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.