The Second Of April

I haven’t posted in this blog for a while, but we’re in the middle of physical distancing with COVID-19 right now. We are supposed to focus on connecting with others while we stay far away from them physically. I find a good way for me to connect is to have someone understand or relate to something I write. So here’s something I wrote, and I’m posting it:

It is Thursday, April 2, 2020. I sit down to try and write about this day. It is one on which I should have profound insight and clear direction about the meaning of life and all of its significant moments. I’ve had 22 years to reflect back on a single day, so you’d think I’d have at least pieced together a coherent story by now. But I haven’t.

When I try to write about the event, I want to capture the whole event in a single package, wrapped and taped, and tied up. It seems like I should start at the beginning, and I try to. But I don’t know where that is. It might be the morning of Thursday, April 2, 1998, or it might be when we left town the Friday before or it might go back to who and what I was as a 14 year old kid, or it might start all the way back when my parents were 14 year old children. All of those starting points would help you better understand the moments that live in my memory by giving you context. But when I try writing from all of those places, I get lost in stories I think I’m supposed to tell, but somehow don’t feel right.

And I want to put the memories together into a chronological series of events, because I think that will make the most sense to you. But the events do not exist in chronological order inside of me. I simultaneously feel the weight of two little girls as I give them piggy back rides around the streets of Santa Fe, and the groggy mixture of a voice I recognize and the sensation of being put in the back of a vehicle… when we arrived back in Denver. I don’t know why those two points in time, separated by a few days, have become interlaced, but they have.

If I stop trying to tell the story chronologically though, I can see that the effort to place my memories into a coherent narrative keeps me from seeing that my life is not a single unbroken line from point A to point B. On Thursday, April 22, 1998, the line that was my life stopped, and I started again on a completely separate point. One moment, I was in a car traveling north on I-25, and the next I was in a formless realm, waiting to see where I would start living my life again.

I could not tell you anything about those first couple weeks after the car accident. Even the fact that there was a car accident is only something I know as a result of other people telling me whatever details they remember or could obtain from other sources. Sure, I’ll tell you that version of history, because it’s the easiest to understand. But someone else could have told me that I had suddenly become very ill and I could tell you that I was kidnapped by drug traffickers, and we’d probably both believe it.

If I told you what I remember from that time, I’d tell you that my mom and I were driving north on I-25, through the sage brush covered terrain of New Mexico, headed home after a camping trip. Then I was on a stretcher, and it was World War II and we were in these mines with a train made up of cattle cars running through it. They would put me into one cattle car one spot and then pull me off again in another place. Then they would put me back on. Or I’d tell you about being a grandmother with my family in these fields of sunflowers in Mexico. We had left our home, each of us with five seeds, to start a new life in a place far away. Our vegetables grow well in this new place, but my children and grandchildren put me in a hospital bed out in the middle of this field and tied my hands and feet to the bed, accusing me of pulling up the vegetable plants. I couldn’t speak to tell them I hadn’t. I do have memories from the moment of the accident to when I finally became aware enough to understand I was a patient at Children’s Hospital, being treated for injuries to my eyes, face, and brain. It’s Just that what other people tell me happens to answer more of the questions other people have, and my version does not provide a meaningful storyline.

Much of my reflecting on the anniversary winds up being about filling the space between the car accident and where I am now. People like to hear that I’ve overcome my injuries and disability. But I know that I live with my disability in everything I do, because it is part of who I am, and I hate having to pretend that I have somehow erased an important part of who I am. It makes other people more comfortable to think that disability can shrink or even disappear with a bit of determination and talent, but no matter what I do or don’t do, people in the world see me as a blind person, so I can’t escape that identity.

There are several stories I could tell you to connect, explain how the 14 year old teenager became the 36 year old adult I am. There is the story of overcoming great adversity that I already touched on. There is also the story of an individual who is uniquely strong and determined, enduring remarkably hard situations. There is the precautionary tale of loss and appreciation and life. Or, there is the version where a significant loss is balanced with an equally valuable gain.

At the root of all of these stories is the assumption that this is a zero sum situation– there was an enormous loss, so we must find a gain to equal it. I have spent much of the past 22 years trying to live in a way that does not acknowledge the loss and devastation the car accident brought into my life. I add and compare and try to make it so I am equal to or better than I would have been as a 36 year old to whom the accident didn’t happen.

But if I start to question the mathematics that surround tragedy, if I refuse to compare and contrast, if I refuse to try and calculate the weights of one event over the next, then I move into a world that is irrational, where tragedy happens and I don’t have to explain or justify it. A car accident happened, it made me blind, and that is it. The event and my subsequent life doesn’t say anything about my character or wisdom or spiritual insight. I am who I am now, blind for 22 years, with all my strengths and weaknesses. If I am only the blind person I am here and now, I don’t have to pick and choose between everything that is true about me, because I’m not trying to tell a story to get me from then to here.

Needing to fit into an archetypal story about disability/tragedy has prevented me from doing some of what I still need to figure out what to do. I hate to make mistakes or to not know something, , and that has interfered with me being humble enough to learn in some situations. I pretty much just regained consciousness and went back to “normal” life, never giving myself the time and space to actually look at the trauma of severe injuries that do not heal in the end. When I feel anger or fear or confusion or dislocation, I tend to assume there is something fundamentally wrong with me, versus understanding those are universal feelings around life changes.When I reflect on the past 22 years, they do not come back to me in an organized narrative, so I probably brush over my experience by presenting it that way.

My life as a disabled person more appears as points, sometimes arranged by chronology, sometimes by importance, sometimes by clarity of memory, sometimes by relevance to my current life, and sometimes by other rules. Some points connect to just one other point, some to multiple other points, and some to no other points. Themes of redemption, gratitude, strength, etc. do appear, but the attempt to select one and to narrow my life down to a single narrative obscures the truth.

Without a clear narrative, I’m lost and uncertain about my purpose. I have to deal with demons and monsters in the present tense, not only in a single point in time in the past. I am constantly deciding and living my life in new ways. There were approximately two weeks out of my life where I lived in a world partially shaped by sensations from the world around and partially by drugs and partially by a mind wandering through dreams, before I woke up in a world with rules different from what they’d been when I could still see. I have been a multitude of people: very strong and very weak, creative and stuck in a rut, determined and defeated, intelligent and stupid, wise and foolish. The fact that I’m blind leads other people to assume I’m a certain kind of person, but that’s because they need to fill the gap between 22 years ago and now. I’m learning to embrace the freedom in leaving the gap wide open.

To Have Wings

On a warmish Sunday afternoon in April, my brother takes me up in a glider. A small airplane is still towing us through the sky, when we hit the first thermal. In that moment when terrific forces jostle us like the hands on a snow globe, I realize I’m at peace with my maker. Speaking in very general terms, hot air goes up and colder air goes down; air closer to the ground warms up and air higher up cools down, creating constant movement and interaction between massive amounts of air particles. We humans experience the movement of air particles as anything from a slight breeze to bone rattling thunderstorms to tornados that lay whole swaths of surface dwellings to waste. When we hit that first column of rising and falling air, I see why I am secured in with a five-point restraint. My feet fly up off the floor and my guts slosh to the seat and ground thousands of feet below us. The two of us are in a 250 lbs. shell that most certainly cannot stand up to another shaking like the one we just went through. We are about to die in an accident that will fill a couple inches in the Daily Camera tomorrow morning, and I calmly accept my fate.

A glider is essentially an aggrandized kite made from carbon fiber. With a kite you try to get enough wind under it to create lift and keep it from crashing back to the ground when you let go; in a glider, you create wind by dragging it behind a plane to start and then search for areas of rising warm air, thermals, to lift you up further. In an airplane, when they send everyone back to their seats because of turbulence and tell you they’re looking for smoother air, it’s because of rising and sinking air patterns; if an object is flying forward in a straight line and it hits air that is moving downward, it will abruptly sink and then rise as it continues traveling forward to the area where the air is moving upward. Passengers become frightened and annoyed when their orange juice goes flying and their stomach feels like it does on a roller coaster, so especially commercial pilots try to avoid turbulent pockets of air. However, traditionally a glider has no internal source of power, so you depend on air movement to move against the forces of gravity, which only want to pull you back towards the ground. As a result, you seek out areas of rising air in a glider. As my parents tell the story, my first airplane flight was when I was two weeks old. I passed the flight peacefully, asleep at my father’s feet, under the seat in front of him. I have no memory of the event, but I was no stranger to plane trips throughout my childhood, being the daughter of a parent who worked for the travel industry, got flight benefits, and loved to travel. I am not afraid to fly. But if flying in a large commercial airplane is like watching a National Geographic show on crocodiles, the glider was more like floating down a river in a flimsy boat, surrounded by mostly submerged prehistoric reptiles.

