Category Archives: Writing

Home is the Place Where I Know Who I Am

I need to write more. No, seriously. Every day I wake up, go to work, and get paid to teach students to write. Then I think about the last time I wrote something worth reading, and I feel like a fraud. So, New Year’s resolution # 1: write more. I’m getting ahead for next year, or jumping on this year’s bandwagon before it crashes into December. It all depends on how you look at it; perspective is everything.

There have been words scratching at the edges of my brain for weeks, maybe months. They were being polite about the scratching, like the squirrel I was once convinced got into the crawl space in my apartment—occasionally scrabbling for attention before dejectedly settling down again. (I named the phantom squirrel Roxter…because you asked). This week, at a word from Lorna over at Gin and Lemonade in the weekly writing prompt about home, the words have clawed themselves out. They’re a little ragged, a little rough around the edges from the fight, but they’re words. So, home.

I love the shape of the spoken word “home”—that round, open, hollowed-out vowel that takes shape and holds meaning when we fill it with objects and people and memories that leave impressions of living like footprints in the sand. the word carries different connotations for each of us. Sometimes, as a concrete language exercise, I ask my students to define the word home in terms of specific, sensory examples of sights, sounds, smells, textures, or tastes they associate with the word because for me, home is a celebration of the senses.

Home is the first sip of freshly brewed coffee in the morning and cold tile against bare feet. Home is my dog sleeping in a patch of sunlight by the window and the clink of wind-chimes on my patio that suggests the laughter of dancing fairies. Home is my favorite blanket fresh from the dryer and the spot on the couch that permanently bears the imprint of my body no matter how many times I rotate the cushions—the single point, to borrow a line from “The Big Bang theory”’s Sheldon Cooper, around which my entire universe revolves. Being blind and living in a sighted world means navigating unfamiliar spaces on a daily basis, but home is the place where I don’t need to count my steps down the hall, where I can put out my hand and always find what I’m searching for.

Last week, as I sat working in my office on campus, the slam of the hall door jolted me from my concentration, and I found myself thinking, “that’s the sound of home.” Every day, colleagues and students walk through that door—people who value my expertise, celebrate my successes, share my frustrations, and laugh at my jokes (even the bad ones; especially the bad ones). On the wall beside my desk hangs a quotation from Fred Rogers: “Love is at the root of all learning,” and love is the foundation of home, whether that love comes from family, friends, pets, colleagues, or from within oneself. I am, in fact, writing this in my office, the place where my heart beats and where I know I belong because here I have a purpose, a reason to wake up and greet each day with hope. When I’m here, I matter. I might offer a colleague advice about a problem or hand a student the key to unlocking her future in the form of the final touch to the application essay that will get her into medical school. When others love us, they create spaces for us in their lives. When I feel loved, I know I have a place to call home. Home is more than a physical space or the coordinates on a map; home is the place where I know who I am.

Bidding a Fond Farewell: a Tribute to Knight, 2002-2017

Dear Knight,
Whenever someone who hasn’t met you asks me to tell them a story about what you were like, I tell the story of the day we met. It was a hot, sticky, Long Island day in mid-July, the summer before my junior year of college, and I was about to embark on my greatest adult adventure to date: moving off-campus into an apartment with two of my best friends. Quick walks to class from my dorm to the main campus would now be replaced by arranging my own transportation. No more popping into the campus café for my customary tuna sandwich on the way home from class; now I had to walk across the street to the local Super-Target for my groceries. Increased independence meant increased mobility, and getting a guide dog seemed, to me, the blind equivalent of receiving a driver’s license. Not to mention, being a young woman with a disability, I saw a certain appeal in having the security of a big scary dog. As it turned out, our nearest neighbors were a group of boys whose major threat seemed to be smoking marijuana, playing beer-pong, and reciting drunken, impromptu poetry to us as we passed in the hall, and you were more afraid of them than they were of you, but that’s another story.

As soon as I completed summer classes, I boarded a plane to Smithtown, New York to spend four weeks at the Guide Dog Foundation, learning how to navigate the world with a furry, four-legged pair of eyes. After two days of introductory instruction on guide dog handling and dormitory rules, which included, among other things, no dogs on the bed, we were called into the lounge to receive our dogs’ names before returning to our rooms to wait for trainers to bring them to us so we could spend a few minutes bonding before our first walk. I remember very little about the wait time, other than wiping my sweaty palms on the white shorts that I really wished I hadn’t packed for the trip once I learned you were a black Lab. Eventually, a knock sounded at the door, a trainer entered, placed a leather leash in my hand, and backed out.
“So, what now?” I thought as I ran tentative fingers along your silky ears—ears that would soon listen to and put up with more than any human I’d ever known. For the first, but not the last time, you seemed to read my mind. Sensing my hesitation, you cocked your ears, put your head on one side and regarded me with mild curiosity. Then, without invitation, you leapt onto the bed, settled down in the center, rested your head on your front paws, and thumped your tail once as if to say, “Okay, I’m waiting. I’ve got a job to do here.” There was that rule about dogs on the bed, but apparently it didn’t apply to you. Rules were for anyone who didn’t know their way around the world; you did, and you wasted no time letting me know that.

