Stylish Negotiations: How a Blind Writer Finds the Right Journals

My essay “Stylish Negotiations” was shared on BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog today! This piece analyzes the stories in an unlikely place — a journal’s submission guidelines — and suggests that many journals aggressively mold and filter the stories of disability they claim to promote. It offers a solution to such frustrating re-shaping: honest dialogue between writers and editors about the subjects that matter to us.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Emily K. Micheal TEDx promo photo 9.2016By Emily K. Michael

Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Because I seek publications that share my interests – ecology, feminism, disability, music – all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s “About” page and submission guidelines. Here’s where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, “send us your best work” or “we only publish good poetry.” I won’t let my students use “good” and “bad” as standalone terms, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the…

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#InternationalGuideDogDay

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

  • Working For Love (Guide Dog Training Part 1)” was the first essay I ever wrote about York, in June of 2014. Little did I know how often York would inspire me to literary action.
  • Quartet Beyond Measure” details how my barbershop quartet came together and adapted to our furry fifth member.
  • Of Dogs and Dragons” examines the beautiful and rewarding inter-species partnership in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — and makes the case that her fantasy world of talking dragons and epic battles reflects our powerful real-world collaboration with service animals.
  • Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World“: I wrote this piece last April and it was published in The Hopper, an eco-literary journal from Green Writers Press in Vermont. To this day, “Working Resonance” is one of my favorite essays, a piece I am incredibly proud of. I reread it often because I believe it has a larger message than I even understood at the time. It expresses so much of what I want to achieve in the world.
  • How My Life Changed With a Guide Dog” started out as an open letter to the generous donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs, and it was picked up by a Jacksonville newspaper — further evidence that sincere gratitude cannot be contained.

I hope you enjoy these pieces and take a moment to thank your furry companions, even if they are not working dogs. If you want more wordsmithing about my adventures with York, just click the “guide dog” entry in the tag cloud on the right.

Happy International Guide Dog Day to all!

Sacred Space Interview: Meditating on the Great Universe

After a long hiatus, I’m excited to rekindle my Sacred Space series with the thoughtful words of my friend and literary colleague, Sohrab Homi Fracis. Sohrab is a fiction writer currently living in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America and the timely new novel Go Home. He has visited my classes several times to read for my students and lead fantastic discussions on the power of culture and literature. In this interview, he discusses his inherited faith and his current spiritual beliefs.

Do you believe in a God, gods, or other spiritual forces? If so, what name(s) does your spiritual force have? Where does the name come from?

I was born into a Zoroastrian family in India and taught prayers in the ancient-Persian language Avestan to Ahura Mazda, the spirit of light / creator / God. But as an adult, while I respect my ancestry, I’m not religious, in a traditional sense. I don’t practice “blind faith.” I can only “believe in” what is established fact. In the words of the narrator of my story “All right, now, Cupid,” forthcoming in an anthology from Burrow Press: “I’m agnostic myself, happy to believe in the incredible yet credible universe.” That requires no “faith”: the universe (from the Latin universus: combined into one, whole) that spawned all of life quite evidently exists, in all its vast magnificence. There is much we factually know about it and much we don’t, with the former slowly but steadily making gains on the latter. Why invent something beyond that?

Sum up your faith in three words. Why did you choose these words?

The Zoroastrian prayers in Avestan do a good job of this: “Manashni, Gavashni, Kunashni.” That means “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” That pretty much covers it, right? It’s also pretty much impossible to pull off all the time. Other than that, I’m good with it, pun intended.

My three words, on the other hand, would be “Nobody really knows.” And the more people who realize and/or acknowledge this around the world, instead of insisting on their particular religion’s fiction (I’m a fiction writer, so I recognize it when I see it), the less divided and more peaceful that world will be.

How do you practice your faith? What kinds of prayer, texts, service, or other rituals do you use?

Well, once I came to the somewhat obvious conclusion that there was no traditional God, I stopped praying for many years. And they were tough years in which I felt the absence all the more, because prayer and faith can be a comfort, of course. But I saw it as false comfort, and didn’t want that. So I toughed it out. When I finally realized that the entirely credible universe was “God” enough for me, I felt I could reconnect with it, in a sense pray to it again. This was my logic in a literary-studies manuscript called The Game Against Death that I’ve worked on, off and on, over the years: “One does not need blind faith to believe in the great universe—no wonder more and more people invoke it directly in their prayers. It is an evident, verifiable, omnipresent, magnificent, awe-inspiring ‘God,’ a constant and powerful presence in and influence on all our lives. It is even, in at least one sense (and possibly also at its primal core), conscious: its living creatures, to which it gave birth, are a conscious part of it. One should not instead insist on a hypothetical consciously creative and interventionist being to blindly believe in.” And/or pray to, I might add.

Describe a moment when you felt that your god was real, that your faith was making a difference in your life.

Once I began to feel reconnected with the universe at large, there was a huge feeling of relief that came with that, and a lasting one of being more at peace with life/existence.

Have you had any spiritual mentors or teachers? If so, describe their role in your life. How did they help you find your faith?

I found cumulative epiphanies over the years, often when reading insightful books such as The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, and Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. And those epiphanies consolidated themselves in my mind during more years spent reading and researching for The Game Against Death.

Where and when do you feel most in tune with your faith or spirituality?

Probably when finding some slight success meditating, which is when I can get beyond/behind my chattering mind and separated-out human consciousness/persona to catch serene glimmers of reassimilation into the larger universe.

What is one misconception that others have expressed about your faith? How would you correct it?