Once I accept that I might die and I might survive, depending on the skill of my brother, very newly licensed to fly a glider on his own, I decide to, like the enlightened Boulderite that I am, practice being as fully mindful and present in that time and place as possible. I exhale, let go of my parachute straps, and begin to look at the world around me. I notice that wearing a backpack with a parachute in it is unexpectedly comfortable. The wind blowing in through the edge of the window gives me fresh air to gulp down every time my stomach starts feeling upset. The bumps and turns in the plane remind me of being a patient on a gurney, heading to surgery, an observer along for the ride, letting my body sink into each movement. I think of the first time, back from college, I rode in a car my little brother was driving or many years later, in a boat he was sailing. It is just one more large machine my brother has sought to take control of, while I operate nothing faster or more complicated than my own two feet.

As we glide along the surface of the sky, I begin to see fingers running across braille in my head. Each time we hit a new thermal, the texture the glider draws out for us turns the invisible into something solid. You cannot see air movements, only secondary clues about what is happening up there, such as clouds taking shape and birds soaring. Before we take off, my brother stands there with two other men, looking at the distortion in an airplane’s contrail, deciphering if the afternoon is good to fly; they have studied, they see more than tea leaves at the bottom of the cup. I shrug and trust them.

I begin to see line graphs inlaid upon an X and Y-axis. Silently I chant—rise over run. Rise over run. Rise over run. Rise over run. As we go up in the thermal, I picture the line slanted up and to the right as we move forward. The glider has no motor, nothing propelling it forward; Newton’s first law says an object will continue to move a uniform direction until a force changes its movement. In our case, the airplane gets us moving up and forward, while gravity and friction pull us back in speed and height. As we slow down, we no longer have as much lift under the wings, and the forces pulling us down take greater control over our movement. The line on the graph is still moving up and to the right, but it’s shallower. Rise over run. I think of the middle school kids I used to tutor, trying to convince them these graphs and equations really were relevant to their lives, as they sketched out where they had been, where they were now, and where they were going through time and space. The graphs could make sense of questions the kids didn’t even know they had yet. Rise over run. They groaned and played with their pencils and the cooperative ones made guesses until I smiled and nodded, while the others tried to distract me with the topics they would rather talk about right then. But I take comfort as I watch the graphs sketch themselves out in front of me. I hope maybe a couple of those kids learned those graphs in their guts, whether or not they ever made sense in their heads. We hurtle forward, dependent on invisible forces like gods at play. At least I can trace out our movement above the earth.

From a position on the ground, it might be hard to imagine why a creature in the air moves the way it does. An airplane moving passengers or freight from one location to another seems reasonable. It also makes sense to move here and there according to the land below in order to observe it all from a new perspective. But destination and sightseeing are about human will, and my intentions play absolutely no role as I sit in the back of the glider. I surrender and try to understand what the air has written in it. I can’t tell you a story with plot and purpose. The air simply does what it does, because that’s what it does. It’s only humans who search for more meaning than that. As I sit there with my eyes closed, the invisible becomes visible. To someone standing on the ground, the sky is only the pale Colorado blue interrupted by a few flat clouds left from the cloud cover at the beginning of the day. Flying through it though, it becomes a mosaic of texture and color. I travel through a world that only birds, the microscopic organisms on specks of airborne dust particles, and a few humans ever know. What didn’t exist to me before going up takes shape and gains mass. Now I get to know it’s real.

I feel lucky to have touched this world just above the one I live in. I moved along and around its contours. I tripped over valleys and slid up its bulges. I was the primordial creature with no form or will, leaving all knowing to my stomach and the fluid in my inner ear. I have never steered a fast moving vehicle like the glider, but I managed to see the memory my muscles lack as my brother steered around the moving world around us. If he had stopped to think about his responses, we’d have already passed through one shape of our surroundings and into another. In reading braille, the fingers should slide smoothly across the paper, not stop to push in harder and have it break apart into a meaningless prism of parts separate from the whole. I always say that I love running, because all you need are some shoes and socks, no clutter from other hobbies, but I got a glimpse at why people might be drawn up into the sky. It is a vast emptiness until you touch it with wings.

Disclaimer: the above perspective is entirely that of Amelia, Elliot did not read any of this before she published it, and any errors are entirely Amelia’s fault. As is true in most things between this pair of siblings, there is probably at least one—likely, more than one- piece of Amelia’s perception that Elliot would disagree with. Amelia welcomes the disagreement and would be sorely disappointed if her brother agreed with her completely.

In the Bee-ginning…

I recently turned 35. For some reason, I assign great significance to that age. It’s the age my parents were when they had me, not an intrinsically important landmark, but still one by which to make comparisons. By this time in their lives, my parents had been married for 14 years, had lived and held jobs a few places throughout Southern Illinois and Kentucky, and had wound up in Colorado, and most important to my own life, they had a brand new baby. Sorry, I know they had lives outside of what led to me, but it’s hard to imagine my parents’ lives in terms other than what has led to my own experience. Maybe I’ll call that the curse of the parent/child relationship.

My egocentric world view aside, the impending landmark inspired me to stop thinking about something I’ve wanted to do for a solid decade, and to finally do it. I have happy news for everyone, I’m enlarging my family by several thousand, give or take a few. I’ve decided to finally give beekeeping a try. The fact that I live in a condo complex is part of what kept me from actually setting up a hive. I knew my bees would be the first suspects if anyone got stung, no matter if it was actually a honey bee that stung, and I didn’t want them to have to face the angry mobs—definitely more concerned about what the people might do to my bees than what my bees would do to humans. I also had a tough time deciding on the perfect place for a hive, away from human traffic and safe from marauding raccoons and bears. One spot was good as far as being quiet, another had good exposure to the sun, another had good access to water and shelter from the wind, but none would be safe from hungry mammals.

But a couple years ago, some friends started a hive, and then a couple weeks ago, I got to get my hands in there and help with harvesting the honey. No, harvesting the honey from a hive without bees is not the most challenging part of keeping bees, but it was enough for me to finally make the leap out of my head, into reality. My parents took on the very questionable endeavor of raising a child at this age, I can probably take on bees. The absolutely worst thing that might happen is if they all die. I don’t want that to happen, but I will learn, and bees are more replaceable than infants. The new family members are now perched on a small balcony off my bedroom, sheltered from unwelcoming neighbors, and critters preparing to hibernate. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they decide to stay.

Here is a video I made of my experience getting a beehive started. It is perhaps a little lengthy, just over 30 minutes, but I think this whole process is fascinating, so I guess I’m at least making it available to anyone else who is interested. The whole time, I was handling the bees with bare hands, although I did have a veil on to at least avoid stings on the face and neck. I would expect the opposite to be true, but bees are very docile when they are looking for a home. They let me dump and shake and push and run my hands over them without any protest. Pop some popcorn and prepare to be a little more willing to leave a couple dandelions out there next year… or at least I’m hoping to convert someone to a little bit more of bee-friendly gardening.

One thing I love about keeping bees, in the couple of weeks I’ve been preparing, is learning about how they function. Honey bees have an elaborate social system where thousands of individuals collaborate as a single hive organism. When everything is normal, a single queen lays all the eggs. All the fertilized eggs hatch into larva that becomes tens of thousands of worker bees. The queen also lays a few eggs that aren’t fertilized, and these bees without a full set of genes are the only males in the colony. The males are almost useless to the colony in that they cannot sting and do not forage for resources or do anything to maintain the colony. They might manage to provide some genetic diversity to other hives, but the worker bees kick all of them out of the hive when winter approaches, so they won’t hang out and be a drain on the colony’s resources. However the female worker bees play several different roles depending on their age and the hive’s needs.

In the first week or two of life, a worker bee is a nurse, working with the brood, cleaning out cells in the wax, and feeding the larva pollen and honey. After that, for another week or so, she’s a middle aged bee, completing a variety of tasks such as maintaining the structure of the hive, receiving nectar from the foragers, and guarding the hive. Their roles seem to depend partially on age and partially on what the colony needs at the time. Finally, in the last part of their life, the worker bees become foragers, a physically demanding task with a wide variety of dangers that will eventually kill them.