At only 19 months old, you possessed the poise and wisdom of one who had seen, done, and learned much; you sized me up and decided you were smarter than I was, and you took it upon yourself to show me that whatever we did, wherever we went, we did it your way or not at all. Over the next four weeks of training, we butted heads a lot. One afternoon, we took 45 minutes to complete a route that should have only taken us 15, and probably would have if I’d listened to you and turned right at that corner instead of crossing the street. If you could talk, you’d insist that we didn’t actually get lost in the middle of Flushing; I got lost. You just went along with my stupidity to silently teach me a lesson. You did that a lot, and eventually, after countless wrong turns, a few floods of tears, and several scraped knees, I began to listen to your words of wisdom, spoken in the quiet, self-assured way you carried yourself in every situation. When I wanted to turn left and you knew we needed to turn right, you’d stand perfectly still and swish your tail against my thigh. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” you seemed to say.

We took a lot of walks during the years we spent together, traversing everything from college campuses to crowded airports. In your spare time, you chased lizards, rifled trash cans, discovered how to pry the lid off a container of dog treats, and insisted that however much room you had to yourself, the best place to sleep was on my feet. You loved wishbone chew toys, having your ears scratched, and licking babies’ fingers; you feared absolutely nothing—the single exception being inflatable snowmen, for reasons that none of us have ever satisfactorily understood. You graduated college with me, yawned your way through my Master’s degree, and when I embarked on my first semester of teaching, you were everyone’s favorite student. You even saw me through the first two years of earning a PhD before you decided you’d had more than enough school than any dog should have to endure.

It seemed fitting that the last journey we took together was the plane ride back to New York, to the very same spot where we first met. As the moment of separation approached, I wished, not for the first time, that God had seen fit to give dogs the capacity for speech. How was I going to explain to you that when I kissed your nose and said goodbye, it would be for the last time? I was returning to the Foundation to train with a second dog, and while I knew rationally that I would come to love your successor as much as I loved you, handing your leash off to my uncle, who’d generously offered you a retirement home with his family, felt like detaching a piece of my heart. When my uncle walked back out to the car to take you to his home—your new home—would you wonder where I was?

Even as, hours later, my lap and heart made room for a new friend, I wondered about you. Were you looking for me? Would you be happy? I stopped worrying when my uncle called to tell me that the first thing you did when you arrived at your new home was jump on the couch and knock over the Emmy Award statuette my uncle had received for his graphics work for NBC during the 1992 Olympic Games. I was mortified; you shrugged it off with one dismissive tail-wag. The fact that they kept you after that is a true testament to how easily people fell in love with you. I’d spend the next six years receiving regular bulletins from my family about your adventures in retirement, which consisted primarily of indulging in the forbidden fruits of a working dog: sleeping on furniture, feasting on table scraps, and being generally lazy. True to your nature, however, you continued to live a life of service to others, devoting yourself to the business of loving your family with the dedication of one who takes pride in having a job to do, even if that job was as simple as being there with a wet tongue and a wagging tail at the end of a long day. You approached life with a Zen-like calm that I always envied and never mastered. You left indelible pawprints on the world and the hearts of everyone whose hand you licked.

When, several weeks ago, it came time for you to leave us, you made your exit as you did all things—in your way, on your terms. Under no circumstances would you forgo your last bowl of kibble; the journey across the Rainbow Bridge was long, after all, and you needed sustenance. I laughed when I learned that, on arriving at the vet for the last time, you wouldn’t settle until you’d shoved your head into a box of blankets for one last, great sniff, and finally, when you were ready, you lay down. I wasn’t surprised to be told that the last look in your philosophical brown eyes was one of all-knowing peace: “I was given a job, I did what I came here to do, and now it’s time for me to leave.”

Some religious doctrine tells us that dogs have no afterlife because they have no souls, but a dog is the absolute embodiment of unconditional love, and what is the soul if not a reflection of God’s love? You were formed for a purpose by the Creator of all things, and I can do no less than believe that when your soul crossed that rainbow bridge, the Creator was there to greet you with a much-deserved pat for a job well done. May you have endless space to run, your wishbones have eternal flavor, your ears be always scratched, and your tail wag eternally.

