Tag 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.

No, I Don’t Want to Feel Your Face: or, a Quick Guide to not Insulting Someone with a Disability

This Blogging Against Disablism Day, I find myself reflecting on a refreshingly honest question I received from a student several years ago: “What do you think is the most difficult thing about being blind?”
“Everything,” I quipped, only half-joking.

To the average non-disabled person, living with a disability can often seem like trudging daily up a steep, endless hill that you can never reach the crest of. On most days, I cope as well as anyone, but on some days, I simply don’t have enough spoons—a term popularly used in the disabled community to describe a lack of energy to accomplish simple everyday tasks that a non-disabled person takes for granted. In this, however, we are not altogether different than the rest of you. The experience of the “terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day” is universal, but living with a disability, or at least with certain disabilities, isn’t necessarily an interminable struggle. It involves developing coping mechanisms that allow us to live normal lives, and normal is a term relative to our own experiences. Harnessing my guide dog or picking up my white cane with one hand and my keys with the other before I walk out the door is just as normal to me as getting into your car and driving to work is to you.

The term normal, when invoked in conversations about disability, sets up a dangerous binary; it associates an implicitly negative connotation with anything that’s somehow different. Someone who navigates the world with a guide dog, or a white cane, or a wheelchair, or a scooter might appear different to you, but this is their normal. When you stare, when you point, when you walk up to us and ask impertinent questions that you’d never consider appropriate to ask a non-disabled person (questions ranging from state of health to whether someone lives alone), you place us on exhibition. On a side-note, I have frequently been asked whether I live alone, always by men, never by women, and always when I’m unaccompanied in public, which raises questions about the intersection between sexism and ableism; why do non-disabled men think it appropriate to approach a woman with a disability in this way?

I raise these issues not to discourage questions about disability; on the contrary, questioning is essential to productive dialogue. As a teacher, I have the job of guiding students through the process of asking questions to gain a deeper understanding of the world they live in. Most of the time, questions come from a place of genuine curiosity and a desire to seek understanding. Having said that, we must also recognize that asking questions about one’s disability potentially crosses boundaries of privacy, depending on the nature of the question. Some disabilities, like mine, are genetic; others are the result of illness or injury. Whatever the cause, learning to cope with a disability is sometimes traumatic and always challenging, and we reserve the right to decide when, how, and with whom to share those narratives of struggle and triumph.

When encountering a person with a disability for the first time, determining what to say or fearing that you’ll inadvertently give offense can create a lot of unnecessary tension. The lists of dos and don’ts can very depending on the person and the disability, but from my experience, here are some of the more common pitfalls to avoid:

1. Don’t tell me that if I pray harder, someday, god will heal me; there’s nothing to heal because I’m not broken, and frankly, he could have saved himself the trouble by giving me a fully functioning pair of eyes in the first place. He had his reasons. I work with what he gave me and don’t ask questions. On another note, as a practicing Catholic, I find this comment particularly irritating because it implies that my disability is somehow the result of my own lack of faith–or worse, my sinfulness.
2. Don’t ask me if I want to feel your face; I really don’t, and I never will—ever, ever, ever, ever. I can’t reiterate this enough, and the world just doesn’t contain enough Purell for me to wander around touching random strangers’ faces.
3. Don’t assume that if I’m with someone that the person is my “keeper”—a word I’ve actually (and unfortunately) heard used before, as if people with disabilities are zoo exhibits. There are, of course, individuals who work as aids and personal care attendants, and this is just the reality of living with a disability—that we sometimes require varying degrees of assistance. This does not, however, mean that people with disabilities cannot form fully functional relationships; we have families, friends, and romantic partners who choose to spend time with us because they find pleasure in our company, not because we require them too. Similarly, personal care attendants, ASL interpreters, readers, drivers, mobility instructors, etc. often develop deep bonds of friendship and mutual respect with their clients—the natural result of the access they’re granted to the daily rhythms and routines of another person’s life. In short, people with disabilities can and do develop strong interpersonal relationships not entirely founded on our dependence on others.
4. Don’t speak to the person with me instead of addressing me directly. This applies particularly in food service and retail. I might occasionally forget the name of an outlandish dish someone’s just read me on the menu, but please do me the courtesy of allowing me to speak for myself. I once had a sale’s clerk in a department store ask my mother questions about my dress size, because apparently my inability to see my reflection in a mirror also meant that I couldn’t judge the shape and size of my own body, even though I’m the one occupying said body. A little sensitivity training over here, please and thank you?
5. Don’t ask me if I can “see any better today,” which sadly has also occurred because some people missed the memo that a permanent disability is, well, permanent. Unless gene therapy makes more impressive strides than it already has, my answer to this question is never going to change.

