City vs. Country: the wisdom of Helen Keller

I decided to read Helen Keller’s biography The Story of My Life after being in a bit of a reading funk and stumbling upon the title randomly on the shelves of my rental home. I wanted to read about someone overcoming adversity with hope and perseverance, and who better than Helen Keller herself? It was all very admirable and impressive to imagine someone deaf and blind at the turn of the century making such descriptive observations, and to realize how incredibly learned she was.

I felt in awe of how she acquired multiple languages, pursued college and examinations via her finger/hand communication, even adapting and interpreting algebra symbols from differing braille systems with 12 hours of study. And yet, it was only in the final chapters of the bio that her eloquent words really shook me and provoked my curiosity.

Keller explains how she prefers nature and the countryside over the city…

People who think that all sensations reach us through the eye and the ear have expressed surprise that I should notice any difference, except possibly the absence of pavements, between walking in city streets and in country roads. They forget that my whole body is alive to the conditions about me. The rumble and roar of the city smite the nerves of my face, and I feel the ceaseless tramp of an unseen multitude, and the dissonant tumult frets my spirit. The grinding of heavy wagons on hard pavements and the monotonous clangor of machinery are all the more torturing to the nerves if one’s attention is not diverted by the panorama that is always present in the noisy streets to people who can see (p. 142)

I happened to be reading this passage while sitting in a park near Kingsway in Vancouver last weekend, since I was visiting Scott to celebrate our wedding anniversary, the birthdays of our nieces, and honour mother’s day! It was so bizarre that Keller was expressing my sentiments towards the city, but over a century ago. I was certainly distracted by the panorama as she predicts, but was also feeling a strange exhaustion from being surrounded by the relentless traffic.

And then her observations really hit home…

In the country one sees only Nature’s fair works, and one’s soul is not saddened by the cruel struggle for mere existence that goes on in the crowded city. Several times I have visited the narrow, dirty streets where the poor live; and I grow hot and indignant to think that good people should be content to live in fine houses and become strong and beautiful, while others are condemned to live in hideous, sunless tenements and grow ugly, withered, and cringing. The children who crowd these grimy alleys, half-clad and underfed, shrink away from your outstretched hand as if from a blow. Dear little creatures, they crouch in my heart and haunt me with a constant sense of pain. There are men and women, too, all gnarled and bent out of shape. I have felt their hard, rough hands and realized what an endless struggle their existence must be – no more than a series of scrimmages, thwarted attempts to do something (pp. 142 – 143),

Again, I’m reading this and thinking about the two youth that I had just spoken to around the side of the Buy-Low grocery store. The young woman was barely clothed pacing awkwardly and her buddy was evidently unconscious and slumped over in the grass. I had to ask if everything was okay, and at first she snarls, but then apologizes and says thank you, and he murmurs that he’s still there. They made me feel so wretched on such a beautiful sunny day. Meanwhile, every street corner in their vicinity is chock full of realty signs and Open House announcements, a selection of yoga studios and trendy coffee shops.

Even though I’m still searching to find that level of fulfillment I experienced working at the Carnegie in my new job, I do feel that leaving Vancouver was for the best. Carnegie was a calling, but also one that I didn’t want to grow jaded in. At least my heart still aches for the Downtown Eastside, instead of feeling burnt out. I never got over my head, and that is a good thing. Helen Keller even helped clarify my mixed feelings, when she wrote…

Oh, would that men would leave the city, its splendor and its tumult and its gold, and return to wood and field and simple, honest living! Then would their children grow stately as noble trees and their thoughts sweet and pure as wayside flowers. It is impossible not to think of all this when I return to the country after a year of work in town (p. 143).

It’s tricky because leaving the city is still a great privilege. A small rural town does not necessarily have the services for those who are mentally ill or detox centres for those who are addicted, but it seems so unfair that access to nature should be elite. At least there are groups like “Take a Hike” foundation making amazing opportunities happen for troubled urban youth to experience the outdoors. A most worthy group for financial funding!

Helen Keller then cracked me up in her description of what lifts her spirits especially since Scott had just been doubling me on his motorcycle around town!

Next to a leisurely walk I enjoy a ‘spin’ on my tandem bicycle. It is splendid to feel the wind blowing in my face and the springy motion of my iron steed. The rapid rush through the air gives me a delicious sense of strength and buoyancy, and the exercise makes my pulses dance and my heart sing (pp. 143-144).

