Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Belated Introduction

“Asian Pacific Picnic, here I come!”

I’d been waiting for this event for about a month. Not only would I reconnect with the international community I so missed from my travels, this would also give me an opportunity to network for the Asian Cultures class. I planned to find speakers and interview subjects to interact with my students at Mercyhurst College.

The picnic started at noon. Dressed and ready to go at 10 am, I drummed my fingers on the table and read the flyer again. Then I placed my jelly cookies on a paper plate. I willed the hands of the clock to move ahead. Finally, the time arrived...but my ride didn’t!

“Be patient,” I scolded myself, “she’ll be here soon.” But that didn’t happen until about 2 pm.

The phone rang. “I’m on my way,” my colleague, Brenda, promised.

“Oh? No problem.” Did I sound cheery enough? She was driving me, after all. We still had a couple of hours left. I had till 4 pm.“We just need to make one stop.” What??

I gritted my teeth and nodded. Still time...

It would take thirty minutes to get to the beach from home. We finally arrived at the Peninsula. I tried to keep my voice nonchalant, “So where is Beach 11?”

“Amy, I’m not sure, but we’ll find it.”

We drove and drove, and as the minutes ticked by, my chest felt tighter and tighter.

I grew up in this area but I don’t know these things. Even if I could see well, I haven’t been on the beach for the past twenty-five years. Brenda had said she knew.

Ten minutes passed. Tick! Tick!

“Amy, how about if we get out here and ask? There’s a First Aid Station.” Brenda seemed eager to solve the dilemma. “You go ask those picnickers and I’ll ask at the station.”

Barefooted, she made her way over the gravel to a building. Where are her shoes? We are never going to make it! I still held the plate of cookies in my hand. The jelly cookies stuck to the cling wrap now.

The picnickers I asked shrugged. “It’s way back there. We are between Beach 6 and 7.”

I gulped. Oh Lord, help us make it! Where is Brenda?!

Brenda tiptoed across through the parking area, “I guess it’s back a ways,” She made a face and I couldn’t help myself, “I’ve been looking forward to this forever and...”

She interrupted, “Okay, I don’t have any shoes. You go and try to make it.” Brenda pushed me toward the sidewalk, “GO!”

“What? No, let’s stay together!”

“I hate to say this but I’m outta gas, and I have no shoes. You give me money for gas an--”

The urge to slap Brenda silly came over me. I’m half-blind. I forgot my cane. And you expect me to go walking miles—by myself—carrying my smooshed jelly cookies to try to find Beach 11 and a disbanded picnic?!

“Go!” she urged. “No, wait! First. Money--”

I glared daggers. She appeared not to notice. So I found myself reaching into my pocket and taking out a five-dollar-bill.

“Okay, now. Go!” She gave me a shove.

She rushed to her car. I marched in the opposite direction. Smoldering anger consumed me.

I marched faster.

Stepped higher.

Bam! Walked right into a big tree branch. The low-lying leaves slapped me. Slapped me silly, they did! I tried to battle my way back to sunlight.


I raised one hand to rub my forehead and bumped my other hand; the plate of cookies tipped forward and began to fall. I reached out to save them. In doing so, they got all squished!


All the sudden the humor snuck through to me and I began to laugh. A laugh that hurt my stomach.

Every time I get myself into these situations, I am carrying something bothersome!

I recalled as a new faculty member at our college in the Middle East, that earned me the privilege of traveling to Abu Dhabi to shake the hand of royalty, the Sheikh of the United Arab Emirates. Talk about BIG! I was gonna meet the head of a country! That day I clutched, not a plate of cookies, but an oversized purse to my side. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it when I got ready to shake the hand of His Excellency. As I worried about that gigantic purse slugging the Sheikh in the stomach and knocking the wind out of him, the actual moment arrived. I marched right past the Sheikh! My college director gasped, “Whoa, Amy!” He turned me around and guided me back to that important man to shake his hand.

That memory brought a smile to my face as I marched and clutched my bent plate of cookies, and marched some more. Purses. Cookies. Coats. I always carried something.

Now I know. When I get angry, I march.

This brought another smile to my face. My out-of-step marching lacked rhythm and coordination when I had to lead Grade 3 in a marching competition thirty years ago in Colombia! I guess I never got angry enough!

The more I thought about my crazy predicament in trying to reach the Asian picnic, the more humor I felt.

“Oh God, thank you for the sunshine today! Thank you for my two sneakered feet to walk with, and trees to slap the silly into me. I even thank you for my limited vision. What I don’t see doesn’t seem to matter much. I still get through these situations.” I giggled again.