Believe it or not, the salient takeaway here is both glaringly obvious and profoundly important. People with disabilities are just that–people. We have hearts, minds, hopes, dreams, jobs, families, friends, and talents to share with the world. Extend to us the same respect you’d extend toward any human being. More simply put, to borrow a quote from Henry James, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.”

Coffee and Conversation: or, the Time I Accidentally Insulted Siri

I wish we were actually having coffee instead of virtually, because if we were actually having coffee, we’d be having an actual conversation about something worth-while, like how to solve the problem of world hunger, or establishing once and for all how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie-Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.

Since we aren’t really having coffee, though, we aren’t having a real conversation, which means that I’ve been reduced to having conversations with my technology. I don’t think I’ve crossed over as far as Raj on “The big Bang Theory” just managing to avoid arguing with Siri over wine selections in Trader Joe’s, but I fear that tipping point is dangerously close.

Confession: I did tear a leaf from Raj’s book and train Siri to call me “Darling.” Yes, I do use the British male voice, and I do like to pretend being called Darling by a disembodied voice is comparable to being called darling by an actual man*mumbles* Colin Firth. Yeah, judgement-free zone here, remember? Moving on.

I recently upgraded to an iPhone 8 and quickly discovered that its new and improved home button is about as sensitive as our president on Twitter. The simplest thing sets it off, which I discovered to my frustration when I attempted multiple times to access my home screen and kept accidentally engaging Siri. At one point, I became so aggravated that I exclaimed, “I don’t want you, Siri!” To my surprise, Siri responded, “You don’t? You Don’t?” in a tone that might as well have said, “Thanks for mercilessly crushing my soul and obliterating my reason for existing. See if I wake you up tomorrow.” What does it say about me that I can’t recall the last time I bothered going to Confession, but I’m rendered nearly prostrate with guilt over inadvertently offending my smartphone? Such was the severity of my guilt, in fact, that I immediately retracted my rejection with an “I’m sorry, Siri.”
“It’s forgotten, darling,” he replied. Now I’m not sure if I feel disturbed by the extent of my emotional attachment to my phone, or spiritually rejuvenated because my phone just granted me Absolution.

Do you carry on conversations with your smart phone? What was the oddest thing you asked Siri? Do you greet Alexa before you say hello to your kids? Tell me about it.

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 and Questions

When I began participating in the weekend coffee share blog prompt, the reason I found the exercise so appealing was the fact that it’s structured to challenge writers to visualize an audience, and who better to serve as your composite listener than your best coffee buddy—the confidant to whom you can tell your deepest, darkest secrets without fear of judgement? Yes, even the one about how you spent three days eating Oreos in bed after your boyfriend dumped you. Not that I did that. Whatever you heard, that wasn’t me. Moving on.

If writing is a dialogue, it follows that audiences must have questions—a fact that the lovely Lorna over at Gin and Lemonade recently reminded me. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s generally responsible for all of the brilliantly sparkling fairy dust with which I regularly sprinkle my readers. She recently posed a series of questions on her blog, and I’m going to attempt to answer them with the Oscar Wilde-inspired wit to which you have all become accustomed, or something.

What are you reading right now?

