Curing My Blindness By Turning Off My Smartphone

Before you can say "digital detox" I was in the throes of an awakening, the "once-was-blind-but-now-I-see" variety. This was particularly meaningful because I am, in fact, going blind.
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I realized I'd forgotten my cell phone after I dropped the kids off at school, which was lucky because I unleashed a whole string of profanities. I was annoyed because the 15-minute walk from the school to work is my get-crap-done time. I speed-walk down brownstone-studded Brooklyn streets and I order Siri to make appointments, send texts, create reminders. I catch up on phone calls. And now, there was no slim possibility of my being productive. There was nothing to do. So I walked and I looked around. And before you can say "digital detox" I was in the throes of an awakening, the "once-was-blind-but-now-I-see" variety. This was particularly meaningful because I am, in fact, going blind.

At 19, I found out I was losing my vision thanks to a degenerative retinal disease, and was told that I had 10 to 15 years of sight left. I had a moment of awakening that day too, and I resolved to see everything I could while I could -- to carpe diem. This was possible because I didn't have a smartphone yet.

It was 1996, and while cell phones existed, they were far from ubiquitous -- especially among college kids like myself -- and they weren't pocket-sized computers. So, on the summer day of my diagnosis, when I left the doctor's office, I didn't reflexively reach for my phone. I didn't call my boyfriend or parents or best friend, as I would have done today. I didn't Google "retinitis pigmentosa," and I didn't tweet "Holy sh@t, I'm going blind #blindsided #buzzkill." I walked the 20 blocks back home through midtown Manhattan, eyes wide open behind my dark sunglasses.

I saw men in suits hailing cabs, and white-haired ladies walking miniature dogs. I saw round-faced babies in strollers sucking on their succulent toes. I saw lush red strawberries glistening in supermarket windows. Colors, shapes, patterns everywhere, in abundance.

Waiting for the streetlight to change, I looked down at the sidewalk and I saw something sparkling. It wasn't a shiny penny or a diamond ring. It was the sidewalk itself -- a tiny iridescent bit of rock which caught the sunlight.

"The sidewalk sparkles?" I wondered.

And then: "Oh my God. The sidewalk sparkles."

I realized for the first time (though not for the last), how much beauty I'd lose when I lost my vision. The New York City sidewalks, the ones I pounded every day without even noticing them, the ones frequently covered in dog piss and squirrel shit and human vomit, were heart-achingly beautiful. Which meant that the beauty of the world beyond was absolutely unfathomable.

Suddenly, realizing it wouldn't last forever, I was desperate to see. And I would, I promised. I'd see enough in the next decade to last a lifetime.

I'm willing to wager that I wouldn't have had such a revelation had I been checking my Facebook feed when waiting for the light to change.

Here's where I assure you this is not a rant about the evils of technology. Far from it. Nobody loves technology more than the visually-impaired. Almost 20 years after that diagnosis, I'm legally blind; cataracts obscure my spotlight of tunnel vision that grows more constrained every year. My smartphone is my lifeline.

It enables me to do things fully-sighted people do with little hitch in my giddy-up. I can enlarge my screen by tapping three times, a magic trick on the order of Dorothy triple clicking her heels to get back to Kansas. Siri is my scribe and reader both; she makes appointments, creates reminders, sends texts, dials numbers. The flashlight app literally lights darkness. There is even an app that turns my phone into a magnifier so I can read menus, and subway maps, and Stuart Little to my kids.

Smartphones are game-changers for the visually-impaired, to the extent that if Milton was alive today and someone gave him an iPhone, his crippling depression would probably clear up pretty quick (his poetry would suck, though).

The trouble is, I spend so much time interfacing with my phone that I miss so much of everything else. If I found out that I was going blind today, my carpe diem campaign would unfold differently. It's hard to seize the day when one hand is always seizing a cell phone.

Even if I were to do the same things -- flying on the trapeze, praying at St. Peter's, soaking in the sunrise over the Smokies -- I'd be compulsively sharing each experience on Facebook and Twitter and in group texts. I'd be thinking up clever hashtags with which to encapsulate my experience. I'd be framing and snapping photos, despite the fact that I wouldn't be able to see those photos soon enough. In trying to catch it all, I'd miss it.

Which is precisely what I realized a few weeks ago when I forgot my cell phone at home.

That morning I noticed that summer had arrived while I was busy doing other things. Dozens of yellow and purple pansies filled the garden in front of my children's school. A young woman in a flowing sundress walked two Great Danes, as large as ponies. I passed a newly-painted fire escape whose red was so bright, I literally did a double take.

The world was suddenly in Technicolor. It was intricate and it was interesting. I couldn't help but feel like I'd just cured my own blindness, at least temporarily.

I enjoyed it for about 10 minutes. Then I walked home and retrieved my cell phone. Even if it were feasible to unplug, it is far too exhausting to appreciate the little beauties all around me, all the time. I'd grow blind to them, even without a smartphone.

But every now and then, I force myself to forget my phone at home. I let Siri take a coffee break. I do nothing, and I see everything I can.

Nicole C. Kear is the author of the memoir "Now I See You," published by St. Martin's Press.

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