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Inside the Book

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Read the Introduction and Excerpts from Things No Longer There: A Memoir of Losing Sight and Finding Vision or listen to audio selections.

Table of Contents

Audio Selections

These audio selections are from a recording of Things No Longer There by Barbara Byers, Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Library for the Blind, October 2005, DC26697 (used by permission).

Introduction

This book is about things no longer there in the outer world that are still very present in the mind. In it, I explore the way outer landscapes may change but inner visions of them persist, giving meaning, jarring the senses with a very different picture from what appears before the eyes. Things No Longer There: A Memoir of Losing Sight and Finding Vision is a culmination of my desire to paint with inner pictures the scenes, memories, and emotions, the invisible landscapes that illuminate my mind long after they have disappeared in the world outside.

I began to write this book at a time when I was trying to come to terms with loss--loss of old relationships, old homes, loss of my past `from moving on and growing older. I had become aware that the important landscapes of my past were no longer there when I returned to find them. I felt a great discrepancy between what I remembered and what I saw when I went again to an old haunt and found it changed, went again to see an old lover and found her remote. My images of my past, of a scene as it was when I left it or first lived it, were so vivid in my mind that the incongruities between what I remembered and what I saw outside myself disturbed me.

I decided I did not want to lose the images that were once so important to me. I would write about them and thus hold on to those landscapes that had lasting meaning. I began writing about "things no longer there" in a deliberately pictorial way, painting my inner pictures to stem the tides of change. This volume represents that painting; though verbal, the sense of it is highly pictorial. I speak of the glow of a desert at dawn, of the quietness of a coastside marsh, of the remembered chatter of girls splashing in a lake in a summer camp, of the daily rituals of a lesbian intimacy.

I speak, too, of the experience of losing my eyesight. Not long after I had begun work on this book, I started to lose vision in both my eyes. Objects I previously saw in the outer world were now no longer visible to me. This experience seemed very much in keeping with my theme of disappearing external landscapes. Most importantly, my loss of sight focused my attention on the value of inner vision, those inner images that so brilliantly organize the world and that are made up of much more than visual clues, but persist through their emotional meanings.

The guiding theme of Things No Longer There is the struggle to honor inner images, the important ones to each of us, especially when the outer world changes, seeming to obliterate what once was so central. Each chapter explores this theme in a different setting. Together they offer a mosaic of memories and visions, moving back and forth in time. Part I contains stories about my returning to geographic landscapes of my past and finding them no longer as they once were. Facing such loss, I create images of the invisible physical landscapes that were once so meaningful to me. In Part II, I explore invisible lesbian landscapes, often hidden beneath the veneer of the heterosexual world, to highlight important aspects of lesbian social realities. In Part III, on blindness and sight, I describe my experiences while losing my eyesight. I share my internal world to reveal processes of readjustment and reorientation to a world felt when not seen, to a world known through inner and constantly changing vision. In a final, novella-length story presented in Part IV, I take the reader back to a time in my life when one particular personal relationship assumed great importance for me. I render that relationship here as a poignant intimate drama. Each section of the book mixes stories of searching, whether for lost geographic landscapes or invisible emotional landscapes, stories of recovering past visions that stand as testimony to the compelling power of inner portraits.

Things No Longer There: A Memoir of Losing Sight and Finding Vision is intended both for the general reader and as a contribution to the academic fields of qualitative sociology, feminist ethnography, and lesbian and disability studies. This book extends a method I previously articulated in Social Science and the Self: Personal Essays on an Art Form (1991), in which I argued for the value of a subjective approach to the development of knowledge. It further elaborates themes concerning gender and identity I addressed in my studies The Mirror Dance: Identity in a Women's Community (1983) and The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships among Women (1996).

Like my earlier works, Things No Longer There experiments with narrative form. It provides a unique journey both personally inward and outward to various parts of the country. It is a travelogue, a set of inner portraits painted with a loving hand, a glimmer of hope, a set of words and images thrown up against loss. As I wrote each chapter, I felt I was gaining self-acceptance from valuing my inner visions, and I enjoyed the activity of writing as if I was painting. Now I invite the reader to come with me as I go birdwatching before sunrise, as I drive down the California coast, as I look for lesbians at a folk music festival, as I learn to walk with a white cane. Come with me as I look for an old love. Let my memories spark yours. Let my visions encourage your own internal pictures, for this is a book about valuing inner vision and about unusual kinds of sight. I hope it enriches the life of the reader by stimulating meaningful emotions and insights that will last well beyond the reading.

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Chapter Excerpts

From Chapter 1, Things No Longer There

I tend to give exact directions. A friend, noticing this once, told me about how her father gave directions: "You turn left at the corner where the big tree used to be in front of that house they tore down last year, then right in a few blocks where the pharmacy was, near the stoplight. The image of trees and buildings no longer standing in the midwestern town where my friend grew up, but that were still very present in her father's mind, has stayed with me for a long time, those absent features of the landscape more visible to me than many places I have seen. Perhaps that is because the missing elements were the only ones my friend told me about and because they had a compelling hold on her father's imagination, but more likely because I, too, am drawn to places no longer there, to imagined scenes, wished for experiences, to sad, sad feelings of longing for things past that never really occurred exactly as I have remembered them.

