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.

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Transition Lenses

Several personal items sit atop my nondescript office desk: a red aluminum water bottle, a set of keys, my folded cane, a red cellphone, a silver and gray lamp, a box of tissues (nearly empty), a carafe of peanut butter M&Ms (almost empty), and my sunglasses. Of all these items, the sunglasses are easiest to find on the dark desk surface; their shiny lenses and large frames readily draw my eye. I wear them each time I leave the comfortable dimness of my office. I’ve forgotten my cellphone and keys multiple times, but I’ve never left the office without my shades.

The sunglasses are large, fitting over and wrapping around my prescription glasses to offer peripheral protection. They do not fit in a traditional glasses case. They are smooth to the touch, glossy, with occasional rough spots on the temples or nosepiece from their four years of wear. They complement my regular supply of cloche hats. Because I wear them over my regular glasses, they tend to make my face feel warm after an hour or so.

When I first started wearing the sunglasses four years ago, I hated the way they looked. I was convinced that they were too large to be attractive—sure that they obscured so much of my face that I no longer looked human. Despite family, friends, and strangers telling me that I looked like a celebrity, that big sunglasses were “in,” I felt awkward behind them. I felt that people treated me differently when I wore them. I blamed the sunglasses for effacing me, stripping away everything that I thought of as myself and offering A Stereotypical Blind Girl instead.

Only their extreme practicality redeemed the sunglasses for me. Reluctantly, I started wearing them inside as well as outside—in bright classrooms, grocery stores, and even onstage. Wearing them during chorus performances earned me the nickname Stevie, and, each time a chorus member affectionately called, “Come on, Stevie,” the sunglasses became more dear to me.

I started to experience the sunglasses as a creative, rather than destructive, force; they began to nurture my identity as a blind musician. I laughed when chorus members said that I looked like a rock star, wearing them onstage. I got excited when a saxophone player told me that my cane and sunglasses reminded him of Diane Schuur, a famous blind jazz singer and pianist.

However, these new feelings of positivity were “extras”—the objective circumstances of the sunglasses never wavered. Behind the shades, I felt intense and instant relief from any oppressive lights. They significantly reduced my level of eye fatigue. I felt able to function in unforeseen environments: bright sunny afternoons, classrooms where I couldn’t adjust the lighting, conference auditoriums, and countless stores lit with glaring fluorescents. I was able to dine alfresco without complaint or discomfort. I still couldn’t read menus outside, but I could enjoy the weather and listen to a friend read for me—an ideal compromise. Even when I detested the look of the shades, I couldn’t ignore these changes. The nagging refrain, “Life feels better behind the shades,” played in my head each time I prepared to leave my house. The measurable improvement in my quality of life incited me to pack the sunglasses—and choose different bags or purses to accommodate them.

The sunglasses became a point of pride, an implement of my independence and identity. I quickly learned to wear them when I needed them, a lesson solidified by positive reinforcement. Sunglasses on: discomfort gone! However, learning to wear them as a statement of identity took more time; it involved a process of self-acceptance that wasn’t written on the product packaging. Wearing the sunglasses without shame, without an oppressive need to “look normal” or avoid “looking blind,” involved a change in my own thinking. I had to accept my need for the shades and discard the idea of “looking normal.” I had to understand that “looking blind” wasn’t really about blindness; it was about stereotypes of blindness.

If you were a blind person who looked blind, that meant that you stumbled, wore mismatched or stained clothing, gazed vacantly at people, and groped for objects in front of you. As I got to know myself as a blind woman and met others in the blind community, I came to realize just how little truth resided in these ready phrases. Like processed convenience foods, the ideas of “looking normal” and “looking blind” didn’t offer any substance; they couldn’t nourish the woman I wanted to become.

Four years ago, the style of sunglasses I needed came in one size, the size I currently wear. Now, that size is called Medium, and the exact same lens color and shape comes in a Small. I have the chance to downsize, and I am going to try it. As long as the new smaller shades will offer me the same protection, I can’t resist the convenience of being able to pack them in a traditional glasses case. Since they’ll cover less of my face, I’m hoping they won’t be as hot to wear over my regular glasses.

I also can’t ignore that the look of my shades will change. These new ones will be closer to the “normal” end of the sunglasses spectrum—perhaps not as obvious as a symbol of blindness. To be excited about the  new “more normal” look feels like a betrayal of the struggles I experienced, learning to love my sunglases and myself. To be sucked into the idea that these new shades will “look better” takes me out of my own perspective and puts me in the eyes of someone outside, looking at me. Is this the perspective I want?

From behind my current shades, I say no. I say that it’s important to focus on function, not form, here. I say that I need to use the tools that help me to feel most like myself, regardless of their fit with current trends in fashion. I do not want to throw away the self-acceptance I have earned. I certainly took a long time finding it, and it was not an easy task.