A jogger passed me. “What time is it?”

“4:30” he shouted back.

“Whoa, Lord! How can I turn back the time?!” Who can I ever meet now? How did we get so lost? And how crazy that Brenda didn’t wear shoes ... and how could she run out of gas, take my money and make me walk? On. My. Big. Asian. Friendship. Day.

I wanted to feel injustice.

But...truly, the laughter kept bubbling out of me.

Okay, this is gonna hafta be a God-thing. If you want me to have a speaker for the class, You are gonna have to arrange it.

Five weeks later. “Class, I’d like you to meet Ms. Veni Mudiam from India. Please give her a big Mercyhurst welcome!”

Thank you, God. You not only share a laugh or two with me through my absurd and frequent calamities, You use them to purposefully turn me toward You. This way, I can’t miss Your hand in my life. Blind or not, I can still see You clearly.

You always have the right connections.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Beams and Blindness

It took me awhile to get used to get over my pre-conceived ideas about blindness, and to begin to associate it with myself. I freely used words like "tolerance" and "understanding" and "adaptability" with nonnative speakers, language, culture, and cuisine. But when it came to accepting my own vision limitations, I was having none of it. This is the start of my journey in changing my attitude about my very own Retinitis Pigmentosa.

~ ~ ~ ~

"Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" Matt 7:3

“I had a lot to learn about judging others and accepting myself.

“Perhaps the best solution is to simply tell people that you are blind.”

I’m not blind. I have a vision problem” I replied immediately.

Have you ever been around someone you don’t know well but who rubs you wrong, or downright irritates you? For me, that someone was Bob. I tried to be polite but from the start everything about him bothered me. First, he had the audacity to show up without telling me in advance that he was blind! So that was a shock. Fuming, I guided Bob through my parent’s house until we arrived at my apartment. There he sat on my sofa, determined to suggest that I was blind and that I should inform people of it! I glared at him—not that he would notice.

Bob was the Mobility Instructor assigned to my case by the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS) I had recently contacted.

“Blindness is a continuum,” he said. Not every blind person has lost all his vision. Some people still have some vision but are legally blind. That means they have to be at 20 feet to see what others can see at 200 feet. Or perhaps they have less than 10% of vision remaining. Sometimes blind people can only see light, but not shapes. What can you see?”

“I don't know. My problem (notice that I did not say ‘my blindness’?) is more of what I don’t see. I don’t see edges, or corners or even the dog all the time!” I joked. The truth was I ran into tables and open cupboards, missed steps. Poor Buddy learned to get out of the way or that I would fall over him.

“Are you legally blind?”

I recall being told something like that more than twenty years earlier but I stubbornly refused to admit it. “I’m not sure.”

“From what you tell me I think you can benefit from using a cane. Have you ever thought of that?”

“You mean a blind man’s cane? No, no! I don’t think I really need that! I’m just clumsy,” I muttered.

Bob was not to be deterred. “Would you be willing to try it out for a session? Perhaps around your neighborhood?”

I nervously covered my eyes, not even realizing the irony of that action.

“How long is a session?”

“Ohhh, an hour or so I believe would be enough.”

“Ack!” I muttered even more quietly under my breath. “Sure, why not?” is what I said aloud to him.

Bob then proceeded to take out a variety of canes for me to try out. We walked around the house and even went to the basement where we found my mother washing clothes. Bob jovially introduced himself. I held onto my cane. Embarrassing to have that stick in my hand! I don’t know why. My mom didn't even appear to notice.

As far as I was concerned Bob could leave and good riddance to him!

As soon as he left, I picked up my cell phone and punched in numbers. “Jim! He didn’t even tell me that he was blind before he came. Can you believe I cleaned up my entire apartment?!”

“Was this your annual spring cleaning?” As usual, my best friend who lived in California took a comical tack.

"Jim, can you please stay with me here!"

"Who is ‘he’ anyway and was he 100% blind?”

“Hmph! I’m talking about Bob, my new mobility instructor. Remember I told you he was coming over tonight to meet me? He never even let on beforehand that he was blind! And yes, he is 100% blind!"

"And do you always tell people you have a vision problem?" he asked pointedly.

"Why is it that blind people project their blindness onto others?” I huffed, ignoring him.

“As if you are an expert on blind people now. Isn’t he the first blind person that you ever met?” James laughed. “You are in denial, big time!”

“Oh, shut up!”

It was easy to fool myself before I called the BBVS. People who lose their vision gradually can get by for a long time without coming unglued. We just keep adapting. Suddenly a big chunk of vision disappears. This dislodges the fictitious comfort we’ve built up around ourselves. That’s what happened to me. Bob's visit bugged me so I refused to call him.

