"The Dreams That Come True"
When One who Can neither See nor Hear Finds Joy in a Flower Garden
by Helen Keller
Swedenborg says that "many arts in this world derive their laws and harmonies from Heaven."
Certainly,there is something divine in the art which some human beings possess to shape life for themselves, no matter what the outward circumstances may be. That is the power of the Celestial Artist, the Will, to find life worth living, despite the handicap imposed.
I have for many years endeavored to make this vital truth clear; and still people marvel when I tell them that I am happy. They imagine that my limitations weigh heavily upon my spirit, and chain me to the rock of despair. Yet, it seems to me, happiness has very little to do with the senses. If we make up our minds that this is a drab and purposeless universe, it will be that, and nothing else. On the other hand, if we believe that the earth is ours, and that the sun and moon hang in the sky for our delight, there will be joy upon the hills and gladness in the fields because the Artist in our souls glorifies creation. Surely, it gives dignity to life to believe that we are born into this world for noble ends, and that we have a higher destiny than can be accomplished within the narrow limits of this physical life.
"I can understand," I hear some one interrupting me, "that you enjoy flowers and sunshine and that sort of thing; but when you sit by yourself in that little study on the top of the house all day, aren't you dreadfully bored? You can't see a bit of color from the window, or hear a sound! Don't you get tired of the -- well, the sameness of the objects you touch when you can't see the play of light and shadow upon them? Aren't the days and the hours all alike to you?"
Never! My days are all different, and no hour is quite like another.
Through my sense of touch I am keenly alive to all changes and movements of the atmosphere, and I am sure the days vary for me as much as they do for my friend who observes the skies -- often not caring about their beauty, but only to see if it is going to rain. There are days when the suns pours into my study, and I feel all of life's joys crowded into each beam. There are rainy days when a sort of shade clings about me and lays a cool hand upon my face, and the smell of the moist earth and damp objects lingers everywhere. There are days really "dark" for me when I feel the ten windows in the study shudder and sob with the winter blast. Then glad days that feel like light come when the sonorous west wind booms its message of spring into my hand as I lay it against the pane, and I am eager to be away in the woods-
"Where the soul need not repress
Its music, Lest it should not find
An echo in another's mind."
This is a drowsy day when the summer breeze comes languidly to my cheek, tempting me to go out to my little screened tent, stretch out and dream with the irises and bee-haunted pinks.
There is the hour when the morning sun kisses me awake, and the hour when the burden of material things drops from my shoulder, and I drift to Slumberland. There are hours of breathless haste to catch up with the letters that cover my desk, hours of glad expectancy when a beautiful dream seems about to come true, hours fragrant with tender memories; and always there are the endlessly varied hours I spend with the thinkers and poets and philosophers of all times! How can there be a dull moment when my books are all about me!
I live in a thought-filled world. Those who have all their faculties have no idea what wonderful gardens lie hidden behind the dark silent walls. The very silence vibrates to my every mood and to every consciousness I have of other's existence!
Because silence is such a sublime kind of poetry, it puts soul and meaning into all the vibrations which find their way to me through the channels of touch. There are footsteps of those I love in the house passing and repassing, there is the sudden bark of my beautiful long-eared Great Dane. Every now and then huge trucks filled with material for the new boulevard that is being built not far from this street rumble by, shaking the house and sending little showers of dust down upon the furniture, and instantly I feel astir with the fierce, splendid, never-resting activity of New York. Some time ago I had a breathless moment when twenty aeroplanes rushed by on their way to the Lindbergh parade, and several of them came so near the house I distinctly perceived the roar of the motor through the walls of my study. What a crowd of admiring, far-gazing thoughts that vibration started on the wing. As the birds follow summer, so my mind again followed in the vision the dauntless youth who had crossed the Atlantic alone. Out there, on trackless levels of the night, I again saw him. In my own soul I recreated that agony of solitude, the lurking herd of fears and doubts, the awful abysmal dark. I tried to imagine his thoughts as he drove on and on, sensing the primal mystery -- darkness as inaccessible as God's light. In the world's market, where they sell all things, he had bought a dream, and carried it on dewy wings into the shining east, his plane swaying with the winds and curving with the clouds! My spirit seemed to stand still as I imaged him losing the celestial trail and leaping into the unmeasured void, with a million white-faced deaths blowing across his path! Because I know the dark so deeply, I had peculiar sympathy with him guiding his plane that like a lamp grimly burned in ice -- now rising above the treachery of fog and sleet, now swooping seaward, hunting an unseen course as a blind man feels his way in the dark! But at last, fluttering down the golden bar of dawn, he glimpsed the dim rim of earth, and all the glory of a mighty day shone upon him! All this the Artist within brought thrillingly to my consciousness as I felt the sonorous roar of those planes speeding over Long Island to do him honor. And what other marvelous pictures he conjured up for my delight! They come fast, they come fast -- the Fliers crossing the Pacific, fliers who seek to read the baffling secrets of mist and snow and airy heights, fliers who overtake the swiftest fires and quench them, fliers who shall charm shut clouds to pour bounty upon thirsty fields, fliers who shall bear messages weaving a chain of friendship to encircle the world -- peacebringers who shall outspeed strife and hate, and dare and dare, and yet again dare until all men walk the earth unafraid, brothers one to another!
