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

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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.

Exploring a Writing Tutor’s Magic

This article appeared in the National College Learning Center Association (NCLCA) Summer 2014 newsletter under the section, The Tutor’s Voice.

*  *  *

The lobby of our campus tutoring center resembles a doctor’s office. Students occupy moderately comfortable chairs, waiting to hear their names from the friendly voice from the writing room. A writing tutor steps forward, calls the student’s name, and leads her into our small space. I am the only tutor who performs this ritual with a white cane in hand.

I imagine that some students are perplexed to see that their tutor is blind. My questioned competence hangs in the air, but “Will she be able to read my paper?” changes quickly to “How will she read my paper?” Students want to know how I will judge them – their ability to write. Their competence, not mine, becomes the central question.

I begin with brisk instructions: “I’m Emily and I’ll be helping you today. What are you working on?” The student offers a nursing paper, a teaching portfolio, a literature essay. Whether a student brings a digital or paper copy of her assignment, I ask her to read it aloud. My request inspires several insecurities; students are self-conscious about their voices, affected by accent or infrequent practice. I insist that they won’t be the worst reader I’ve ever heard; everyone feels awkward when reading aloud.

As we read, I get used to the students’ voices. Some are slow and meticulous, correcting every slip of the tongue, while others read so quickly I can barely catch each word. I ask them to slow down, helping them laugh at their occasional spoken errors. The moment of pure triumph comes when they recognize that the out-loud process catches issues glossed over in silent reading. When the student becomes adept at hearing her mistakes, I’m an audience the student needs because she can’t imagine reading to an empty room. I am her writer’s training wheels.

To bridge diffidence and triumph, I emphasize the inherent power of writing: I shamelessly craft a persona of grammar mystic and blind magician. I love the revelation of audible punctuation.

A student reads a sentence aloud, and I ask her to stop: “Do you have a comma there?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

I meet this question with a silent smile.

“You heard it?”

“Of course.”
Other grammar magicians and linguistic wizards will not be surprised by this apparent talent of mine; punctuation wants to be heard. But students unfamiliar with descriptive grammar are dazzled. My ability to hear punctuation initiates them into the craft of writing. Using examples from their work, I transfer the gift – making them aware that they, too, can hear the place of punctuation. Though I use the rhetoric of revelation, I am only helping students discover what they already know. So much of writing is remembering – pulling disparate pieces of experience and knowledge together – and it is not a student’s voice that matters: it is her willingness to search for that voice. Schools frame this search as standardized obligation, but writers know the working truth. We find linguistic power from a place of dreams and fantasy.

Author bio: Emily K. Michael is a writing instructor and tutor at the University of North Florida. Her work has been published in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, and Artemis Journal.

Travel Talk

Thanks to the end of Daylight Savings Time, my campus is covered in uneven splotches of afternoon sunlight—encouraging shade in one moment, debilitating glare in the next. I emerge from the elevator and thread my way through the oncoming dark shapes of students ambling to class or chatting with friends. I switch the relaxed sweep of my cane to quick tapping, and the students part before me, stumbling out of my way. In two places, the sunlight poses particular issues. Between Starbucks and the large sign for brown rice sushi, the sidewalk widens and sun spills over and around the library. In midmorning and mid-afternoon, this small stretch is a blazing valley for me; I step slowly, enlarging the arc of my cane and avoiding the indiscernible concrete columns that flank the narrowed walkways.The second difficulty lies on the sidewalk past the library. Again, the area opens up, with a line of columns in front of the library’s entrance. My cane catches in the sidewalk’s decorative bricks. Afternoon sunlight floods the path, washing out all its distinctive features. The columns, the bus stop, the walking students, the benches and bushes, all fade into the unpleasant brightness.

Because it’s hard to judge distances in this open space, I listen for the metallic hiss of the library doors. The automatic glass doors are prefaced by a small metal platform that clangs as people exit and enter the building. When I hear the sound of feet on metal, I know I’m heading in the right direction. This is a good place for me to move from the right side of the path to the left, passing between the last two columns. In a few steps, I’ll approach a diagonal left turn, like a triangle stenciled in cement. Once I’m on the short leg of the triangle, I’m only a few quick turns away from my waiting vehicle.

But getting to the triangle is tough. If I veer too early on the large path, I’ll catch my cane in the slender columns near the edge of the library building. If I complete my hard left too soon, I’ll find my cane deep in the bushes beside the library. If I pass beyond my piece of the triangle, I’ll meet a stretch of grass.

Today I find my cane tangled in the bushes. I know I’m in the wrong place, so I extricate myself and move forward. After a few steps, I check my progress and find grass: I’ve overcompensated. I turn back, using my cane to survey the space. I blink—I think I can see the sidewalk I want, but I still have to get to it. I feel grass under my feet, and I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“A little to your left.”

I call a thank-you and shift my feet, landing on the sidewalk I want. Sure of my place, I begin to  move more quickly.

“You’re welcome,” she continues, following me. “You’re very brave.”

“I don’t know about that.” I laugh. “My problem is the sun. On an overcast day, I wouldn’t have any trouble.”

She laughs with me, walks past me. “You’re braver than I am. And it’s supposed to be overcast tomorrow.”

“Perfect!”

I hear her chuckling as her footsteps fade. And I think to myself, here’s another social interaction on this sun-bleached spot. First it was the young student who stopped to ask me how I learned to travel, only to explain that his grandmother had lost her vision and was in deep denial. Then it was the man who told me, “You do that pretty well,” obviously convinced that walking and blindness are mutually exclusive. Once, it was the man handing out pocket Bibles: assuming his text was much too small for my use, he gave me a hearty, “Good afternoon” instead. Most of my interactions on the triangle have been pleasant—inquisitive strangers asking me how I do what I do.

For me, mobility seems to include an inescapable social component. Doors swing open, people approach, someone stops to give me a piece of advice—”Just so you know, there’s a golf cart parked ahead!”—and I feel compelled to make these small moments sociable and pleasant. I came to this realization after today’s mysterious helper was much farther down the sidewalk. I realize that I needed to make her laugh, wanted to say more than “Thank you.” I wanted to give her a piece of my story.

Contemporary culture and education put a premium on the ability to tell a story, to chat freely with strangers, to work cooperatively with others. In classrooms where participation is measured by how often a student speaks, extroverts have an undeniable advantage, backed by scientists who argue that humans are designed to be social. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain collects the research that establishes the value of introversion. Cain argues against the stereotype of introverts as socially inept or defective, instead calling the reader’s attention to their thoughtfulness, desire for less stimulation, and creative problem-solving. As I read, I can’t help but notice the various ways in which my blindness has encouraged me to think like an introvert and talk like an extrovert.*

I’m the most extroverted in academic settings. As a student, I spoke readily in class. To help professors remember my accommodations, I learned to be vocal: my professors were liable to forget me if I was a quiet blind girl, sitting in the back of the room and rarely venturing comments.

But I find that my extroversion doesn’t stop at the classroom. In most scenarios where I need assistance, I use my voice—not with the soft inflections preferred by some introverts but with a tone that defies others to ignore me. I don’t know where I learned to be loud, but I don’t ever remember being quiet.

