic ideas and inspirational text from which I can draw when needed.

I say all of the above to set up the manner in which I approached this essay.  I tend to be very private, and I rarely write about anything personal.  When first deciding to set up this blog, I was determined to write only about issues that pertained to accessibility and assistive technology, and not to write about personal feelings related to my own vision loss.  My thinking was that there are plenty of others who write about their trials and tribulations with their disability, why add to the chatter?  I didn’t feel that I could write about it in a way that was valuable.  I thought I could be of greater service to others if I kept my feelings out of my writing.

Still, there are a few posts here describing various adverse circumstances in which I’ve found myself on occasion, and to my surprise, all who have read my rants, missives and manifestos have been incredibly supportive.

It is understandable that my readers might, at least, every once in a while, like to hear from the human being behind the blog.  With the hope that this is the case, and I’m not aggrandizing myself, I thought I’d write about something a little more personal today.

I’ve only been living in the house I’m in now for about a year and a half.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself in spring cleaning mode, and decided it was time to unpack more of the boxes stacked up in the garage.  At the rate I’m going, I thought, I might as well just leave it all packed for when they come to move me into the senior living facility.  it will make it so much easier when they bring it all to the thrift store.

So, determined to be the master of my own donation destiny, I began going through boxes that hadn’t seen the light of day in years.  Most of us have had to suffer the madness of moving from one dwelling to another, and in the process, we’ve learned that we have too much stuff.  In fact, I wondered, as I pulled open a box that contained trinkets from my childhood, how many of us have boxes that we NEVER open, we just haul them from place to place, thinking we’ll get to it at some undetermined point in the future, only to realize that we have no place to put any of it?  Here I’m reminded of the comedy routine performed by  the brilliant George Carlin, who railed against the accumulation of belongings we move from one residence to another throughout our lives.  Remember the routine he did about the extinction of humanity, leaving behind "the Earth, plus plastic?"

Bent over one particular box, I could feel it was crumbling, the cardboard wrinkled, the tape peeling, the corners frayed.  This one must be a really old one, I thought.  Wonder what’s in it.

The box was full of photographs.  Loose photos, still in the envelopes with the negatives tucked inside (have you wrapped your mind around the fact that we’ll never have photo negatives again?), albums, and even school yearbooks.  Photographs taken over a lifetime of milestones…milestones that ceased to be recorded when I began to really lose my eyesight.

I do not remember the precise point at which I stopped taking pictures, but it was years ago.  Decades of my life have now passed without the cheery chastisement to "say cheese!" as I snapped a photo of some timeless moment.  I hadn’t even thought of it until right then, staring down into a box full of those memories imprinted on hundreds and hundreds of paper squares that I will never see again.  When is the last time I even looked at them?  Surely, there must be packages of photographs in here, picked up from the drugstore rack of developed rolls of film that I’ve never even opened.  Intending to place them lovingly in a photo album, I just assumed I’d get to it one day, but one day came and I could no longer recognize anything in a picture.  I just left the envelopes, unopened.  Now, I would never know what had been picture-worthy at the time.  There must be events recorded there that I’ve long forgotten.  That’s what the photos are for…to jog our memories, to refresh our recollection of an event, a celebration, that Christmas when…

But it’s all gone to me now.  I felt, standing over the box in my garage that day, as though I had a sort of Alzheimer’s disease, only instead of the blissful ignorance of memories lost, the past slips away while you stand by and experience every moment missed, conscious of the loss like the sensation of the sand pulling away from beneath your feet as the ocean waves rush to retreat from the shore.  What do I do with the photos now?

I have no one to give them to.  Who would care?  I cannot describe them to future generations, and what was significant to me at the time is surely meaningless to someone else.  There will be no reminiscing, no laughter over the dated hairdos, the outrageous outfits, the long-lost friends whose names just won’t come to mind.  Yet, throwing away all of my old photos, albums, yearbooks, school portraits, unopened envelopes emblazoned with that bright yellow Kodak logo seems like an act of assisted suicide.

I wonder what to do now.  This has me feeling uneasy.  I’ve long since let go of my visual life, yet disposing of a lifetime of happy birthdays, spectacular sunsets, foreign travel, forested trails, and rolling road trips would be a kind of amputation of the soul.  What should I do?  What would you do?  What have you done?  Tell me about a time when you let go of your visual life.