I have other sensations which bring me warm, human contacts with the outer world. The sense of smell is most precious and important in my every day world. It brings within my reach a multitude of little joys which take the place of color and light. The atmosphere is charged with countless odors, from which I learn much about places and objects. I recognize many flowers by their graceful shapes and fragrance, and it is amazing how many kinds of sweetness there are in leaves, fruits, and seeds! Even the same plant gives forth a different scent in sunshine and in rainy weather. In spring and autumn there are qualities which I can describe only approximately, as I have not found anything like a satisfactory vocabulary of smell terms -- or touch terms either. There are tender odors like the lilac. The honeysuckle seems to lavish its fragrance upon one with something like affection. The odor of the lily when once captured is a precious satisfaction, but how shy and elusive it can be even though one stands close to the flower! There are sunshine and calm for me in the smell of a new-mown hayfield, the woods and mountains are full of quiet, eternal odors that make me want to worship. There are many beautiful odors that seem to reach out to me like friendly greetings each time I pass, and this is a sweet compensation for the void I feel when I cannot see loved objects unless I stretch my hand and touch them. Smell is like a friend who gossips with me about little every day things as well as the Spirit of Beauty. It tells me when it rains, when the grass is cut, when automobiles pass in the street, what new houses are going up in this growing town -- and when it is mealtime. It is the thousand scents I perceive which differentiate one house or a street from another, and always I prefer to be as near the country as possible.
I should like the city pretty well if it were not for my exacting touch and odor perception. But the avalanche of noises and the turmoil of New York weary me, and the heavy smells of crowded shops and sultry streets and air congested with gasoline oppress me. Give me the noiseless little noises of growing things and the morning and evening odors of my tiny garden, and I am content in a world flooded with the harmony and the brilliancy of the spirit. Imagination gives eyes and ears to those who lack a sense or two, builds a satisfying whole out of the fragmentary and often unrelated details which drift into one's consciousness out of a dark silent chaos. I had an experience recently which I should like to relate because it brought out in a most happy manner the delightful sensations and the witchery of the soul which render my life as full and livable as that of any one with all his powers intact.
I was sitting at my typewriter the other day, waiting rather impatiently for an idea which I desperately needed to finish a chapter in my autobiography, when I received an invitation from Mr. Doubleday to come and smell the roses in his garden. "Bless my soul," I said to myself, "this welcome interruption has saved my life! It has put to flight the recalcitrant thoughts that were destroying me utterly. What better thing could I do than go out there to smell roses!"
The drive to Garden City was beautiful. Long Island is always beautiful under the touch of June. The caressing air makes one realize the uselessness of toilsome effort when all out-of-doors breathes an irresistible invitation to come and be a child again, when even the most diligent finds work irksome, when every live boy dreams of playing "hookey." I thought, "Perish the task that would keep one indoors on such a day!" They are rare enough as one grows older. Running away like the boy with the circus is our only chance of being young again.
Are you amazed, O reader, that I should sympathize with the boy's enthusiasm for the circus? Well, I have a perennial desire myself to get under a circus-tent, and be a part of the riotous pageant -- the segregated wonders of the world. I remember that when I was a little girl, not quite seven years old, my teacher took me to the circus. It was the greatest object-lesson of my childhood. My vocabulary was very limited. Miss Sullivan had been teaching me only two months; but I had learned enough words to understand that I was going to touch "very tall, very large, very strong animals." The phaeton came around to the front door, and I touched Charlie, the old horse. He had been in the family longer than I had. I asked if the "animals" were as tall as Charlie. When Miss Sullivan told me that one of them, the elephant, was as high as the phaeton itself, I became so excited I could hardly sit still. Charlie was very slow. I had observed that when the whip was applied to his fat sides, he went a little faster. I seized the whip, and before Miss Sullivan could stop me, I had given the poor old fellow a terrible whack which made him rear, and nearly upset the phaeton. My teacher quieted Charlie, and delayed our progress long enough to make me understand that if I did that again, I should go right home and never, never, never see the huge elephant.
The first thing of which I was conscious when we finally got inside the tent was a strange, terrifying smell. I clutched Miss Sullivan's skirt, and for a moment my impulse to run away was stronger than my curiosity. But, her hand on one side and the big hand of the circus man on the other side reassured me. They gave me a bag of peanuts and took me at once to see the elephant. I felt his huge forelegs, and the circus man lifted me up on his shoulder, so that I could touch the creature's head and fan-like ears and his broad back, on which there was an Oriental silk covering with tassels and bells. (Some one was going to ride him later.) I was told to give him some peanuts, and perhaps he would let me touch his "long nose" and put it into his mouth. I was amazed, and a little angry; for I liked peanuts, and I had intended to eat some myself. But my disappointment was only for a second or two. Some one gave me another bag of peanuts, and I was allowed to feel my benefactress's beautiful, slim body. She was a trapeze performer, and wore only pink tights. She laughed with pretty confusion at my scrutiny, and kissed me.