If I had to choose a situation for quiet thought, it would be my travel time. I often find it challenging to maintain deep personal conversations when I’m walking. The friends who call to me while I’m traveling can attest that I take a minute to realize who wants my attention: I’m concentrating on the world around me, attuned to the feel of my cane on the ground, the intensity of the air, the sounds of passersby, the smells of the weather and the surrounding buildings. It’s a lot to think about, and it’s time I’d rather spend as an introvert.

In his TED Talk, “Design with the Blind in Mind,” architect Chris Downey presents a different perspective of this social mobility. As a newly blind man, Downey acknowledges the increase in social attention he receives from strangers on his walks through different cities. But Downey doesn’t think of this attention as pitying or intrusive; he sees the well wishes, the blessings, and the sometimes-erroneous advice from strangers as proof of our common humanity. Downey admits that he never received such positive attention as a sighted person.

So while I want to be an introvert on the move, undisturbed by the questions and comments of strangers, I have to respect the force that motivates people to approach me. I acknowledge that the kindness of strangers has often helped me correct a misstep, and I admire the courage that helps strangers reach out to those living beyond their own experiences.

* According to Cain’s book, I’d technically be an “ambivert”—somewhere in the middle. For a brief and engaging summary of Cain’s work, watch her TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.”

Blind Magician

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s extensive epic, The Lord of the Rings, much attention is given to the One Ring, a powerful weapon that changes the hearts and minds of men, dwarves, elves, and wizards. After encountering the Ring of Power, many characters discover a hunger for ability, a yearning to wear and wield this small gold weapon that can reshape the world. Though the Ring claims the spotlight throughout the three books, other magical implements exist – working for good and evil within the story. My favorite of these is a staff belonging to Gandalf, the tale’s wise and cantankerous wizard. The staff sometimes appears as a humble walking stick. At other times, it is the light in dark places. Gandalf rarely appears without the staff in hand – it banishes demons, conjures fireworks, and harnesses his magical abilities.

As an admirer of Tolkien’s work and a blind woman, I feel affinity for this magical accessory. My desire to visit Tolkien’s Middle-earth compels me to parallel the White Wizard’s weapon with my own commonplace talisman – a slender, foldable creation, wrapped in white reflective tape. For me, the white cane is a wizard’s staff in humble costume. It transports me to unforeseen environments, grants me helpful attentions from others, and allows me to change my world by presenting an active, capable picture of blindness.

In each tale of magic and self-discovery, a moment of epiphany and acceptance opens the world of an ordinary person to fantastical possibilities. Arthur sees and retrieves a sword from a stone; Frodo steps forward and offers to destroy the One Ring; Harry Potter opens the impressive letter from Hogwarts. In an ordinary world, a protagonist must decide to accept the magical token – a cloak of invisibility, a victorious sword, a lucky feather – before his or her life can become extraordinary.

As the heroines and heroes of fantasy accept wise council and magical heirlooms, the ordinary blind person accepts the cane. This acceptance is far from easy. When I was ten, I started training with the cane, but I was reluctant to use it in all environments. Afraid that the cane would set me apart, I convinced myself I could travel without it. I did not fully accept its power until I was fifteen. Confronted by necessity, I pulled the sword from the stone, put on the cloak, tucked the lucky feather in my pocket. I decided to embrace the magic that had been waiting for me for five years.

Like a mystic word that opens locked doors or answers riddles in invisible ink, the cane carries me to unknown realms. With a cane in hand, I feel confident enough to travel independently. The cane is a far-seeing crystal that extends my knowledge of the world – if only by 48 inches. It sweeps the ground before me, describing changes in my environment – steps, curbs, piles of leaves, signs, golf carts, boxes, and people whose existence I cannot visually detect. With cane in hand, I wield a prophetic power that prepares me for safe travel.

While some magical tools gain prestige by rendering their user invisible, the presence of the cane makes me more visible. The cane marks me out as an exception to the rule. In most groups, I alone sweep the white staff as I walk. This rare, bright implement of independence catches the eyes of passersby and works spontaneous miracles. Doors swing open, people step out of my way, friendly greetings fall on my ears.

A powerful symbol, the cane signifies many kinds of existence. Some see it as a crutch, a sign that indicates my weakness and vulnerability. To them, the cane is not a single staff but a heavy cross. I wield it like a biological scarlet letter – a signal of my deplorable and inferior life. Surely I, with this heavy cross in hand, cannot enjoy the pleasures that the observers enjoy.

For others, the cane is more than a powerful symbol: it is a symbol of power. They see the cane as a mark of my fierce drive to be independent, present, and successful; they recognize the work that prepared me for its use. They understand the hours of toil that fit a person for carrying a magical device. Perhaps they too have trained with their own symbols of power; they know the cost, the upkeep, the discipline needed to use such a staff as mine.

A third group of observers sees the cane as a sign of mystery. Unsure of its powers or uses, the courageous approach with questions. The cowardly stand aloof and gossip, their voices louder than they realize. With these people, the cane’s protective powers are amplified – it grants me a quick method for determining a person’s character. Even when the questions or comments are clumsy, those who bring them have a ready stock of goodwill for me. Those who would rather speculate from afar will not prove themselves worthy friends.

Gandalf’s staff marks him as a wizard, and my cane marks me as a blind woman. This mark allows me to carry the idea of blindness into new and exciting realms. Often, I must create the place for my talisman, because it is the first to appear in these frontiers. Onstage with my chorus, my magic staff changes shape, becoming slimmer and more compact. A long, slender pocket on the side of my chorus costume – the creation of our chorus seamstress – accommodates the compact ID cane I use during performances. The seamstress’s masterful addition keeps the cane from rolling around underneath the risers or getting misplaced backstage. This measure ensures that I won’t be parted from my talisman.

If a cane user cannot realize the power residing in the slender dimensions of a white cane, I recommend a healthy dose of whimsy and an understanding of metaphor. The everyday magic of canes is impossible to ignore. I first accepted the cane for its superficial powers, its compensations for my low vision, but, like the Ring that creates the Fellowship or the external magic that reveals internal strength, the cane continues to unfold new powers. To accept the cane, I had to accept myself. To embrace its power, I had to decide who I wanted to be. Now, my cane is a portable charm against diffidence and fear. I carry courage in its 48 inches.

My daily existence rarely offers me the experience of traveling with another cane user. I treasure the handful of times I’ve spent strolling beside someone whose familiar tapping and sweeping echoes or prefigures my own. Like a secret handshake or code word, the sound of another cane in use grants me a sense of kinship, a spiritual resonance. I rejoice that another carries the quiet power in the white staff, and I hope he or she uses it with care.

Chatting with Charlie

My friend Charlie (whose name has been changed for the purpose of this blog) is a master of uncommon courtesies. When we spend time together, I find myself startled by his thoughtful attentions. Often he asks questions—or offers theories—that show how deeply he is considering my experience of the world, my perspective.

Today, as we walk around his car and across the parking lot of a local Jacksonville restaurant, he remarks, “I bet this surface is difficult with your cane; it’s so uneven!’

