Essay: “Lightspending”

My essay, “Lightspending” was published in the September issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. The essay is part of a larger collection: blind writers responding to John Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness.” Here is how the editors introduced my essay:

“Michael’s essay is a narrative of personal experience. It is pegged to Milton’s sonnet only in the oblique reference of its title and the images of light that she weaves throughout the piece. Still, it is a consideration of how light is spent — one freed of religious overtones in a way that Milton could probably never have imagined.”

Read my essay here.

Read the complete responses to Milton here.

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Two-Way Teaching

On the first day of every semester, I always carry extra baggage. In spring, summer, and fall, I must replenish my office and bring in all the graded final assignments. As I trace the familiar path past the library and through Starbucks, I sag under the weight of several canvas bags filled with tea, travel mugs, books, air fresheners, and other teaching essentials. Generally I bear the bulk of this gear on the left so that my right hand and arm can manipulate the white cane.

But this fall, my hands serve different purposes: the left wraps around a square harness handle and the right is poised to handle the leather leash. My teaching gear has been crammed into a purple floral backpack, and my fabric lunchbox dangles from my right wrist. Under my right arm, I carry a tightly rolled rectangular carpet – a new necessity. An outside pocket on my backpack holds other items not needed in previous semesters: a collapsable water bowl, a pet first aid kit, a well-loved plastic bone, and several crumpled grocery bags. An inner pocket protects a tupperware container filled with kibbles.

New habits accompany the items in my bag. Now, while I walk, I carry on a quiet conversation with the pup at my side – giving directions and praise as he learns my preferred routes on campus. I stop when he stops, move forward when he moves, and adjust the leash when he buries his nose in the hedges. I receive many more greetings and prepare answers for the three most common questions: “Can I pet him?” “How old is he?” “Is he a full Lab?”

At my office, I ask York to sit while I find the electronic key. I unlock the door, usher him inside, and take off his harness. I clip one end of his tie-down around the leg of my desk and attach the other clip to his training collar. Then I gently push him out of the way so I can set up his space.

I unroll the small rug and tuck it into the far right corner of my office. I lure York to his new spot with a toy, but he doesn’t stay there long. While I unpack my backpack, he crawls under my desk to rest his head on my feet. He watches as I stash his lunch in a lower desk drawer, out of his reach. He sticks his nose in the trash can, noisily searching for my apple core.

Throughout the morning, York and I complete several errands – picking up photocopies, placing my lunch in the breakroom fridge, meeting with colleagues. I consolidate these trips so I won’t have to take York’s harness on and off several thousand times. I want him to have harness-free time in my office, and I have to consider the errands that York needs: busy breaks, water breaks, and meal time. I arrange these activities around my teaching schedule, mentally planning which paths we’ll take to get to each class.

On the way to my first class, I decide to introduce York to the staircase outside my office building. He has already learned the inside hallways I travel most; he can predict when to turn left or right as we walk. Once outside, I tell York “Over right, find the steps,” and he takes me to the staircase, stopping just short of the first step. I place my right foot on the step’s edge, reach for the rail, praise him, and say, “Forward down.”

We slowly descend with York a few steps ahead of me. The harness handle sways as he walks down, and he pauses every few steps to let me catch up. On the landing, he guides me around to the next railing, but he doesn’t step down until I give the command.

At the bottom, we round a corner and find a small triangle of grass. I take York’s harness off and give him time to explore. While York takes his break, a harried student asks me for directions. I answer the student’s questions as York wanders back to me, tail wagging. I slip the harness on and we walk to our first class.

Inside the bright classroom, several students are already seated. York and I enter through the door at the front, striding across the classroom to the large teacher’s desk. I ask York to sit and clip his leash around the desk leg. I present him with another of his favorite toys; hopefully he’ll settle down and chew away while I talk to the class.

