Sweet Response

May is turning out to be a literary month for me. I’ve created an account on Goodreads to keep numerical track of how many books I’m currently reading. So far, Goodreads says I’m reading 13. As I’ve listed several collections of poetry in this category – collections I read a few poems at a time – my sense of accomplishment hasn’t plummeted too dramatically. Also according to Goodreads, the number of books I want to read exceeds the number of books I’ve read. Seeing a larger pile of books in my future than the pile in my past seems like a sign that I am living a full and promising life.

Books from the past never really stay in the past. I remember many vivid books from earlier years. When I was in elementary school, I favored American Girl and Sweet Valley Twins books. Around fourth grade, an elderly aunt introduced me to Jane Austen. Then came the memorable and gloomy books of adolescent summer reading lists: A Bridge to Terabithia, Shiloh, Jacob Have I Loved, The Outsiders.

Perhaps to combat the melancholia of the assigned middle school texts, I discovered a love for fantasy and witty retellings of fairy tales. I adored Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (which is superior to the movie in every way) and Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, the sassy diary of a thirteenth-century teenager. I graduated to Harry Potter, and while I was waiting for the next magical installment, I traveled slowly and carefully through The Lord of the Rings. In high school, I was in love with two men: Tolkien and Thoreau. I am still in love with them now.

This month, I’ve just finished two books, and I found them delightful. The first was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, read on Audible by the author. The second was Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I listened to the audiobook, not read by the author, and followed along in the print text – I underlined meaningful and relevant passages on nearly every page. This audio-visual approach is my favorite way to read a text, but I don’t always have time for it. I made time for LaMott, and she was worth it!

So now I’m at the bookstore with Katie, looking for something new. Yes, Goodreads says I’m currently reading in the double digits, but the numbers really don’t matter. I’ve finished two books; I need to start at least one more. This is what bibliophilia really means: constant dedication to the reading life.

Katie and I begin with a brief stroll around the classics table, where stacks of gorgeous hardcover books teeter and nestle against each other. The rows of overhead lights glint off their gold-edged pages. I have several of these beautiful books on a special shelf at home. But I never curl up with them, annotate them. They’re trophy books.

Next we travel to our favorite section, Poetry.  Here, we willingly take all the abuse this section has to offer: three tall rows of shelves with the same slightly battered editions. With each visit, the No Fear Shakespeare volumes edge a little closer to our favorite poets, or the copies of Dante and Homer proliferate, crowding the more obscure (and doubtlessly more wonderful) authors.

I shudder as my fingers brush against thin volumes of Mary Oliver and T.S. Elliot; somehow The Wasteland and Other Poems is always hanging out beside A Poetry Handbook. But most of the books on these shelves make me happy, even when I already own them. Katie and I both sigh over the various books by Rainer Maria Rilke – “We have all these,” she says. We greet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rumi, and the French poets with the same quiet enthusiasm: it’s encouraging to see old friends.

On a shelf with an unnecessary number of books by Billy Collins, I find a new arrival: Selected Poems of Robert Creeley. Though I haven’t read much Creeley, I met him in college through a jazz-major-turned-English-major friend. The same friend introduced me to this poem, by Ron Padgett –

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

Katie and I pour over the Creeley, admiring the straightforward free verse, the clear font, the new smell, the bendiness of the pages. She flips it over:

“Thirty dollars.”

Depressed, we trudge away from the poetry section, ask a few questions at the service desk, and begin perusing the magazines. A writer friend has advised me to pick up a few poetry magazines so that I can see what kind of poetry they publish. Katie hands me a copy of The New Yorker and another of Poets & Writers Magazine. The Poets & Writers logo is large, difficult to miss. An elderly man walking past asks, “Oh, are you writers? Are either of you ladies writing books?”

I answer as Katie hands me two more magazines: “I write poetry and creative nonfiction.”

“Oh Lord!” he exclaims. He continues to walk away.

Feeling snubbed, I stare at Katie, who smiles encouragingly. I know she would stop to talk with a poet.

We end our shopping with coffee. I slide my writing magazines across the counter and ask the barrista if she has any seasonal flavors. She rattles off a list of options – espresso-flavored whipped cream, crumbled cookies, mocha-something – all available in icy blended drinks. Nothing sounds good to me. When poetry is slighted, hot coffee alone will soothe the sting.