With surprise, I reply, “Yes, my cane gets caught in these little cracks and behind these bumps, especially on cold days.”

“That would make an interesting blog,” he says, opening the restaurant’s door with his left hand. I step behind him and catch the door with my left arm. “All the surfaces that cause you trouble.”

We order our food, and the cashier places our drink cups on the counter. Taking them, Charlie says, “I’ve got your cup.” Offering me his arm, he guides me to the soda fountain. “Ice?” he asks, and I nod. “How much?”

“Just a little.”

I hear him position my cup underneath the ice dispenser. After a few seconds of noise, Charlie asks, “Do you want to hold the cup and make sure it’s the right amount?”

I take the cup from him and weigh it in my hand. The amount of ice is ideal, so Charlie fills my cup with water—(Just try to get the drink you want when you can’t read the little signs above each button)—and we find a booth. As usual, I sit with my back to the window to avoid staring into the glare.

Charlie places my cup in front of me, explaining, “Your cup is in front of your seat. Your straw is on the table to the right of the cup; it still has the paper on. Your napkins are to the left of the cup.”

I thank him enthusiastically. “When someone leaves the paper over the tip of the straw without telling me, I end up with a mouthful of soggy straw wrapper.” He laughs, and I remember, but do not mention, my habit of running a finger around the rim of a cup to find the straw. When the cup has a lid, I run a finger along the straw to check whether it still has its wrapper.

Our pagers vibrate, and Charlie gets the food, placing my plate in front of me. He offers me ketchup, which I refuse. Over his hamburger and my portabello sandwich, we begin to discuss the downside of self-deprecating humor—when you laugh at yourself just to get others to laugh with you.

“I often make fun of myself,” I tell him. “To make people more comfortable. When I can sense that someone feels awkward around me, I think laughter helps.”

He agrees, sipping his drink. “But it can go too far—it can become all you’re known for.”

“Yes, when you believe that the only way others will accept you is through making fun of yourself. It feels juvenile after a while.”

“Hey,” he says decisively.  “That’s another blog topic.”

“You’re a goldmine!”

I finish the last bite of my portabello and drink some water.

“You have something in your teeth,” Charlie announces calmly. “Swish around.”

I obey, sipping more water. “Is it gone?”

“Yes.” He hesitates, then continues, “Sorry if that’s weird…but I’d like to know if I had something in my teeth.”

“Unfortunately I can’t return the courtesy.”

On the topic of unsolicited advice, I tell Charlie about all the unwelcome “assistance” I receive, especially from random strangers. “Sometimes it’s difficult to be a blind woman, because women are taught to market their physical, visual appeal. I get a lot of ‘help’ from people who think that I have no understanding of color or style because I’m visually-impaired.”

He asks for examples.

Well there’s the time I asked a sales assistant to tell me the color of some earrings, and she said they were “grapefruit.” (They later turned out to be a dark purple.) Then, without any prompting from me, she declared reprovingly, “I wouldn’t wear them with that top you’ve got on.” Oddly enough, the earrings weren’t for me; they were a gift.

Or the time I asked a cashier for a reusable fabric shopping bag and she started to ask which color I preferred. At the word “color,” she cut herself off, presumably realizing that blind people don’t have color preferences. Holding up a bag without describing it, she changed “color,” mid-word, to, “Is this one OK?” Irked by her awkwardness, I wanted to shrug off my eggplant-colored wool swing coat—slowly, button by button; to show her my caramel-colored turtleneck and dark jeans; to hoist a leg up on the counter and display my shoe, a latte-colored closed-toe wedge with a delicate silver buckle; to reach up and tweak one of my earrings, a creation of brown and amber beads that Katie made. I did none of this. Mindful of the long line behind me, I said, “Yes that’s fine.”

Charlie laughs at these vignettes. “Do you understand color?”

“Not in a practical sense,” I confess. “I understand colors in theory. I can’t identify them visually. But I’m drawn to the same colors over and over—reds, dark purple, forest green. Anything but pastels.”

I tell Charlie about the various times people have asked me how I do my hair, because I often wear it in a low bun. Sometimes I say that my lady’s maid does it. Other times, I innocently ask, “Can you see the back of your own head?”

“But you gotta understand,” Charlie intones reverently. “They do that stuff with mirrors. No, they can’t see the back of their own heads; they use mirrors to see that stuff.”

“Why go to all that trouble? Just do it by feel! It’s so much easier.”

“For you.” He piles used napkins on our dirty plates.

I pull on my black cardigan and slide out of the booth. “Want to get coffee?”

“Sure.” He offers me his arm, and we walk to the car.

“I hope my cheerleader isn’t working today.”

“The one who thinks you’re Superwoman? If she is, I’ll just be really horrible to you,” he promises. “I’ll call you incompetent and shout, ‘Can’t you do ANYTHING?’ Then she’ll come running around the counter—”

“—On fire with righteous anger. She’ll chase you out of the store.”

“I’ll never be allowed back again.”

“And I’ll have to find a new coffee companion.”

Cool Traveler

Crisp mornings change the shape of my traveling thoughts. As I head to my early class, I leave my office and take a left, then another, before pushing through the reluctant glass door of my building. I transfer my cane to my left hand and open the door with my right, holding the door ajar long enough to step through and take the cane with my right hand again. Outside, I take a left, walk a few steps, and take a sharp right. I begin to travel along a wide elevated sidewalk, splashed with predictable trapezoidal panels of 9:00 a.m. sunlight. This midmorning sun sleets through the space between the concrete wall bordering the sidewalk and the overhang—unlike its 10:00 a.m. incarnation, which hurtles down from above in unkempt patches to complicate my morning trek for coffee.

Traveling to class, I run through my plan for the day’s lesson. Have students discuss Stephen King’s “What Writing Is” and give them 3 free-writing prompts. Encourage them to share their creative writing.…Damn it’s cold out here. I realize, belatedly, that I’ve left my purple wool coat in my office. I suppose that I am just noticing the coat’s absence, because the first leg of my journey keeps me indoors.

On the way back from class, I do not miss the coat. I step through the door, which some obliging (quiet) stranger holds for me, and prepare to face the sunlit sidewalk from the opposite side. As someone whose visual understanding of landmarks depends heavily on light, my well-traveled route looks totally unfamiliar when the light falls differently.

When I walked this way earlier, the sunlight fell along the right side of the walkway, enabling me to close my right eye and rely on my weaker left one. I used to joke that my left eye was only good for keeping me in 3D, but now I understand its value. The left eye lacks the strength and poise of the right, the eye I use for reading—and almost everything else. But, since it’s weaker, it does not seem to be as sensitive to light, which means that I can rely on it in places where the right eye doesn’t function.

Now, because I’m headed in the opposite direction, the sunlight is falling across the space my left eye would normally cover. It’s too bright for me to make much use of the right eye. I decide that this overbright environment is the perfect place to test the mettle of my new sunglasses.