But Bob did not give up. He called me. “Amy, this is Bob, your mobility instructor. It’s been awhile since we talked...”

“Mmm. Sorry, uh—so busy with my job lately.”

“I know how that is. But your cane has come in now. Shall we take that trip in your neighborhood soon and you can try it out?”

“Ahhhh—-” I couldn’t think fast enough, “Well—” Why not?

We set up the time and date for one week later in October for us to traverse my neighborhood.

The big day arrived.

“Oh, you’re early!”

“Take your time. I’ll have a smoke.” Bob planted himself outside his driver’s window and extracted a pipe. He then filled it with an aromatic tobacco and puffed on it as he talked to his driver and waited for me to gather my wits about me.

“Okay, I’m ready.” I wasn’t but the sooner we got started, the sooner we could finish.

“Let me introduce you to your new cane,” Bob joked. He then reminded me how I should hold it and instructed me to lead the way, “just get a feel for it now.”

We took to the sidewalk with me in the lead. The sun caressed our shoulders as we explored the area. My cane seemed to me just like a pool cue and I regretted not having life-sized pockets low on the ground in which to shoot a series of colored or striped balls. The thought made me smile.

“Try walking with your eyes closed,” Bob called.

Just then I jabbed myself hard in the stomach with the cane, and yelped. “Ack!”

The life-sized billiards game turned into a dagger or fencing sport. “Ahhh! Where’s my shield?” I bemoaned the fact I was not a knight living back in Shakespearean times, and thus not properly armored.

“Speaking of yielding, let me show you how to cross the street.”

I smiled at the misunderstanding but took my cue to pay attention.

“When you hold your cane vertically, it indicates to drivers that you are stopped and do not intend to cross the street. That’s important. You then listen for sounds of traffic, and yield the right-of-way to them if you hear vehicles. If you hear nothing, then you proceed to cross.”

“Oookaay.” I could handle that, especially since I could still see with my eyes at the moment. “This cane stuff isn't so bad!”

I soon changed my tune. When I saw Rhet McCohn, my neighbor and one of the shakers in our town, I desperately longed to tap my cane out of sight. “Oh no! I look like I’m cross-country skiing, except there isn’t any snow!” As Mr. McCohn watched us file past his house, I then closed my eyes for real. No time like the present to try my skills! He must be wondering what we’re doing, why I’m using this cane.

I imagined myself stopping, holding my cane vertically as if I were going to cross the street. Except I would turn to face him. What would I do? Twirl my cane like a drum majorette’s baton? Use it as a teacher’s pointer and gesture dramatically? “As you can clearly see, I am now learning how to be blind!” Or would I use my cane as a musician’s baton and conduct a silent symphony and introduce Bob as the Master conductor? I did none of these things, of course. I kept on going and tried not to blush. Let Mr. McCohn think what he would!

I don’t know how Bob knew Mr. McCohn was there but he greeted him with, “Nice day to be out and about, wouldn’t you say?”

I noticed Mr. McCohn didn’t have anything at all to say.

We arrived back at the house, and I guided Bob up the stairs to my sofa again for our debriefing.

“You moved at a good clip,” he approved, “especially towards the end.” His voice took on a teasing tone. It’s as if he knew just how embarrassed I felt in front of the town mayor who lived kitty-corner to my home. “Did you close your eyes at all?”

“I did,” and wondered if Mr. McCohn did too.

Maybe Bob wasn’t quite as bad as I originally figured. After all, a blind teacher with a sense of humor might really have something of value to teach me. I held my cane vertically and thought, “Okay, I’m stopped. But ready to yield.”

Monday, July 26, 2010

Developing a Runner's Endurance

"God, I wanna run! I wanna move fast and feel free. I wanna be how I used to be!”

Twenty-two years after first being diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a progressive eye disorder usually resulting in blindness, I finally had to turn to a cane to get around. I’d gotten more used to it throughout the year but with my active lifestyle, sometimes I longed to toss the cane down, and just make a dash for it! I thought of my danger areas: supermarkets, banks, restaurants, libraries, hardware stores and other unfamiliar buildings. I really needed my cane there.

“God, just give me something, some tiny bit of freedom!”

I knew this kind of thinking wasn’t wise, that I should seek to be content in all circumstances, but of late my heart was rebelling. The initial thrill of mastering my cane had worn off and I felt the burden of everyday use wear me down.

So this spring I deliberately left my cane at home and began to run in my neighborhood. My mother grew concerned as I made my way over local streets. “Be careful of the cars,” she’d call. Or, “Watch out for the sewers and curbs!” I acquiesced but went on my way, determined to run the course just like any other runner might. I could see well enough to make my way over these obstacles.