The atmosphere changes as I unpack my bag and York snuffles around under the desk. Some students lean forward, whispering excitedly. One student asks Question #2, and I respond, “He’s 18 months, which is young for a guide dog.” I feel myself smiling as I answer – I’ve got the New Parent Glow, the face that says, “Yes, I’m perfectly willing to talk about all my pup’s accomplishments for several hours.”

When the classroom is full, I welcome students to the course. I introduce myself, adding, “And you may have noticed my teaching assistant under the desk.” I explain that York is a working guide dog, that they shouldn’t talk to him or try to pet him while he’s wearing the harness. While I present this solemn speech, York rolls on the floor – snorting, jingling his harness, and kicking his legs. I sigh, “It’s his first semester teaching.” The students laugh, and I promise that York will be free to play if they come by my office.

Two days later, York and I are traveling the same hallway, ready for our second class meeting of the term. York walks calmly beside me, undisturbed by the people rushing on either side. His head doesn’t even turn when a female student coos, “Ooohh he’s so handsome!” He’s aloof, work-focused. I feel a soft breeze across the fingers of my left hand – produced by York’s wagging tail. His tail swings up and out, keeping time with our feet; it’s something I’ve just started to notice when we walk together.

Halfway down the hall, the harness handle jerks upward, and I can feel York leaping in the air. I pull down hard on the handle and grab the leash in my right hand: “Easy, easy!” York halts beside me, panting, while I search for the distraction that got him so riled up. I hear laughing and cooing to my left.

“It’s us,” calls a woman from behind a folding table. “We’re from the Counseling Center. We’re handing out stress balls.”

“Oh, that explains it; he loves balls.” Beside me, York’s tail agrees. Though he is standing still, his whole body leans towards the table. Another woman at the table offers me a ball, and I shake my head. “He would tear it up.”

The table voices chorus: “Awwwww.”

As the workday ends, York and I walk downstairs and take the outdoor route around Starbucks and past the library. Near the sign that proclaims, “Brown Rice Sushi” in huge bubbly letters, York stops for some intense sniffing – something he shouldn’t do while he’s guiding me. I correct him, but he won’t pick his head up. This likely means that he’s found something to eat.

Again, I correct him, and he lifts his head. I reach for his mouth and tell him to “leave it,” – though, at this point, I don’t know what “it” is. Without complaint, York lets me run my fingers over his mouth, and I find his jaws clenched around something round and squishy. As I pry the squishy thing out of his mouth, I repeat, “York, drop it,” just for good measure. He doesn’t fight me, and once I’ve got the thing in my hand, I recognize it: a stress ball. I relieve some stress by throwing it away.

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.

Guiding with Grace

On an overcast afternoon, the car pulls to a stop in front of the bright diagonal lines and the short sidewalk. I open my door, unfold my cane, and trail the car—keeping my hand against it until I reach the right passenger door. There, I hear the familiar clicks of another cane unfolding as Henry, waiting next to his open door, prepares to move forward. I stand before him, and he places his left hand on my right shoulder.

I walk across the diagonal lines and onto the sidewalk, feeling the curb bumps beneath my feet and Henry’s warm hand lightly gripping my shoulder. With each step, I swing my cane to cover the space before the opposite foot. I hear Henry’s cane moving in tandem with mine; our combined arcs clear the ground as we progress smoothly.

We traverse a short sidewalk, avoiding students and signs, and pass the library. As we walk by the library entrance, the automatic doors slide open with a cool metallic hiss. I angle left, choosing a wider path free from bike racks and bistro tables. Henry follows behind me, a seamless extension of my space.

Henry and I amble through Starbucks, where the crowd of coffee-drinkers and narrow path force us to turn sideways. We walk up the sloping sidewalk to the elevator and negotiate the range of doors and quick turns that lead to my office. There, a cacophony of clicking signals two cane-users putting away the implements of their independence.

