Notes on Hungry Contentment

Dr. Lauren Winner, a bookworm so devoted she once gave up reading for Lent because it was the most meaningful sacrifice she could imagine, filled her living spaces with books. In one of her memoirs, Girl Meets God, she describes a small New York City apartment crammed to bursting. Cook books and fiction and poetry in the kitchen. History, theology and ethics books in her bedroom. More history in the den. By the couch, civil rights books. In the hallway, memoirs, essays, and yet more history. In every available space, she lived alongside encyclopedias, sociology books, religious commentaries, reference books, writings on feminist theory, books about “Buddhist communities in California.”

Everywhere, books.

For most blind bookworms, such abundance is unimaginable. Many of us own a library’s worth of eBooks and audio books, now that they are more affordable, but to pack one’s house with Braille books wouldn’t make much sense. Braille books are bulky and multi-volumed. They take up a lot of space on bookshelves. They are expensive and hard to come by, unless you own your own $5,000 embosser and don’t mind subjecting your neighbours to its mighty industrial brrrrr.

When it comes to textbooks, we tend to put up with the bulk and expense, though digital braille is removing this need as well. Otherwise, I know very few blind book lovers who can justify owning more than a dozen or so books in braille. (I currently own zero braille books, because space.) Where would you put them? How would you pay for them?

Being rather ruthless in my practicality, I’ve never let this bother me much. I can still read virtually anything I want. I just have to settle for a digital version. The trade-off is more than worth it, when you consider that just a few short years ago, I had to ration my books so I wouldn’t run out of braille and audio material.

But I cannot deny that I miss books. I miss the physicality of turning pages, smelling that papery scent, hearing coils crackle and binding groan. I miss holding a new book in my hands, or at least the first volume of said book, being reassured by its heft. I miss reading without headphones, without speakers, without an internet connection or a mobile device or a braille display. I miss cradling a book in my lap and knowing that I am only here to read. This bundle of paper cannot tweet at me or call me. There is no do not disturb function to remember to use, because a book does only one thing, and it does it very well. There are no batteries to charge, no Bluetooth connections to rely on, just me and words and pages turning, like a journey I can feel under my fingers.

Then there are the pleasures I miss without ever having them in the first place. How much would I love to scribble in the margins, or highlight a favourite passage? Wouldn’t it be great to lend my friends my books, made unique by my marginalia, and to receive theirs in return? Wouldn’t it be fun to meander through a bookstore, flipping through unfamiliar pages in search of treasure? What would it be like to enjoy illustrations, to literally judge a book by its cover? To gaze at author photos and guess what sort of person has been captured there? To have more than an academic opinion about book design, one informed by personal taste as well as the second-hand knowledge I’ve memorized from other people’s ideas?

Today, I am seized by an irrational, unpragmatic longing. I want to surround myself with bookshelves and book stacks and precarious book towers. Filling my kitchen and bedside table and living room and hallway with the hundreds of books I’ve fallen in love with seems like heaven. I’m enchanted by the extravagance of it, the lack of efficiency, the defiant wastefulness of being buried in books. Oh, the slow-paced joy of reading my way along a shelf to choose a book, instead of searching a hard drive or Googling for it. What a privilege to sit with poetry and read it line by line, down an actual page, without hitting a scroll button. ‘Tis so sweet to turn pages, loudly, and feel the book thinning ahead of me as I progress. I want to rush to find the next volume, find it quickly so I don’t tumble out of the story.

Right now, facing a quiet Christmas Eve with few distractions, I am passionately grateful for digital books, and broken up by a desire for a bundle of paper. I bless my well-organized digital collection for its portability, and I curse my clunky braille display for pretending to be something it isn’t.

I acknowledge that digital reading makes more sense, even as I acknowledge that, for me, it is by no means a lossless format. Each time I depend upon a digital experience to mimic my true preference, I lose a personal, irreplaceable sacredness.

So often, being blind means embracing this push and pull. I am thankful for the technology that brings me closer to equality, and I hunger for the “real thing.” I rely on approximations, simulations, and other people’s view of the world. Without them, I couldn’t function nearly so well.

