by Orlando Enrique Fiol

Orland Enrique Fiol is a doctoral student in Penn’s music department. He can speak seven languages and plays nearly a dozen instruments. The local resident has also been completely blind since infancy. Here, he takes us on a journey into his world full of sound.

I live in a world where sounds and silences are signs, where the “writing” is usually on the tongue rather than on the wall. A pre-dawn plethora of singing birds means the sun will come out soon. The bubbling of bitter coffee in a stovetop espresso maker means that a cup of joe is on its way. The ascending pitch of dripping water lets me know when my thermos is getting full. The whoosh and slush of passing cars means it has rained. Synthesized speech on my desktop means Windows has booted successfully. TalkBack on an Android means the phone is on. Acoustic changes in air reflections mean I’m passing tall trees or imposing buildings. A simple concrete wall at ear level can keep me walking a straight line.

Silences are inherently baffling. After a blizzard, streets get so quiet that each falling snowflake has its own fluffy transient; but those same deserted streets after dark can bode danger. Conversational lulls can signify nascent love or awkward doubt; a verbally uninvited romantic gesture can be misinterpreted.

What is Valuable in This Sound-Centered World? Clear communication makes me feel secure and aware of where I stand. A gentle statement of arrival or departure saves me from the embarrassment of talking to myself. Whispers and hand signals put me on edge, to say nothing of eye rolls or shoulder shrugs. A few cents difference satisfies a cashier and tunes a piano. My prodigious musical memory means more work and prestige.

What Doesn’t Work In This Sound-Centered World? Colors are mere myths. Makeup prohibits me from adoring beautiful female faces while the rest of the world marvels at beauty I cannot hope to perceive.

Emoticons in emails or text messages waste space. Paths with open spaces are directionally disorienting. Silent movie scenes or nonverbal funny gags make me feel left out of poignant moments or inside jokes. Visual cooking instructions urge me to throw up my hands and turn on the microwave.

Can There Be Too Much Sound? I hate feeling alone in crowds, where everyone is talking to each other but not to me. It’s hard to approach a random stranger without knowing with whom they keep company, or if I am potentially placing myself in danger. In noisy bars, jukeboxes, conversational cacophony and the clatter of glasses beckon me to walk out, but streets full of passing vehicles blaring loud music and honking discordant horns are no better. Multi-tasking is great when sounds are timbrally different and spatially separated, but too much sound in an enclosed space can become unmanageably noisy.

Can This World Be Shared? If you can see and hear, my world is a second-class subset of yours, where conventionally appealing looks get you jobs and dates. You don’t have to wait long on street corners for directions if it’s too wet or cold to bust out your GPS. You can wrap yourself in nonverbal cues or visual euphemisms to avoid impolite questions and heartbreaking responses.

You don’t need your touch screen to be able to be labeled with puffy paint or someone around to tell you if your day’s clothes are clean. You can get into a car and adjust everything from the seat position and air conditioning without inquiring where the controls are situated. You can pick your own produce at a supermarket or on an enterprising immigrant’s mobile farmers’ market truck.

You can enjoy sight seeing rather than radio surf in a generic hotel room. Paintings possess actual intellectual intent. Colors liberally pepper your perceptions. Good news! Commonality is actually abundant between our supposedly disparate worlds. Hanging out with sound-centered people like me might improve your aural perceptions, while spending time with “sightlings” like you might connect many non-Braille dots for me.

So, the next time you see me or one of my cohorts looking lost in a street corner or sadly sitting at a table amidst a bustling party, don’t just walk on by; make some noise! Marvin Gaye sang it best: “Talk to me and you will see what’s goin’ on. You tell me what’s goin’ on; I’ll tell you what’s goin’ on.” If life is a river, its droplets, rapids, and waterfalls matter just as much as sunlight’s sheen on its banks. Let’s not leave each other to drown in this river when we can laugh and cry, shout and sing, touch and hug.

* Reprinted, with permission, from Philly Current magazine. For more information, visit www.phillycurrent.com.