I slip off my large, familiar shades—the ones I’ve worn for the past four years—and pull the new ones out of my bag. They are slimmer, with the same dark lenses, and they fit securely over my regular purple-framed glasses. I put them on and begin slowly tracing the length of the sidewalk. I stop in the sunniest place, and I take an optical inventory of the surrounding, deliberately staring at the brightest patches of light. I remove the new shades and put the old ones back on; the view is the same. First round of testing, new and old shades tied. I put the old shades in my bag and wear the new shades.

As I walk toward my building, I slip away from a visual awareness of my surroundings—I stop trying to “see” with my eyes and focus on the feel of the ground beneath my feet and the air around me. The morning is cool and comfortable, and the air travels with me, helping me relax and breathe deeply as I walk. I enjoy the feel of this elevated, quiet area. It’s not that I’ve turned off my eyes—it’s more that my eyes aren’t really talking to my brain, or my brain isn’t really listening to my eyes. I’m not ignoring the visual information in front of me, but I’m choosing to attend to other senses: the quiet, the cool air, the distant birds, and the crisp, clean smell of midmorning. Dreamy and contemplative, I could walk along this path forever.

I can feel the air change as my building approaches, but this new information does not interfere with the state of my contemplation. In some shady corner of my mind, I remember that I should be turning left soon. Convinced that I will feel the turn when it’s time, I continue.

The crunch of my cane against concrete forces me out of my meditation. My cane tip connects with the brick exterior of the building. I have walked about 4 steps beyond the place where I usually turn. But this isn’t a problem—this is exactly why I use the cane. I can easily turn and continue my route.

However, the harshness of this auditory cue changes my attitude. An emissary of the “real” world around me, the sound reminds me of what is really there, rather than the seductive landscape of soft breezes and early-morning birds. The crunch of cane against brick contains the piles of papers waiting for grades, the blank days on the course schedule that need filling, and the series of calls and emails that need my attention. It’s a distinctly non-contemplative sound.

Normally, I am so aware of my surroundings as I travel; I don’t want to miss a landmark or a signal from the cane. I am surprised that I slipped so far away from the act of walking itself—away from my attention to the process of travel.

Then I begin to think that I didn’t step away from my senses. I slipped into them. Somehow, in the space of the quiet, cold morning, I fell so fully into the rushing stream of sensory input and forgot that I was a moving being. I understood myself as movement.

Enlightened Interactions

On this especially foggy morning, Dad drops me off at the sidewalk by the library. I walk forward, finding that I move more easily through fog than glare, and I trace the path that slides past the library. Narrow strips of brick interrupt the smooth surface of the sidewalk, and my cane catches awkwardly in each groove. Quickly I switch from dragging to tapping. so the cane’s tip won’t get caught up in the sidewalk and slow me down.

My route leads me past the scattered bistro tables and through the back entrance of Starbucks. As I file into line, I notice how the building echoes with emptiness. The music, a blend of obscure indie tunes and blues lyrics, overfills the large, cavernous space. I stand by the pastry case, waiting for my turn and listening to the comforting hum of the cooler. I glance to the right, where the overhead lights cast a distorting glare on all the enticing pastries.

Hearing the woman two places ahead of me order her drink, I move my attention to the woman in front of me. She wears a dark striped shirt, easy for me to track. I listen attentively, waiting for her to place her order. This is the easiest way for me to know when it’s my turn to order.

Stepping forward, she orders a tall iced coffee with one packet of Splenda. Then, she walks around another customer, to the second register.  Now, I must shift my attention to the other customer, who stands at the register I will use. As I watch her gather her things and move toward the counter to wait for her drink, I start to move forward. Before I can approach the register, the barrista’s voice sails over the pastry case, shrill and cheerful in the big, empty space. “Hi, Emily! Tall Pumpkin Spice Latte?”

Turning my head to throw my voice at her, I reply, “Yes ma’am!”

Presumably she disappears behind the counter, because I do not hear her reply. I pay for my drink and move to the counter at the other end of the line and wait for my drink. I rummage in my overstuffed bag for my crocheted coffee sleeve.

A few minutes later, another barrista—whose voice is low, masculine, and familiar—sets my drink on the counter and says, “Tall Pumpkin Spice Latte for Emily.”

I see that he has already placed a sleeve around the cup; it contrasts easily with the whiteness of the plastic. “Thanks!” I ask the same question I’ve been asking for the past week, “Do you have a stopper?”

“Already in,” he says cheerfully. “Have a great day!”

“Thank you!” I retrieve the cup and, indeed, a small green stopper plugs the hole at the top. I can’t believe he remembered! Now, I won’t spill hot coffee on myself as I walk to my office!

I emerge from the front entrance of Starbucks and follow the sidewalk past more bistro tables, a few bushes with contrasting flowers, and a series of precarious mini-columns. I take a left, then an abrupt right. I begin to follow the line of a building that will lead me to the elevator. (Even with a stopper in my latte, I do not brave stairs with hot coffee and a heavy bag on my arm.)

When I’m about a foot away from my elevator, someone calls, “There’s the elevator, just in front of you!”

I turn to my left to find a maintenance worker, whose voice sounds familiar, standing there, holding some boxes. Immediately, I feel the need to compensate for the impairment he sees in me. I smile brightly. “Thanks, I know my circumstances pretty well.”

“Yeah,” he chuckles. “So…are you totally blind or do you see shadows?”

I am impressed that he knows about the degrees of blindness, that the white cane can indicate different kinds of  vision loss. “I have low vision—limited fields and sketchy depth perception.” I press the (unlabeled) button that calls for the elevator. I am surprised by the ease of my spontaneous disclosure—how natural it feels for me to amend the anomaly that people see in me.

“Oh okay.” He pauses. “The other night on TV, there was this program where they gave a guy his vision back. So there’s a cure out there somewhere!”

I shift my bag on my shoulder and turn to face him, my smile still in place. “You know, it’s funny—I guess for people who have lost their vision later in life, a cure would be a good thing. But for those of us who have grown up with our vision, it’s just another part of us. It’s not something I need cured.”

“Right!” he says excitedly. “Yes, I know what you mean.”

“It’s not scary or weird,” I continue. “It’s just about getting to know the body you were born with, the gifts you were given.”

“Yes,” he says thoughtfully. “Well, you have a nice day, ma’am. Oh, and your elevator didn’t wait for you!”

“Yes, I heard it leave me.” We both laugh as I press the button again.

Meditations on a gray day

“It’s the blind leading the sighted,” Karen cheerily remarks, as we push our way through the door whose automatic OPEN button rarely performs its duty.  She doesn’t need me to lead her to Starbucks – she knows where it is – but I want to lead her there. I want to choose the path we will take and the pace of our journey. We exit the building and round the corner, descending a small ramp. We head for the elevator.

The sky is working up a good gloom today, laying soft gray blankets over every surface. Dark, ominous, overcast: these are the words of people who prefer the crisp brightness of sunlit mornings and the full, yellow ebullience of summer days. When a gray filter is laid across the earth’s large lens, I see a world in crisp and unwavering clarity.