Later, we reverse the journey and encounter the daunting onslaught of students rushing to their late afternoon classes. I lead Henry down the sloping sidewalk, onto the elevator, along the crowded path that opens into a sea of columns, and through the chaos of Starbucks. We pass the library’s large brick columns and angle left, coming around the corner of the library. As we round the corner and students step out of our way, I realize I am enacting a popular phrase.

I’m a blind woman guiding a blind man. It’s the blind leading the blind.

Coming around that corner by the library, I am surprised by a wave of pride. I can’t say I’m a “sighted guide” because that isn’t true, but this is the first time I’ve ever guided someone. So I’m a blind guide—is such a thing possible? I reflect on the smoothness of our mobility and reason that it is. Well, what do you know?! We’re overturning clichés!

And quite successfully, I think to myself. We reach the waiting car and find our seats.

However, my pride does not arise solely from our success. Rather, I’m proud—and delighted—to be guiding Henry. Because this is my campus, the area in which I’m the most confident traveler, I realize that I’m the conduit between Henry and the physical environment. I get to be the one to show him where things are. I get to lead him around! I feel privileged, important—not because I’m showing off but because of who I’m showing off.

Thanks to my mom, I know that people observe me as I travel. After a day of running errands, Mom often tells me about the people who watch us moving together. Because Mom is my most frequent guide, her assistance feels natural and intuitive. She says that, when we’re walking, people often stare at us, openly curious, trying to understand how we move together. “It’s usually when we’re cracking up,” she says happily. “I smile at them. We look like we’re having a blast.”

I wonder what people think when they see Henry and me, moving purposefully and effortlessly across campus. What is the sighted impression of two blind individuals traveling as one cohesive unit—each cane widening the other’s scope?

When I think of myself as Henry’s guide, as an ambassador in this unfamiliar environment, I marvel at my own good fortune. I have spent my life being guided, but now I am guiding—introducing a remarkable person to the space before me. If onlookers perceive a fraction of my feelings, then our travels will be an enjoyable vision. They will see my delight and confidence, my sense of personal worth, my eagerness to show Henry to the world and the world to Henry.

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.

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.

Walking

“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is–I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

Wearing my sunglasses, I descend the front stairs and Dad offers me his arm. Already, Ozzie pulls at the leash in Mom’s hand. We traverse the small sidewalk that bisects our front yard and reach the curb. “Curb alert!” Dad says cheerfully. He steps off the curb and waits for me to do the same. When we are both on the road, he turns to the right, and we begin the first lap.

Mom leads the stroll, holding Ozzie’s leash as he tries to investigate everything at once. Shortly, we arrive at a small grassy area, where Dad and I wait in the shade as Ozzie explores each tree and bush. When he is finished, we resume, following the curve of the road as it rounds the neighborhood. Dad narrates various characteristics of our surroundings, commenting on the state of the trees, the construction of the houses, and the weather. With my hand firmly wedged into the crook of his arm, I glide forward, appreciating his commentary. My cane scratches along the level pavement, and I don’t have to think about where we’re going. Relying on my guide, I can relax into ambulatory reflection.

I am excited by the certainty of my steps – the rush of confidence as each foot obeys the commands of proprioception – and the comforting sensation of warmth as my muscles come to attention. I feel the ground through my feet, and the invigorating pressure of each step dispels the drowsiness in my legs. A small breeze, not powerful enough to rustle the leaves, cools my face. The sun seems to exude less heat; the air is not oppressive. I can smell the beginnings of autumn – an unlikely aroma on a September day in Florida. For us, fall is rarely a season of dramatic foliage and crisp air, but some strange hint, some spicy undercurrent, recalls the inspiring nature of autumn afternoons.

In a remarkably short time, I notice how our strides have aligned. Dad and I easily fall into an identical pace, keeping an equal distance behind Ozzie and Mom. Our small pack seems cohesive, determined, and relaxed. Traveling with this group – social ambling – calms and comforts me. I am soothed not only by my own steps, but by the audible footfalls around me and the sound of Ozzie’s small legs persevering along the road.

