Some people view losing their eyesight as the end of the world.  Others claim low vision is a mere inconvenience. The authors of the National Low Vision Awareness website write, “People with low vision have difficulty seeing…which makes everyday tasks difficult to do.”

This elegantly simple, emotionally neutral description distills what stinks about low vision into one word: difficult.  But difficult means more than difficult.  From my perspective as a blind person, “difficult” is a euphemism for “pain in the ass.”  Difficult is lipstick on a pig.  Ask a woman about her “difficult” marriage and she’ll say it’s a living hell.  Tell me that the “difficult” neighbor kid is coming to visit and I bar the door.

I propose three synonyms for “difficult.”   The first is “annoying.”  I get annoyed by blindness. Here’s an example, a dialogue with me as blind handyman:

Me:  “To fix that faucet will take me four…”
My wife:  “…eight…”
Me:  “…hours.  And cost fifty…”
My wife:  “…one hundred…”
Me:  “dollars.”

And the most annoying thing is, my wife is always right.

The second synonym for “difficult” is “distressing.”  I find the consequences of blindness distressing.  I figure I have lost over $1 million in earnings because of blindness.  Yup, a million bucks, plus all the quarters I dropped and couldn’t find.

The third synonym for “difficult” is “frustrating.”  Nowhere is my threshold for frustration lower than technology.  My part in this is that I consider myself logical and linear when I am not.  Therefore, I get frustrated when technology fails to translate my tangential and circuitous intentions into a straight-line, binary code it can understand.

But I am not going to whine.  Difficulties bring rewards.  By necessity, I have become a more resourceful problem-solver. I believe I am also more patient and tolerant.  A very wise guy, Malcolm Gladwell, asserts that difficult tasks result in deeper, more lasting learning because they require more energy and focus.  This belief keeps me plodding through the annoying, distressing and frustrating process.  To use a food metaphor, these multiple rewards are the big bowl of ice cream you get after the interminable, insufferably difficult plate of force-fed vegetables.

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Speaking of Dogs

As I walk this earth, meditatively, with my Seeing Eye Dog, this is what I hear:

“Your dog must be super intelligent” – Well, Randy is not brilliant but he’s not stupid either.    He does not use his front paws to hold his dog bones or yogurt containers.  Hell, even a raccoon knows to use his front paws to hold onto his food.  But then, how many raccoons know left from right?

“He must know a lot of words” – Randy’s vocabulary includes about a dozen useful commands (“Speak” and “Play dead” are not useful commands).  Plus he knows an equal number of important words, like outside, chow, bone and biscuit.  Notice the preponderance of food-related nouns?

“He puts your safety above all else” – Except where food is involved.  Be it restaurant or sidewalk, Randy leads a zig-zag route, with frequent head dips and full-body lunges.  I understand that an instinct is at work here, so I cut him some slack.  As long as we maintain forward progress, I am satisfied.

“He’s so well trained” – Yes the Seeing Eye trained him well.  I take responsibility for untraining him.

“Since you put your life in your dog’s hands, you must have a super strong bond” – Since you put it that way, yes, and sometimes it scares me half to death.

“That dog must be a real chick magnet” – Perhaps, but I prefer to think that I attain that honor on my own merits.

“I Know I Should Ignore him, but he’s so cute” – For people who express interest in Randy, without mauling or feeding him, I’m happy to satisfy their curiosity, maybe clear up some misconceptions.  I like talking about Randy, can’t you tell?

“He’s a beautiful dog” – Yes, on many levels.  Randy might not be everything people say he is, but for being himself he is loved.

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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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