Benches, walls, stair railings, students, and doors emerge from the gray morning, asserting themselves more boldly than they would on a fine, bright day. In this softer, darker palette, I move confidently, observing the contours of things I cannot touch. I see paths sweeping away before me, turning at unexpected points. Trees thrust their dark branches upward, and the grass ripples and undulates in greenness. This is a different world, a mystical space where sight feels prophetic and strange. It’s as though I’ve dipped beneath the surface—or been pulled away from the surface—and shapes beyond my reach solidify and fit together. There’s so much here; I could never take it all in.

Conversation comes with surprising ease as Karen and I walk together. Talking on the journey is a true luxury for me, especially when I travel in unfamiliar areas. I need my senses for observation and calculation – I can’t afford to lose any cognitive energy in socializing. When people greet me as they pass, I must stop my mobility-centered thoughts, decide who they are (if they don’t announce it), and prepare a response. But with Karen, identities are established and the route is a familiar one. I can relax into a verbal interaction that keeps pace with the sweep of my cane and the  forward motion of our feet.

We weave between clusters of short columns, dipping under the covered walkway that alerts me to the nearness of Starbucks. “I’ll get the door,” Karen announces. She opens the door, and we walk inside. Immediately, I am aware of the increase in noise. The background music, students’ voices, and hiss of the milk-steamer collaborate with the uncarpeted floors and high ceilings, breeding a formidable cacophony.

Since I am leading the way, I call, “Excuse me,” as I attempt to thread through the students waiting in line. Because of the noise or their own distraction, most students fail to step out of my way. I find that I must be centimeters away from them before they even notice my presence. I pitch my voice above the din – I want to sound insistent but not frantic. “Excuse me! Thank you!”

Karen and I file into line and wait. It’s around 10:46am, a popular time for coffee. The 9:25am classes have just finished and the 10:50am ones will start in seconds. The long line gives us the chance to continue our conversation. I notice that the student in front of us is staring at her phone. She does not appear to notice that the line has shifted, that she should move forward. I wonder how many minutes will pass before she notices.

I order my drink and pay for it, eagerly handing the cashier my braille Starbucks card. I’m determined to use it until there isn’t a trace of magnetic strip left. I collect my Pumpkin Spice Latte at the end of the counter and slip my crocheted coffee sleeve around the piping hot cup.

As we head toward the exit, Karen repeats, “I’ll get the door.” Bless her, she knows how to make things easy for me! Since she tells me her intention, I don’t have to think about opening the door or aim for the large OPEN button. I don’t have to switch my cane to my left hand and tuck my latte in the crook of my arm. I don’t have to guess who will open the door because she tells me the plan.

But as we walk toward the door, someone opens it from outside. Our plan changes and I must call a hasty, sincere, “Thank you!” to the anonymous student who opens it for us. I walk forward, passing the bistro tables and emerging from beneath the awning.

Sadly, the look of my world has changed. Previously cast in the grays that best suit my vision, the path before us overflows with sunlight. Sidewalk and grass become indistinct — all I see is an expanse of brightness. I must travel the rest of this sidewalk by feel. I walk forward, explaining to Karen, “We’re looking for a left turn up here.”

She moves into the lead position, and I follow her voice. We negotiate the turn in a few steps, and, with the sun behind me, I can make better visual sense of our path. I see the brick building and round its sharp corner. I recognize the glass front of the building that leads us back to the elevator. I distinguish the elevator’s dull metal doors and strange (braille-free) control panel. I take the lead and Karen follows, a half-step behind me.

A Cane-User’s Education: First Lessons

Today I began my first experience of teaching independently at the college level. I’ve spent several semesters as a TA and delivered seminars and presentations to younger students, yet I was untried as the authoritative educator in a college classroom. I considered myself prepared for the opportunity: I had a plan for the day’s lesson (simple alliterative introduce-yourself ice breaker and going over the syllabus), I had set up my office (lavender-vanilla plug-in and cute silver-gray lamp), and I had practiced the route to my classroom and tried my key in the lock. I had planned my outfit—an a-line vibrant floral skirt, tailored black blazer, and sensible black shoes—twirled my hair into a bun at the base of my neck, and donned my pearl earrings for good luck. Normally I don’t believe in luck—I think you make your own by surrounding yourself with good people and being open to new ideas—but, when I touch the smooth round pearls, I am reminded of the people that support me through love and incandescent  belief.

I packed my navy school bag, cramming a 3-pocket folder with copies of the syllabus, slipping my laptop into its red sleeve, and finding a place for my portable video magnifier and aluminum water bottle. I had lunch in a separate bag, made of bright paisley material so it would be easy to spot in the crowded fridge when I was ready for it. I set up camp in the office and checked a few emails. I wrote responses. I flipped the crystal of my braille watch open. 10:04am. I snapped it shut. I waited, inhaling deeply. I checked the watch again. And again.

When the long hand finally rounded the 6, I stood, packed my bag, switched off the lamp, and locked the office. I walked down a hallway, took a left, and walked down another hallway, taking another left. I emerged into the humid, bright morning, surprised by the proliferation of sunlight that muddied the path I was supposed to take. I remembered the mantra my mobility teacher used to recite insistently: “Think up and out.” She meant, of course, that I should focus on my destination and let my intuition guide me—that I should not get distracted by the increase in light or space, that I should be mindful of the route I knew rather than baffled by the current situation.

So I lifted my head and I aimed myself at where I imagined the double doors of Building 2 should be. I walked, wishing I could trail the low concrete wall with my hand, but refusing to do so. What if the wall ended abruptly? What if the wall sloped downward? It would distract me, and, anyway, I knew this route!

As you walk away from Building 8 and toward Building 2, you can feel the ground sloping beneath your feet. It’s a very slight incline, but it lets you know whether you’re heading in the right direction. When you cross the threshold of the entrance into Building 2, you feel a strange, ridged material on the floor. It makes an odd, metallic scraping as you walk on it. After the strange, striped material, you find tile an elevator and the left turn that will lead you to my classroom.

When I reached the set of double doors, I stepped inside—and immediately felt carpet beneath my feet. Wrong turn, I told myself, confused. I thought I had correctly followed the straight path across the way! Where am I?

Deciding that I did not have the energy to panic, I turned around and traced the sun-drenched walkway back to Building 8. I explored, finding the door I had used to exit (the building has several entrances), and I began to retrace my steps. As I did so, I became aware of another walkway, and, as I looked, I saw familiarities. The way the light played across the pavement’s surface, the looming darkness where the building stood, the curve of the walkway as it filled up the space in front of me, a trash can placed near the stairs…I noted these things and walked forward. My cane thudded sonorously against a glass-fronted door and I reached for a handle. I had to grope for a few seconds before finding a smooth, rounded entity I could pull.

I opened the door. I stepped inside, My sensible shoes crunched metallically across the ridged floor surface. I saw tile and an elevator! Again, I took note of where I was. I had learned!