With tens of thousands of other worker bees around you, it seems reasonable to me to wonder why one might not choose to keep doing tasks inside the hive long after your peers have become foragers—live the relatively safe and easy life. Of course, my question assumes a creature has individual autonomy, whereas each honey bee seems to behave more like a cell in a body than as separate bodies. Fortunately, I am not the first person to ask such questions, and, researchers have examined what leads worker bees to change their roles both as they age, and depending on environmental demands. One focus I find interesting, partially because of its application to understanding human behavior, has to do with gene expression. Back in the day, there was all this focus on mapping the human genome, because once we knew what all the “building blocks” looked like, we’d be able to explain every aspect of how the human body looked and worked. But then we discovered genetics were a bit more complex than just knowing what was there, you also need to look at how genes are expressed, some of what is there is more important than others. Researchers found chemical tags that attach to a worker bee’s genes and appear to control her behavior and her role in the hive at any given time. The tags determine which proteins the genes produce, and these change both with age and external pressures. As a sad example that ties back to human behavior, researchers have also found tags attached to a gene connected to the production of a stress hormone in childhood abuse victims who later committed suicide. The implication is that if we can learn how to change the tags on the genes connected to the stress hormone, presumably caused by the abuse, we could eliminate one factor that might lead this group to commit suicide.

It brings me back to wondering why my life is so different from my parents’ in some ways and so similar in others. Often, I wonder how much autonomy I have in my life, and how much is just an illusion of autonomy. Perhaps I choose to have a dog, but perhaps there is some sort of feedback loop where positive emotions connected to having a dog lead to gene expression that makes it more likely that I will have an even greater positive emotional reaction to my dog, making it far more likely that I will arrange my life to accommodate a dog. The whole time, I think I have a dog, because I know what wonderful animals they are, but really, it’s chemicals influencing my behavior. I’m never really going to know how much my life decisions are purely reason-based calculations, but I am willing to accept that my behavior is probably shaped more by similar forces as the worker bees are than I realize.

If I could have more control over what my current life looks like, I do feel some sadness that I’ve reached an age when even my parents—generally later at having kids- had already had one. I’m not looking for any sort of reassurance that I could certainly meet someone and fall in love in the next couple years. I’m a little skeptical about having the capacity for romantic love; I don’t know if that’s just because it’s a reasonable conclusion after my life experiences, or if my life experiences have led my body to produce more of the combination of chemicals that lead to more cautious behavior and expectations. It’s simply the reality that I am currently half my parents’ age, and it is a time at which I choose to take stock and decide that certain measurements are significant.

All of that aside though, I am incredibly grateful that I chose to be sort of impulsive—as impulsive as you can really be after 10 years of contemplating what this and that would look like- and bring home a colony of bees. I look forward to observing their behaviors and patterns, and them getting to know me. Bees are considered a cornerstone species, in that an entire ecosystem would collapse without them. I don’t know if that’s true in the United States, since they were introduced from Europe 200 or 300 years ago, but maybe with the impacts we’ve had on the environment, and the way it adapts to fit stressors like humans, even the environment in North America depends on honey bees. I want to show my bees around the neighborhood, pointing out all the crab apple blossoms right now, and the flowers that should be up in the next month or two, and where the future flowering bushes will go. However, I suppose I should probably just trust that they’ll figure it out for themselves. I am grateful to every single yellow dandelion out there right now. The very short time I’ve had bees has already changed my awareness of the environment around me, in that I’m much more curious about bee friendly plants, and I find I’m listening so hard for the buzz of bees that I’ll hear phantom buzzing when there is no bee. I know things might go wrong—my bees could decide they don’t like this location, they could be overrun by mites, wasps could attack, or they simply might not survive for no reason I can understand. But parents take risks with everything that could possibly go wrong with their kids, and they decide to give their kids everything they can. Obviously keeping bees is nowhere near the scale of having children, but it is a great adventure, almost certainly punctuated with challenges and sadness along the way. I’m happy to be doing it. Plus, the potential for bee-related puns is almost limitless.

Dancing in the Daisies

I’ve always been afraid of making mistakes. If you were to ask me, I’d tell you that I’m a big fan of making mistakes and learning from them, but there’s a disconnect between what I say and what I do. I enjoy creating and building things, but no one would guess how many times I go through the steps in my mind before I actually jump in and try to do anything. I do believe there’s value to thinking through a plan and possible problems before pulling out the nail gun and electrical wires. At the same time, the plan will only take you so far into you get in there and see how things work. Unfortunately, there are projects I’ve spent so much time thinking about, that I never got around to seeing what would actually happen.

As a child, in school, I viewed my purpose as being to get a high grade by not making mistakes. Fundamentally, I hate this approach to education. The day to day work is about practice and exploring and asking questions, not about turning in a right answer and holding my breath for that 100% in red at the top. I passed up so many opportunities to have real conversations and ask deep questions in order to hide anything that might be wrong or to argue over why my grade should be different.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more open to making mistakes. When I started college, I decided to stop looking at my grades, because I knew I’d do well enough, and I wanted to focus on the actual content of my classes. When I moved to Boulder, I became very comfortable spending hours wandering around, lost, until I came across a familiar location; that’s how I’ve learned my way around many parts of this town. I learned that I need to figure out a better technique for hanging things like a coat rack and a mail box, because it’s going to be pretty crooked if I just eyeball it, by trying to hang both items more than once. I’m glad that I tried all of those things, was less than perfect, and that now I am better, even if still not perfect.

However, there are still times when my fear and anxiety about making mistakes leaves me paralyzed. Between Christmas and New Year, I’d made plans to go ice skating with friends. I had plans for exactly how I’d do it—I’d take a hiking poll and put a tennis ball on the pointed end to keep it from getting caught in the ridges and ruts in the ice. (Yes, Lotus, it is one of your tennis balls. I’m sorry, but we all have to make sacrifices sometimes.)

As the day got closer though, my nervousness started to grow. As much as I might think the sighted people would steer clear of the person holding the long stick out in front of her on the ice, you’d be amazed how often they don’t. Every cane-user has at least one story of a sighted person stepping on a cane, breaking it, kicking it out of their hands, or asking what it’s used for. In short, I was worried other people would expect me to see them and move out of their way. The other part of what I was worried about was running into other people. The hiking pole would be to protect me from running into the sides of the rink and to give other people a heads up, but it would still only tell me about the people around me when I tapped them with it. I kept having these visions of a little kid getting his skates tangled up in my pole, hitting the ice, sobbing with blood pouring out of a split lip. Or, maybe, before any of that happened, the people running the rink would tell us that we couldn’t skate without a sighted person if we were blind. Over this past summer, I was caught completely off guard at Woneka Lake when the manager said I couldn’t bring my guide dog out on a paddle boat… something about fur clogging up the gears? Yeah. The point is that, more than once, I’ve had people tell me I can’t participate or be somewhere, either because of my dog or because I’m blind. If I have uncertainties about my ability to ice skate safely, maybe the person letting people in will be able to smell it on me and attack. I was picturing the worst possible things happening, and I couldn’t tolerate the idea of doing things imperfectly.

In the end, my anxiety reached a level high enough that I told the group I wasn’t going to go with them. In the past, I probably would have made up something about being sick, but this time I decided to just tell them I was nervous and I wasn’t ready to try it on that day. It’s really hard for me to admit to not doing something because I’m afraid. I feel like people expect me to be completely undaunted, unfazed by the fact that I’m blind. Most sighted people have no idea how many different things might happen on a quick trip to the grocery store, or in trying to find a new coffee shop. I know those are small tasks for many sighted people, but all the things I know might go wrong, or might just be difficult, can make them pretty daunting to me. I don’t want sighted people to see me as less able or different though, so I try to act like all these parts of “normal” life are no big deal to me. When I put on this façade of confidence and calm, it means I have to swallow down all my fears and questions and doubts; I might feel awful inside, but I can’t let anyone else know.

However, in this setting, when I admitted that I was feeling nervous about the plans for the afternoon, I had a chance to try a different way of being in the world. One of the women who was planning to go encouraged me not to run and hide, and then, after I told her I really didn’t want to go anymore, she promised to encourage me next time. Knowing that she understood my fear helped me get back up and make plans to go a week later. Part of it was that if she could face her fears, I didn’t want to seem like a wimp in front of her, and part of it was knowing that I could let down my facade a bit, and confess the fear.