“You’re gonna fool around and get hurt. I’d feel better if you run on the school track," my mom warned. But I ran on the streets anyway. I'd slip on some loose gravel, and trip on unseen sewers, or over the curbs. I got bruised and skinned up my legs and shins. After about my fourth or fifth near miss one day, I listened to my mom.

Running at the track was boring and tedious. It took four times around just to make a mile! Sometimes I forgot how many laps I'd run, which in turn, frustrated me. Some days I had really bad vision days. I crossed over some of the lanes, and once, collided with the fence surrounding the track. Other times I just missed barreling into other runners on the track. On these days I could easily feel defeated. But I wouldn’t allow myself to be derailed.

“God, it’s difficult. But I wanna do it! I wanna run like I used to. Lord, give me this time to build up my skills again.”

I needed a well-developed plan. Goal 1: run every sunny or warm day. (I was not so dedicated to force myself to run on rainy days, however). Goal 2: Be accountable. I began to post my runs on Facebook. Goal 3: Don’t worry about speed. Just focus on how many laps to complete each time. Aim for 3-4 times a week. Goal 4: Work on endurance. Goal 5: Increase speed and length. Goal 6: Successfully finish the season.

As God shortened the distances that I walked and lengthened the marks that delineated my runs, I began to change my attitude about the track. I accepted it as a safe boundary in which to accomplish my goals. What was my next step? Try to go further? Faster?

“Do you know how long it takes you to run a mile?” my friend asked.

“Well, I usually walk and run.”

“So you don’t really know, do you?” She seemed to be challenging me.

“I guess I could try to run all four laps without stopping,” I said.

“Try it and see or you’ll never know. Then add another mile, and so on.”

So I pushed myself. I made sure to lift up my feet and not trip over the turf. I propelled myself forward. Soon, I accomplished my one-mile goal. Then I’d walk. Run another four laps, followed by a lap of walking. Could I make it for the third mile? Some days I did. Others I didn’t. I went on to master a fourth mile. My goal is at least five miles of good running speed. That's twenty laps or more, depending on how many extra miles I ran. I came earlier and stayed later than others who used the track.

In my effort to reach my smaller goals, I didn’t even notice that I was accomplishing my biggest goal. I was running just like every other runner! I had the same concerns, the same shortness of breath, the same blisters, but also, the same great feeling afterward.

God was answering my prayer by giving me this outlet, a very specific Amy-time to dash. Once I realized this, I began to respond in a more positive way to using my cane at other times, when it served as a helpful tool around town and at night.

When I started running in the springtime, I was grappling with some heartfelt questions. They weighed my mind down exactly like the excess weight that had accumulated over the past winter weighed my physical body down. Undisciplined thoughts oozed out and accused God of neglect just as my muscles accused me of neglect when I attempted to run too far. I never could stretch them adequately. I treated my mind the same way by not stretching it long enough in the proper direction.

Besides wondering how I would cope with more vision loss, I worried about finances. I could barely support myself with the job I had. With my poor vision, I was unable to drive to find a better-paying job. Yet I was denied a government disability that would help me financially. Should I retrain, and if so, where and how would I pay for it? Also, I felt a need to share my life with someone. When would God would provide me with a Christian partner? During my morning devotionals, God remained silent on these issues. As spring turned to summer, my prayer group disbanded and that support also slipped away. God refused to spell out any answers to me. I didn’t know how to move forward or what choices to make. Meanwhile, I met someone but I wasn't sure how secure the relationship was or how God was going to work it out. I needed direction. Most of all, I wanted to feel at peace with my decisions. But any peace I felt was short-lived.

As summer progressed, something else began to emerge out of the time I spent at the track. Along with the clear proof that my breathing became more regular with longer runs, I noticed that God was toning my body. He began to build endurance in my legs and feet. I ran further. But along with the physical changes that came over me, God began to build spiritual stamina in my mind as I ran. When I railed at Him or complained about my choices and begged Him to tell me what to do, my thoughts began to untangle. The more I ran, the more the words came out from the pages of the holy book and into the voice I imagine Jesus having. God’s conversations with me deepened and I knew He was honing my responses, stretching my belief.