Several times over the course of the day, I walked this route between the two buildings—from 8 to 2 for class, from 2 to 8 after class, from 8 to 2 for tutoring, from 2 to 8 leaving tutoring. Over and over I made the same wrong turn and experienced an instant of pure bafflement. Each time, I reversed my erroneous path and found where I should have ended up. Each time I noted something about the wrong turns I took. In lighting, space, and contours of motion, these paths felt very different from the route I was supposed to take. I know now that there is a fabric mat in front of the entrance to some unknown building that is not Building 2. If I take the wrong walkway when exiting Building 2, I know that there is a brick building that lacks the wacky trapezoidal edges of Building 8. I don’t know the names of these new locations, and I’m not sure I need to. I think it suffices that I understand where I am and where I want to be. When these two locations—my actuality and my aspiration—differ, I continue to learn about myself by happening upon the wrong place.

The rain, a cane, and a hint of Spain

Tonight, around 6:00pm, Ozzie begins to bark, sounding the signal of an approaching car. I sling my large pink floral purse over my left shoulder, check for my cane, sunglasses, wallet, keys, and cell phone, and head toward the front of the house. I open the door and try to keep Ozzie, the curious cairn terrier, from running out onto the landing to greet Javier, who has arrived to pick me up. My efforts fail as Ozzie slips past my legs and through the narrow opening – he is relentless when there are new people to greet!

After he has paid his respects to our pup, Javier offers me his arm and we descend the front steps. It’s sprinkling and we tromp through the wet grass to get to Javier’s car. Javi opens the door for me and I slide in. We begin our trek in search of Thai food, driving through an intensifying downpour. Luckily, Javi has a snazzy umbrella that will accommodate both of us.

We arrive at the Thai restaurant and hurry inside. Our waitress greets us and says, “Nice to see you again!” I do not recognize her voice, and I wonder how she recognizes me. Though I enjoy their food, I haven’t been to this particular Thai restaurant in a while.

This evening, Javi and I are of one culinary mind; we agree on vegetable spring rolls as an appetizer and end up ordering the same entree – Phad Se-yew with chicken,  mushrooms, and carrots. The spring rolls arrive already cut into 2-bite pieces. They are arranged in an asymmetrical design on a square plate. A round cup of dipping sauce with peanuts sits in one corner of the plate, while a colorful garnish occupies another. After we have each eaten one piece of spring roll, I stare hard at the plate and reach for what I hope is another piece. I am relieved as my fingers brush the crispy surface of the roll. As I dip it into the peanut sauce, I remark, “Oh I’m glad those are more spring rolls on that edge. I thought that was another pile of garnish.”

“Oh yes,” Javier replies devilishly. “It’s all garnish. Don’t eat it!”

When the entrees arrive, I take a few bites before remembering to search for the garnish, a bunch of shredded raw carrots twisted into a decorative design, that lingers somewhere on my plate. I know this from past experiences. I cannot count the number of times I’ve lifted a forkful of phad thai to my mouth and gotten a messy clump of raw carrot caught up with the rice noodles and scallions! We finish our meal, and Javier helps me spoon my leftovers into a small white takeout box. We pay at the register, where the cashier puts my debit card onto the counter in front of me (instead of placing it into my outstretched hand).

Full of excellent food, we decide to run some errands at the Town Center. While we search for a parking spot, Javier reads the names of passing stores – Apple, Pottery Barn, Artsy Abode…Switching from his pleasing Madrid accent to a low, exaggerated French impression, he intones, “L’Occitane en Provence.”

“What! They have a store here?” (I am excited. Because I cannot read store signs and don’t regularly check maps of the Town Center, I lose track of the stores on offer.)

“Yes, it’s right there.”

“Can we go in?”

“Sure…”

We enter the shop, and the first thing I notice is the size. The store is not very deep and the ceilings are not very high. I am not sure how I know this – it must have something to do with how the air feels and how the sound of the radio, playing “La Vie en Rose,” behaves in the space. As I step through the door, the sales assistant calls from behind the counter, “Bonjour!” I barely notice her greeting. I am overpowered by the heavenly smell of warm, soothing Provence lavender.

For lavender enthusiasts like me, Provence lavender has a very distinct scent – entirely different from the pointy, medicinal smell of the typical jar of lavender bath salts. Lavender grown in Provence has a relaxing, full, floral aroma that calms my mind and makes me think of sun-drenched meadows of lush green grass and soft, inviting blossoms.

This whole shop smells like lavender, probably because, as Javier informs me later, there are bunches of lavender for sale by the entrance. As we wander around, the woman comes from behind the counter to offer her assistance. I ask her how long the store has been here and she says, “Just over a year.” We chat a little about the products I’ve tried – the shea butter lip balm and the lavender hand cream. I tell her I am there to explore the whole store.

Suddenly, she comes closer and says, “Oh! All our products have – I don’t know what they’re called – those dots that spell things!”

“Braille?” I ask in a small, hopeful voice. There’s no way it’s braille, I think to myself. Nobody has braille on all their products.

“Yes, braille!” She sounds excited. She snatches a box off a shelf and offers it to me, placing it in my outstretched hand. “Here you go!”

My fingers travel over the smooth surface of the box. I feel an upraised print logo, and, as I turn the box over in my hand, my fingers come across the beloved, familiar dots! It is braille! Worn down and not terribly easy to read, the braille quietly proclaims, “peony eau de toilette” (No caps).

“That is too cool! Well now I have to buy something from your store,” I tell her.

After a bit more exploring, I leave L’Occitane with a new perfume – the peony one. Blame it on the braille. How could I refuse something so temptingly embossed?

The peony perfume is a warm, fresh floral scent that smells incredible! It carries hints of damp earth; it smells like the depths of a garden.

The braille and the perfume are not the only catalysts of my future shopping experiences at this store. As the saleswoman rings up my purchase, she wraps each item in tissue paper that she has misted with perfume. When I hand her my card, she swipes it and places it in my hand. She slides the receipt across the counter to me, verbalizing each move she makes.

Maybe the presence of the lavender makes her more empathic and open-minded. Maybe she is a kind and considerate person by nature. Or maybe it’s the braille, the small rows and columns of unobtrusive, resilient dots marking each sweet-smelling box that calls her attention to the needs of her customers.

“You have nice brother.”

When I started high school, my older brother Simon (we call him Sammy) was embarking on his senior year. He drove us to and from school in an old NewYorker, and, because of my disabled parking decal, he was able to park the car in one of the school’s handful of disabled parking spaces. The handicapped parking was incredibly convenient; I always knew where the car would be parked, where I would be dropped off and picked up. If Sammy said, “See you at the car,” I knew where to go.

Each morning, Sammy would pull into the spot, we would exit the car, and he would head off to his locker, calling a goodbye over his shoulder. I later discovered that he was chastised by teachers and fellow students for “abandoning” me at the car.

“I can’t believe you don’t wait for your sister,” the scandalized bystanders would say. “You just…take off. You don’t open doors for her or anything.”

Sammy would reassure them that I preferred this treatment, that I did not want to be placed in a bubble. But it was difficult for the students and teachers to understand my desire for independence. Among the 1600 members of our student body, I was the only one that used a white cane – and there was a period of adjustment for me as well. High school marked a change in my cane use; I began using the cane in every area of life, instead of only using it during my weekly mobility lessons.