But there’s this, too: I’m allowed not to like it. I’m allowed to hunger, without denying the richness of a sightless life. We blind humans are complex creatures. We can bless and curse, feel grateful and long for more. My experiences have taught me we are more fulfilled when we permit ourselves to do both.

Living Well is the Best Redemption

Over the past nine months, pandemic-induced isolation has forced me to get more comfortable than ever with my own company. To that end, I’ve been turning more and more to the Harry Potter series, my “problematic fave,” the one piece of pop culture that has shaped who I am more than any other.

Despite their many flaws, the Harry Potter books give my soul a safe place to rest. Reading them is like going home in the purest way, even when war and violence consume the narrative. If you’re an ardent fan, you’ll know what I mean. There’s just something about HP.

During this rereading, the most recent of at least a dozen, something stopped me dead in my tracks: The systematic abuse of Neville Longbottom, an anxious, downtrodden student whose brilliance remains hidden for most of the series because he is discouraged from gaining confidence. I’m not in the habit of armchair diagnosis, and I won’t try to guess whether Neville was disabled, but I do know that his anxiety and slower processing of educational materials were rarely addressed in a meaningful way. He was either ignored or berated for his struggles, so much so that a villain posing as a kindly teacher was able to manipulate him with sickening ease by being minimally supportive toward him.

The closer I looked, the more I found to relate to in Neville’s experiences at school. As a blind person who sometimes had trouble processing information in the same way my classmates did, I am familiar with the deep shame of feeling stupid, incompetent, behind. Helpful Hermiones have leaned over to whisper in my ear, less because they were altruistic than because it was painful to watch me flounder. I was a decent student in most respects, which gave me a leg up Neville didn’t have. Even so, the highly visual way most subjects were taught did a number on my confidence. So did the undiagnosed mental health condition and chronic pain issue that I didn’t have the language to describe at the time, guaranteeing I’d go without help for both.

To be crystal clear, I’ve never experienced abuse on par with what Neville endures from Severus Snape, the teacher who bullied him with astonishing regularity. No one was going around poisoning my pets. But I have dissolved in shame as grownups in charge of my educational development belittled me, because they mistook my anxiety for laziness, felt overwhelmed by their inexperience with my need for accommodations, or lacked the patience to wait around while the clumsy blind kid tried to keep up. When I shut down completely in sheer self-defence, their diagnosis of ‘lazy, passive kid’ was confirmed.

Most of my educational experiences were positive, so that I eventually developed the confidence we see Neville embody in his later years. I think most who knew me as a student will be shocked to hear that there was anything negative going on, surrounded as I was by Sprouts and Lupins who liked and respected me. With encouragement and support from dozens of adults, I transformed from a shy, passive mouse into a slightly-less-shy, proactive professional who is always up for beheading snakes and fighting evil. (By snakes, I mean writer’s block. By evil, I mean people who refuse to embrace plain language. Tomato, tomahto.)

So, no, there was nothing Dickensian, or even particularly Harry Potter-esque about my school days. Yet, I can’t help relating to Snape’s victims. as I read about Neville’s toad being tortured, occlumency lessons that involve insults and shouting, Hermione’s appearance and personality being mocked by a teacher entrusted with the education of young children, I wonder at the ease with which many Harry Potter fans have eagerly welcomed his redemptive narrative arc. Somehow, the man so abusive that he scared Neville more than anything in the world—and this is a kid from a sometimes-abusive family whose parents were tortured beyond imagining—becomes a sympathetic, even romantic figure.

It’s easy enough, I suppose, especially if you’ve never known what it’s like to be bullied by an educator. Being mistreated by your peers is one thing. Disabled kids practically expect that. Being targeted by an authority figure is wildly different. I’d wager plenty of Harry Potter fans have never been called babyish, stupid or ‘unlikely to amount to much’ by people who are meant to guide and encourage them. Assuming you’ve never been alone behind a closed door with someone who terrified you because they had the power to make your school life unbearable, who refused to accept you were genuinely doing your best with what you had, then it might be simple enough for you to dismiss Snape’s behaviour as entertaining, or at least excusable. The man was a hero, right? He probably hated teaching, anyway. He couldn’t be expected to suffer fools like Neville.

