I’ve never been much at meditation.  Back in 2004, I was invited to drop out of a beginners’ class.  My ineptness offended the master.  Or perhaps she objected to my guide dog sharing my mat, but I doubt that.  The dog was more meditative than I.

Calming this mind becomes a test of will.  I get too hung up on superficial details — soft lighting, mood music, comfy cushions.  I am too controlling to allow connection to any power other than selfism.

So, when my friend described her habit of “walking meditation,” I listened.  And it came to me that walking with my Seeing Eye dog is meditative.  When I grasp his harness handle, we become a team.  We trust one another.  He guides.  I direct and correct.  Our roles compliment.  He does what comes naturally.  I relax and go with his flow.  We get rhythm.  I feel tension dissolve.  I let my mind wander to sounds and smells and textures.  I am aware but receptive.  I absorb more and transmit less.  This is the serenity of surrender and acceptance, of allowing a power to do for me what I cannot do for myself.

Years ago, hypervigilance was my default state of mind as a blind person.  I stalked the streets with furrowed brow, hunched shoulders, rigid joints and stilted gait.  Even coupled with my white cane, I remained the white-knuckled student driver, fraught with fears I would crash, run off the road or knock myself silly on a tree limb. With my dog, I throttle down and become more the Sunday driver, calm yet attentive.  My stick-figure strut softens into a loose-limbed mosey.

Dogs aren’t for everyone.  They shed, drool, steal food and sniff people impolitely.  For twelve years, half my blind life, I have chosen the responsibility of guide dog ownership.  I have been richly rewarded with physical safety, emotional companionship and spiritual connection.  Spiritual connection you ask?  Yes, any guide, whether human, canine or cosmic, who leads this wandering soul to peace is a gift and a blessing.

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Root Beer Float

I dress for the agency Open House in a stylish and, so says my Color Identifier, matching sweater and slacks set.  I brush Randy in the vain hope he won’t shed big black hair balls onto co-workers, distinguished guests and community bigwigs.  We station ourselves just inside the entrance, with no purpose save being present and presentable.

A chirpy hostess offers me the event’s signature treat, a root beer float.  And boy, do I love root beer floats.  As a kid, I called them Black Cows.  But these days, my tendency toward spillage gives me pause.  Dare I risk defacing my pristine outfit?  Yes, I do.  I’ll just be extra careful, that’s all.

My root beer float comes with a wide-body plastic straw.  No muss, no fuss, hands-free delivery system.  I draw hard on the straw but find no purchase.  Must be clogged with ice cream.  I draw harder.  I taste air and make bubbles.  I slide my fingers the length of the straw.  At the midpoint is a slit, courtesy of a stock boy and his utility knife.  The slit is aimed at  my heather gray cashmere sweater.  The sweater is sodden with root beer float.

“Jeff,” says the Boss, “I’d like you to meet my wife, Helen Gregory.”

“Pleased to meet you, Helen,” I say.  I extend a sticky hand and we shake.

“What a handsome guide dog you have,” says Helen Gregory.  “What’s his name?”

“Randy,” I say.  “We’ve been partners five years.  At first, I thought Randy was a stupid name.  Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie stupid.  But it fits.  Randy’s a name for a ten year-old boy.  He’s a big lug.  He has no guile.  All ears and feet and eagerness. He’s a goof, a doufous.  Simple as a ten year-old boy. When he shakes his head, it sounds like a box of rocks.”

“He is quite well-behaved,” says Helen Gregory.

“Jeff,” says the Boss, returning from the periphery.  “I’d like you to meet my son Zachary.  He’s ten years old.”

I stick out a sticky hand and Zachary takes it.

“Oh, Jeff knows all about ten year-olds, don’t you, Jeff?” says Helen Gregory.

Zachary unsticks his hand from mine.  Randy shakes his head.  His ears go slap-slap-slap against the sides of his huge noggin.