I think about the nature of strolls and the muscles we use to create them.  I wonder how much of the stroll is made in the legs and how much of its emollience comes from the walking-place. Walking by myself, I rarely have the luxury of reflecting as I move; I deploy my cognitive resources and sensory observations in the task of traveling safely. Among the group, I can abdicate these duties and appreciate what I imagine Thoreau appreciated in his familiar woods and fields.

It takes some practice and more leisure to become the kind of walker Thoreau describes. It is not enough to engage in the mobile preparation, to possess the ability to move and direct your own course. I believe that Thoreau’s kind of walking, the spiritual experience of movement through the world, demands a level of sensory commitment and mental calm. You must know the path you’re traveling – you must be able to travel it with relative ease so that you can lose and find yourself in the walk. Without the foundation of sensory familiarity and muscle memory, the walk cannot take place.

If I say that I walk more with my mind than my body, I run the risk of dismissing my sensory, physical experiences of the world. So I will not say it. I think that the mind and body make the walk together, so that walking itself does not depend on legs, but on the idea of them. It depends on a person’s willingness to stroll by any means, to embody the mind’s need to rove.

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.

Working Lunch

Standing in the glary cafeteria with my shades on and my heavy bag over my left shoulder, I decide to venture independently in search of some hot food. I walk past the rows of tables and chairs and use my cane to feel for a change in the texture of the floor. The floor changes from smooth to rough and the material grows lighter; I catch sight of the rows of vending machines and the trash can. I’m on the right track.

I follow the rough walkway that leads me around the tables and into the area where food is served. I walk past the sub station and search for the line where you can order hamburgers, hot dogs, and assorted chicken meals. I find a place in line behind two female students. Now that I’m stationary, I tune in to the conversations around me. The students in line before me are speaking in a langauge I can’t quite place; it sounds kind of like Spanish, but some of the sounds are unfamiliar. The solitary cook, moving around behind the octagonal counter, is asking people for their orders. Behind me, someone inquires where the fountain drinks are. I am surprised because I can hear the low drone of the soda machine. Shouldn’t it be obvious that the sodas are diagonally behind me, to rhe right?

I stare intently at the backs of the two heads in front of me. I know it will be my turn when these two students step aside. I am paranoid about looking like I don’t know what I’m doing. So what if this is only the second time I’ve bought lunch in this cafeteria – I want to seem like I’m a pro!

Eventually, they step aside and I move forward, right up to the counter’s edge. The cook calls to me, and I ask for a grilled chicken wrap. He asks if I’d like any sauce and I tell him I’d like ranch. He says, “Okay, sure thing!” and begins to clatter around the small cooking area.

I can’t see what he’s doing. He turns his back to me and I gues that he’s standing before the grill. He is moving things around but I can’t see what they are. I have to assume that he’s preparing my food. He repeats the inquiry about sauce and I don’t answer. The girl to my right pipes up – I quickly learn that he’s finishing up her wrap before starting mine. She’s been standing there the whole time. He asks, “Do you want that wrapped?” and I think he means the chicken. She is quiet. Does she nod? I slyly eye her from behind my shades. If she did nod, I must have missed it.

I’ll go for complete disclosure, I decide. I turn to her and say, “Sorry, I can’t tell if he’s talking to you or me.”

She nods visibly. “It’s cool. I competely understand.” She chuckles. I notice her long dark ponytail bobbing.

“Yes, it’s all part of the fun of standing at a cafeteria counter when you’re visually-impaired.”

She laughs again. The cook finishes her order and hands it across. I understand that I should probably step to the right so that he can hand me my food through the opening between the glass fronts of the counter. I step to the right and take the space that she vacates.

Now I am the only one standing at the counter, so I’m sure that the cook is addressing me when he asks if I’d like cheese, what kind of sauce I wanted, and if I’d like lettuce or tomato. Again, he asks, “Do you want me to wrap it?”