Some decisions came easily, “Take this second job I’ve opened up to you. You don’t need the disability pay. I will provide.” As far as pursuing more education, I felt Him say, “Hold off on that. I am placing you in your area of teaching expertise. This is a start and what you need for now.” But some questions remained unanswered. I pushed, “God, about this man I’ve met...?” I felt early confirmation but of late, God has remained silent. I want to trust Him. When it comes to the desires of my heart, my faith-muscle seems constricted. My me-muscle is stretched, bulked up and ready to explode into action. Finally, I humbled myself. “Lord, let me continue to wait on Your timing and trust You in every aspect of my life, including this one. ”

As August begins, I realize I’ve almost reached my goal of running a strong and fast five-mile race. Though my only competitor is myself, I feel the goal is well within my reach. That young blind woman who longed to run so freely without her cane early in springtime got her wish. God has given me lots of sunshine to train my mind and muscles, but I had those rainy days in which I didn't do well in exercising either. But now when I face the mirror, in spite of my poor vision, I glimpse the contours of the mature, disciplined woman God envisions me to be. God does that. He starts with our insecurities and unbridled passions and uses them along with our circumstances to transform us into a fitter, more-toned version of ourselves, but only if we let Him.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Leaving a dust trail to my online dating experiences!

With so much focus now on online dating, I thought I would share my experiences with two dating sites I joined this past year: Christian Mingle and E-Harmony. I had reached a milestone—ten years after my divorce—and I felt that God had finally given me the high-five to date again! These are some of my experiences!

Online emails and chats: online identity-switcheroo

First, he was a 49-year-old gem smith from Austria wanting to know all about me. He went on shopping sprees all over the world for the best stones. The only problem is that I swear he left me chatting with him when he took off on those trips! By that, I mean he left me hanging on to his next word literally without signing off. How rude!

He next turned up with a completely new identity (new name, age and nationality) perhaps a 35-year old mountain climber for all I remember. I was shocked that he was a player! Betrayed...!

I had a few marriage proposals, sight unseen, one from a widowed father in NYC, and another from a lonely geologist whose wife had left him.

I dated a guy with his own carpet-cleaning business who lived about three hours away from me. We finally agreed to meet in my city. We had a romantic visit to an expensive Japanese restaurant that night. That was followed by a brisk walk back and forth several times at a nearby strip mall. Still can’t figure that out! The next morning called for a surprise trip to the vet, and he obliged. My dog bonded as he made space for him on the floor of his van. I was dreamy for a few more weeks, then things fell apart on the second day of my first visit to see him in his city. I asked him, “Where are all the jokes?” He asked me, “Where are all the words?” He felt like a rent-a-clown and I felt like a rent-a-chatterbox. To make matters worse, when he saw me in my new dress for church, he quipped, “Did you plan to sing in the choir?” I felt like a misplaced southern belle! He proceeded to usher me into a seat and never introduced me to a single soul. That afternoon, he took me on a planned hiking trip. I knew we were not destined to be together when I asked if he ever did anything spontaneous, and he said, “Yes, put you on a bus home!”

My family celebrated my birthday a few days later at the same Japanese hibachi, and I thought that would kill me, but I rather enjoyed myself instead! Thus, I let him sweep our date under the carpet with his super-duper carpet business. Three hours was just too far away to bother with any more dates with him!

There was another man but he lived four hours away. We had one dinner date. He had been working for a professional printing press for years. Kinda cool for a writer like me but ... simply not attracted to him. He selected a coupon from his stash for The Olive Garden. A nice enough fellow, though. He liked hiking and was an amateur painter... I was imagining myself checking out his paintings. I do so like art. But about four days later, he wrote me, apologizing, and said that he had started dating someone else. I was happy for him but sad for the loss of a painting aficionado and my potential hiking partner; he had a flexible schedule and it was the autumn season, the best time for hiking, after all!

I also went out with a root canal specialist (Who dates THEM anyway?!) I think he was a little bit of a snob, and he seemed just like I imagined one of his profession to be—impersonal and to have a cold veneer! He took me to a posh country club but talked all evening of his "toys" –his words, not mine- his boat, jet-ski, Caribbean cruises, and how he wanted a woman who could "keep up with him." As I imagined myself running after him, sweeping my cane in clumsy haste, or perhaps trying to walk or should I say...glide...or rather fend-my-way-with-my-cane on water (for he was a Spirit-filled man of religion as well!). As I envisioned myself sinking INTO the water the further on I went, I thought it best to be left in the wake of his jet-ski…

I corresponded next with a local guy. When discussing where to meet for our first date, he suggested the GROCERY store!! (no joke!). We bypassed the shopping expedition but met for a late lunch at Wegman’s delicatessen at the grocer. He currently acts as a supervisor of bridge repairmen and snow plow operators. In the past, he was a Farrier (a horse-shooer), at least thirty years in this job! What I know about horses isn't worth mentioning but my experience is limited to my teaching days in Colombia when I rode around burial sites in San Agustín for five hours one rainy day. I recall the dreadfully serious response of my riding companion: after it was all over, he rubbed himself painfully and groaned, "I don't think I'll be able to have children after this experience!" Needless to say, my future with the farrier was doomed from the start.