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As Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral cortege passed, one mourner fell to his knees. His neighbor, touching the man’s shoulder, asked, “Did you know the President?” “No,” replied the man, “but he knew me.”

We all seek connection. In our shared humanity, we find similarities rather than differences. We’re in the same boat. We have something in common.

Into this chorus of melody and harmony comes dissonance. Add blindness and I veer toward physical isolation and emotional withdrawal. Both reactions inhibit connection. I bump into people and either shrink from their company or curse their trespass. Both reactions are rooted in fear, shame and distorted thinking. In each, I ignore the wisdom to take nothing personally. In each, I find dissonance.

I encounter disconnect through misunderstanding. I project my own insignificance and discomfort onto blameless passers-by. I perceive that many among the sighted majority believe blind people see absolutely nothing, are uniformly stupid and hear only when shouted at. Even the benignly curious, fearing the label of patronizing, preface inquiries with, “I know it’s none of my business, but…” Across three decades of diminishing eyesight, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve been asked, “How does the world appear through your eyes? How does that feel to you?” These would be my most obvious questions, whose answers I would use to understand and connect with another’s experience.

No you do not need to be blind to know me. Start with our similarities. Chances are, we have common needs and interests. Ask if I’m a Cubs fan or a Sox fan and it’s 50/50 that we’ll high five. Ask if I’m a Bears fan and it’s a Bear hug. We are inquisitive by nature, social by need. Ask me how I’m doing. If you sense confusion, ask if you might help. By any means, connect.

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“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and, in the long run, it is easier.  We do not have to become heroes overnight, just a step at a time, meeting each thing as it comes, seeing it’s not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”   – Eleanor Roosevelt

In the dark hours of early vision loss, fear that my next step would pitch me off the end of the world was a metaphor for my belief that blindness was, in itself, the end of the world.  Over time, as my next steps landed on solid ground, I have become less fearful.  From this process, I learn that it’s easier to act courageously than to think myself courageous.  In effect, I act my way into right thinking.  I have yet to reach the end of the world, physically or emotionally.

My cognitive leap from fear to courage comes about through no virtue on my part.  Rather, it is more a product of comparative side effects.  Fear is prickly and adversarial.  Courage is inclusive and engaging.  I prefer to feel good about myself and others and I try to make this feeling habitual.

Fear has a purpose: to protect me from harm.  I detour around the snarling dog to save my butt.  The dog is real and so is the fear.  But imagined fear, fear that somewhere out there is a snarling dog, is distorted thinking.  It leads me to isolate physically and withdraw emotionally.

Eleanor Roosevelt employed the words courage, fear and hero.  Most days, I feel neither courageous nor heroic.  I do what I do, keeping it simple and leaving the spin to others.  For this story, I’ll leave the last word to a very wise girl I ran into lately in the pages of a fine book:

“When I lost my sight, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”  – character Marie-Laure, in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

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Vision loss has been many things to me.  In the darkest times, it became the only thing — my albatross, my scarlet letter.  First, I damned the disease, then damned myself for having it.

I defined myself by its limitations.  I walked into a door and, therefore, I was dangerous.  I lost my job and, therefore, I was worthless.  The event, though painful, was less destructive than what I told myself, how I personalized the event.

Zen masters say that every event is neutral.  It’s not what happens to you, they say, but what you make of it.  But in my circle, nobody greeted my impending blindness with “You’ll be fine.  Just go with it.”  My people said, “Oh my God, this is awful!” and so did I.  Everybody implied, but didn’t dare say, that blindness is a fate just this side of death.

Over the years, I have learned a little about blindness and a lot about myself.  Blindness is the event.  What I do with that event makes the difference.  When my experience is filtered through cultural judgment and personal shame, my view is distorted.  I feel miserable.  And how’s that working for me?  The variable is my attitude, my thinking.  I find that my first thought, the default thought, is generally self-blaming, self-defeating.  That’s how I’m wired.  But I am finding the power to reject that thought, to move on to a neutral place from which to view the event.