Well, if we’re talking about Zoroastrianism, then it’s the Western world’s label of it being a “dualistic” faith instead of (along with Judaism) one of the earliest monotheistic faiths in history, introducing to civilization the concepts of a supreme creator/God (Ahura Mazda, the spirit of light) who prevails over an evil antagonist/devil (Ahriman, the spirit of darkness), of a judgment day, and of Paradise, thus strongly influencing other monotheistic faiths and scriptures that came later, including Christianity.

If, however, we’re talking about my personal agnostic philosophy, it’s sometimes misconstrued to mean that I believe in at least the possibility of the traditional religious God. But, as you can see from my earlier answers, I have no belief in such a figure other than as an invention of humans. By “agnostic” I only mean that, as I said earlier, nobody fully knows what forces or powers or phenomena underlie/underpin our known universe. I certainly trust science more than I do religion, but even the best of science crosses over from verified fact to theoretical conjecture at some point along both the macro and micro scales of existence.

Assign some “spiritual homework” for our readers. What is one practice, prayer, or lesson you’d like to share?

Extended mass meditations conducted by the Transcendental Meditation folk in troubled areas have resulted in lowered violence/crime rates recorded officially over the period. That supports their belief that the more people there are around the world who practice meditation the more in tune and at peace the global population will be. So my assignment is twofold. Find 10-20 minutes a day, for a start, to seat yourself comfortably, close your eyes, still your mind to whatever extent you can, and find some inner quiet. Enjoy the release from stress and the peaceful feeling. Secondly, encourage others to try it for themselves.

Temple Grandin Live at FSCJ!

Last night, I attended the final event of FSCJ’s 2016-2017 Author Series:  a live presentation by Dr. Temple Grandin! If you’re not familiar with Dr Grandin, she is an autistic animal scientist, famous for her humane redesign of U.S. slaughter plants. She has written several books on animal behavior, such as Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation. She has also written several books on living with autism—her latest being The Autistic Brain. My FSCJ students have been reading her book Thinking in Pictures, and it has inspired the best discussions of the semester!

Dr. Grandin’s presentation was an utter delight. She lectured on autism and learning differences and answered audience questions with patience and forthrightness. Her honesty had the audience laughing, nodding, and applauding the whole time.

Grandin began her presentation by profiling famous innovators such as Thomas Edison and Jane Goodall—and her refrain was, “What would happen to this person in our current educational system today?” Whether it was a designer of rockets, an inventor of light bulbs, or a famous film director, Grandin emphasized the commonalities among these extraordinary minds: early exposure to career interests, questionable performance in formal academic environments, and an indirect, “through the back door” entry into their field. The most compelling fact for me was that Dr. Goodall was originally hired to be another researcher’s secretary. A secretary! It’s thrilling to think of how she overturned this archetype of female exclusion!

Another of Dr. Grandin’s emphatic repetitions was the phrase “work skills”: she passionately insisted that autistic people need to be doing meaningful work where they can learn to collaborate, be on time, and complete routine tasks. To almost every parent who approached her with a question, she asked, “What does your child do? What do you do?” To help individuals on the spectrum, Grandin holds everyone accountable.

Despite her work as an autism advocate, Grandin declared her desire to “break out of the autism box.” She told us that her  priority, the identity she considers first, is her work with animals. This is a powerful statement for all disability activists who are often encouraged to work only with their population. People see a successful blind person and they say, “You should teach at the blind school.” They see a woman like Dr. Grandin, and they seem surprised that she doesn’t devote 100% of her time to autism lectures. But in putting her career first, Dr. Grandin is emphasizing the very privilege that some nondisabled people take for granted: the freedom to build your life around the passions and causes that you value most. Dr. Grandin’s outspoken career ambitions remind us what we’re all advocating for: increased self-determination for all members of society, regardless of their medical labels.

Dr. Grandin argued that medical labels can only stretch so far in helping us understand and accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum. She encouraged us to abandon the inflexible (and often confusing) medical jargon of diagnosis, to pick up the precise language of engineering in its place. She emphasized the need to “troubleshoot” each individual case, to look for “site specific” problems, and to avoid over-generalizations and abstraction. She described her own thinking as “bottom up,” and her comments and questions showcased a precise determination to sort out every issue.

Dr. Grandin’s presentation highlighted the importance of creativity and collaboration with all kinds of minds. She emphasized the importance of specifics, of treating each individual as an individual. For some in the disability community, the diagnosis is the necessary step to services and inclusion, but for others, it’s an unhelpful label that people get hung up on. If the label doesn’t serve you, she said, stop using it.

Grandin left the audience with a few guiding principles, applicable to people on and off the spectrum: less screen time, more hands-on activities, and greater exposure to different things. She reminded us that the most successful innovators have been exposed to art, theater, or hands-on work.  She reiterated how she made friends: through shared interests. For anyone who has been bullied or ostracized, she emphasized the importance of what Seth Godin would call “finding your tribe”—the people who are willing to work just as hard for the things you love.

An Open Letter to the Donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs

I am excited to begin the new year in a spirit of gratitude. Your gift to Southeastern Guide Dogs blesses all future guides and graduates—but it also touches every member of the Southeastern community.

I graduated with my first guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs in July 2014. I had been matched with York, an 18-month-old black Lab whose large brown eyes shone with intelligence and determination. After a month of training in Palmetto, FL, I was ready to take my pup home, but I had only a faint understanding of how he would change my life.

