Today there are so many books on living optimistically to get all you want in life that it’s downright depressing. But in 1962, when I was 15, after I saw Patty Duke as Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft as her teacher, Annie Sullivan, in The Miracle Worker, I read Keller’s essays on optimism and was jolted to my toes.
Certainly there was no optimism in my family. Every time something bad happened to us or to anyone, my parents would exclaim in Yiddish, “A shvartz yor!” That means “A dark year.” So not only did we have the calamity, but we had projections of more for the next twelve months. It was like putting a curse on yourself or on somebody else, which is the same when you think of it. Either way, you still have your mind stuck in darkness. And here was deaf and blind Helen Keller declaring that “one who believes that the pain of the world outweighs the joy, and expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain of the world.” What a concept for me!
It took me years to begin to incorporate her ideas. First, I had to figure out how my parents, who had sight and could hear, never really looked at us or listened to us for any length of time. In The Seeing Hand, Kellerwrote, “…paradise is attained by touch; for in touch is all love and intelligence,” while my parents used their hands to mete out frassks, slaps. Keller taught me how our senses could be wasted, how hands had the potential of unlocking everything you would want to know. Keller emphasizes the importance of hands in the Bible, where so much is led by “the hand of God.” And whoever focused on hands in Shakespeare before? Think of Lady Macbeth’s heartbreaking soliloquy over her little hand “from which all the perfumes of Arabia will not wash the stain.” Think of Casca stabbing Caesar with the line, “Speak, hands, for me!” And when poor Gloucester, his eyes gouged out, speaks of being with his son again, he says, “Did I but live to see thee in my touch, I’d say I had glad eyes again.”
When Keller wrote about nature, you could see how fully alive she was to the moment, and be inspired to use all your senses, which is the antidote to self-absorption. “The delicate tremble of a butterfly’s wings in her hand, the soft petals curling in the cool folds of their leaves or lifting sweetly out of the meadow-grass.” How alert she was to distinctions and bubbling with language to describe each sensation! “The coolness of a water-lily rounding in bloom is different from an evening wind in summer, and different again from the coolness of the rain.”
I hadn’t read Helen Keller’s in years, but recently, when I needed a pick-me-up, I went to the bookstore and there it was, like a beacon—The World I Live in & Optimism, A Collection of Essays by Helen Keller(Dover, 2009). I opened to a random page, which turned out to be about the moment Keller understood the first word signed in her palm. “…a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living. Night fled before the day of thought….Can anyone who has escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and thrum of freedom, be a pessimist?”
When I looked up, everything seemed different. I could smell the latte over in the café, the perfume of the woman perusing the next bookshelf. I heard the rain ticking on the big windows and felt the coolness of the glossy cover in my hands. I bought the book. Dashing umbrella-less to my car, I realized I couldn’t even remember what I’d been upset about.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004), the Indie Finalist Kaylee’s Ghost (Create Space, 2012), and the soon-to-be-published short story collection What I Wish I’d Told You (Shebooks, 2014.). She’s published essays in The New York Times (“Lives”), Newsweek, and other periodicals. Her poetry has appeared in The Iowa Review, Peregrine, and Moment. She teaches writing at UCLA Extension. rochellejewelshapiro.com