“Yes, please!” I respond, feeling confident. This is getting easier by the minute. I am glad that he is so vocal since I can’t tell what he’s doing back there.

Finally, he approaches the counter and says, “Here you go!” He hands me the plate, a bright white circle against the dark surface of the counter. I reach for it…and I understand what he meant by “wrap it.” The plate is sealed in plastic wrap. I am excited about this discovery! This means that I’m less likely to lose my food to gravity if I happen to bump into someone on my way to the register.

Before I pay, I decide to see if they have any peanut butter M&Ms on the snack cart, a four-sided metal rack that holds chips, cookies, and candy. I walk the few steps to the card and position myself before the candy side. I begin to gently pat each rack, searching for the smooth packaging that indicates M&Ms. I find rows and rows of candy bars, my hand gently gliding across them. I land on something pouch-shaped that holds small, circular candies. I pick it up and read the label – “Skittles.” Damn.

I put the Skittles back on their rack and walk around the cart. The next side is all chips. On the third side, more candy bars shine their bright wrappers up at me. Again, my hand begins the gliding survey, disregarding the long, thin bars and the short, thick bars – searching for that very distinct pouch. I catch sight of the high contrast M&M logo and reach down. I pluck a package from the shelf and bring it close to my face. I discern “Milk Chocolate” on the outside. I check a few more packages, but they are all plain M&Ms. I decide to buy a pack anyway; I think all my effort deserves some kind of reward.

Rather than doing an about face, I round the cart and file into line at the cash register behind a person who is almost through with his transaction. As he lifts his items off the counter, I place my plate and package of M&Ms down. Again, they contrast effectively with the dark counter. The cashier rings me up and tells me my total. I pull out my wallet, a thin creation of burgundy fabric with several pockets that help me stay organized, and I unzip the pocket where I keep cash. I feel for the twice-folded $10 bill. I hand it to the cashier, saying, “Here’s ten.”

As she makes change, the student standing behind me mutters a quiet, “Wow!” The cashier hands me my change, and I put it away. She asks me if I’d like a bag or some assistance getting to the elevator. I tell her that I would like a bag, but I’m heading to a table, that I can make it on my own.

As the cashier is putting my plate into a bag, the student behind me asks, “Can I ask you a question?” Something in his tone tells me he’s not talking to the cashier, so I say, “Sure.”

“How did you know that was a ten?”

I explain to him that I fold each bill differently so that I can identify them by touch. Normally, when I am asked this question, I pull out a bill (if I have one) and demonstrate my system – but because we’re in a crowded cafeteria at lunchtime, I try to keep my answer simple. After I finish explaining, he exclaims, “That’s so cool! That’s so cool!”

The cashier laughs knowingly. I can tell that she’s worked with many visually impaired patrons before. She knows the drill. I make a joke about being able to identify the bills by touch because I’m psychic. The student is still amazed. I take my bag from the cashier and thank her. I walk around the checkout counter and find the rough texture of the walkway.

I follow the walkway past the trash can and rows of vending machines. I take a left once I reach the lunch tables. I pass the first table, which is full, and find a seat at the second. I sit with my back to the window and begin to peel the fortuitous plastic wrap off my plate.

It’s a small thing, getting your lunch independently. Most middle schoolers could do it with ease. Nevertheless, I feel accomplished. I feel resourceful. It is exciting and satisfying to know that, for these daily ventures, these mundane excursions, I can rely on myself.

“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.

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.

Impossible autonomy

Some days I feel like a substandard ecopoet. I have only walked the UNF Nature Trails twice in my six years’ experience on this campus. Yet each time has brought forth the same conclusions, thoughts that have been steeping awhile and now must be given a voice.