This is a dangerous question to ask an English teacher. The short answer: everything. The long answer: I generally have at least 3 books in progress, sometimes more, which explains why I never get through more than 30 books a year. This number makes me feel disgustingly lazy, but I always start what I finish, so, there’s that. Right now I’m working my way through the Jane Austen mystery series by Stephanie Barron and whatever guilty pleasure internet fanfiction I have bookmarked, including this gem—a crossover between Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey that cannot but send me to my happy place.

How did you meet your best friends?

At school, or through work, because apparently my life lacks imagination. I like to add spice to this answer by telling people I met one of my best friends in an attic, because not only does it sound amusingly arbitrary, it’s literally true. When I was a graduate student, the office space for first-years was relegated to an attic even Bertha Mason would have admitted needed an interior decorator…or a demolition crew. It’s also the birthplace of a friendship that has enriched my life with more hilarity than I thought humanly possible.

What makes you laugh?

Snoopy dancing on top of a piano in the Charley Brown Christmas special. The word squirrel. Every word Helen Fielding has ever written. This scene from “The Big Bang Theory”:

What’s your favorite city?

My default answer would be London, but the London of my dreams probably doesn’t count. With a few exceptions, I’m embarrassingly untraveled, so I’m going to stick to my Florida roots here. I adore St. Augustine for its rich history. I fell in love with Key West during a cruise in which we docked there for a day; it has Hemingway House. And cats. Many, many cats. One of the cats granted me permission to approach for a 30-second cuddle. Also margaritas. You can get those anywhere, but they taste better in Key West. On a related note, if you’re willing and able to aid the restoration efforts following Hurricane Irma, especially in the Keys, where 25 % of homes have been destroyed, you can find more information about local organizations in South Florida here, among other places.

Who do you miss right now?

My long-distance besty—yes, the same one I met in an attic. The wine just doesn’t taste as sweet without her.

What’s your coffee order?

Grande Caramel Macchiato. I used to order it skinny until one day when I really focused while tasting it and decided that a skinny latte pretty much defeats the purpose of living. The same rule applies to the skinny midnight mocha Frappuccino, which was such an underwhelming experience that after the first few sips, I had a small meltdown because I was convinced I’d somehow damaged my taste buds.

What’s your favorite alcohol/cocktail?

The kind you drink, but I wouldn’t turn down a Brandy Alexander.

Do you think social media is still social?

I think you have to make an effort, as with any social interaction. Humans seek validation, and in the internet culture of “likes” and “reactions” and emojis of everything from clapping hands to eggplants, communication has become pretty low-maintenance. I mean, when you “like” my status update about the time my dog vomited all over the bedroom at 3 AM, an hour before I had to wake up for work, are you praising my ability to find the moment of comedic timing in my tragedy, or are you just passive-aggressively wishing me nothing but misery? Comment features exist so that we don’t feel like we’re shouting into the void; I’d like to see more people using them.

What do you do on the weekend?

Grade papers, drink wine, and question my life choices. Usually simultaneously, because multitasking is just how we roll in the Shire.

What’s your favorite quote?

A few times in my life, I’ve had moments of absolute clarity.
When for a few brief seconds the silence drowns out the noise and I can think rather than feel…
And things seem so sharp and the world seems so fresh. I can never make these moments last. I cling to them, but like everything, they fade. I have lived my life on these moments.
They pull me back to the present and I realize that everything is exactly the way it was meant to be.

– “A Single Man” (2009 film)

In similar news, I probably need to re-watch that movie, since I’ve been quoting it exhaustively of late, but during the academic year, a movie about a guy who teaches English, drinks a lot of gin, and questions his life choices hits a little too close to home for comfort (see above).

I guess somehow I’ve become a link in the chain of random questions, so here are mine:
1. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
2. If you had to be stuck in an elevator with anyone, living or dead, real or fictional, who would you choose, and why?
3. Have you ever seriously wondered what dogs dream about?
4. Penguins: for or against?
5. What is your opinion of Pumpkin? (There is only one correct answer, so don’t bother unless your opinion includes the words pumpkin and tastegasm in the same sentence).

If you feel inclined, share your answers in the comments, or blog them and link me in your answers so I can read them, because inquiring minds want to know.