The training process was not easy. Before York, I had used a white cane for safe and independent travel: independent being the key word. I knew how to trust myself, but I had to learn to trust York. On our third day of training, we paused at the edge of a curb, ready to step down. With my cane, I could have judged the depth easily—using the cane to touch the step and the sidewalk below. But with York, I wouldn’t feel the change in elevation until we stepped off the curb. I knew it was only one step, but I stood there for several minutes, afraid to trust another creature with my safety. I thought I could do it better. I thought we would stumble. I thought I would step down wrong and twist an ankle.

My trainer stood quietly beside me. She repeated, “Whenever you’re ready, tell him to go forward.”

When I finally gave York the command to step down, we moved so fluidly that my moments of worry dissolved in an instant. I was already several feet along the path before I could process what had held me back. Once I decided to trust, the obstacles disappeared. Steps up and down, crowded sidewalks, random signposts—these are now just arbitrary pieces of a world that York and I travel smoothly and confidently together.

York and I are an inseparable team in the most mundane and extraordinary places. From our favorite coffeeshops to the university campus where I teach, from the symphony and art museum to the regional stage at an a cappella singing competition, York is my constant companion. This year, we made our debut on the TEDx stage, giving a talk on disability and collaboration—and as far as I can tell, he is the first guide dog to grace this famous venue.

I knew that York would bring me a greater sense of independence and adventure, but I had no idea how his presence would transform my heart. It is not just that York helps me or that he has given me a way to express deep love and affection. York, like any partner worth having, challenges me to be the best version of myself.

When I would rather choose a quiet well-known path, York demands a crowded sidewalk full of obstacles. When I would rather stay on the sidelines, York demands attention. People stop to ask about his training or tell me how beautiful he is. On one memorable occasion, a woman sprinted across a hotel restaurant to meet us: she turned out to be a former puppy raiser for Southeastern and she was thrilled to see a guide dog team in action!

Perhaps what is most exciting for me is the picture York and I present when we work together. York and I are often the first blind woman-guide dog duo to appear on the conference panel, at the competition stage, in the coffeeshop. Though it seems like service dogs are everywhere, disabled people are still woefully underrepresented in professional and social settings. York and I get to show people that inclusion isn’t “special” or “exceptional”: we get to set a new norm, raise the bar for disabled people everywhere. With the simple act of walking up to a counter and ordering coffee, we teach the world that blind people can be just as competent and worthy of respect as anyone else.

But with York, it never stops at respect. He works so hard with me because he loves me, and this is a love that completely overwhelms me. It is as powerful as a symphony, as beautiful as a night full of stars. It’s a love I can never hope to measure or comprehend. But it’s a love I will spend my whole life trying to return.

Every time I grab my purse or put on my shoes, York runs to his special rug and waits for his harness, tail wagging. Every time we step out of the car, his nose sniffs the air, exploring. He sees the harness, and he turns from a wiggly explorer into a serious, focused companion. The harness slips on, and his body language says, “I’m ready for this.”

If you’ve never wrapped your fingers around the square end of a guide dog’s harness, if you’ve never needed to place your trust in a furry four-legged genius, it can be difficult to fathom the impact a guide dog has on the life of a blind or visually impaired person. Our dogs help us find independence, confidence, and self-worth. By extending an incredible network of dedicated humans, they teach us that our lives have value.

Your gift does not just help us be more independent. It helps blind people reclaim their dignity and their self-determination. Your generosity reminds us that people believe in us and that we should believe in ourselves—that our greatest joys and successes derive from profound collaboration. None of us is meant to strive alone: we all need to hold onto someone. I am honored to be working with York—and with the community of trainers, sponsors, and puppy raisers that made this brilliant partnership possible.

Sincerely,

Emily K. Michael, with York

10-14-16-em-york

45 in 2016: What I read this year.

It’s been a busy year for me, but I’m proud to say I met my Goodreads goal: 45 books! Check ’em out! Some were duds, but most were wonderful. I’ve written brief reviews beneath the ones I really enjoyed.