After that, I exchanged six weeks of emails with a match from NY but he was not right for me either. He wrote to say he was PASSIONATE about paying his bills! I am passionate too, but about traveling and writing, and other things, like having a sense of humor! It seems that poor guy was sadly lacking in that department. There was some kind of computer problem (I think he timed out on the site and lost his email). He wrote "I am DISTURBED about this loss as I would like to continue to communicate with you." That word disturbed me. Who gets disturbed about a lost email?! Maybe disappointed. Or confused. Or irritated. But DISTURBED? I think that's a deal breaker, or at least a warning sign of times ahead...

Last but not least, I can't forget to mention the retired oil rigger who had horrendous spelling and grammar. What can you say to someone who can’t write let alone pronounce his brother-in-law's last name (a good solid Italian-American name by the sounds of it!)? Not only was I disturbed (if I dare employ that word!) I made my living working with, as the oil rigger called them, "ferin'rs" (foreigners) for twenty-five years. Couldn't find a common topic between us. Till he called me one day and told me he had to learn Spanish and could I help him? I sent him a set of cassettes and urged him forward...he was supposed to take a test and get an oil rigging job in Brazil (BTW where they speak Portuguese, not Spanish!). I followed up recently to see if he got the job. He must have as the number was no longer in service!

I quite often felt in despair - like was that one perfect—no, I wasn’t even aiming that high—just suitable, guy out there?? I used to soothe myself with thoughts of exposing my mismatched dating experiences and write about the whole idea of putting yourself out there on computer dating. Looking back on my experiences, I don’t think I was successful but it taught me how to laugh at my situations. An actual article might not be appropriate but maybe an entry on my blog about these crazy matches might be okay. I wouldn’t want to hurt them (we are all just reaching out for someone, after all) but the point is … I don't know how they were matched up with ME!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Words Define and Guide Us Revision

Words Define and Guide Us

"I, personally, prefer to use the word "sight" rather than "vision" because one can possess much vision with no sight; while the converse results in sighted people who are by no stretch of the imagination, visionaries. Blindness, to whatever degree, is simply the absence of sight; vision is quite another matter."
- Chet Smalley, Blindness and mobility specialist, Erie, PA.

A few days ago, I was asked to participate in a survey by a doctoral student at Louisiana Tech University because my mobility specialist thought that I could contribute positively to this research. I was reminded of how far I had come from that covert, secretly-out- of-my-element, ha-ha, sorry-so-clumsy- today young woman. Few knew then that I had struggled for many years with Retitinitis Pigmentosa, a progressive eye disease robbing me of my sight. Today - one year later to the day from my first training experience - I use a cane, smile a lot and can speak openly about my RP. As a high school teacher, I set out not only to teach English but also to model self-confidence and independence.

Chet, the mobility specialist assigned to teach me the basics of cane use to give me more confidence and have less accidents getting around, alerts me to language in my speech that he believes holds me back from becoming the best I can be. He said, "You, for example, Amy, still think of your blindness as a condition rather than one of your many characteristics.” I had told Chet about my desire to befriend a young woman who had RP. I felt she was avoiding meeting me, and concluded that it was probably a little frightening for her to think of meeting another person with vision problems.

Chet's response was quick, "Listen to your language: you are using: the words "vision" and "problems” in the same breath. That’s deficit language. Blind can also be construed as a deficit word until one becomes acquainted with blind people who are productive, happy and well-adjusted to their blindness. Blind people by the thousands are demonstrating that the world need not be interacted with just by way of sight."

That’s true. I’m discovering that I can get around better when I apply my non-visual techniques to walking. I bump into fewer objects, trip over stairs less and what’s even better, people don’t get angry when I do make mistakes because they see my cane. But I tend to use my cane at work, at night and in supermarkets and theaters when I have more difficulty. Does that then make it a condition in my eyes?

My instructor went on to say that when we look at blindness as a characteristic instead of a disability, blindness can become just one component of an otherwise fulfilled person. I realized that although I had made progress on this continuum of accepting myself as blind, I still had a journey before I would be comfortable thinking of blindness as simply another characteristic of myself. I wonder how one gets to that point?