So I invent a drink – a French vanilla latte with a hint of caramel. It’s warm and foamy, no whipped cream. I will call it the Rejected Poet.

Twinkle Toes

In my hand, I am holding a bottle of O.P.I. Shanghai Shimmer, a dark rosy nail polish. I step forward to occupy the chair that the pedicurist has indicated. As I stand beside it, shrugging off my navy ruffled cardigan, she rushes forward to offer her help. She takes my large red purse, accepts my folded sweater, and guides my hand to the chair’s arm. When I am seated, she repositions the adjustable left armrest and places my caramel macchiato on an attached table.

Guided by the sound of water filling the basin before me, I swing my feet over the edge and place them on the low platform at the end of the chair. The pedicurist gently plunges my toes into the hot water, and I recoil. “A little too hot,” I explain, and she adjusts the water’s temperature. Soon, both feet are submerged in the warm rippling water.

I lean back and enjoy the spa chair’s rigorous massage as the pedicurist readies her tools. With my eyes closed and sunglasses on, I could easily fall asleep here – the sound of the running water and the slow massage of the chair start to overpower the two shots of espresso in my drink. Just when I am getting comfortable, she lifts my right foot out of the water and begins her work.

First, she applies a cream of medium thickness to my cuticles, rubbing the surface of each toenail. I feel the cool touch of a small metal tool against my skin, and I know she is trimming my cuticles. As she supports my foot with her free hand, the tool glides along the borders of each nail. When she finishes all five toes, the tool is laid aside with a tinny metallic clink.

Her grip on my foot changes, and I feel the presence of a weightier implement in her other hand. Deftly, she positions it against my toe, and I hear a resounding snap. She clips most of the nails on my right foot, evening their length. I take a sip of my coffee and relax into the massage chair, which squeezes my upper back with reassuring rhythm.

A significant thud lets me know that she has laid the tool aside. Her grip changes again and so does the feeling at the edge of my toes. A minute jarring sensation and low-pitched scraping sound accompany the file’s quick progression along each toenail. Then the file disappears, and a squishy foam block passes over each nail. The pedicurist silently lays aside the buffer and places my right foot – filed and buffed – back in the warm water. She lifts out the left foot to administer the same treatment.

Then she places my left foot into the lukewarm water and lifts the right out again. She runs an assessing hand along the bottom of my foot, feeling for calluses. Silently she picks up another tool and begins to rub along the bottom of my foot. Suddenly, I experience a sensory barrage – the tool works and sounds like a lemon zester, sending vibrations up my calf as it removes rough skin.

After the application of the zester, my toes come into contact with what feels like a giant toothbrush. The pedicurist dips my foot into the water and scrubs at my tender toes with a stiff-bristled brush. Then she rubs an exfoliant over my foot, ankle, and calf. She scrubs my leg, rinses it, and leaves it to soak in the water. She repeats the procedure with my left leg and lifts both out of the water.

Placing both of my feet on the platform before her, she dries each  thoroughly with a soft towel. She even dries in between my toes, which comes as a surprise. While sipping my coffee, I suddenly feel the towel methodically slipping between each of my toes. After inserting glamorous foam separators between my toes, she begins to apply the Shanghai Shimmer. She holds my foot in one hand and paints with the other. The pungent smell and the chilly feel of the nail polish combine with a barely perceptible pressure as the silky little applicator flits across each toenail.

As the nail polish dries, the pedicurist covers my legs in lotion that smells like fresh-cut oranges and mangoes. She massages the lotion into each leg, working out tight spots along the bottom of my foot and up my calf. Holding one foot tightly in her hand, she pummels my calf with her fist. Then she pummels the foot. I’m so relaxed by the entire massage that I forget about my coffee. I don’t even notice that the spa chair has turned off.

After the massage, she wraps my legs in warm towels and lets them “steam” – she runs the towel along my leg to absorb excess lotion. As she cleans up her work area, I hear all the tools rattling together. She retrieves my silver flip-flops and meticulously slides them over the toe separators onto my feet.

I lean back against the inactive spa chair, sipping my coffee and waiting for my dark pink toenails to dry. When I stand up, my feet are so soft that they slide around in my sandals. But it’s not a big deal – I’m in no hurry to walk away.