  1. Provence, 1970:M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr
  2. Must Love Dogs by Claire Cook
  3. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
    Fun, fascinating, and entertaining! If you love food and history, you’ll enjoy this book!
  4. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
  5. Letters on Life by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Ulrich Baer)
    A meditative and delightful collection of Rilke’s prose thoughts on love, death, nature, art, and so many other wonderful topics.
  6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
    Funny, thoughtful, and surprising—I loved listening to Amy Poehler read this audiobook. There is real substance here.
  7. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
    Though this book is a bit slow in places, it is fascinating and thorough! Wilson begins before pots and pans, travels through French renaissance kitchens, and explores molecular gastronomy.
  8. Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry by Stephen Dobyns
    Incredible! Thorough, down-to-earth, and detailed. I underlined something on every page and stopped mid-chapter to write my own poetry. I recommend this book for all poets! I especially loved his final chapter on linguistics.
  9. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  10. Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich
    An outstanding narrative exploration of ravens! Compelling stories, philosophical observations, and exciting discoveries—all expertly written.
  11. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram
    Completely absorbing! Abram traces the evolution of the alphabet, the debate between oral and writing cultures, and the effects of the alphabet on our relationship to the wild world. Absolutely extraordinary.
  12. e.e. cummings: A life by Susan Cheever
    A perceptive and captivating literary biography interspersed with the poet’s work.
  13. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  14. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
    Listen to Meryl Streep read the audiobook. Totally worth it! It’s a cute, well written story.
  15. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff
  16. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet In Our Time by Eavan Boland
    Boland explores the struggles of being a female poet in the very male tradition of Irish poetry. This is a fascinating contemplation of a writer’s motivation and origin—how she can build something value from a tradition that has excluded her.
  17. Essays in Love by Alain de Button
  18. Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership With Nature by Tina Welling
  19. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue
  20. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  21. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
  22. Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
  23. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  24. Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller by Georgina Kleege
    Kleege is a reflective, capable writer. This book is a fantastic meditation on Keller’s life and cultural legacy!
  25. Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write by Gayle Brandeis
  26. Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography by Sherwin Nuland
  27. On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
    I’ve always enjoyed Sacks’s writing, and his autobiography was no exception. I appreciated hearing about his own struggles as a physician and writer, but I didn’t enjoy the overall structure of the book.
  28. The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder
  29. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening by Stephen Kuusisto
  30. Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life by Sylvia Boorstein
    Warm, inviting, and practical.
  31. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  32. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin
  33. The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
    I have a soft spot for poets writing prose and sci-fi/fantasy writers writing nonfiction, and this collection does not disappoint! Gaiman covers everything from journalism and film festivals to his favorite influences in science fiction and fantasy.
  34. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Love, Live, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
    Encouraging, systematic, and fortifying! I loved reading this book—it’s way too good to be called “self help.”
  35. Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle
  36. Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory by Guy Consolmagno and Paul Mueller
  37. The Geek Feminist Revolution: Essays by Kameron Hurley
    Ardent, biting, and analytical! Hurley’s collection of essays is full of passion and personality!
  38. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of English by Roy Peter Clark
    A lovely light read on English grammar and writing. I learned a lot and would love to assign this book to a class!
  39. The Three Marriages: Reimaginating Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte
    A rich and rewarding combination of personal history and literary biography.
  40. The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
  41. Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’Donohue
    This is a lovely collection of meditations on sensory experience. Though I enjoyed Anam Cara, I found Beauty much more engaging.
  42. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson
    An engaging introduction to presentation literacy. Anderson covers many of the how-to’s of setting up and delivering a TED Talk—as well as profiling several of the best TED speakers and talks.
  43. League of Dragons (Temeraire #9) by Naomi Novik
    A not-terribly-thrilling end to the fabulous Temeraire series. Solid but unremarkable.
  44. How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life by Ruth Goodman
    Utterly fantastic! Goodman covers Tudor fashion, food, living arrangements, and so much more! The book is well researched and well written! I enjoyed the meticulous details!
  45. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin
    Another book of fun and pithy kitchen essays. I love reading Colwin’s strong opinions on everything from picnic fare to gingerbread.

So what’s on the list for 2017? Probably more of the same. Books on poetry, food, language, birds.

Have a recommendation? A favorite book or a recent read? Share in the comments below!

Poet’s Mind

If you want to understand what it is to be a poet, spend time with people who consider themselves unpoetic—people who feel defeated or confused by poetry. You will keep bumping up against that thing that separates you. It feels like a low cement wall.

The essential separation borders a world where every question has one answer, where every effect has one cause. And that’s decidedly different from the world you believe in, the world you want to live in, the world you know is true. In the poet’s world, everything has multiple answers— not because everything is relative, but because discovery and learning help you see what you thought you understood in a novel light. A new way. You understand that the truth you took for granted is now being filtered differently. It is still true, but it is more true. It is true in a way that envelops more of your experience.

You write because you want to dwell in possibilities, to step over a threshold of autobiography and facts and into a place of identity and soul-making. A place where souls can touch other souls outside of time. A place where an epiphany from 200 or 2000 years ago may still have something to teach you. A place where “right” is not the same as “finite.”

You realize that as a poet working and writing in the world, you have the chance to be extended, lifted up and out, expanded. You realize that when you step into that bigger “I”—not your “I” that agonizes over what to wear to work or whether to stop for coffee—when you take the hand of the big “I,” give your talents over to it, you’re taking the hand of your God. That your work might speak to thousands beyond yourself, that it might reach farther than your physical hands could actually reach. And what other name could there be for such expansion than the name of God? Of a force that brings meaning to a mass of atoms and stardust?

So you wonder how others can be closed off to this feeling, this invitation to an expansive self, this response to an initial Creator and creative spark. You ask, did I invite God or did God invite me? You wonder whether, in a search for the finite rightness of things, others are shutting out the sacred.

Because the sacred is unruly. It’s not facts and lists and statistics. It’s a network of finely spun vitality, and once you accept it, you’re in. You’re there. You can’t abandon the sacred. Recognizing the sacred invites you to reconsider all life. You accept the sacred, you accept responsibility.

A poet accepts responsibility.

Presentation Notes for SAMLA 88!

On Saturday, November 5, my colleague Michele Boyette and I will present the workshop “Insensible Paradise, Invisible Nightmare: Complicating Embodiment in the 21st Century Classroom” at the 88th SAMLA conference! We’re looking forward to an exciting 90 minutes of analyzing disabled character tropes, evaluating accessibility statements, and brainstorming effective communication strategies. Want to see what we’ll be doing? Check out our handout!

Click this link to download the PDF: samla88handout_michael

A sneak peek at my TEDx Talk and a radio spot for Blindness Awareness!

I’ve got some exciting things to share!

First up are two short promo videos I did for TEDxFSCJ: each one offers a sneak peek at my upcoming talk, “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

Here’s the first promo:

And the second one:

If you’re interested in coming to my performance of the talk, I’ve got the details for you.