From Chapter 5, Lesbian Invisibility

Of all lesbian topics, the key to the rest, it seems to me, is that of lesbian invisibility. This is a subject I take so for granted that even to think about it seems a huge undertaking. I am a lesbian. So much hinges on that statement, or on the need to begin with it. Why is it so necessary to say, "I am a lesbian?" Why is it so hard to say? Both the necessity and the difficulty suggest to me the importance of invisibility in lesbian life. Here are two facts of my own life. The first is that I am always looking for other lesbians -- and I am always unsure of whether I am seeing them. They are always disappearing on me, or they appear, but I am not sure for how long they will stay. Is a woman I am seeing now a lesbian for a moment, a year, a few years? Is she a lesbian in private but not in public? Is she a lesbian for life, as I am?

The second fact is that I am always wondering whether I am seen as a lesbian -- whether I am visible and what my visibility is taken to mean by others. I wonder not only about what straight people see, but also about what other lesbians see. Do they recognize me as a lesbian, and if so, what kind of a lesbian, and is a lesbian even something one can be anymore? Does the category of lesbianism still exist, or has it disappeared into a postmodern amorphousness of identity, a nonspecific sense of having multiple identities, a "don't pin me down" attitude that adds to a prior strong pull to avoid the stigma of lesbianism, to avoid the persecution that has long caused lesbians to be in the closet? The stigma associated with lesbianism has caused us to blend in, to adopt a protective camouflage -- a distinctly female camouflage -- as we pass as conventional women, and sometimes as men -- all to avoid passing as lesbian. Even with today's more accepting attitudes toward lesbianism, I often feel that these attitudes are only skin deep; they accept the appearance of being a lesbian but not the underlying reality.

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From Chapter 8, Losing My Vision

I am losing my eyesight. I am not sure if my vision loss will continue for a few years more or indefinitely. Already my visual world has changed....The blue irises I now look at in the spring on the hills that slope toward the ocean are blurred; I have to take out my binoculars to see them. I have to take out my binoculars at the beach to see the waves and to see any detail in the white foamy breakers. The large forms and colors of sand dunes and green meadows surround me as I walk on a path toward the beach. I sit in a crevice among the dunes surrounded by scattered clumps of low-lying white flowers, a garden of beauties I can barely see. I am going to have to grow accustomed to this new world I am in--if indeed it keeps being mine--and to find and delight in my place in it.

From Chapter 9, Birdwatching before Sunrise

In this portrait of a visit to a desert wildlife refuge, I describe a special time of day -- between darkness and morning light -- and a particular time in my life, when my eyesight was becoming increasingly uncertain. "Birdwatching before Sunrise" is an adventure in vision, full of the lights, colors, and shapes that surround me as I look out onto a desert landscape with changed sight.

From Chapter 10, Blindspots

Because my vision has been gradually growing worse, last summer I took a series of lessons in the use of a blind person's white cane.... A man came out to my house. He walked with me along the streets nearby showing me how to use the cane, feel the sidewalk, go up and down steps, know if a car was parked across a driveway and then how to get around it. As I walked with him, I learned to listen. I'm feeling things," I said to him at first. "You're hearing them," he told me. And I learned to hear the buildings as we passed them, to hear the sound of a tree deflecting the wind, to hear the changing pattern of the air when I stepped away from a building. I learned that a sudden gust of wind and some sun told me I was at a street corner. I learned that when my feet pointed up, I was headed toward the crest of an asphalt street; when they pointed down, I was headed toward the sidewalk on the other side.

I stood on a corner and my teacher told me to listen to the cars approaching in order to know whether they had stopped or kept going. I should gauge where they were by noting the position of the loudest noise in relation to the center of my forehead. He told me to listen at traffic lights for the car movement patterns, to wait until a cycle came around to my turn, then go quickly when the traffic went.

As I walked along the streets, I often walked crooked. He told me to go straight by paying attention to the buildings at my side. The space in front of a building would be quiet, it would feel rather dead. I could walk with the quiet by my side. In other places, however, there were many noises. I walked and closed my eyes and the world without vision in which I was being mobile felt very noisy and busy -- full of different ways the air felt when I approached a tree or a street sign, or was about to bump into a garbage can. I heard a house on my left, then a driveway; I felt a staircase coming toward me. I heard construction noises in the distance. I felt the sun and the wind of a corner. I walked up a hill and sensed that up ahead there was something interesting going on. People were talking. Machinery was at work. I felt that the world of walking up a street and not seeing the buildings but hearing them was richer, less flat, more busy, more alive than the visual world. Then I went back to what I could see, because it was easier and I was used to it.

I learned many techniques for the proper use of a white cane from my teacher, but the real lessons for me lay in feeling I could be mobile -- without a car, without a license, without seeing. I was not less good as a person for not having sight. I'd be okay.

From Chapter 11, An Intimate Memory: The Lesbian-Straight Divide

Our experiences often stay with us, not encapsulated in general terms but beneath the surface as a complex of images, bits of conversation, sensations of place, details not always accessible, but sometimes seen when recalled with an inner eye. In this novella, I present an inner vision that has long held a fascination for me. It is drawn from a time over twenty years ago that feels like yesterday, so vivid are my memories of place, people, and the nature of the intimacy....

In recent years when I have visited with Anna, the straight woman in this story, neither of us could speak about this important part of our past. Our silence made me begin to doubt my memory. However, when I turned to my writing from the time, I realized I could never invent such snatches of conversation and such revealing emotion. The details I had recorded told me that it happened, she loved me then, we were close, I didn't just make it up.... Here, then, to culminate this book, as testimony to the compelling power of lost landscapes and inner visions, is one final story.

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