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.”
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Walking on Words

Today my campus is covered in words. All over our sidewalks, the following messages call out in cheerful pastel chalk:

“Delta Gamma’s purpose is to stop blindness before it starts.”

“80% of all blindness in adults is preventable or curable.”

“Delta Gamma’s service for sight began in 1936 to stop blindness before it starts.”

“1/4 of all visually impaired are women.”

“Rates of blindness will double by year 2020.”

“Every 7 seconds someone in the U.S. goes blind.”

“A child goes blind every minute.”

Friends tell me that these and similar messages crowd the sidewalks around the coffee shop and quadrangle. As we walk in search of coffee, they read the messages aloud. We stop, they proclaim a chalked statistic, I ask them to write it down, and we shuffle forward to repeat the process. Sometimes we don’t even have to move; we just turn around, confronted on all sides by these messages. As we get coffee, we cannot avoid walking across the messages. I walk over them when I head to my classes. On the way to my office, I walk through these words.

Regardless of their truth, these messages advance what the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, calls a “single story.” According to Adichie, a “single story” is a one-dimensional version of events. Promoted by narrators with political or social power, single stories can overrule others, becoming the only story that is ever told. This is what Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

(Watch Adichie’s TED Talk here.)

These seven sidewalk messages narrate a powerful story, a drastic epic of frightening deficit and miraculous healing. In alarming statistics, they tell the tale of blindness, a persistent disease that strikes quickly, leaving its victims bereft. They tell of Delta Gamma, the ministering nurse and courageous hero. They speak of the “80%” – those whose misfortune could have been prevented and may yet be cured. We don’t know how their blindness could be prevented. Perhaps they are to blame.

The writings don’t tell the story of the 20% – those born with congenital visual impairments, those who have lost their vision in accidents, or those whose vision deteriorated over time. They don’t include those who are not eligible for gene therapy, those whose vision loss is cortical, or those who no longer have eyes. In this single story, blindness is neither the conflict nor the rising action.

This is a story that ends with blindness. Because blindness in itself is An End.

The sidewalk reads, “Every 7 seconds someone in the U.S. goes blind.” As a writer stumbling across this story, I ask, “And then what happens?” The answer is that nothing happens. Nothing could happen. You’ve gone blind. There’s nothing left.

The sidewalk reads, “A child goes blind every minute,” and I ask, “And then what?” Again, the sidewalk doesn’t offer an answer. The answer is implied. The child suffers. The child is broken and miserable. The child doesn’t make friends. Without Delta Gamma’s intervention, the child will not be cured and restored to a happy, sighted life.

Perhaps my readings of these sidewalk scripts seem drastic, but they are the readings of a frustrated writer. I am tired of this story of blindness. It’s old, worn-out, and sterile. It produces nothing but fear and exhaustion. I am afraid of how quickly it gains power, and I am exhausted by how often I must fight it.

Let’s try a simulation. Can you remember the happiest day of your life? Can you wrap your mind around the beauty of that happiness? I’m sure you can; we all can. We think of first kisses, wedding days, new jobs, new babies, published poems, and graduations. Now, imagine the world telling you, “No, you weren’t really happy.” Every time you insist that, yes, you were happy then, the other storytellers reply, “No, honey, no you weren’t. You just thought you were.”

Adichie says that this is the power of the single story – the ability to supplant another’s story with your own, to say, “My version of you is better than your version of yourself.” She tells her audience at the 2009 TED Conference that, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” The single story of the sidewalks turns blind people into medical statistics. It replaces their ability to laugh, fight, love, feel with a magnified, defective eye. In this story, there are no blind characters, because to be a character, one must have a life. This is not a tale of blind lives.

I want to live in a world that lets people speak for themselves. I want to exist in a place where someone will believe me when I say I’m happy and unbroken. I know that my experience of blindness cannot stand for all experiences of blindness, but I want mine to count. I want to advance as many stories of blindness as I can.

Finally, I want it to rain. Is that too much to ask?

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.