When: Tuesday, October 18, at 2:30PM

Where: FSCJ Downtown Campus, A1068 (the auditorium off the lobby)

In a similar vein, I spoke with a local reporter today about guide dog etiquette. My spot aired on the radio this afternoon. You can read and listen here: Jacksonville Blind Woman Talks About Service Dog Etiquette.

I’ll Be at TEDxFSCJ in an Unconventional Way!

My Dear Readers:

I was accepted to speak at TEDxFSCJ here in Jacksonville on October 8. However, Hurricane Matthew came to town (I guess he heard about our impressive lineup of speakers), so our event had to be postponed!

TEDxFSCJ has been rescheduled for Saturday, November 5, but I will be speaking at SAMLA 88 that day. As I’ve yet to find a way to occupy two places at once, I’ll be performing my TEDx talk ahead of time so it can be shown at the main event.

I’ve been given the opportunity to perform and record my TEDx talk on Tuesday, October 18 at 2:30pm at FSCJ’s Downtown Campus. My talk is called “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

If you can come, I’d appreciate it! This is an awfully big auditorium, and I won’t have the benefit of all the enthusiasts who arrive to hear my fellow speakers. I’d love to give this talk to a live audience.

Please spread the word and come if you can!

 

October Interview: Understanding Begins in Presence

Jennifer Pearlstein, age 26, is a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at University of California -Berkeley. Outside her professional life, she enjoys reading, running, and spending time with her dog. She has recently started a blog on issues related to vulnerability and identity.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I describe myself as having low vision. I was diagnosed with a form of early-onset macular degeneration at age 17. My vision progressed passed the threshold of legal blindness within a couple years. My central vision is very poor – I see a gray fuzzy blur when I look directly at something. However, I have functional peripheral vision.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

I recently received orientation and mobility training and have since begun using a cane. I generally use an ID cane at times when my vision is weak, such as at night or when the glare from the sun is particularly bad. I also gravitate to using my cane when traveling in unfamiliar places, shopping alone, and various other contexts in which it helps me for those around me to be aware of my low vision. My dog is a trained service dog (not a guide dog), performing tasks centered on helping me navigate crowded spaces, perceive depth, and regulate my low-vision related anxiety. Although I still use him in lieu of a cane when traveling and hiking, I do not use him daily anymore; primarily because he required guidance and attention that distracted me from my environment.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

I started working with the Department of Rehabilitation about a year ago, and they have been instrumental in introducing me to resources. Beyond technology, Braille, and orientation and mobility, working with the DoR has enabled me to connect with others experiencing low vision and blindness. The practical aides of technology – many of which I truly could not succeed professionally without – and the connection to others in the community makes the DoR a phenomenal resource.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

I see the most harmful and annoying belief as having two parts: first, that people experiencing blindness or low vision are defective and second, that overcoming the limitations imposed by blindness is incomprehensible and inspirational. The ramifications of these beliefs range from outwardly and obviously offensive (i.e. strangers making derogatory comments) to the subtle and unintentional (i.e. family, colleagues, and friends referring to my way of completing tasks as unfathomable and remarkable). I realize the intention is generally compassionate, and I acknowledge how challenging it is to strike a respectful balance between acknowledging how a disability impacts individual identity while simultaneously not defining an individual by the presence of a disability. Nonetheless, this belief stigmatizes the blind as being different from “normal.” Perceiving the way the blind navigate the world as incomprehensible further denotes an “us” – the sighted, and a “them” – the blind.

I think correcting this belief involves a shift towards showing blindness as part of normal experience for millions of people. The media and popular culture generally (1) ignore people with disabilities, (2) portray people with disabilities as decrepit and (3) depict disability as an experience foreign and impossible to imagine. Publicly revealing the blind are just people. We are friends, parents, professionals, athletes, and artists. As is the case with any marginalized group, the blind are underrepresented politically, culturally, and in the work force. Until we are seen, we will continue to be misunderstood.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it

I am generally most attracted to nonfiction, especially memoirs. However, I am also a fervent Harry Potter fan. When stressed by life, I gravitate to rereading the series. I grew up reading these books, and feel nostalgic when reading them. I cherish the characters, disappear in the magical wizarding world, and deliberate on the broader implications of the themes. I appreciate the series both for its entertainment value and for the important messages embedded throughout.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I aim to graduate with my PhD!

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

I feel centered by mindfulness. I find reading, practicing, or learning more about self-compassion, non-judgment, and focus on the present grounding.

I am most attracted to these themes in the context of individual authenticity One example that comes to mind is Kay R. Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. Dr. Jamison powerfully reveals her personal experience with bipolar I disorder while simultaneously sharing her professional expertise as a clinical psychologist. I admire her for taking the chance to be exceptionally vulnerable. I get the privilege of revisiting this gem often through my research and clinical work and every time I reread this, I gain a more profound understanding of the science and phenomenology of bipolar disorder. Works like these that weave together informative content and portray a unique facet of human experience are particularly striking to me.

Sacred Space Interview: Calling for Balance with Faith, Hope, and Love

We’re starting the week off right with a luminous interview from Elizabeth L. Sammons. Elizabeth’s interview bridges the Sacred Space series and the October Interview series—opening a dialogue about faith and disability that is rich and rewarding. I know you’ll enjoy this extended conversation!

