The Sunday Magazine

How an Anglo-Saxon parable inspires a young woman with a visual impairment

Eilmer the flying monk made wings out of chicken feathers, leapt off a cliff and broke both his legs. But he never gave up trying to fly. His story inspires Claire Steep. Her essay is called, “Eilmer the Flying Monk.”
Elmer the Flying Monk made wings out of chicken feathers, leapt off a cliff and broke both his legs. But he never gave up trying to fly. His story inspires Claire Steep.

This segment originally aired on ​November 19, 2017.

By Claire Steep

You haven't lived, it turns out, until you have heard the Gospel of Matthew shouted down a lecture hall in Old English by an eccentric London professor. So I discovered my second year in university.   

Old English was an unexpected and lasting love. I didn't love it for the alliterative half-metre, like Tolkien, or for its declensions like the classicists, but for the stories.

My favourite tells of Eilmer, the flying monk. He made wings out of chicken feathers, leapt off a cliff and, predictably, broke both his legs. When the Abbott confronted him about this lunacy, Eilmer assured him the fault was in the chicken feathers, because chickens are drawn to the ground. Eilmer was resolved, therefore, to make the wings out of goose feathers next time and try again.

I don't think the Anglo-Saxon scribes set out to write a parable about growing up with a disability, or a vision impairment.  But they may as well have. 

I was Eilmer. I understood as much about my right-field hemianopia as he did about gravity, and because I only half-understood, I dared to do what any fully-sighted child would do. I leapt into space with regularity and never once worried that the leap might prove catastrophic. 

Instead, I made a career of traumatising my neurologist. I learned to skate, to ride a bicycle, and to ski.

"You taught her to do what?" said the neurologist, horrified. "But she can't see!"

I know she was only concerned for my safety.

But years later, comparing notes with my brother, it was clear that we took an equal share of tramplings by snowboarders, and of the two of us, it was he, with his 20/20 vision, who was afraid of falling. Of course he was; if I was Eilmer the flying monk, he was a much younger Abbot. It occurred to him to worry about risks. All I wanted was to get on with the complicated business of being normal.

Undeterred by her eye problems, and for most of her 26 years, Claire has taken chances. She has put her doctors, her teachers and herself to the test. And she's long been determined to let neither symptoms — nor systems — get the better of her. (Claire Steep)
"People Who Knew" decided I would never be able to read.  Faced with Bob sat on cat on mat at age 6, I could identify none of the words on the page. I could, however, tell you that Bob sat on cat on mat was a badly constructed sentence, and not only that, I knew it was a dull, badly constructed sentence. It's sequel, Ten men in tents, wasn't a huge improvement. Little wonder that I rebelled, aged 8, against the lot of them: Bob, Cat, Mat, the men in tents, and quietly read A Christmas Carol. It was hardly gravity-defying, but I'm confident Eilmer the flying monk would have approved. Everyone else thought it was a miracle.

They wanted to know how it had happened, who had done it, what had made the difference. I didn't much care; I had run out of Dickens and wanted to be left alone to read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, thanks all the same

I progressed from having no reading group to one of those extra help groups schools sometimes run. Rarely have I been more frustrated. It was mortifying to be there, not because of any overt awfulness, but because it made me more acutely aware of my eyesight than I had been since I'd had to wear an eyepatch to kindergarten. I wanted to be included in the same classes as my friends; I wanted to do the same things, and somehow I'd wound up in a group that, while well-intentioned, conflated "vision impairment" with "low reading comprehension."  Whatever my limitations, reading comprehension did not make the list.

It happened all through school though; guidance counsellors sent me for tests to clarify my learning disability, physical education teachers recommended I be exempt from gym classes on the strength of my eyesight, and benevolent art teachers designed art projects to accommodate my vision. I wanted none of it.

I resisted the urge to jump up and down and shout into next Tuesday that the problem was with my eyes, not my learning, and how exactly did a restricted field of vision affect my ability to do track and field anyway? If blinkered horses — who are the creatures I still think most likely to best understand right-field hemianopia —could do it, why couldn't I?

It's probably just as well I didn't discover Eilmer and his chicken wings until my twenties. Otherwise there's a real chance I'd have handed his story to every well-intentioned teacher who tried to set a stricture on me and hovered over them while they read it, before followed up by a sermon from the Gospel of Claire entitled, Let Me Take Risks.

Luckily, this never proved necessary. In grade 4, the extra-help group dissolved, the school having decided I did, after all, know what I was reading about. It also graciously accepted that my Anglo-Saxon approach to spelling — that is, varied, creative and frequently imperfect — had more to do with auditory learning than wonky eyesight. An enlightened gym teacher even let me participate in classes. To her, what mattered wasn't hitting the tennis ball. It was my engagement in class. I was thrilled.

I now know my neurologist wasn't wrong to be concerned; Eilmer will vouch for the fact that dire things come of leaping off cliffs, however confident the leaper. But if I'd stopped to consider the consequences, the list of things I might never have done would have been insurmountable. If I had accepted my lack of fine-motor skill, I would never have learned embroidery. Much less would I have learned to bicycle, swim, skate, ski or portage a canoe. I certainly wouldn't have ended up in Scotland listening to a posh London accent shout the Gospel of Matthew at me, and if I hadn't done that, I would never have encountered Eilmer the flying monk, would never have stumbled across the means of advocating for myself, and live the life I wanted for myself. 

To hear Claire read her essay, click 'listen' above.


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