The afternoon was not exactly what I had imagined it would be. I wound up skating with one of those support, walker-type devices. As far as balance goes, I think I could have stayed standing on my own for the most part, the PVC box provided a bit of a bubble to protect small children from me and me from the walls of the rink. I got to have the feeling of moving freely, cutting smoothly through the ice, although I wanted that feeling to continue uninterrupted forever, not just until I heard someone in front of me or I misjudged the turn around the outside of the rink. But even if I’d never been able to stand from the time I laced up those skates, to the time when I replaced them with my worn out old running shoes, at least I did show up and give it a try. I was happier because I was able to skate. Of course, I wound up skating in my own way, not the way you are “supposed to skate, but I know I have to stop worrying about how things turn out, if I’m ever going to escape from a paralyzing need for perfection.

Yesterday, an incident with a neighbor pushed me in the opposite direction. I’ve been working in the garden just past my building in the lengthened daylight, even though it means other people might see me make a mistake; I find comfort in hiding behind the semi-equalizing night. I don’t want to spend the months between now and when we fall back at the beginning of November waiting until darkness is complete to go out and work in the garden, so I’ve challenged myself to go out when everyone else gets the advantage of being able to see me and I can’t see them.

Moving about in the daylight has been going okay though. I can find the garden and orient myself quickly. I already let go of the goal of having a neatly organized garden with straight rows where you always know what little sprout is coming up. A couple of the elementary school-aged girls who live near me have come over to talk and offer help. They make me nervous, because all the things I know I can’t be for them go marching through my head, but they seem to be putting up with the things I am, at least so far. I decided to embrace the probability of the unknown, and suddenly everything is much more fun.

So far, I’ve planted a bunch of onion sets and pea seeds. I dragged the only hose I have out there to water my work, and was feeling pretty good about myself. At that moment, my neighbor came out to point out that my hose was going through his garden, beating down the tulips and daffodils. Yeah. I screwed up. I made a mistake. I felt my body grow warm with the shame of having made a stupid mistake, probably one I wouldn’t have made if I could see. Instead of leaving it there, my neighbor continued to lecture me about what I need to do and why the hose can’t go through his garden and why the flowers can’t stand the hose going through them and why I shouldn’t have done this, etc. Quickly my shame transformed into anger. I stopped apologizing and started nodding “unh-hunh… unh-hunh… unh-hunh;” I can communicate without words right along with the best of them.

In the future, I will have a longer hose, and I will make it go around the light post, which will keep it out of his garden. I’m not stupid, and his first statement would have been enough. However, since anger had taken over from the shame during the time he spent lecturing me, I used the time it took me to carefully pull the hose back out of his garden, contemplating ways to get revenge. The valve to shut off the spigot we both use is inside my unit. I could turn it off, except when I want to use it. He also has a very large truck that spills over his parking spots into mine. I could tell him he needs to take care of that. Next time he starts whining to me about something he should tell his landlord, I could cut him off and tell him I don’t want to hear about it. Revenge is a sweet way to soothe all the shame and fear and anger I have to deal with.

However, as much as I’d like to hurt him in retribution for stirring up emotions I’m trying to learn to overcome, I wonder if learning to deal with the events that make me want to hide away forever in a more gracious way is a wiser way to handle the situation. Sure, it’s what do-gooders and moralizers would say to do, and I usually try to do the opposite of what they say. In this particular case though, my lashing out at my neighbor means I’m doing what the fear would choose. If I manage to do something different, then at least maybe I’ll spend fewer evenings this summer, standing behind my front door, listening for a time when the kids go inside, praying for a chance to be invisible. Maybe I can start to reclaim some of those years I lost to perfection, regrets to the people on whom my imperfection splashes. (Earnest apologies to any flowers I squash along the way.)

One Little Christmas Tree

Lulu appeared on my front porch one afternoon while I was at work. She planted herself in an orange bucket I’d left out there and leaned her body against the part of the wall that juts out from beside my door. I walked over to her and began to inspect. I tugged on her long needles and stood her up straight and wrapped my hand around her trunk. I’ve never had a Christmas tree of my own, and I felt a bit like I did as a 5th grader getting an aquarium and my first fish—excited about the potential and nervous about doing everything just right. But life is short and for some reason I felt excited about the idea of a Christmas tree this year, so I lifted Lulu by the bucket and her middle, and brought someone new into my home.
Tree with lights and cold weather gear for decoration
I often times find the second half of November through the end of the year to be a bit depressing. Some of the more popular celebrations don’t have any significance or meaning to me, and my life is one distinctly void of tradition. I know that not everyone is surrounded by family and friends and joy, but what I know intellectually doesn’t control some of the emotions that still arise surrounding some of what I regret about my life thus far. However, I think I have found meaning for the holiday season this year; I am celebrating openness.

I believe I’m in a very small minority when I say that reaching the winter solstice always causes me a twinge of sadness. Yes, I do miss the sunlight and warmth right along with everyone else, but I also cling to the now decreasing hours of darkness. Nighttime invigorates me in the way that it leaves me one step removed from reality. In the daylight, we can see everything around us, or at least we tend to think we can. Even though I can’t see it any longer, I still associate light with a stable physical world that I can reach out and touch. In the dark though, there is so much left to fill in-between what little we know for sure. The space allows the unpredictable to enter. When I am fortunate enough to encounter a visitor I wouldn’t have met in the daylight, I tend to let go and follow where it leads. In the summer time, I have to wait until late for the witching hours to begin, whereas these are the last couple weeks before I start to notice the lengthening days. It is a season when I spend more time open to the things the day distracts me from.

In this season, I’m learning to be open to slowness. Since Zen and the Art of Fill-in-the-Blank has been a successful approach to a number of topics, perhaps I will write my own version—Zen and the Art of Thermostat Installation. My journey started about eight weeks ago, when I decided that it would be really nice to be able to program my thermostat on my own, without having to recruit someone sighted to do it for me. I selected a thermostat with good reviews in the blind accessible category and ordered it from Amazon. I wanted to know how to install the thermostat on my own, so I had a friend, Gerry Leary, help me out. I laugh now at the quick installation card that came in the box, starting with the statement that, “Installation should take about 30 minutes.” I went through a process of exploration and discovery that took me about six or seven weeks in which I learned about the connection between the thermostat and the furnace and different kinds of furnaces and how thermostats receive power. I learned that if something says it needs 24 volts, 12 volts will not suffice. I spent hours trying to get copper wires into a variety of connections, and I learned that both wires don’t actually have to go into that tiny hole, as long as one goes in there and the second one is attached, it will work. I also learned that it’s okay to twist the hot and neutral wires together with your fingers, even though other people cringe and say you really shouldn’t do that. And I learned how to know what I was doing, while still asking for help from friends like Silke Koester, Dan Zolnikov, and my mother—even though she really hates to do that sort of thing. My thermostat is now up and running, and if you ever want to change my thermostat from afar, I’m happy to let you push the little buttons on the app. Just guessing, I would say that I put well over 24 hours into that whole installation process, actually probably closer to 30 hours. I also know that I could have paid someone who knew what they were doing to have it done in a couple hours, and you could probably calculate it out to make much more sense to pay someone else from a cost/benefit perspective. But when my back muscles were cramping after having spent an hour trying to get that one wire into the right spot, I could acknowledge that the situation would be different if I were a different person, then shrug and keep going. I know that I live in a world where your worth comes partially from how busy you are. I know that many people are going to look down on me when I say that I spent my day trying to better understand what an external transformer does and how it does it, and I shrug. This is who I am and what I am, and I accept it. I am open to what might come when I waste my time. I’m also ready to dispense advice on thermostats to anyone who might want it.
A warm wool hat atop the tree, lights through the branchs, Ziggy the iguana hanging out
Lulu now stands quietly, but proudly in the corner of my living room. I spread the towel that’s beneath her over to the heat register to keep her from drying out any sooner than necessary. I wound a colorful strand of lights around her, nesting them into each bough. As I contemplated how I might make a star to go at the very top, it occurred to me that Lulu really wanted a nice warm hat to protect her soft needles. And once she had her hat, the rest came together, I knew there was a reason to hang onto all those mismatched socks for all these years, and now they have a purpose, adorning Lulu. Even though Lulu is still strong and healthy, I know that this collection of lights and sap and needles and wool will not last forever, so I’ve been contemplating her next stage in life. I searched for some ideas, and there are many options. My favorite one was in the Farmer’s Almanac, to attach all kinds of delicious bird treats such as cranberries and peanut butter-covered pinecones. I love the idea of Lulu standing out in the new garden, holding up her branches to the birds who stay here over the winter. Of course, there is part of me that wonders about other critters, such as rats and raccoons. I’m going to guess that they would enjoy bird food quite thoroughly, and it seems like the Farmer’s Almanac people would be aware of that. But then again, if I’m working on being open, maybe Lulu could go to this next stage in her life as a rodent/bird feeder; they all get hungry. Well, I can consider the options anyway. As I think about how much Lulu has done for me since showing up at my front door, I’m grateful I felt open to her coming into my life. I would not have chosen to have this prolonged adventure with a thermostat, but I’m proud of having done it now. I also never would have thought to get a Christmas tree if Catherine Greenwald and her partner hadn’t opened up their home and the surrounding woods to friends who want a bit of greenery in their lives over the holidays, but Lulu has brought me more joy and fun than I ever would have guessed. I have a friend who selects a word at the beginning of each year, and she tries to live with more of whatever the word is until it’s time to select a new one. For 2018, I’m going to choose “open.” Instead of focusing on what I want to have happen, I’m going to focus on being open to whatever does happen. If anyone feels the need to remind me of this in the next 12 months, I give you permission.