Elizabeth L. Sammons, age 50, is a Program Administrator with Ohio’s disability vocational services: Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities. De facto she conducts extensive research, outreach and writing for their agency statewide including both blindness and other disabilities. In the past, she has taught English serving in Peace Corps in Hungary, represented our culture in the then Soviet Union on a cultural exchange program, and served as interpreter for cross-cultural, faith and government meetings.
She enjoys creative writing, both fiction and nonfiction; paid and unpaid community interpreting using Russian and French fluency; keeping track of friends locally and around the world, particularly as touches the faith experience.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I was born with cataracts on both lenses; operations before school age restored vision in one eye to encompass color and basic shapes. I use Braille and audio for my reading and writing needs.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

Always a white cane. It’s true that a cane won’t show me directly to a door or elevator, but nor do I need to feed, water or clean up after him; his name is “Stickie.” Nor do I have to tell his funny name to nosey strangers, and I feel secure with him swinging over the pavement to guide my path.

Are you active on social media? If so, share any of your links that you’d like my readers to know about:

I lack the time and patience to delve into any social media except what I call my “literary scrimmage site,” which is my blog. I invite you to visit for a mixture of poetry, memoir, humor and philosophy written over the past 4 years. I utilize NFB Newsline for much of my current events reading.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

A lot of people think that someone “afflicted” as many people say, with a disability, faces this disability as the major difficulty in life. In my case, this is not true. While I readily admit the inconvenience of living life in a physical world not labeled, leveled or linked with nonsighted people in mind, the far greater challenge for me is to balance the idealism of a perfect world and spirit that I have held since childhood, with the day-to-day “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” encountered by us all. I think that many middle-ability, mid-intelligence, mid-income, mid-life people have come to a balance on this question, accepting the monotony or the petty aggravations pertaining to most days in our lives as simply the things that happen… the things to expect. Most likely it is my desire not to compromise which has given me the label from others of being “passionate,” and my internal label, “disquieted by the act of living.” Regarding how I handle these dissonances, see next question.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

Since I’m thinking about music, I will give a quick point to this question with the song title “I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends.”
Words and music are a very present help in time of trouble. I never worked to develop this, but I have the idiosyncrasy of coming up with songs containing a certain word. For example, as soon as you say the word “Bridge,” I might think of the phrase/song “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and also “London Bridge is Falling Down” or even “Shall we Gather at the River” since the word “Bridge” converts to a picture of “River” in my mental gaze. This word association with music often comforts me and just the right lyrics, both secular and sacred, come to mind for me, a blessing not called for consciously.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

People who inhabit able body’s under-estimate the abilities of people with disabilities including blindness. When able-bodied people are in a role of authority (employer, teacher, counselor, parent, mentor etc.) in the life of someone with bodily challenges, that person unfortunately often conforms to that belief without even examining the life he or she could live instead. I use humor in responding at times “I have half a century of experience on this… you don’t even have a day, so why do you think I can’t do such and such?” Another response I gave especially when I was younger was “OK, just give me a chance and let me show you how I can’t.”

In faith communities, a grave error people can make is viewing a congregation member who is nonsighted or with any disability as the object of one-way charity. It is an empowering act when that person can serve on congregational council, help in child care or teaching, pass out bulletins, offer artwork, interpret for non-English speakers, or any other role that frames the person’s ability and communal presence.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

Ah, there are so many books! If I had one and only one book, it would need to be the Bible, not only because of faith, but for its mix of history, poetry, philosophy and voices over centuries of compilation.  . If you take mercy on me and allow me a second book, I suppose it would need to be a form of Wikipedia, because my curiosity is never satisfied.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

I came across Betty Eadie’s Embraced by the Light during one of the hardest times in my life. Her perspective, gained through two out-of-body experiences and enriched by her Native American heritage, indicates that we are living as spirits in this world through the bodies we inhabit. Our purpose and connections are things that we cannot see in larger perspective while we walk on this earth, but we must be conscious of our neighbors, our influence and our joyful duty to illustrate love in everything we do and in every choice we make. While I fall extremely short of this faith philosophy, I agree with Carl Schurz: “Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.”

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I have written one secular book and am now researching and writing a second novel, which is a faith novel based on the life of Stephen, (Christianity’s first martyr, Acts 6-7.) I hope to finish this novel and to find a non-self-publishing opportunity for both these fruits of my mind. The work of my pen is the only mental fruit that I can leave when I depart our era, and I pray that anyone interested or in need of these writings will find them at the right time, both during my time on earth and afterwards. For a reason I cannot rationalize, I feel a profound peace and assurance that this prayer will be fulfilled.

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

Many people are intrigued that I speak 3 fluent languages and an additional 3-4 languages with reasonable competence. I love the tongues, tones and trumpets of faith as they play out in various cultures. Our journey of faith is necessarily as much a cultural experience as it is a spiritual walk, and it is fascinating to me to see the translation of faith in many ways of singing, means of accepting messages, houses of worship and foods/drinks of sharing. To me, a language is like a code-cracking puzzle or joyful equation to solve. I feel deeply moved and blessed that I have had the chance to speak with so many people who without my taking the effort to walk into their linguistic territory, I could never have known.

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

While it brings me pain each day to walk along the imperfection of what we call “life,” I believe that the best is coming when my road ends on earth. Some close friends, particularly those raised in Communist countries, have asked me “Why does someone of your intellect believe in God?” On one hand, I can give an easy answer that even as they were raised atheist with little caring about matters of faith, I do not remember a single meal growing up when we did not open with prayer or a week when we did not dwell on faith questions together in my family. Thus both of us, the atheist and myself, were imprinted to travel certain mental and spiritual paths.
But that answer is incomplete. Beyond cultural context, while I understand many arguments pointing to God’s nonexistence, I equally comprehend those in favor of God, and the faith experience is my choice between the two. It is a decision that will do only good and no harm in my life, and I wish my post-Communist friends the hope that I lean on.