I also made the acquaintance of the Arabian marvels and their gorgeous riders, and felt the splendid chariots. I was allowed to sit in one of them like a gypsy princess. The camel was made to kneel, and let me climb up on his queer, humpy back. But oh, the smell of him! At last the wonderful hour came to an end, and we had to leave. My dejection was a little lightened by my teacher's assurance that the circus would came (sic) back after days and days, and I should be taken there again. Of course all the details of this strange nomadic caravan are intensely interesting to any child, and to one who had almost no contact with the outer world they were overwhelmingly fascinating.
What a far cry it is from the automobile which bore me along at the rate of twenty miles in half an hour to that slow horse plodding a mile in the same period of time and an old-fashioned circus in an out-of-the-way village! But it is one way to illustrate the magical changes I have witnessed in the past forty years, and the piled up interest and novelty of my present experiences. When my friends and I arrived at the great publishing- house, Mr. Doubleday received us with cordial kindness, and from his personality and conversation I judged he was a lover of nature as well as a collector and distributor of books.
After a few minutes' chat we went out into the gardens, and smell roses I did! Multitudes of them. There seemed to be as many kinds and scents and ways of growing as there were roses. Gorgeous ramblers climbed up with insatiate desire and tossed great clusters in the breeze. Long-petalled, curly-headed roses romped and spread themselves out like active, eager children seeking adventure. Delicate roses with single petals and slender stems trembled in my hand, while large, full roses exacted tribute with stately grace. All roses that are most fondly twined with memories of home and simple joys grew there, and my fingers thrilled as I recognized the moss-rose of my childhood. Some of the roses were so high and large that they seemed like cascades dancing softly down from the sky.
But I did much more than smell roses. For there were quantities of peonies, in all their splendor and stateliness, all kinds of lilies and pinks and larkspur and masses of honeysuckle. Every breath was a delight, and every flower touched glowed with tints of inexhaustible beauty which no mortal eye may behold.
There was another world of beauty for me in those gardens in the evergreens. There is plenty of room for them, and consequently they have a chance to grow unhampered. Every kind of conifer which will make friends with our climate has been brought there, and planted where it shows to the best advantage. My fingers revelled in many new forms from a superb giant pine with thick, bright green needles to an exquisite small white pine with thin, soft foliage, almost like a silk fringe. A light breeze followed us as we passed from one to the another, and I listened to them as they played the invisible violins of the air -- an inexpressibly restful music. Then there were the firs and spruces John Ruskin had so enthusiastically described with their branches extending in magnificent ridge upon ridge and the sunbeams dancing in and out, offsetting the darker greens. I have always loved evergreens with a deep love. There is nothing in nature which has such a potent, deep-rooted appeal for me. They seem human, and at the same time they symbolize whatever is imperishable and uplifting in life -- hope, courage, and serene faith. Their unfading greenness and fragrance breathe immortality, and are a blessing to me amid the grim monotony of winter. It may be imagined how gratified I was when Mr. Doubleday said that he also found peculiar happiness in the companionship of pines and firs, and had worked for many years to have that wonderful retreat of evergreens made possible right in the heart of a restrictive, machine-driven civilization. He also told me how several men who had visited him, among them John Burroughs and John Muir, had planted a tree in that garden.
Truly, I left those gardens immensely refreshed, with a crowd of bright thoughts tumbling out of their hidden nests and burrows to put me in the right mood for my work again.
Such is the world I live in, and yet how few people understand the simplest truths about it! I have learned many things which stand out boldly in my mind, and when I think of some of them, I wonder, and say to myself, "Do other people have similar thoughts and emotions? Are they as conscious as I am of the life of the spirit?" From what the people tell me I must needs (sic) conclude that physical limitations somehow strengthen and clarify intellectual processes. I confess, it appears paradoxical that weakness should develop strength. Still, there is scriptural authority for this belief. St. Paul says, "When I am weak, then am I strong" -- which is an exceedingly comforting thought to those who are physically damaged.
The explanation undoubtedly is that limitations drive one inward for diversion, with the result that one's own thoughts become absorbingly interesting. The small events of daily life take on extraordinary importance when Celestial Artist combines them with spiritual elements in the Laboratory of Mind. It is a miracle how an incident of no particular value comes out of the mental crucible beautiful and precious. Little by little the transformation and classification of ideas take place in the brain, where are registered the beings and the events which give delight to circumscribed lives. Stored in the memory, they furnish plentiful entertainment for solitary hours; and that is why I never feel "deaf blind." I left that horrible abyss of hopelessness long, long ago.
My life has been happy because I have had wonderful friends and plenty of interesting work to do. I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among the flowers. The wind passes, and the flowers are content. But into the sweet night of my individual blindness has come the call -- the urge of others' need. It is as persistent as the love-note which the mother-bird hears when her nestlings are in trouble, and I know that it will never cease until I have done the utmost of which I am capable to help others break down the walls of darkness and pour the sweet waters of joy into the deserts of silence.