I also found it curious how Keller had a variety of “friends” beyond her teacher, family, and companions. She loved her “tree friends” such as a grand Oak and “approachable” Linden tree, whom she wept over after a storm toppled it. I started to remember my own childhood tree friends such as the massive crab apple tree in my neighbour’s backyard. I loved to climb as high as I could possibly climb, almost looking into the attic of the Cullingworth’s place. And then there was my more accessible lilac tree, where I would perch and huff the sweet fragrance in the spring, and take tiny sips of nectar from the flowers. Keller believed that,

Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this gift from past generations This inherited capacity is a sort of sixth sense – a soul-sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one (p. 141).

Finally, there is Keller’s affinity for furry friends as she absolutely adored dogs.  I stumbled upon a whole article called “Helen Keller: a life with dogs” that explored how much she loved them. One of her greatest wishes was to acquire sight so she could look into her dog’s loyal and trusting eyes. Keller wrote,

Whenever it is possible, my dog accompanies me on a walk or ride or sail. I have had many dog friends – huge mastiffs, soft-eyed spaniels, wood-wise setters, and honest, homely bull terriers… My dog friends seem to understand my limitations, and always keep close beside me when I am alone. I love their affectionate ways and the eloquent wag of their tails (p. 144).

Now that I realized I had a few things in common with Helen Keller, I actually wanted to learn more and the discovery has really snowballed! It turns out that she was quite the activist and radical for her time, which was an image that was often suppressed or dismissed if she became too political. The mainstream preferred her to be a virginal miracle child, instead of someone calling out for justice for the poor and pointing out hypocrisy and imbalance in society.

From an article called, “The Radical Dissent of Helen Keller” she is quoted in 1901 from an article in the Ladies Home Journal saying,

Once I believed that blindness, deafness, tuberculosis, and other causes of suffering were necessary, unpreventable. But gradually my reading extended, and I found that those evils are to be laid not at the door of Providence, but at the door of mankind; that they are, in large measure, due to ignorance, stupidity and sin.

Another article that reviews her life called, “Helen Keller’s Radical Vision” in the Huffington Post points out how she was a woman’s rights advocate, a suffragette, supported birth control, and even donated to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) back in 1916, (see: “The Politics of Helen Keller“) which was apparently controversial because of their civil rights approach. She wasn’t phased by criticism and would join picket lines, and helped fund the American Civil Liberties Union.Picket line

Apparently Keller was questioned by a college student when she was becoming quite old if there was something worse than being blind. Keller smartly replied, “Yes, I could have lost my vision.” She was always a wild child that seemed to care little for the superficial but wanted to dig deep, to study, reflect and understand the world.

I will likely read her book from 1927 called Light in My Darkness (or My Religion), which she wrote to appease all the curious minds about her faith. It’s always difficult to articulate one’s faith, but Keller didn’t shy away. She even bluntly states that, “Faith is a mockery if it does not teach us that we can build a world, both material and spiritual, more complete than the world is today.”

Keller did not take an ordinary path when it came to Christianity, but it was the one that must have resonated for her. In a summary from the reviewer explains…

Her religion developed from living deeply within her spiritual self, cut off from normal sensation, and spending her life on a spiritual plane. She incorporated her own experiences with the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic born in 1688, and the Swedenborgian Church. Swedenborg, like Keller, had experienced other realms of spirit and transmitted deeper teachings that Helen saw with great clarity.

With so much stimulus in our daily lives, especially sounds and visuals I think it worth making an effort to quiet our minds and reach out to touch and know nature. I also want to make a better attempt at identifying aspects of the natural world that surrounds me. There’s the obvious eagle, hummingbird, otter, seal and sea lion on a daily basis, but there’s also these tiny orchids growing out of the rockery, a range of pine trees, and so many funny birds!

I’ve identified the Black Oystercatcher, Varied Thrush with his orange chest, and Mourning Doves, that I’ve never paid attention to. There also appears to be a variety of hummingbirds, or at least male and female ruby-throated hummingbirds so far. If Helen Keller can distinguish so much by feel, I really need to step up my game. What a fascinating and inspiring individual.



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