If I were speaking to a disability audience I might add that as a blind person, all my life, I have had to rely on those with sight to tell me many things about this world that otherwise I would not know… soaring of a gull vs. flapping of a sparrow… copper gutters turned tingly green with age… the smile of Mona Lisa vs. the grin of a Cheshire cat. If I lived only by what I knew through my own experience or intellect, my life would be limited indeed. If I stuck to my own experience, my world would be so small. But on the good days, borrowing another’s lens, I sometimes think that I can see nearly to heaven.

Do you believe in a God, gods, or other spiritual forces? If so, what name(s) does your spiritual force have? Where does the name come from?

While I simply say “God” and “Jesus Christ,” I believe as our Islamic brethren say that God has a thousand names… and perhaps more than that. Regarding other spiritual forces, unfortunately there are also evil forces in both human activities and in divine struggle.

Sum up your faith in three words. Why did you choose these words?

Faith, Hope and Love. This reply may sound pert, but if you think about it, what elements beyond this do you need in pursuing a meaningful life? (These words come together at the end of I Corinthians Chapter 13 in the New Testament, also called the “Love Chapter” for those who wish to read further.)

How do you practice your faith? What kinds of prayer, texts, service, or other rituals do you use?

I find prayer, song and recitation in a group context of great meaning. These acts, along with communion, make me realize that I am connected with not just one congregation, but generations, centuries and even millennia of believers of completely diverse cultural backgrounds, but who anchor their souls and spirits in the faith, hope and love in which I desire to live out in my own little life and generation.

Describe a moment when you knew that this faith was right for you.

Though I hold rather traditional Christian beliefs and was raised in a conservative background, I do not try to actively convert or evangelize. However, when friends and family have been in crisis, it is the well of my faith that has usually provided the insights I need to be of comfort or of meaningful presence. This included a recent death experience, the passing of my best friend. “The worst is behind you; everything ahead is good!” I told her…not “my” words, but words that came to me along the way to the hospital.
When I take the time to pray, ever so quickly, when I am in a conflict or a situation where I am contemplating a less loving or more destructive path than I could take, there has never been one time when some idea, person, or calm did not come to my rescue. My problem is taking that time and effort to call out for help.

Describe a moment when you felt that your god was real, that your faith was making a difference in your life.

It’s difficult for me to depict a single miracle moment in answering this question. However, I can safely say that the level of my awareness of God and his hand in my life is directly proportional to the difficulty of the situation. The more difficult the situation, the closer I feel my spirit to be linked with higher forces, as long as I take the time to ask for help.

Have you had any spiritual mentors or teachers? If so, describe their role in your life. How did they help you find your faith?

I have met far more people than I deserve along my half century of life who have shown me levels of love, respect, kindness and belief that were completely unmerited in the situation. One who comes to mind is a Jewish refugee whom I met in the USA at age 80, when he immigrated here with his children and grandchildren. He tutored me from an elementary level of Russian into exploration of the Russian great writers, and along the way we became friends. Always in departing from him, I felt a great awareness and love that wrapped my spirit like a blanket. I have tried to repay some of his generosity in serving other immigrants here and in depicting him in disguised form as a small but pivotal force in my first novel.

Where and when do you feel most in tune with your faith or spirituality?

The congregational experiences I mentioned above are one way, but another is when I go into nature, particularly when I am alone. No matter what my mood, the ocean speaks to me as no other force can.

What is one misconception that others have expressed about your faith? How would you correct it?

One can be a deeply believing Christian, even a conservative Christian, without being narrow-minded or intolerant of others as today’s media seems increasingly prone to depict. We can define the rights and wrongs that direct our spiritual walk without enforcing them on others. The example of how we live and relate to our neighbor is a far more vivid “Bible” than what most people will ever read.

Assign some “spiritual homework” for our readers. What is one practice, prayer, or lesson you’d like to share?

When I get into my blackest mood, I sometimes assign myself the exercise of taking one hundred breaths and with each one, thinking of something I am grateful for. It can be anything – as vast as the universe or as small and funny as my cat’s husky voice when he wakes up and makes me laugh. After the hundred breaths, I cannot help laughing and realizing that things may be in chaos, but that I am better off than I was feeling. Try it at least once and you’ll always breathe easier.

A Day in the Life

Today an instructor I’ve never met before walked into our shared office. We had the following exchange.

Colleague: Hello. You teach here?

Me: Good morning. Yes. I teach writing.

Colleague: And you’re blind?

Me: Yes.

Colleague: So…do you have any assistance in the classroom?

Me: No, not really.

Colleague: Wow, that’s just incredible! I really admire you!

Me: …

Colleague: I really admire how you don’t let blindness get in your way.

Me: … *looks for the exit*

Despite the fact that the colleague is using words like “admire” and “incredible,” I won’t be pinning this exchange on my wall of treasured compliments. Perhaps I sound churlish or ungrateful, so let me explain why I, and other disabled people, don’t enjoy this kind of attention.

As a teacher of effective communication, I am bothered by this scenario. The colleague expresses admiration as a consequence of my exceptionalism. She assumes that the default position of disability is ineptitude. She is surprised, and thus excited, to learn about a competent and independent blind teacher precisely because she does not consider the competent blind person the norm. In her worldview, all disabled people are marked by the perpetual need for help.