Coffee, Pumpkin, and a Dash of Snark

This week, if we were having coffee, we’d be having pumpkin coffee, because tis the season, and that’s what we’re serving here. If you don’t like pumpkin, then you can get your coffee someplace else, or seek professional medical advice, because you probably had your taste buds surgically removed by aliens without your knowledge. My pantry is currently hosting all manner of pumpkin-flavored treats, from coffee, to oatmeal, to Costco’s pumpkin muffins, which produce a feeling of joy only second to that which I occasionally experience when taking Holy Communion.

Girl dancing alone in an autumn forest (image credit Ed Gregory via Stokpic)
The heavens are telling the glory of autumn!

In an ideal diet, the four food groups would be chocolate, peanut butter, alcohol, and pumpkin. What? Alcohol is fermented fruit. Don’t tell me that’s not a food group. Sit down.

If we were having coffee, you’d get to hear about how one of my paratransit drivers on the way home from work last week tried to convert me to Christianity, because apparently Catholicism doesn’t count. I’ve heard this misinformed argument before, but this is neither the time nor the place to debunk it. I could have thrown all kinds of historical evidence at him to argue that all denominations of Christianity are derivatives of Catholicism, but in fact (and this might surprise you) I’m actually not that obnoxious. Sufficed to say, however, I don’t take kindly to the suggestion that I’m not a Christian.

I talk for a living, so usually at the end of the day, I like my head space, and I don’t want anyone invading it. It’s not that I’m rude or uncommunicative. On the contrary, anyone who knows me well will tell you that once I start talking, good luck shutting me up, but when you’ve spent your entire day repeating the rules of the Oxford comma five times in a row, trust me, it dulls your enthusiasm for conversation.

“So, do you know Jesus?” the driver asked.
“Yes, he lives next-door.” (I wish I’d said this. Hello, staircase wit. We meet again.) “Yes, I’m Catholic,” was my actual, underwhelmingly non-witty reply.
“Oh, you’re Catholic?” The driver asked this in the tone you might imagine someone asking, “Oh, you eat babies?”

He proceeded to continue asking questions including was I married? Did I have children? Why didn’t I live with my parents? (Yet another person who hasn’t received the memo that people with disabilities can and do live alone without harming themselves or their immediate neighbors). The questions continued for my entire commute: Did I have friends? Was my dog Catholic too? (That one, I had to admit, was funny, so, small bonus). As a rule, I limit my conversations with my paratransit drivers to “Turn left at the mailbox,” so my reserves of patience had been stretched well beyond their limits. When he asked me why I didn’t live with anyone, I may or may not have replied with some variation of “because I’m not really a fan of people.” He seemed to run out of questions at this point. Make of this what you will; I’m admitting nothing.

In the department of happy-making things, autumn, in addition to the season of pumpkin, is also my season for cozy mysteries. Since the crimes are generally culinary in nature and often include either recipes or tangential mini-lectures from the main character about food, cozy mysteries are, quite literally, junk food for the brain. My current series of choice is the Coffee House Mystery series by Clio Coyle, which is surprisingly more cerebral than some of the other cozy mysteries I’ve read (Joanne Fluke, anyone?). Full disclosure: despite what I’ve always said to the contrary about genre fiction not being a dirty word, I have rather discerning tastes when it comes to the cozy mystery genre. Okay, let’s not mince words; I’m a total snob about my cozy mysteries. I’m not far enough into the series to offer a balanced review, but I love a good cozy. Give me one that pairs a credibly-spun plot with the perfect cup of coffee, and you’ve brewed me a braingasm.

So, tell me about you; what are you reading? What are you drinking? What do you love about autumn? If you noticed that my sweat is starting to smell vaguely of cinnamon and nutmeg when you hug me, would you tell me?

Of Dogs and Disasters and Death-Defying Actors

Happy Labor Day! I’ve spent my day creating PowerPoint presentations on comma splices and misplaced modifiers, which was labor-intensive and not at all happy. I’d like a refund, please.

School is back in session, so if we’re having coffee this week, I should tell you that I’ve swapped my usual two cups a day for a caffeine IV drip…I wish.

Last weekend everyone on the internet was celebrating National dog day. Somehow, that never registered on my radar, which probably makes me a terrible person. When you have a service animal though, every day is dog day. My dog is probably the reason why my blood pressure is still hovering somewhere in the range that we can medically call normal. Petting a dog for just a few minutes can apparently send calming signals to the brain, which is why I’ve made an executive decision to remove my dog’s harness when I’m in my office between classes. Students come to repair the cracks and comma splices in their essays, they get a five-minute shot of brain therapy, and my dog gets a free massage. 3 for the price of one.