Before the cane and I became inseparable, I relied heavily on the use of a sighted guide – taking the elbow of a companion, classmate, or family member and letting the movement of their body alert me to upcoming obstacles. I still enjoy this method when traveling, because it allows me to easily keep pace with someone. Now that I’ve added a cane, the sighted guide primarily functions as a navigator.

Sammy shines in a story from the pre-cane days. He was leading me across a parking lot on our elementary school campus; I was following behind him since both our arms were full and I couldn’t take his elbow. Knowing that our teachers were watching, he decided to have some fun and promptly began to zigzag across the parking lot. Obediently, I followed his wild staggering, trying not to laugh as our elderly, easily-flustered teachers shouted, “Simon! Stop doing that to your sister!” My brother has always been an expert at entertaining or shocking the onlookers.

Traveling with a white cane gets me a lot of stares, and I am literally blind to this visual attention. In one case, my mom, my sister Marie, and I were having lunch out, when Marie leaned toward me and said, “Emily, this woman has been staring at you for the past 20 minutes.” I asked what had gotten the starer’s attention, and Marie replied, “Oh she heard you unfolding your cane. But don’t worry. She stared at you, so I stared at HER!” With fierce protectiveness, she explained to me that, as soon as she had noticed the woman’s stare progressing beyond curiosity into rudeness, she fixed the onlooker with an equally intense gaze. Finally, the woman averted her eyes and Marie was satisfied.

When my brother and I are conscious of an audience – a group of coffee drinkers sitting al fresco or a line of irritable customers at the store – he finds a way to enhance their daily experience. Not content that they should simply behold a blind girl traveling with her brother, he wrenches his arm out of my grasp and says loudly, “Let’s play Marco Polo!” This is my cue to pipe up in (false) frustration, exclaiming, “Sammy, I don’t want to!” He ignores my protest and starts to inch away from me, and I begin calling, “Marco…Marco” in what I hope is a timid, unhappy voice. Eventually, after we’ve heard a few horrified gasps, we reunite, giggling.

In one such case, we were wandering around Wal-Mart playing Marco Polo and laughing hysterically. We must have been a lot more visible and audible than I thought, because, as we were leaving, a greeter standing by the exit approached us. She stepped close to me, a little too close, and peered into my face. She turned to my brother and said, with a very heavy accent and in broken English, “This your sister?”

“Yes,” we both answered.

“She no see well?” she asked, continuing to stare at me.

“No,” he replied, caught off-guard. “She has low vision.”

The woman leaned toward me again, peering into my eyes (I imagine), and stepped back. She patted my shoulder and declared, “You have nice brother.”

She doesn’t know about the lemon rinds, I think to myself. Or how, when I’m searching for the sink in the kitchen, Sammy places my hands under the running water and says in a loud, serious voice a la Annie Sullivan, “Water! Water!”

And then there’s the time we were shopping at Chamblin, famous for its cramped aisles, boxes of books strewn everywhere. I was following Sammy down one aisle during a marathon trip (we both love books) and he alerted me to the boxes all along the aisle by loudly tapping them and saying, “Box!” I asked if he intended to hit every object in the store, so that I’d have a more thorough understanding of my environment, and he proceeded to smack the shelves and say “Shelf!” and wave his hand above his head and shout, “Ceiling!”

With one hand he piles unwanted lemon peels on my plate or takes an unexpected bite of the food I’ve just prepared, but with the other, he offers me tactile explanations, copying the motions of appliances or kitchen tools I want to understand. He affectionately called me a blindie, long before I adopted the term and used it in everyday conversation. When I got my dark sunglasses, he called me Stevie or Ray and teased me about making a holiday album with them – “You could call it The Blindies Do Christmas,” he joked.

Sometimes we enacted elaborate improvisations, where I would test-drive different occupations. My favorite was a scene in which I was a blind radiologist and he was my assistant. I would take the imaginary film and say, “Good heavens, this man’s lung looks terrible! We have to get him into surgery at once!”

Sammy would cough and respond, “Doctor, that’s a leg,” and I would exclaim, “What’s he doing with a lung in his leg?! This is serious!”

These moments remind me of two important lessons: 1) I should not take myself too seriously,  and 2) I do have nice brother.

Disclosure and Fascination

When you carry a white cane, a very visible marker of disability, you receive a lot of free information about other people’s lives, especially their medical history. Whether you believe that the white cane signifies impairment or independence, its presence is hard to ignore. Sometimes, it elicits a troublesome graveyard silence from onlookers – which is mildly irritating because I rely primarily on auditory cues to navigate my environment. Usually, however, the cane promotes a spontaneous socialization within its vicinity.

When walking with the white cane, perfect strangers have stopped to ask me all of the following (and more):

  • “Excuse me, are you blind?”
  • “So if you’re blind, what are your dreams like?”
  • “Do you have fainting spells? Is that why you carry a cane?”
  • “So…can you tell me why there’s braille on drive-up ATMs?”
  • “Are you going to get a dog? You should get a dog.”
  • “Do you read braille? *pointing to sign for women’s restroom* What does this say?”
  • “Do you know Stan? He’s blind too. We were friends twelve years ago.” [Here, I am tempted to reply, “Stan? Of course! I’ve seen him at the meetings!” To date, I have been able to restrain myself.]

At times, the cane moves people to tell you things or offer advice, rather than asking questions. This is usually because you’re waiting for someone or you’ve stopped to check your phone. At any rate, you’re stationary – which means strangers can approach and offer more in-depth conversation. Here’s where the extra (unsolicited) medical information comes in.

  • “My grandmother was blind too.”
  • “If you want to know when to cross the street, you can wait six seconds after the light turns green and go ahead. I used to be a crossing guard, so I know.”
  • “There is a blind guy at our church! He reads braille. He has a braille Bible and he brings it every Sunday. And he just…reads it!”
  • “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time and I can see!”
  • “Without my contacts, I’m like practically blind.”
  • “For a blind person, you dress really well! I would never have known you were blind…”

I know that things often fall out of people’s mouths before they realize what they’re saying or how it sounds. Most of the time, these awkward, clunky statements are a person’s way into the conversation – as if they want to say, “Hey, I’d like to know more about you and your disability” but instead, they see a cane and blurt out the first association they can think of.

The cane initiates a lot of dialogue, provided that people understand what it indicates (If you guessed fainting spells, you don’t get the prize money this time!). The cane does a lot of the talking for me. It’s a shortcut for disclosure; when using it, I rarely have to kickstart the explanation of my vision.

In one case, I was sitting in a theatre, the cane folded at my feet. The guy in front of me turned around and said, “What are those on the floor – numchucks?” I replied, “No, that’s my cane – it folds up. I’m legally blind.” He responded, “Oh. That sucks,” and I answered, “Not really.”

Another time, I was standing at the service desk in a crowded bookstore, inquiring after a rare title. The clerk was extremely helpful and offered to walk me to the shelf where I could find what i was looking for. She came around the corner of the desk and I stepped away from it, my cane out. When she saw me, she said,  “Oh!”