The first occasion, according to the dark green diary I kept at the time, was on October 2, 2010. (I am relieved by my own meticulous journaling these past few years.) I walked the trails with Angel, and it was the first time I’d ever done so. I felt elated, ready to revel in the green quiet and the soft earthy breezes, ready to be transformed. Like Thoreau planting his beans at Walden, I was prepared to accept a series of transcendental epiphanies.

And other than the beauties that surrounded me – the piercing clarion of the bird calls (birds I couldn’t name by the way since they only sounded in my perception), the soft, changing terrain underfoot, the idle cicadas by the water’s edge, the wind’s amorphous timbre as it stirred leaves of different sizes – other than these things, I found myself with one thought.

My cane is utterly useless here.

I had my cane gripped tightly in my left hand, while my right was lodged firmly in the crook of Angel’s arm. Because it was a warm October day in Florida, sweat started to loosen my grip on both items—and still I clung to the cane. I clung to it as it skittered futilely over roots, swung upward out of my hand, and caught along fallen branches. I clung to that long tube of intuitive material even as it distorted the ground beneath me. So why didn’t I fly about, trip along, stumble, tumble down into the soft uneven ground as the cane told me to?

Because my right hand had a firm grip on reality. It curled around Angel’s arm, and so, as Angel lifted a foot to circumvent a troublesome root, the arm, capturing the movement of his body, responded, and my hand received the signal. Pick up your foot. And I did.

With silent fluidity, the gestures continued to tell me what my terrain looked like, where to lift my feet, where to shuffle forward, when to stop abruptly. The cane continued to bob in my left hand with near exaggerated efforts – as if to say, “Look at me! I am still useful! Trust me!” But its responses in this place were so confusing and inaccurate, I finally stopped swinging it before me and just dragged it along.

Perhaps to the sighted among my readers, this does not seem a very drastic gesture. How can I underscore the utter unconventionality of this abandonment of the cane? Maybe I could tell you that there are only 3 places I can think of where I don’t use a cane: 1) inside my house, 2) inside my apartment on campus, and 3) in my front yard. Everywhere else, that cane is in my hand, informing my reality. It’s my fifth limb and if, by some hellish chance, I forget to grab it, I feel as though I’ve had half my body surgically removed.

So when I walked the woods 18 months ago and decided to ignore what my cane was telling me, I thought that surely this was a fluke, a rare occurrence, and a testament to my companion’s excellent ability to guide me. And this is all true.

But I ventured into the trails again today, this time with Katie, and found that, as before, the cane was of no use. Again, all the information that helped me stay on my feet and move forward came to me through the movements of Katie’s body, through my sweaty grip on her smooth elbow. I noticed also that the woods had a sedative effect on my mind; the busy brain that would normally have been lamenting and correcting my misplaced feet had been muted. I glided along, feet feeling the roots, boardwalks, soft ground, cane bumping awkwardly against the steps I had not even traveled. At one point, the cane swung up and caught a step that I would not touch with my feet for several inches—that was disorienting. To feel the cane suspended in the air, alerting me to a future situation, made me think that in some ways, the cane in the woods is like a delirious time-traveler.

What does it mean that my cane is unfit to travel these trails? I have never harbored any delusions that my cane and the natural world get along perfectly—when I return from my very infrequent trips to the beach, I have to shake the sand out of the cane’s segments before it will fold or unfold smoothly again. I know that it is not made for all climates. The cold weather makes it stiff and the segments difficult to separate.

But the cane is a simultaneous symbol of disability and of autonomy. The cane and I make One Independent Blind Woman. The cane says, “I can travel where I want.”

And the cane is utterly useless there, in the trails, where I feel such a prevailing peacefulness and delight. What can it mean that my cane won’t let me access this small piece of paradise?

How can it be that a human guide is better than a cane? No! I refuse to accept that. It can’t be! It must be that the human offers me something different, not necessarily better. Just…different.

Unless I was never meant to be autonomous in the garish, glossy, tourist-brochure kind of way. Maybe autonomy, which eludes me in this natural setting, is not something I even want.