Chet believes it is through immersion cane training and exposure to positive role models that enables one to truly adjust. There are a number of places across the US where one can live and learn the skills necessary for coping with blindness. They are “immersed” in cane training, which means candidates receive in-depth ongoing and regular daily training with their cane that makes using a cane second nature. In a day that consists of learning meal preparation, alternative means of accomplishing tasks and computer instruction, cane training is a priority.

He points out that adjustment to blindness means living the life to which one is hoping to adjust, and living should not be accepting less of what one desires. If using my cane becomes so second nature that I do see my blindness simply as another characteristic and not the defining characteristic of myself, will I have arrived at the understanding he envisions for me?

It is this question I grapple with now. If I intend to positively impact the lives of a different set of students, for example, ones who are also blind, then I must be certain that I have the best understanding of who I am with my unique capabilities and characteristics. This identity Chet describes has to come from within myself. It's not something I can put on or take off at random. The question returns: how do I reduce a condition to simply one of my many characteristics?

As always, God provides me with the answer. In the book of Colossians, Paul exhorts his Christian brethren, "We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” (Col 1:9) This tells me that we have brothers and sisters who pray for us. God tells us to ask for wisdom, and assures that He will provide. Whether God provides wisdom through training or through our identity in Christ, we trust and move forward in that understanding.

If I choose to walk by my defining characteristic, my love for Him, then He will make everything clear in His perfect timing. As I grow and adjust to this continuum of blindness God has allowed me to go through, He will place markers along the way to guide me. I believe Chet's attention to my deficit language is such a marker.

Paul goes on to say, "And we pray this [wisdom and understanding] in order that you might live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God..."(Col 1:10).

When I first became a teacher, I doubted my skills and abilities yet God put me in situations where my talents bloomed. In fact, He not only shouldered my fears and developed my talents, He brought me to many peaks in my professional life.. As a result, I have become an even better teacher than I dreamed I could be. I have influenced many students both here and abroad. This has placed me in a beautiful position to share God’s love in more than thirty-three countries! I believe the fruits of my labor will extend to blind students as well. I know that every experience we go through prepares us to serve in bigger capacities and it is with that knowledge that I set myself to have my blindness become only a characteristic and not a condition.

Thank you, Lord that even as my sight diminishes, You continue to magnify my vision.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Millions of Blessings

Millions of Blessings

Somewhere around 6 am, I began to wake up. In that murky state between dreams and reality, I couldn’t quite get my bearings . As I looked around, I saw a cockeyed bulb hung loosely from a wire in the b1athroom and a filthy ceiling fan dangled motionless above me. Slowly, it filtered through my sleep-muddled brain. Kenya! My second day in a small village in the landlocked Eastern province of Mwingi. I woke up for real then, anxious to get moving.
“Thank you God for this new day and everything it will bring me. Lord, let me always be ready to see the many blessings You provide each day, but I know this beautiful Kenyan day, above all, will be special. Let me remember every detail I experience.”
Brrrr! The Kenyan winter air felt chilly on my bare feet. I fished my socks from the sheets where they’d come off during the night and put them back on. Yawning, I slipped a foot out of bed and onto the floor. Just as quickly, I jerked it back up. Even in the poor lighting, I could see my white sock had instantly turned black.
What on earth had I stepped in? Ashes? Dirt? My scrutiny turned to shock when the color began to fan out. Tiny black moving dots. Something ALIVE. There could be no mistake…
I began beating at my foot, of course sending the ants flying all over my sheets, and in my hair and on my hands and arms. Rolling around and flailing, I brushed everywhere at once, then slapped at the sheets to knock them off and out of my sight!
Did you ever notice how ants cling to human skin? I didn’t know what was making them stick to me — static electricity, something in the air, their species … did they have some super-duper appendages with magnetic properties... Whatever the reason, we tussled for the upper hand. My whacking beat their clinging.