Rejecting the first thought, pausing to replace it, is exhilarating but arduous.  My ultimate goal is to rewire my thinking, to find a new thought channel that will bypass shame and self-judgment and run on surrender and acceptance.  Yet I am incorrigibly myself, and good habits remain transitory.  Still, clarity leads to change.  There are many goals I have yet to achieve, but I do not consider myself unsuccessful.

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When Is TMI Too Much?

Recently, a friend entertained me during an interminable paratransit ride by reciting all the totally cool things about the new GPS app in her smart phone.  “It even tells me where all my favorite restaurants are.”

“You mean that while you’re munching in your favorite Mexican restaurant, it’ll tell you your favorite Indian restaurant is 1.2 miles at three o’clock and your favorite Greek restaurant is 4.5 miles at six o’clock and then reads you what’s on their menus?  That puts a whole new spin on meal planning.”

“And it even tells me all the landmarks I pass by.  And what street I’m on and how far I am from the next street and what its name is and what kind of intersection it is and a whole lot more.”

“But does it tell you when the light has changed?”  With that, we reached the end of our journey and our conversation.

I’m a GPS fan.  I make it my business to know exactly where I am, plus or minus sixteen feet.  But I don’t require the precise instant I pass the epicenter of the Hancock Building.  I figure that since I can’t see it, just knowing it’s off to my right somewhere is reassuring enough.

Walking my well-traveled route home from work, I like to clear my head of accumulated minutiae.  I give my earbuds a rest.  I listen to birds and people and dogs.  I ponder the imponderable.  I sing entire albums (Sgt. Peppers being my most recent). Last Thursday, I named all the U. S. Presidents in order, except I forgot Franklin Pierce.  Did you know that only half of the fifty states are home to a major league sports team?  Or that a nine-inch cherry pie contains 64 cubic inches of edible pie?

Blindness has made me an auditory learner.  But I become satiated when, every waking hour, I hear voices. I seek respite from the incessant data chatter.  Granted, my musings about U. S. Presidents may be trivial compared to menus of your favorite restaurants. One person’s FYI is another’s TMI.  This maxim is verified by my wife’s resonant groan when I begin my evening monologue with, “You know, Honey, I was thinking on my walk home from work…”

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One Gingerbread Man, Coming Right Up

“Honey,” asks my wife, “do you think your mother would like a little something from the Swedish Bakery for Christmas?”

“No,” says I.

“She told me she likes a little Swedish butter cookie with her morning cup of tea.”

“Well, she might, but I don’t.  I’ve been in that store this time of year.  It’s a mob scene.  I get swept up in this rugby scrum and  I’m flailing around trying to find the number machine and everybody tells me how handsome a dog Randy is but nobody tells me how brave or foolish I am for getting in the midst of this mess and I finally locate the number machine and tear off a ticket and then of course I’ve got to find somebody to read me the number and when I do they say ‘85’ just as  the clerk shouts ‘42’ and I’m certain I could have got 55 if I’d just been able to see the number machine and walk across the floor and grab a ticket like everybody else does.”

“I’m willing to pick it up for you,” says my wife.

“That’s very gracious of you, Dear,” I say, “but you don’t need to do my dirty work.  That’s not fair.” Say, you don’t suppose Amazon sells Swedish butter cookies, do you?”

“There’s the issue of quality and freshness, Dear,” says my wife.

“Are quality and freshness really that important?” I ask.  “Come to think of it, the Blind Mice Mega Mall has food gift baskets.  How does that sound?”

“I think your mother prefers a nice Swedish butter cookie with her tea rather than cheese and sausage.”

“Picky, picky,” I say.  “And Fruit-of-the-Month proved disappointing, as I recall.”

“What’s a mother to do?” asks my wife.

“There’s only one way out,” says I.  “I’ll tie on the apron and preheat the oven! Call me The Swedish baker.  It can’t be that hard, right?  Just like that old Easy Bake Oven, only bigger.”

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