Words in Clay

The deaf blind woman next to me grabbed my hands, placed them on hers, and began to sign. I panicked. My intention in going to a Pro-Tactile Happy Hour was to sit quietly in the corner, observe what was going on, and wait for a moment when I felt comfortable enough to join in and participate… or maybe not participate at all… The women who were part of this group didn’t give me that option. I urgently glared at the friend who brought me along; it seemed like since she got me into this, she should get me out. I desperately needed to learn to say something—anything- and she was my only source. Thanks for making the introductions. However, my friend had already dived into a conversation with someone else, and she wouldn’t let me interrupt them. Okay, apparently I’m flying solo. I need to tell you that I might have come to this group for deaf blind individuals, but I can’t actually speak to you. Shit. Fall back on non-descriptive curses, because everything else I know is failing me.

I’ve known only one deaf blind woman in my life up to this point. She has hearing people write into her hand, and she then speaks English in response. However, on this particular afternoon, we were at an event for deaf blind people who use American Sign Language, and I suspected writing on someone’s hand would be a bit like bringing hotdogs and buns to a Passover Seder. ASL is it’s own language with concepts that can be hard to translate into English. Writing on someone’s hand, however, is English, and I wanted to be sensitive to the fact that people came together in this group to speak ASL, not English; I felt like I needed to find a way to communicate in their language, not force them to use mine. I do know the ASL alphabet. I heard once that finger spelling is less than ideal, probably both because it’s inefficient and going back to the spoken language problem. But I was desperate to communicate something, so I went for it, grateful that at least the situation couldn’t get any worse. I tediously spelled out that, “I don’t know ASL,” cringing at everything I sort of knew I was doing wrong. I was trying as hard as I could to avoid all the faux pas I am aware of in Deaf culture, while simultaneously watching myself commit them one by one.

The Pro-Tactile Happy Hour I went to is a social gathering organized predominantly for people who are deaf blind to come together and connect. “The Pro-tactile movement promotes tactile ASL, which is spoken with people touching, versus visual ASL, which is how ASL is usually depicted with two or more sighted people communicating without any physical contact. Pro-Tactile communication is a philosophy that promotes use of touch to enable constant communication like when people make eye contact, nod, and smile, make sounds like “mhmm” or “hunh,” and facial expressions such as raising the eyebrows. The goal is to give deaf blind people a way to stay in constant contact with what is going on, versus having to wait for someone else to decide exactly what to communicate. Tactile communication is not what all people who are deaf blind use, but I am intrigued to learn more about it.

The friend who introduced me to the pro-tactile movement showed me how someone would give directions in ASL. The signs involve distances and spatial relationships, and they wind up being far more descriptive than 98% of the people from whom I ask directions on a normal basis ever manage to be. My friend also demonstrated how someone might describe a room by drawing the space and furniture out on my back. The drawing is much more efficient, plus the other person can indicate in real time if there is a change, such as a bunny rabbit escaping from its cage and hopping indirectly across the room.

Thinking about touch reminded me of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. I make absolutely no claim to know anything about Persian poetry. I realize the translation I read is a very loose one by a westerner over 700 years after it was written, but it’s the best I have, so I’m going with it. I was inspired to read Khayyam, while reading If Today Be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar , who refers to the poetry throughout her book. I decided to merelyexpose myself to the verses, even if I don’t really have enough background to understand it all.

The first time I read The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam , I didn’t understand most of it, as it wandered from roses to wine to the wilderness and the night sky. Line followed line, full of images I couldn’t penetrate, but the verses about clay and pottery stood out. I recognized the moments the words traced out, and I read them over and over again. In the midst of reflections that weave the quotidian and sensual together with intangible concepts such as destiny and the passage of time, Khayyam uses earth to make a connection between what humans can touch and know intimately and what exists only in our imaginations.

For in the Market-place, one Dusk of Day,
I watched the Potter thumping his wet Clay:
And with its all obliterated Tongue
It murmur’d—”Gently, Brother, gently, pray!”

If I take the time to listen, I wonder what another person’s movement and hand temperature and skin texture and gestures can tell me; I’ve been raised to think not much, but I want to find out for myself. I am not overwhelmingly comfortable with touching other people, but the Pro-Tactile Happy Hour was a setting where touch was the only way to connect with the people around me. I was slow as I tried to transition from communicating mostly audibly to entirely through touch. Even though I’ve known the alphabet to finger spell for 20+ years, I had to process it in a whole new way when I was feeling someone else’s hand. It was more than just learning to recognize the shape of a hand though. I sat there, face to face with another person, holding their hands, trying to understand them. If I focus on dissecting what she has to say, letter by letter, stitching it back together in a form familiar to me, the communication will be lost. I need to become familiar with the signs, but communication is bigger than that. I know how to read verbal tone and inflection and strength in spoken language. However, I don’t know how to understand the person behind the signs; I don’t know how to judge if I should trust the other person or how to tell if they’re joking or if they need me to admire their accomplishments. Each person I spoke with showed me a couple more signs, and I simultaneously appreciated knowing how to say a little bit more, while being aware of how rudimentary my interactions were. There were times when my mind went blank, and I couldn’t force it to think fast enough to catch up with where the other person was. I’d hold onto the other person’s hands, observing how they all seemed to have very smooth and soft skin compared to mine, with well-manicured fingernails. I’d let my mind wander, wondering if people who regularly speak ASL tend to have nice hands, considering all the focus their hands receive from others, until suddenly I would catch up and be able to understand again what the other person was telling me.

It makes me think of pushing my own hands into sand, trying to be silent long enough for my hands to hear something. My plants communicate to me in their supple leaves. Water communicates to me in its taste and temperature and how it moves. Lotus, my dog, communicates to me in the ways she pushes herself up against my feet and legs and body. I can try to articulate what I learn when I let my mind go blank and simply experience the touch, but these are all languages at which I’m far from fluent, and it’s hard to translate from a silent language, into words. I am not very good at learning what rock would want to say, I’ve tried carving sculptures twice, but I never managed to finish a project, unsuccessfully forcing my own will onto the rock. I also tried throwing pots one summer, but I never stuck with it long enough to know and understand the clay; I could force it into a few shapes, but I couldn’t work in partnership with it. However, in the times when I’ve relaxed and just touched what was there, there’s a moment right before I find the stillness that makes sense, and my body feels like its loose parts click into place.

As under cover of departing Day
Slunk hunger-stricken Ramazan away,
Once more within the Potter’s house alone
I stood, surrounded by the Shapes of Clay.

I have absolutely no desire to give up words; it’s more that I want to add to what I have in words. I am timid about going back to the Pro-tactile Happy Hour, because these are people getting together to be social, not to teach me. However, I am looking at options to learn more. I want to step out of my motionless, verbal mode of communication… or perhaps it’s not quite accurate to say that my typical communication is motionless, ask anyone I’ve bopped in the nose as I gesture wildly while I speak. I suppose it’s more that I want to learn more deliberate ways to communicate and listen with my body, to depict and understand what is already there, a set of gestures that other people will understand. I want to take what I do naturally and be thoughtful, channel it to be more meaningful. If I were to communicate about Lotus, I would use a movement that involves pushing up against me. She presses into me when I think she just wants to check in and get comfort, when she’s been distracted and her attention returns to me, and when she wants me to play with her. I think someone else might come up with a sign that demonstrates excitement or energy, and while I see that in her as well, I think the pressure of her up against me more captures what is at her core. I can offer you explanations for why she pushes, but I understand her best when I think about the weight and heft of her body. She doesn’t put words on it, so maybe it’s enough to feel it and leave it there.