I cheerfully replied, “Surprise!” and she quickly recovered from her initial shock. She extended her elbow to me, offered to carry the stack of books I was holding, and complimented the flower in my hair. I concluded correctly that she had not been able to see my cane from her side of the desk.

I think that the cane’s presence makes people more comfortable discussing other disabilities around me. A cashier tells me about her autistic child; a colleague discusses her mother’s failing vision. In these cases, the cane represents disability as a canopy under which we can all relate.

Recently, I was talking to several people at a party – my cane folded and stashed in my purse – when one of the parents happened to mention that his son had Asperger’s syndrome. After an awkward pause, he quickly added, “But he is high-functioning. The doc says he has a 190 IQ!” Nodding, I said, “Oh really?” As I was fighting back curiosity, I noticed that the rest of the table had gone very quiet. I was not uncomfortable, but I could tell that a sense of unease had settled over the table. I can’t decide if the father or his audience was feeling the majority of the discomfort.

When the cane prompts people to share their family’s and their own medical history with me, they don’t attempt to minimize or verbally overcompensate for the disabilities they’re discussing. It is as though the cane is an emblem of safety – people who bring up their sons or daughters with autism don’t have to offer me a disclaimer. No one has to say, “My daughter has x but she is really good at y.” I imagine that the white cane is like a white flag, declaring a public acceptance of disabilities – even extending that acceptance to encompass other human quirks or frailties. (I am thinking of the bank teller who saw the cane and told me that she also ran into walls.)

I wonder how my party conversation would have changed if I had been holding the cane or checking the time on my braille watch. Would the dad have felt the need to assert his child’s value (a high IQ) if he wasn’t distinguishing his kid as the only disabled person in a room of “normies”*?

In an ideal world, we would not have to barter for acceptance by asserting our talents when we disclose our disabilities. In the same ideal world, people would not associate the word disability (and all the diagnoses that fall under it) with a life that is not a life, an existence of only suffering and failure. Clearly, we haven’t arrived at the ideal stage, but I am grateful that the cane, and other public markers of disability, opens a space in which we can discuss our humanity with frankness and fascination.

*Cheeky term for nondisabled people

Commencement: Sometimes a cane takes you places beyond your imagining.

It’s a big day. Graduation. The sky is blue, the geese are honking, and the sun is shining — almost entirely on me, I think, because I can feel its heat, intensified by my black robes. They work as effective solar panels as Adrianna, my good friend and long-time sighted guide, and I walk toward the back entrance of the arena. Once inside, we’re directed to a series of tables crowded by black and blue robed graduates. We collect a card that displays my name and “Master of Arts,” which Adrianna waves before us like some fairy tale talisman whenever we get disoriented in the crowd.

Eventually, we find ourselves in a long hallway populated exclusively by black-robed graduates. Everywhere, people are adjusting their regalia and clamoring for safety pins. The “hood” seems to be causing the most trouble, probably because it is not really a hood. It’s more of a drape, or a cape, that lays across the shoulders and flows down the back, showing off the university’s blue and silver. Wearing it properly (and I know I’ve got it properly on now, because a few kind classmates helped me), I feel like an academic superhero!

But, as I said, I’ve got my hood and cap situated now, and the black 2012 tassel bats at my cheek every time I laugh or nod. Fortunately, the tassel is hanging before my bad eye, so it doesn’t become a visual hindrance. I feel rather stellar, once all the regalia is in place. I’m chatting with Adrianna and classmates, when a professor approaches.

“You must be Emily.”

“That’s me.”

She introduces herself. “You’re up front with me, dear. I’ll come get you when it’s time.”

I have two questions at this point: 1) How did she know who I was? 2) Why am I being placed at the front of the line? And the answer to both of these is the same. The Cane.

Moments later, I am standing at the front of the line of M.A. graduates and it dawns on me. I will be the first graduate to enter the arena. Adrianna realizes this, and we babble with nervous excitement. We can do this. She has guided me hundreds of times before. We will do this.

The professor gives the signal and we enter the arena to the sounds of a surprisingly crisp recording. Immediately, I become aware of the light and all the people. The next thing I notice is my cane’s sluggish progress across the ground before me. It keeps getting caught on some kind of tarp they’ve laid to protect the arena floor. So I cling to Adrianna’s elbow with more force than usual, taking care to pick my cane up instead of letting it sweep the ground.

As we settle into a walking rhythm, I feel myself begin to beam. Once we’ve established the pace and gotten used to the environment, I feel confident, and Adrianna does as well.

After a series of lackluster speeches, it is time for the conferring of degrees. Again, I am first up. Adrianna stands and offers me her arm and we follow the professor’s cues. We exit our row and walk forward across what feels like an infinite stretch of tarp-covered floor. I am used to this floor now, and the cane, happily situated in my hand, glides easily.

As we prepare to cross the stage, two friends of mine call to me in stage whispers. I turn a beaming face to them. I realize that, again, the white cane makes it easy for people to spot me. The dean calls my name and I am the first student to ascend the ramp and cross the stage.

This moment holds for me an unforeseen magic. The rush of excitement and delight I feel in walking up to the stage and across it is totally unexpected. I know that my name is barely audible because of the crowd’s enthusiasm. I know that the diploma case they hand me contains a form letter of congratulations and not my degree.

The delight comes from the feel of the cane in my hand as I walk, the press of the master’s robes and hood swishing against me, the tassel insistently tapping the left lens of my glasses. What makes this moment exciting is the white cane.

The white cane is part of my regalia. I feel honored and privileged because I get to bear it down the aisle and across the stage. I feel delighted that the first student to process in carries the cane. I wonder how many people notice it. I wonder how visible it is for others, how many recognize it for what it is.

I smile to think that it must stand out so well against the black of my gown.

Three Turns

I stand up, swinging the heavy bag over one shoulder, unfolding the six sections of the cane with their hearty, reassuring clicks. Mobility is a mess of sensations. “Can you make it?” — it’s the question on others’ lips, but they’re whispering compared to the voice in my head. “Can you make it?” Don’t be a hero. Reach for that elbow you love. It’s comfortable.

If I can get outside my head and into the world, I realize—it’s only three turns. The cane slips forward, gliding scratchily along that nasty carpet, and I round the first corner. A moment of confusion as the bright lights of reception blur out the notable, the necessary features of the doorway. Take a minute to adjust.
I  s l o w  m y  p a c e  And…they’re clear.

Abrupt right turn. The first of three long lengths seems easy. I round a corner by a water fountain, a left turn — the sunlight shining through a glass door nearby is a beacon. Don’t turn there! The next length is darker, more sedate, but free of distractions, easy to travel, good for concentration. Right turn. And I get a rush! from seeing such familiarities. I start to recognize with my eyes that I’m where I should be. Intuitions aside, I can now track visually the path to my office. Veer right, follow the wall, pass the screaming panel of glass that throws sunlight at me. And another short, dark hallway until one door, two! That’s me. I can stop, reach for the keys, and unlock it.

It’s not enough to be mobile. I must be a mobile mind.

* This entry was featured in the Summer 2012 edition of the ILAB GAB, the quarterly newsletter released by Independent Living for Adult Blind in Jacksonville, FL.