Too Wonderful for Words

On a crisp weekday morning, I wander happily into the warmth of the campus Starbucks, craving a cappuccino. As I near the counter, I notice that only one customer waits at the register—a tall, middle-aged or elderly man. Unsure whether he has already ordered and paid for his drink, I hang back, waiting for a familiar cashier to call me forward.

“Hi, Emily, what can I get for you?” one of the regulars calls to me. I step forward, drawing my burgundy wallet out of my purse.

To my left, the customer waits on his cup of black coffee. Making me aware of his position, he says, “You get along pretty well.”

Unsure whether he is addressing me, I ignore his comment. I order my cappuccino and fish for my debit card. When I have accepted the card and receipt from the cashier, I replace the card in my wallet and fold the receipt. As I zip my wallet closed, the man repeats, “You get along pretty well.”

“Me?”

“Yes,” he insists. “If I hadn’t seen the cane, I wouldn’t know you were visually-impaired.”

I smile, thinking quickly. I want to seem gracious but disinterested. “Thank you.”

He continues, “I had two visually-impaired students last year, and they weren’t nearly as skilled as you.”

“Oh,” I continue to stare ahead, at a loss for words. What can I say to this man? I don’t know his two blind students. How can I accept his compliment and agree that his students are inferior to me?

Three days later, Crystal, Derek, and I enter another Starbucks.

“Hey, it’s Miss Independent!” exclaims the cheerful cashier as I step up to the counter. I chuckle awkwardly, trying to sound disinterested. I hope to order my drink without incurring more praise.

“Hi, can I have a tall hot chocolate?”

“Sure thing,” she replies, punching buttons on the cash register. I slide my burgundy wallet out of my bag, unzip it, and feel for my debit card. It’s easy to find; it’s the only card in the first pocket with upraised numbers. When I hand it to her, she rewards me by saying, “Wow, that is just so impressive…always self-sufficient. I’m going to start calling you Miss Self-Sufficient!”

This is a familiar exchange: I have bought coffee from her four times, and, each time, she praises my ability to conduct my transaction independently.

Again, I deliver a half-hearted half-laugh. I don’t really know what to say.

“Yeah I am really Superwoman, able to pay for multiple coffees in a single swipe!”

“Well, you know, it takes a lot of work—I have to put money in the account and then find the right card…I guess I have to earn the money first…”

“Thank you, ma’am—it’s so reassuring to know that your poor opinion of blind people leads you to doubt my ability to manage this simple transaction with ease.”

I write all of these things because I can’t say them. As irritating as I find her comments (and the low standards they indicate), I don’t want to make her feel stupid. I don’t want to shame her for her ignorance.

Keeping all this in mind, I don’t know what to say. What can you say?

I follow Derek to the small round table, and he adds an extra chair for Crystal. She stands at the counter and pays for her drink. Either my ears are deceiving me, or I imagine that I hear the phrase “self sufficient” in Crystal’s conversation with the cashier. When she joins us at the table, Crystal confirms this.

“She told me it it just warmed her heart to see you being so independent,” she says, grinning. “She said you came in looking so nice and doing everything for yourself. She was really impressed.”

Impressed? Really? I am wearing a light brown sweater with short sleeves and a square neckline with a pair of dark jeans. My hair is twisted back in a big clip, because that style takes 2 minutes to achieve. I am wearing no makeup, no stylish accessories, and no designer products. Yes, I dress myself and I match.

So, watch out, coffee drinkers! You never know when this whirling dervish of a blind girl will appear at a Starbucks near you! You’ll be sitting there, sipping your iced, half-caff caramel macchiato, and, suddenly—totally out of the blue—a blind woman will appear, cane flying, cape swirling, and…order a coffee. She’ll order a coffee. And maybe a croissant. Her clothes will be without stains, her dark hair will be pulled into a bun or a clip (as if some sighted person did it), and her back will be straight. She’ll speak in a clear, articulate voice (she knows English?!) and she’ll handle her debit card or folded paper money with relative ease.

You’ll be so impressed with her. You’ll want to check your calendar—is it Leap Day already? You’ll wonder if she’s part of that 2012 Mayan apocalypse thing; surely competent blind women don’t come around that often! Eventually, after watching her collect her drink and settle into a comfortable chair, you’ll settle back into your own seat and sigh. You’ll stop trying to do the math. Miracles like this don’t come around every day, so you want to enjoy this. You can’t figure her out, and you don’t need to. She’s just too wonderful for words!

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.