Unfortunately, there are exceptions to the rule. Some people just don’t like dogs, and some take being afraid of them to a disturbing level. I was reminded of this on my morning commute a few days ago when I attempted to board the paratransit van that arrived to take me to work only to have another passenger scream in my face because he was afraid of dogs. I sympathize, but when I’m late for work, this really isn’t my problem. Get over it or go home. The driver insisted that I couldn’t board the vehicle because he needed to accommodate the other client. Last time I checked, fear of dogs is not a legal disability, so I got to stand in the rain and explain why my rights were being violated. Did I mention I was undercaffeinated? My service animal was documented; the other client’s fear of animals wasn’t, so, again, not my problem.

If we were having coffee, I’d tell you how screaming in my face before I’ve had at least two cups of coffee won’t end well for you, but if you were the sort of person who’d scream in my face before I’ve had coffee, I’d be having coffee with someone else. Did I also mention that my apparently ferocious, I-will-eat-your-face guide dog was, throughout this entire confrontation, cowering behind me with his tail between his legs, doing a pretty accurate impression of not eating someone’s face?

In other news that falls in the category of happy-making things, if we were having coffee—or vodka—you’d get to listen to me squeal about the fact that we’re less than a month away from the release of Kingsman: the Golden Circle. At some point in the conversation, you’d wonder why and how this will work when we all saw Samuel L Jackson shoot Colin Firth in the head at point-blank range in the first film. My only response is that Hollywood knows when it’s made a mistake, and clearly a Firthless franchise would leave a gaping hole in the universe too large to contemplate. Now, however, we all get to sleep soundly at night because Colin Firth is decidedly not dead and is single-handedly going to save the world while sporting a cowboy hat and an eyepatch.

I don’t think Colin Firth is actually ever going to die. If he does, the world will just unite and synchronously chant his name until he resurrects like the 10th Doctor in “The Last of the time Lords.” I know, I know, but a girl can dream, right?

Coffee, Ableism, and Randomness

If we were having coffee, lucky you, because we’re talking about ableism yet again, and how this word pervades every aspect of my life.

This time, it involved a well-meaning but obviously ignorant technician at the eyebrow threading kiosk in my local mall. I only wanted to pop in because I was starting to look like an unfortunate Hogwarts student who’d been hit between the eyes with a hair-thickening charm. If you’re at all familiar with facial hair threading, you know that part of the process involves holding your skin tightly while the technician threads so that your skin isn’t pulled or pinched as the hair is removed. It’s a simple enough task, but apparently if you’re blind, you don’t know where your own face is, so this simple task now becomes monumentally challenging.

“I need you to hold,” the technician explained, beginning to guide my hands toward my forehead. “Can you do?” And then, turning to my mother, who happened to be with me, “Can she hold?” I wanted to roll my eyes, but they were closed, which would, I think, have diminished the effect.
“It’s fine,” I assured her. “I’ve got it. I’ve done this before.”
“Oh, you do this before? That’s very good.” (It’s also very condescending, but whatever).

If I were telling you this story over coffee, you might be inclined to point out that maybe she was just making polite conversation, and I might have agreed with you if not for what followed. . I placed one hand on my forehead and the other on my eyelid, at which the technician exclaimed, “She very smart!” Really? I was touching my face. You could probably train a monkey to do that. On balance, I chose not to reply, because it’s best not to be snarky to someone who’s about to yank hair from your face. “How about I rip you so you bleed? You like?” No, not particularly, thanks.

Other things on my mind this week: Why is it that the average person will spend approximately 43 days on hold with customer service in their entire lifetime? That’s, like, almost the entirety of my summer vacation. Do you have any idea how much productivity I could fit into 43 days? I could grade roughly 5,160 papers in 43 days…I think. I could also learn to be better at math. Frankly, if hold time doesn’t show any sign of improving, I think call centers should just replace hold music with recordings of Hugh Grant reading John Keats poetry. I think that would bring my blood pressure down from “I’m almost dead” to “Oh my god get off my Island this is my happy place.”

I should probably just implant a chip in my brain that plays British male celebrities reading Romantic and Victorian poetry on loop. Then maybe I wouldn’t regularly wind myself into such a tight ball of anxiety that I break out in hives. My doctor said I should avoid stress, because stress is bad for you. Who knew? I laughed. Hard. Then I started to stress out over that in case she thought I was being rude, so, yeah, maybe she has a point.

You know what, never mind the coffee. Can we have alcohol instead?

Girl reading in bathtub with candles and wine.
Not me, but this is what my happy place looks like.