Things that Go Bump in the Night

When I was four, a dragon put its head in through my bedroom window. No one would ever believe me, I don’t really believe myself, but the memory is just as vivid thirty years later, it seems like it must have happened. He wasn’t scary, no snarling fangs or flaming nostrils and he looked a bit like a drawing. Still, opening my eyes and seeing that scaly, reptilian neck and head filled me with the kind of fear that starts in the guts and settles in the code of each cell to instruct the body what to do. It was a fear I knew I had to handle on my own, I did not cry out for help and I never told anyone about it until this writing. It was a childish fear, but it was also one of my first memories of fear, the night I saw the dragon. I’m sure I felt fear before, but I don’t remember it now. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, he was gone. Some of my fears since then have gone the way of my dragon, while others still hover outside my bedroom window.

Around the same age when the dragon visited, I also battled nightly with my fear of much more clearly evil demons that would come out of the dark, looking for sleeping people to eat. I could not stay awake forever to watch for them, so I started to educate myself about them. They would chew the flesh off your bones like a dog cleaning the scraps off ribs, but they also were not very intelligent; I needed to know they were dumb in order to control my terror. If your body was covered by sheets and blankets, they didn’t know there was anything to eat. I could trick them by staying always tucked away beneath my blankets. I didn’t like to have my head under the covers though, afraid of suffocating, so I also explained to myself that the only part of the body they didn’t like to eat was the head. If I kept my blankets wrapped snuggly around my neck, only my head showing, my fists knotted up, the demons would visit me, but then they would move on to other bedrooms and other people who did not take the precautions I did. I thought about telling my parents the rules, making sure they stayed fully covered, but I was also sort of embarrassed about the demons and what I knew about them. Part of me knew they weren’t really real, but then again, the fear was real, so maybe the demons were a little real too. In the end, I kept it all to myself.

As I got older, my fears began to target threats that were more “real,” even if they still existed only in my imagination. One day I started running up and down the aisles at the hardware store, searching for my mother, after I became convinced that she had forgotten me and driven away. There was a metal pipe for a mostly dry creek going beneath a road that I only convinced myself to crawl through a couple times, even though you could see the daylight at the other end. There was the day our house was broken into, shortly after I locked up and left for school. There were warnings on electrical cords and sharp blades, urban legends of death and dismemberment from friendly strangers and dolls, and people who hid in the dark. I lived in a suburban neighborhood where the biggest threats to one’s health and well-being were probably lawn care equipment and cancer. All the same, the places I wandered through freely through the day became frightening at night. As I walked along the dark streets and bike paths, my eyes would examine every bush and tree and patch of tall grass, searching for the first movement that might give me an extra second to defend myself against the person leaping out at me. I would think about what the authorities would be able to figure out, what the story would be, if something did happen and only silent clues were left behind. At home, I felt torn. On the one hand, I wanted anyone lurking around outside to know that someone was home, so they wouldn’t try to break in. I wanted light and noise, so they’d know to keep on moving. But on the other hand, if the person were looking for a human victim, the lights and music would give me away. Often times, I would turn on a couple lights, careful to duck down when I passed in front of a window, so no one could see me from outside. I would then camp out in a dark place like my room, reading with my head and a flashlight under a blanket, so I’d have the best possible chance at escape if anyone came in. I spent a lot of time planning around how I would handle the things I was afraid of, now possible according to news and police reports, even if still not very probable.

Somehow, it all changed when I went blind. Suddenly, I was no longer afraid of the dark. It’s not that my fear of the dark eventually went away after I went blind, it’s that the first time I went outside in the dark after going blind, I felt absolutely no fear. It seems just as likely that it could have gone the other direction, that I would constantly be in fear of things I couldn’t see, my perpetual darkness. My best guess is that my internal systems that experience and manage fear basically shorted out to protect me from an overload. They decided that we couldn’t handle it all, so we simply weren’t going to.

The other day, I got to spend some time with a friend and her one month old baby. She was crying a bit, so we were talking about the current knowledge or understanding of infants’ crying. My friend was told there are five reasons why new babies cry—discomfort, hunger, tiredness, and pressure from gas in their upper and lower digestive system. New babies do not cry out of fear, they are not yet aware of everything out there for them to fear. In that case, somewhere between when I was born and when I was four or so, I decided to be afraid of dragons and demons. I was not afraid of strangers, I willingly trusted people I didn’t know to feed me and change my diaper or help me get to the bathroom and play with me from the time I was six weeks old. I felt no fear for the health and future of my little brother who had a couple of major, life-saving surgeries in the first few weeks of his life. I did not fear our dog Kermit, after he dragged me along the road on my bare knees until my father could get ahold of him. It doesn’t really make sense. If I am going to learn fear based on life experiences, it seems that the truly threatening realities should cause the most fear.

The best I can figure, I fear less based on the degree to which something is truly a threat and more to the extent I can deal with the fear. I could handle fearing a dragon that might or might not wish me ill. I could handle fearing the demons where I set the rules under which they presented a danger to me. I could hide from the people in the night who might come after me, because they probably wouldn’t. After going blind though, I no longer had the capacity to fear everything I couldn’t see, so I simply no longer feared it. It makes me think of what I fear now. I fear getting to the end of my life and feeling like I wasted everything I was given. I fear having to keep a conversation going. I fear other people thinking I’m stupid or incompetent. I fear how others will judge the things I create. In the past, if my fear wound up being invested in the bogy monsters I invented for myself, I can’t help but wonder if I direct my fears now towards real or imagined threats. Of course, they seem like real threats to me now, but so did beings that dwelled in the dark before I went blind. I’m curious if maybe I should second guess these fears too…terrible though they seem. A scary thought.

Speaking an Unknown Language

Back in the middle of August, I went to California and had a chance to visit Albert, my recently retired guide dog of eight years. At first, the reunion was an odd combination of familiarity and newness. It felt like going past your old elementary school; the brick building is in the same place and the kids at recess look sort of like you and your friends, but the playground equipment is new, the swings are in a whole different location, and you only recognize some of the games painted in yellow and white lines on the asphalt. You remember the scene, but it has changed.
All credit and blame goes to captionbot: I think it's a dog sitting on a bench.
In the first moments after I walked into the yard where he was playing, Albert almost seemed shy. He jumped up at me, but then he couldn’t quite remember what came next. He didn’t hold still for me to scratch deep into his ears, behind the ear canals. He didn’t start plowing between my legs, lifting his nose to the crotch, a classic Albert move. He didn’t run in a frantic elliptical pattern around me. He didn’t gently grab my arm between his jaws and bite down like a mother dog carrying her puppies. These are the dance steps I remember from my Albert dog, how I recognize him beyond his shape and color and fur length. It was hard to feel like he was the dog I’d come to see. Fortunately, there were a pool and two perfect fetching sticks and a chain of rubber rings for tugging, along with two other dogs, to help break the awkwardness.

Albert and I were caught in an abbreviated version of feeling one another out, just like Lotus, my new guide dog, and I have been clumsily groping our way through for the past five months. Every time I’ve started working with a new guide dog, I’ve wound up with a very tight left shoulder, pain burning up into my neck, and an awkward gait where I’m prone to trip over myself. With a new dog, I don’t know what to expect as far as pace, maneuvering around obstacles, and stopping, so I try to ready every muscle to respond with trigger reflexes, to do everything just right. After I’ve stepped on her paws a few times and repeatedly given her cues that don’t make sense and tried to correct her when she’s already doing the right thing though, I start to give up. Dogs don’t go into job interviews or formal social settings where they put an edited version of themselves forth, so I let go of that version of myself as well. Dogs mean mud and fur and smells that you won’t find in the Martha Stewart line of air fresheners. I try to embrace the lack of order, because I want to know the dog behind it. I get down on the floor to play and wrestle and sometimes get hurt and sometimes get rejected by the dog, because that’s what it takes to figure out how to communicate with a different species.