Plenty of HP fans have experienced exactly that, though, and maybe that’s why these books have always struck a chord with the lonely and marginalized, with kids who felt small and Neville-like. Lots of us had our Snape growing up. Lots of us dreamed of a Dumbledore who would swoop in and put a stop to the injustice. Lots of us clung to these books because they told a better story than the one we were living. These books promised us that one day, we’d be rescued, or become powerful enough to rescue ourselves.

But these very same books largely failed to recognize the trauma inflicted by heroic, “bravest man I knew” Snape. Harry names his child after a man who delighted in making children miserable, and everyone seems fine with that, I guess? How has this never bothered me as much as it does right now? Where have I been?

Since I’m an insufferable optimist these days, I decided I had to move beyond this new understanding to something I could use. So I thought about who Neville becomes at the end of the series, the way he takes the good, does his best to drown out the bullying, and builds a full, compassionate, heroic life. As an adult, he is a respected educator, one who, I feel certain, actively seeks out the lonely and marginalized to show them their hidden potential. In a way, he redeems what was done to him, not through punishment or revenge, but through a life well and graciously lived.

In a less impressive, unconscious way, I have done the same. I have taken the good, tried to drown out the bad, and grown into a fairly capable adult who does what she can to help those around her. And I’ve done a ton of work to understand those who harmed me, because forgiveness is so much easier, at the end of the day, than resentment.

Redemption is neither cheap nor easy. I still wake trembling from occasional nightmares. I still sometimes fall into shame spirals that have their roots in childhood school experiences. There are moments when I wander into a maze of contradictory what-ifs: What if I’d been smarter, or worked harder, or stayed even quieter, or been less frustrating, or cried less, or spoken out more, or tried to explain, or gotten that mental health diagnosis sooner, or been a better blind person, or, or, or…

Self-blame is seductive, because it gives me the pleasant illusion that I had control over powerful grownups, even though that’s a ridiculous notion. Telling myself a soothing story in which I could have been treated better if I’d just tried a little harder is comforting in the moment. Still, I know that the best way to redeem this narrative arc is to live well in the present, to seek out the marginalized and reveal the potential they don’t know they have because they’re too busy holding back tears or trying hard to please the people who bully them. I can pour enough good into their lives to balance things out, at least a little. And a little can go a long way. It did for me.

Like Snape, the tiny minority of educational professionals who mistreated me as a kid have redemptive arcs of their own, perhaps as compelling and surprising as his. Unlike Snape, they usually had more understandable reasons for how they behaved. They did what they did out of frustration, bitterness, ignorance, even what they must have imagined to be tough love. Some were so invested in my success they inadvertently pushed me hard in the opposite direction. Driven by determination, by fear, by overwork and stress, they caused a kid who loved learning to dread school and mistrust her own worth. None of it is okay. All of it is redeemable.

If I choose to, I can play a small part in that redemption, by living well and replacing old, trauma-soaked patterns with positive ones. I can’t decapitate my trauma with a big shiny blade, but this cycle of hurt people hurting people is an evil I can fight, a dark lord I can vanquish because I’m a grownup now. I have a voice now. I can make changes now. I am not a child, and I am not trapped. I am more free, more courageous than that grade-school mouse could have dreamed.

There will be no final atonement, no reckoning. No one is likely to crawl out of the woodwork and say, “Meagan, I apologize for X Y and Z. I’m sorry I stood by and let this happen. I’m sorry I didn’t encourage you. I’m sorry I let my frustration and fear turn to judgment and shame. I’m sorry I mocked you for crying instead of sitting with you in your pain. I’m sorry I was so often the source of that pain.”

Knowing this, I am no longer bitter, or angry, or afraid. I am no longer waiting for an apology. I am no longer wishing for a Dumbledore to appear and see justice done. I am holding the humanity and well-meaning efforts of those who have damaged me in tension with the knowledge that their actions were not my fault, in no way deserved. I am impossibly full of hope.

Hope is not a sword, but it’s enough.