Holding this worldview does not mean she is a nasty, terrible, or unpleasant person. In fact, she seems to be making an effort to converse and be courteous. She cannot help the fact that her world is populated by stories of disability as disaster. She can only try to adopt a new worldview, and perhaps she needs time for such an adoption.

But the change won’t occur if I keep silent. So, let’s adjust her logic.

Here’s the other problem with her line of reasoning: it makes no room for me as a professional or colleague. She compliments me on my ability to defy her stereotypes, but she does not actually know anything about my teaching style. She says it’s incredible that I can teach independently and that she admires me. But she hasn’t seen me in the classroom. How does she know I’m any good? I could be terrible! I could be a train wreck. She is congratulating me for living a life other than the one prescribed by the tragic stories of disability—not for making a difference in the lives of students, as all teachers seek to do.

This dialogue got me thinking about how she must see my life, how she thinks I live each day. So I present you now with two agendas.

A Day in the Life of a Blind Person, as Imagined by Too Many Sighted People:

  • Wake up. Grope for cell phone or extremely large alarm clock. Attempt to turn it off.
  • Enjoy a few blissful moments with my eyes closed.
  • Open my eyes and remember I’m blind.
  • Shed 3-5 tears. Wipe them away.
  • Realize that I can’t see the glittering tears rolling down my face. They glitter with all the possibilities I will never accomplish. Shed 6-10 more.
    • Recommended for Weekends: Shed 6-8 initial tears because weekends are more social and I’m disabled. So I won’t be doing any socializing.
  • Get out of bed. Feel my way to the kitchen.
  • Prepare special Blind Person’s Breakfast: all finger food, nothing messy. Nothing that requires excessive chewing.  No coffee. Tired of spooning in salt instead of sugar. Caffeine withdrawal headache.
  • Get dressed in mismatched sweatpants or other lounge wear. Run fingers through hair. No makeup. Sunglasses.
  • Find favorite chair—any chair—in living room. Sit.
  • Spend the next 3-5 hours contemplating how great life would be if I could see things. Then have lunch. All finger food. No mess.
  • Rinse and repeat until dinner.

A Day in the Life of One Blind Person, as Planned by Me

  • Wake up, Press snooze button. Wake up again.
  • Take dog outside, bring him in, feed him.
  • Do short yoga routine (5-10 minutes, 4-6 poses, I’d like to learn a few more).
  • Eat breakfast: a KIND bar and a string cheese, neither of which is messy. I choose this breakfast because it’s quick, and I don’t have to think about it. I’ll get a cappuccino at work.
  • Check personal emails.
  • Get dressed in outfit I’ve laid out the night before. It’s professional attire: a skirt and blouse or a nice dress.
  • Part hair and put product in. Scrunch curls. Moisturize face. Put on makeup. Put in earrings. Put on braille watch.
  • Take dog outside again. Listen to birds. Wish I’d brought my phone outside so I could record them.
  • Pack bag for work—dog’s lunch, my lunch, graded assignments, books, laptop.
  • Go to work. Teach classes. Challenge students.
  • Come home. Have dinner with family or friends. Plug social appointments into calendar for weekend.

What’s that, colleague? My daily agenda looks like yours? Wild! I wonder why that is…

Announcing Sacred Space, a new interview series at On the Blink!

I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new series of interviews here at On the Blink. The series is called Sacred Space, and it will feature short interviews with people about their spirituality.

I was inspired to create this series for several reasons, but I can trace bright lines of inspiration to two figures in particular: the former Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein.

In his On Being interview with Krista Tippett, Rabbi Sacks emphasized the need to honor difference across religious practices. Rather than insisting that everyone conform to our beliefs, Sacks suggested that we take the time to learn the beliefs, songs, and stories of other religions—even if we don’t choose to adopt them. He suggested that our God lives in these differences, in the rare and surprising moments of connection we establish through empathy and trust. So this series will strive to bring such differente voices forward.

Sylvia Boorstein’s wisdom also came through her On Being interview. Dr. Boorstein says that developing a spiritual practice doesn’t require time apart from our daily lives: “Spirituality doesn’t look like sitting down and meditating. Spirituality looks like folding the towels in a sweet way and talking kindly to the people in the family even though you’ve had a long day.” She emphasizes the need for a spirituality that is expressed through everything else in our lives, that hums along beside us in all we do.

My Sacred Space interviews will attempt to honor difference and bring spiritual practice to the center of conversation. Faith and spirituality are not all we will talk about on this blog, but they are moving toward the center—as all important commitments in our lives must.

If you would like to share the stories of your faith and spirituality with me, just send me a message through the contact form below. I am excited to begin this series with all of you!

Answering Blindness: A Poet Makes Amends – guest blog post by Emily K. Michael

Thanks to Trish Hopkinson for hosting my essay “Answering Blindness” on your fabulous writing blog!

Trish Hopkinson

Today I am preparing submissions for two local venues — an online journal and a quarterly print magazine. Each publication asks for a brief cover letter: Introduce yourself and describe your publication history.

Introducing myself is easy. I’m Emily, a college writing instructor and local musician. I sing. I love grammar, especially the grammar of poetry. And yes — I smile to myself — I have a few publications.

My fingers stall over the keys. I recognize my publication history as an act of disclosure. By dropping certain journal names, I’m about to reveal myself as a blind poet.

When submitting to a journal that welcomes and promotes disabled writers, I feel no hesitation. I readily summarize my accomplishments and click “Submit.” I do my best to ignore the doubts slinking in — what if it’s the disability they want and not me? — because I’m not separate from my…

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