Dogs, even within the same breed, have very different preferences and behaviors and quirks. Yes, an adorable photo might show a basket full of Labrador puppies, identical except for the exact tilt in their heads, but an attentive person who spent time with them would be able to tell them apart. One puppy will be particularly aware of the human while another will approach its siblings to bite their ears, while one will play dead if someone rolls it onto its back and another will squirm away when pinned down. Differences that are endearing in puppies become crucial when learning to communicate and work with a dog. Lotus doesn’t particularly like to have her ears or head touched and petted from the front. It’s hard for me to get used to this as a human who constantly wants to reach in and pet my dog to praise her and to play and to reassure her. She will suddenly stop walking sometimes, especially if we are in an unfamiliar location. When she stops, she’s looking back to check in with me for reassurance. I have to understand the reason she stops, because if I interpret it as a sign that she’s distracted and not motivated to work, then my response is going to be very different. As much as I wish I could claim that I’m instantaneously in-tune to a dog’s behaviors and patterns, I’m not. Instead, I try and fail and try and fail and try and ask around for ideas and try again. When you see a guide dog and human working together smoothly, you can know dozens of situations messed up with crossed wires went into creating that relationship.

In the brief time we had together, I wanted Albert to know how much I’d missed him and that I was glad that he was doing well and that I cared about him and that the place where he is now is the best possible life for him. I cannot tell him all of this. I scratched his rump as we stood together in the pool. I got him to release the fetching stick without a prolonged battle. We played tug with the rubber rings, as I tried to match his growls. And when we were leaving, I snatched a good scratch of his marvelously large ears. With Albert, I had to remember how to move in the ways that we used to play together. Play was the only way I could think to approximate what I wished I could tell him. I know the concepts I wanted to communicate do not translate well into a dog’s understanding. I think in words and, to the best I can tell, he thinks in sensations; it’s hard to translate between the two. I could kneel to his head level, he could smash that enormous tongue of his into my face, and I could laugh. I hope it meant something to him.

Lotus and I are building that relationship now. To bond or check in with Lotus, it is better if I stand still and let her approach me, instead of approaching her by touching her. She will often bring me one of her toys to hold or tug on. She likes to lie down right next to me, sometimes even partly on top of me. I think she likes to be more in control of the interaction, so I have to stand back and let her approach first. It is hard to hold myself back, because I want to express my affection by touching her. However, if it doesn’t work for Lotus, then it doesn’t work. She just stood up, walked to the back door where she peered out for a moment and then turned around to drink water before returning to her blanket. I don’t understand why she took that course, but it is fascinating to wonder about what led her to do that. I stop trying to understand and just accept. As time goes by, I hope I’m able to tell you more about Lotus, not about Albert or other dogs I’ve known or what I think is an ideal dog or what I imagine a dog might be, but Lotus her wonderful self.

Credit and blame goes to captionbot: I think it's a dog swimming in a pool of water.
Swimming with the dogs

What is there new for me to say about the relationship between a human and a dog? Obviously, I dedicate a lot of thought to the communication between my dog and myself. I want to get it right. I like the precision and clarity that can come with words, but I’m left interacting in motion and gestures and touch. It is hard for me to sit back and allow Lotus to initiate some of our interactions, to define some of our communication; I give her commands when she is working, but I have to adjust them to how she operates, and she doesn’t let me play or express affection in some of the ways I’m most used to. I was raised in a world where we set goals and explain what we will do to achieve them. We either reach our goals or we do not. But my dogs are teaching me that there is also value in a world where I sit back passively and wait to see what is going to happen. You are always in-between. There is perfection and failure and then there is now in this place where I sit with a creature built from bones and fur and a nose that prods and explores and reaches, curled up at my side.

Good Dog

On Sunday, May 14, I gave Albert, my guide dog of eight years, back to Haley Reed, the woman who raised him as a puppy. He has slowed down over the last year, and I started to feel like I was forcing him to move faster and longer than what he wanted. I didn’t feel capable of keeping him, because he hates being left alone, and I knew I would wind up leaving him alone far too often. The decision was hard in that I feel guilt about not caring for the dog who has meant so much to me now that he’s not working, but in other ways the decision was easy because I’ve known for many years that I wouldn’t be able to keep him into his retirement

The day before I traveled to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in Boring, Oregon to meet and train with my new guide dog, I planted an asparagus plant in memory of Albert. Just this spring, I learned that Albert loves asparagus. I know he likes many fruits and vegetables, but I just never thought to let him try asparagus. But after cutting the ends off a pot of the thin spring vegetable, I decided to let him try an end. He devoured it, and subsequently I ate a lot of asparagus in the weeks between learning he had a taste for it and the day when I gave him back to Haley. I enjoy giving Albert a treat that he really likes, but the selfish side of it is that I love holding a small treat as he delicately picks it out of my hand, all his whiskers and lips and teeth working in tandem. Every spring when the asparagus comes up, I will think of that large, but gentle beast.

Now, I have a young, wiggly, energetic adolescent dog. She is enthusiastic and smart, eager to figure out what she’s supposed to do in various situations. It’s fun to work with her and to figure out ways to communicate and respond that makes sense to her. I had a chance to spend nearly an hour and a half with Albert halfway through my training with my new dog, before he moves onto his new home. Spending time with Albert emphasized the difference in my relationship with him versus with Lotus, my new dog; Albert is like a well worn old baseball glove that fits and moves with my hand, while Lotus is like one of those bouncy balls cut out with a bunch of random angles so it flies around unpredictably when thrown at a surface. I know what Albert expects and I know where to touch him and I know what kind of movements to expect from him. With Lotus, I’m still trying to figure out where she likes to be petted and how she will react, I want her to know we are looking for one particular door and not every door, and I’m trying to figure out how to foster her enthusiasm, without letting her turn herself in circles every time she does something well. She’s my little bouncy ball, we don’t really fit each other yet.

It’s okay, Lotus and I will get used to one another, and eventually we won’t rely on as much verbal and physical communication, because we will know one another. But I just want to share my last letter to Albert. I put it at the end of a notebook full of messages from his friends. I hope his new family reads it to him often. I know he doesn’t understand it, but I feel better when I think someone is still telling him what I told him every day.

Dear Albert,
On the last Friday before we went back to class for me and retirement for you, we had dinner at a friend’s house. I wasn’t paying very close attention to you, and at some point in time, you slinked away to help yourself to some food, including half a bag of dry pasta, a few protein bars, and several marshmallows. Perhaps I’m just being an overly permissive parent with a disobedient child, but I felt an intense sense of acceptance when we finally found where you’d disappeared to. Since then, I’ve been contemplating when my reaction to some of your little misbehaviors changed from distress to acceptance.

It is fully your nature to be committed to one person as your human. I don’t entirely understand that. I do a little of one thing and then some more of another. I leap from interest to interest, dabbling, but never fully committing. I wonder how it is that you choose one thing you will make into a single driving cause. I might never fully understand it, but I did experience being the recipient of it.

It can be hard to be the recipient of such dedication. I don’t know that I’m worth being the recipient of the fact that you have spent the last eight years of your life focused on me. I worry that I have to do something exceptional in order to justify your dedication. In the end though, I know that these are just silly human thoughts and concerns. The fates matched us up, and you were going to give your calling your all.

When I stop worrying about whether or not my life was really worth your dedication and focus, I can start to accept and appreciate the little things you gave me from day to day. I love how you check in with your nose. You tap my thigh with the side of your face, or you bury your muzzle into my cupped hand. The skin on your lips, is so soft, and the whiskers give each of us a way to feel one another. When I’d scratch your belly, you’d push your paw into my forehead or shoulder, I always felt as though you were a priest, blessing me. You were so easy to make happy– the tiniest bit of attention, a dropped carrot, a sunny patch of ground, freshly dug earth to sniff- it reminded me to slow down and love the little things as well. Of course, you have guided me with great skill and precision, and I appreciate that immensely, but somehow it’s the intangible, immeasurable parts that I feel drawn to write about.

Hopefully I am able to explain the connection I see between a dog who has a mischievous side and the dog I described in the previous paragraph. I believe all of these traits are necessary parts of one single creature. I do not believe it is possible to create a “perfect” creature through extensive training. I think it is an inseparable set of qualities that makes you who you are. If I were able to make you eliminate some of the more challenging aspects of who you are, it would diminish part of what I love so much about you. But even more than that, I find I have come to love even the troublesome parts of you, because that is a part of you, and I love you. Loving you has helped me learn to love the whole, because when I look at you, I can see the true goodness that emanates from you. When I say a few simple words, I mean it with a conviction that every creature from the ones small enough to crawl around in a grasshopper’s footprint to the force pulling the universe apart are lucky to know somewhere in the gut center—Albert, you are a good dog.