  1. Natalie P. says:

    Wow. Amazing reflection. Preparing to move, we’ve been amazed at the collection of ‘things’ we’ve amassed. Some things feel like emotional albatrosses around my neck. And some things feel like touchstones of what made me who I am today.
    Sometimes we keep things even though they seem to have no ‘practical value’… but the emotional, spiritual value is beyond measure…

  2. Author's Note says:

    Natalie, as usual, your comments are thoughtful and astute. In examining my feelings upon discovering the box, I felt conflicted, as I described. In reality, though, tossing out the lot of it is really unthinkable. Your observation about the emotional and spiritual value really rang true. In some cultures, the nature of a photograph is to capture the essence of the subject’s soul. For that reason, some indiginous peoples abhor the taking of their picture. Based upon the responses to my post so far, there seems to be arguments to be made on both sides. I’ve heard both. Truthfully, there’s no really compelling reason to throw them away. They’ve lived comfortably in the box for this long, I think they can remain there a bit longer. I’ll bet I can find something else to throw away instead. Thanks, Natalie.

  3. Mina says:

    You could always request in your will that the photos be burned after your death. Like a kind of cremation ritual, as you might not want anyone to collect them for any reason. A time will come, far into the future, when such photos will be glorified as antiques of a bygone era and the future’s people will stare at them curiously and try to imatgine the “primitive” cameras that snapped them.

    I had lost my sight two years ago and I am still trying to transition into giving up my visual life. I still have useless stuff I can no longer use but I have two issues I face. One, the motional ties they have. Two, the difficulty of finding an accessible place to sell them online.

    Then there’s a third issue. How do I handle the clothes I can no longer remember, but still have? I cannot tell what colour they are, nor what style they are, nor how they look on me. A few I never wore, the rest is dropped from memory. I find the whole situation very frustrating.

    On top of all this, I am re-learning how to read by learning braille. I have an easier time with jumbo braille than typical braille. But still, there’s part of me that just wants me to give up and never mind becoming literate again. Just die as a person without killing yourself. Let yourself go, and hope you die of heartbreak. Makes one wonder where the real danger is; the depression that makes one believe this–and I shed a tear here–or the loss of what I had unknowingly took for granted.


  4. Author's Note says:

    Mina, first, thank you for sharing your own story. I’ve been so touched by what you wrote that I’ve been thinking about how to respond. I know your comment touched others, too, because they have told me so. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to respond more fully to you privately, so if there is anything I can do for you, you’ll have my email address. As I’m sure you’ve discovered by now, the place you occupy in your new world of just two years can feel like an isolated one. It can seem like a world replete with little more than worthless cliches and maddening advice from others who do not live your experience. No one can know what burdens we each carry, and input useful to one may be unworkable to another. The keys of life seldom open more than one door. With that in mind, I will offer suggestions only when asked, and if I may be of some assistance to you, I’m here. There is also a world of others who are on the same path, but who may be ahead of or behind us, brilliant, beautiful travelers who are blind who will help.

    Look for an email soon from Laura at Accessible Insights.

  5. Jeremiah says:

    As someone who has always been totally blind, I’ve read this post and replies probably five times in the last few months, and appreciate them more each time. I don’t appreciate that each of you are in the midst of what is to me an unimaginable, heartbreaking scenario, of course, but I appreciate your kindness and generosity to share a glimpse into your experience. It’s extraordinarily easy for me to grossly underestimate the “task” of learning to live a someone who is blind, and I often feel inadequate when asked to give encouragement or council to someone who is or will be, but hasn’t always been, blind like me. Your thoughts will contribute to me working harder to be of better service to others, and that’s a debt I’m glad to owe.

  6. L. Legendary says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Jeremiah, and for being a loyal reader. Everyone experiences life’s trials and tribulations, few walk through it untouched. I do believe that how we perceive our particular circumstances is more a matter of our choosing than not. By sharing our experiences, both the good and the not so good, we can lighten another’s burden…if for no other reason than by doing so, we havve declared, “you are not alone.”

  7. Travis says:

    I lost my vision in Iraq in 2005 after an I.E.D. blast. Several times in the last 8 years I have felt the sand being pulled from beneath my feet. The interpretation of the feeling changed over time and this is how. In the first 3 years while going through the gear that was sent home, things like military gear, books, magazines, and the random trinkets that I bought from the little Iraqi flea markets seemed to be objects of sometime long ago. The photographs and the military gear that had made me feel unstoppable then reminded me of how vulnerable I am now. The urge to stuff the photos of the 200 pound version of me stacked with weapons and gear in my pockets so that I might show everyone who I really was would leave me with tears in my eyes.
    In time I felt that same feeling but the interpretation had changed. Instead of sand being swept from beneath my feet, like something being taken away from me it felt like I was purposefully moving away from it. It now makes me smile to think of what a naïve young man I was and proud to know that I have grown into someone more purposeful.

    I would like to share something that helped me in the beginning. It seemed like every sentence I spoke started with “When I was…” I chose to remove that phrase from my language. This forced me to think every time I began to boast about who I was before and instead speak about who I am now or who I want to become.

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