When it seemed the ants had retreated and the immediate danger had passed, I observed my surroundings once more, my breath still coming in rasps. My poor eyes can’t usually see great detail, but that particular morning, they focused on quantity — hundreds, thousands, dare I guess even millions — of ants? Pull yourself together!
Trails of ants headed in every which direction — on the floor, on the walls forming a line to the ceiling, and those closer up, meandering drunkenly inside the creases of my sheets. Tiny black ants.
I let loose another scream as they began to attack me once more — an arm, my legs, a shoulder, a hands quivered as I beat them off and they scrambled for safety.
Get away, ants! Shoo!
I calculated every move I made, as if I were shipwrecked in the middle of an ocean, but instead of water, the ship was leaking ants. I didn’t want to fall out into the ants or have the ants drown me, so I clutched onto my sheet with one hand and kept the water – ahem, ants – at bay with the other.
Someone rapped on my door.
“Madame, I heard you making a small sound. Is everything okay?”
Who is that? What does she mean ‘a small sound’? People in the next village over should be able to hear that scream! I want them to! A ‘small sound!’ Is that her way of being polite?
Millions of ants have invaded my room and she asks me if I’m ‘all right?’ Of course I’m not! These better not be killer ants. Is there even such a thing?
“Can you open the door? Madame, are you awake? You are not having a nightmare?”
Yes, I most definitely AM. Like a feature film, my nightmare is showing “Attack of the Ants!”
As I tried to form the words, the footsteps receded and I found myself alone once more. Gradually my breathing slowed down and I cleared a manageable space around me, carefully got dressed, and then jammed my feet in close-toed shoes. By this time, the ants had receded to a circumference I could deal with.
As I sat on my bed thinking about the past few minutes (as that’s all it really lasted), some lyrics came to mind. “Count your blessings. Name them one by one...Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.” Many blessings? One by one? What? Whoa!
It occurred to me that we have so many blessings, we can’t even begin to realize how many — just like those ants! Each ant is an intricate and complete perfect specimen designed by God. Every single one is a reminder of what He has brought into our lives. I remembered my prayer earlier this morning. I certainly will recall every vivid detail of this experience. God had swiftly answered my prayer!
And with what humor! When I remember the flapping, flailing, spontaneous antics I went through, spurred on by the adventure of so many unsolicited ants invading my area, it makes me laugh instead. The ants never harmed me or put me in any real danger. I’m okay. I survived. They endured. Or many of them did. I can’t vouch for the whole lot of ‘em but they sure seemed like a hardy bunch.
At first I couldn’t believe what had happened but when I reflected on it afterward, I saw God’s immense humor come through. Can’t you just see an impish God chuckling as He spied down on me that morning? God wanted to give me unforgettable memories. He answers prayers, folks! Let’s always be ready for the surprise encounters God brings us; how rich and unexpected are His gifts!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In Search for Jaruwan Khattiya

When I get an idea in my mind, my mother says that I am obstinate. This was certainly the case when my ex-husband and I arrived in Thailand a few years back. I wanted to visit a child that I sponsored through Christian Children's Fund, (CCF) an international aid organization. This is the story of my attempt to do so.
Ihab and I arrived in Chen-Mai, a lovely mountainous area in the north of Thailand. I was determined to find a young child named Jaruwan Khattiya, whom I sponsored through CCF. She lived in Payao Province, about four more hours to the north of where we were staying. I didn't understand at the time that the trip should have been arranged before arriving in- country. I had been so busy grading exams, I never had time to notify the organization in advance.

But surely I could visit this four-year-old girl I sponsored. Surely they would help me since I was already in the country, wouldn't they? I was my dream to meet her. I also had to convince my husband that the eight-hour drive up and back to Payao was worth it. Our schedule was very tight. But I was certain that it could be done. How could we come so close and not make the extra effort to touch base?

First, I had to find the phone number to CCF in Payao. Calling was more difficult than I ever imagined! None of the operators seemed to speak English. After several minutes of trying to somehow locate the number, I turned to our hotel manager. "Please help me, " I begged, "I can't understand a word!"

Here God intervened!

Our hotel clerk had been sponsored through CCF for the first eighteen years of his life! Nine years later--though he came from Chen Mai and not Payao--Prasan still seemed to have connections with CCF.

The hotel clerk eagerly dialed the number of the school where he had attended during his sponsorship. After a few minutes, he handed me the phone. I tried to explain what I wanted, but a hoarse female voice kept shouting, "What? Speak up, child! What are you saying?" I later learned that this was a ninety-two-year-old nun from Holland speaking to me! Once more, overwhelmed, I hastily handed the phone back to Prasan. "Ask her for information!" I urged.

After speaking for a few minutes in Thai, he turned to me, "It's a nun. This school isn't part of CCF anymore. I guess the agency stopped sponsoring them some years ago." I sighed.

He continued to speak to the party on the other end in Thai. "Talk to this woman," he advised, "Maybe she can help you."

A second woman's voice came on the line. English, though accented, was a start. "So sorry. This is no longer a number to CCF. But I am in charge of fifty poor girls from various hill tribes in the north. Do you wish to visit us?"

I hesitated. I really had wanted to visit Jaruwan Khattiya and see Payao. I had envisioned an ambitious trek up the curvy mountain passes in an old contraption of a bus -- what a loss! Yet, this kind nun was willing to share her charges with us. How could we turn that experience down?! I eagerly accepted it on behalf of Ihab and me.

I couldn't wait to begin!