15 Feb 2013

The Art of Being Blind Part 1 - A Matter of Survival

‘It's incredible what you can do if you just learn to do it in a different way.
It's all about always knowing where things are.’
Jessica Watts

The saying may warn that familiarity breeds contempt but let me assure you, any blind or vision-impaired person will advise, familiarity breeds contentment!

You see, the need to have our homes and work place with some sort of order is not the sign of a control freak or bossy-boots (although my family may place me in one of these categories), it is a matter of survival. When a person lacks the sense of sight, it is a natural characteristic for the blind person to keep their belongings in order because it minimises deep stress on a daily basis.

 Familiarity is everything for me as a vision-impaired person because it not only helps me to function calmly, knowing that nothing has moved from where I last put it, but it also gives me the confidence to maintain a good sense of independence.

Everything in its place

OK, so keeping my things in order is relatively simple for me to achieve, having my own ‘filing’ system for hundreds of items placed in their exact spot in every single room of our house. Yes, I really do mean exactly, to the very inch. But what must it be like for my sighted family who have to learn my filing system?

Not easy. Maybe annoying, but I say ‘character building’! From a very early age, my children had to put their toys away or mummy would simply crush them accidentally under foot – a pretty good reason to keep things in place.

These days, I live in a home that is also a recording studio. So, when musicians book into our studio for a session, most of the living areas become taken up with drums, large bass guitars, valuable violins, microphones galore and masses of leads strewn over the floor, connected to the recording booth.

Before I came to live here with Harry, no one cared where anyone put anything. But it is interesting to observe how we can change our patterns of behaviour when we really need to. Harry now tells his clients, "Please pick up your things and put them in the corner. My partner is vision-impaired and she could trip over your instruments."

Suddenly, everyone becomes very aware. Aware of where they are putting their things – ah, I love it. Welcome to my world!

Confidence can vanish in a flash

Yet life is not always so predictable – and people are not perfect: someone has forgotten to close a cupboard drawer, left a chair out from the table, parked their bike in my way on the veranda, left a glass of water on the piano, hidden the TV remote, shifted the back door key, moved the gas lighter or given the peeler a new place to reside – until I find it again after searching for ages, crippled with tears, and bang the drawer shut in frustration.

My happiness and strength to function with sighted people depends on order and the consideration of others, because if I allow chaos to creep into my system, not only do I accumulate a collection of physical bruises but confidence can vanish in a flash. 

I have good and bad days, like anyone else. On a good day, I can take the knocks and frustrations in good humour, laugh it off, be generous to my family for forgetting my filing system but on those bad days, when it just feels too hard, when life hurts because of not being able to see, when all you want is to live a normal life with vision to see the current task, on those ‘being-hard-on-yourself-days’ is when I need a sense of familiarity more than ever.

Frustration brings insight

I would like to share the following story by Jeff Flodin, a cyberspace-friend from USA who writes a blog ‘Jalapeños in the oatmeal, digesting vision loss’. Jeff’s honest accounts of his experiences make me cry, cringe or break into a broad smile – as in the case of this next story: as Jeff’s wife says, ‘Go get ’em, Tiger’.


Springtime means gardening. My wife prunes her peony bush. I plant pansies.
‘Oh, dear,’ says my wife, ‘you’re planting the pansies upside-down.’
I throw down my trowel. ‘That’s it! I can’t take this blindness anymore! I’m outta here.’
‘Where are you going?’ asks my wife.
‘To the garage. To find that wood handle I broke off the push broom. To carry it into the alley and smash it to smithereens.’
‘Go get ’em, tiger,’ says my wife.

It takes me a while but I find the broom handle. I tap my way to the alley. I’m just about to bash it against the asphalt when I think, What if a splinter flies up and sticks in my eye?
I storm through the back yard. My wife asks me where I’m headed this time.
‘To get my sunglasses,’ I say.
She tells me it’s overcast.
I tell her it’s not the sun I need to protect my eyes from.

Upstairs, I fish around my dresser drawer. I find my Swiss Army knife and my baseball cap. Finally, I find my sunglasses. I storm across the back yard again.
‘Go get ‘em, Mr Cub!’ calls my wife.

Back in the alley, I can’t find where I left that broom handle. ‘All right, who stole my stick?’ I holler to no one in particular. And no one answers. I grope here and there but come up empty-handed. Then I think maybe I’ll go ask my wife to help me find the stick so I can smash it – and then I ask myself, How ridiculous am I willing to appear here?
Besides, I’ve pretty much simmered down. The urge to kill has been removed.

I mosey into the back yard.
My wife says, ‘I didn’t hear the crack of the bat out there, Slugger.’
‘I’m back,’ says I. ‘I want to plant pansies. The ones that say ‘Plant Other end.’

Jeff was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at age 35.  His vision loss did not prevent him from moving around the country; he has lived in Rockford, Tempe, Philadelphia and Chicago.

His book, Jalapenos in the Oatmeal and Other Recipes for Digesting Vision Loss, will be published this year by Aquitaine Media Group of Chicago.

Next post: Do I really see colour or is my brain scanning childhood memories for logical deductions ? 

©  Maribel Steel 2013


maribel steel said...

I am honored to be part of the art of being blind series. The topics are so compelling, I look forward to listening to each chapter. Keep up the great writing. Jeff.

maribel steel said...

I have posted the previous comment on Jeff's behalf as our frustrating software for the blind does not allow us into form fields very easily...so thanks Jeff for emailing me with your comment and thanks for your support! Maribel

meg said...

Hi Maribel! My thanks to you and Jeff for the insight into what is involved with navigating daily existence with vision impairment. Having grown up in a volatile home with a lot of chaos, a sense of order gives me a great deal of comfort...your essay validated that tendency and at the same time gave me some perspective. Love both your and Jeff's honesty and humor. So grateful we crossed paths! xoxo, Meg

maribel steel said...

Welcome as my new follower Meg - thanks for visiting and I am so glad you found a resonating chord from our stories to yours...Maribel xx