Poison Ivy and Honey Suckle

Last week, I went back to my grandmother’s farm for the first time in three years. I guess technically, I should think of it as my grandfather’s farm, since it came down through his side of the family… but for so many years, my grandmother was the only one around, so I think of it as her farm. It’s located just on the Illinois side of the Illinois/Kentucky border, just outside Metropolis, home to Superman. Yes, there is a statue, and there are pictures of my brother and me at various ages, standing next to Superman. The farm is 200 or so acres with two wooded areas, a small stream in one of the woods, a dried-up pond where the cows used to drink, and an old white house. This is a part of the country that mixes culture from the Midwest with that from the South, and a lot of German influence. It contains a lot of my family history, partially because my uncle studied that part of the ancestry the most, and also because everyone pretty much stayed there until my mother’s generation, when they left to be something other than farmers.

The side of a tall, white house with a tall maple and other vegetation starting to swallow it up
From some angles the house seems untouched by decay and neglect

Probably half the houses on the road with my grandmother’s house are abandoned. Cultivating these small farms is no longer enough to support a family, so people either farm, a hard life, as a hobby, or they leave and get someone else to farm for them. Even though my uncle still lives on a corner of the farm, he and my mother have done the latter, getting someone else to do the hard work. As my family has moved away from farming, I used to want to preserve everything. I wanted them to take care of the house, keep it from rotting. I wanted there to always be a cleared garden and yard with a propane tank on one side of the fence and a pond filled thickly with pussy willows and frogs in the summer on the other. I wanted there to always be a driveway laid out with reddish orange rocks for us to drive up when we arrived, and an out of tune piano with my mother’s old song books in the bench in the living room to come back to.

Both my ancestors and I have vivid memories on Grandma’s farm. On the corner of the pump platform, someone wrote the family name and the year when the concrete was wet. The sidewalk to the screen porch and back door has worn away in thin layers that create shallow depressions. When it rains, this is the perfect place for puddles for a child to jump in. Next to the smokehouse, on the way to what they called the orchard, even though there were only a few different fruit trees, is the spigot my brother and I played in when we were very young, right up until we emptied the well and my grandfather had to crawl down into the concrete enclosure of the pump house to prime the pump. Coming from the city, it’s the first time I had a concept that there might not always be limitless amounts of water. Also, since my grandfather died when I was four, it’s one of my few memories of him. My grandfather’s father built the house, my grandfather spent his whole life there, my uncle spent his whole life either there or in the house about half a mile down the road, and my mother spent the first 17 years of her life in that house. It served as a magnet for everything the family brought over from Prussia, as well as most things that several family members acquired once in the United States. It’s one of those houses that grows in response to the times; they added on one room for an aunt who lived there a while, a couple more rooms for a grandmother who lived with them, a bathroom when they got running water inside, although they left the outhouse for the grandmother’s brother who sometimes lived with them. There were nooks and crannies and shelves and closets full of things to tell the mundane stories of day to day life. I am curious about mundane stories though. I feel what is probably an irrational attachment to the house and farmland and region of the country, although it’s undeniably strong. Roots and memories and sensations are part of my composition.

When they started taking things out of the house many years ago, after my grandmother moved to the nursing home, I felt an impulse to relocate the objects I associated with childhood visits to the farm into my normal life in suburban Colorado. Most of all, I wanted that piano, letters penciled lightly on 8 of the keys so I, not a pianist, could pick out tunes like “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Red River Valley”, while the rural seasons shifted outside the still house. For the in-between times, when the most activity came from cars and trucks flying by on the road out front, I would wander through the house, poking into spaces and cautiously opening doors and lids. There was a large old book made up of loose sheets and a broken binding in German. I was frustrated that the people who had studied or even spoken German in daily life couldn’t tell me what it was about. There was a large chest, falling apart, which I always hoped would have something interesting in it, though it never did. There was a closet with a few boxes that I was expressly forbidden to take anything out of, because of the brown recluse spiders that lined the joint where the wall met the floor. I always opened and stared into that one just to test my own ability to stand close to those tiny little spiders that the adults warned would do horrible things to you. There was a cylindrical container with white and red Lego-like blocks and a clay turtle that always sat atop the half wall next to the stairs on the porch down to the cellar.

I thought of bringing some of these toys home. I tried to get my mom to haul the piano, probably worth less than what it would cost to haul it back to Colorado and get tuned, for me to play with during my much more active real life. I would put the chest at the foot of my bed and the blocks on my shelf. The large book would stand alongside all my own books, and the turtle would look out my bedroom window. I even thought of convincing someone to lug home the rug that sat in the middle of the living room, a worn out beige rectangle of old carpet, but also the site of everything my brother and I built with those white and red blocks.

A lot of things did come out of that house, but now I’m glad about the things that did not. I’m glad to know all of those items are trapped inside a capsule of steadily progressing plant life and rotting wood. I’m glad it will all eventually collapse into a pile that other people will look at and see nothing but ruin. Back at home, the rug would have been trash. The toys would have been clutter to move out of the way and eventually store, we never would have pulled them out in our normal world of school and bikes and a computer and TV. I would have had to find something to do with the book and chest next time I decided to change the look of my room, and my mother would have been annoyed that I insisted on bringing them back. I never would have played the piano, although I think the turtle would still stand on my windowsill. It is good to let this world end.

Barn wall and roof with thin strips of light and holes in roof
Boards outlined in light
On this visit, it rained a lot, so we spent some time just standing in the barn. My grandfather built it from trees in the woods. It is large enough to make everything else—cows, donkeys, farm equipment, tractors- look like little toys. As a child, I always wanted to climb up into the hay loft. I would stand up there, looking around me, dreaming of what I would do if my mother didn’t always insist on coming with us into the barn. I would bring a book to read with me in the half light, listening to the bones and joints shift in the wind around it. I would climb up with my sleeping bag and listen to the night sounds of animals flying back and forth and scratching and scrabbling with their little claws. I would lay on my back, in a spot without any bat guano, resting my head on my arms, watching the sunlight leak in from between dried slats of wood, a stained glass burned into my retinas. A few years ago, they decided to let the barn go, the cost of repairing the roof too high, considering no one probably would ever want a building with so many different capacities, but with such small amounts of each. Now there are gaping holes in the roof to go along with the vertical lines of light in the walls. We stood there in the center, where the roof is still good, and listened to the water drip onto the wood and concrete floor. I breathed in the process of rot and decay. It is a sweet, vaguely bloody, and familiar smell, life being released again.

At my home now, I keep a package of Jell-O in a kitchen drawer, I keep dried beans in a jar that used to have cookies in it when we visited, and I have a whistling tea pot to remind me of my childhood visits to the farm. When I search through my drawer for a whisk or an ice cream scoop, I smile when I touch the box of Jell-O. It makes me think of how one of the first things I would do when we got to my grandmother’s house was look in the drawer to see what color we got to eat that time, before begging to be allowed to fix it. Even though I don’t keep cookies in the cookie jar, it still reminds me of how excited I was as a child to open up the lid and see what kind of cookies were in there. And even though I never drank tea at my grandmother’s house, the sound of a whistling tea pot makes me think of my grandmother sitting at her end of the table. I do hold onto pieces of that part of my life.

Honeysuckle bushes with a large oak tree coming out of what used to be an open yard
My grandmother’s yard used to be full of green grass and clover

As far as the rest goes, I decided that there is beauty in change and transition and movement, so that is why I’m okay with watching my family’s history pass away. We all have changed and moved on, so there is no reason to try and make the farm stay caught in time. My mother has a cousin who remodeled the farmhouse where she grew up and then filled it with items that have a story—that’s the bed so and so and his brother slept in, these are the chairs that were in that person’s house, these are the plates we ate off when we were young. I’m glad she and her husband came back to the farm to retire and that they didn’t fill the place with Ikea furniture. I used to wish that someone would do that to my grandmother’s house and farm, but now I’m okay with the fact that no one did. Instead, the yard is overrun with poison ivy and honey suckle. Somehow, poison ivy and honeysuckle seems like the perfect symbol for change; it brings both misery and sweet blossoms. I have my memories of my roots in rural Southern Illinois, and they are important to me. They are not important to other people in the future, and I don’t have the solid objects and places to help me try to remind them. My memories will be lost, and that’s okay. Something else will fill in the space where they leave off.