All posts by econdra

The Hands of my Friend

During my latest visit to South Africa, I reunited with my friend Martie who was my roommate at Helpmekaar, a performing arts High school for girls in Johannesburg. We reminisced over our time there and proudly reminded each other that even the New York Times once proclaimed our school as the best in the country.

The requirements for university were a science and three languages. English, Afrikaans, and German were my languages and Math instead of straight science or biology. For the life of me I don’t know how I ever passed math with my failing eye sight.

Martie came to my aid with the three languages. She helped me matriculate by reading all our prescribed literature aloud to me.  Martie read to me Macbeth, the Merchant of Venice, Othello from our English syllabus and many other scripts in Afrikaans and German.  Some  works I’ve remembered, others  have flown the coop of my memory. However, I’ll never forget how we sat together in the branches of the mulberry tree after school with our books.

The mulberry tree grew in the garden of Fredora, an old mansion that housed the boarding girls of our school. I listened intently to Martie’s rich alto voice and concentrated to keep the information in my mind for the upcoming written and oral exams. Martie had the habit to twist the hair of her bangs with the fingers of one hand as she read. From time to time I interrupted with a question. She patiently re-read a passage and patiently spelled words I was unsure of. We discussed the play plots, the characters, the settings, and guessed at the questions we might get during the exam.

One never knows during the carefree high school years where one’s paths would lead. We set goals and hoped to reach them.  My goal was to pursue a career in   theatre arts and Martie’s a career in    voice and music. during my visit in January 2010  we reflected on where our life paths led us from      the mulberry tree reading till now.

Martie said “you prepared me for my future.  Helping you when you were losing your sight taught me perseverance, patients, and endurance.”

“Because of you“, I responded gratefully, ”I graduated from High school and went to the University of Pretoria to study theatre arts. Thanks to you reading aloud to me and to Professor Botha who believed in me I reached my goal.”

Later on in my career I became totally blind. Though blind today and after all those years,  I still perform either as a keynote speaker, story teller or actress  in one of a variety of my own one woman shows.

After graduating from university Martie also pursued her career of teaching music, voice and directed choirs and operettas. She got married to Dirk Uys and started a family. They have four children.  Martie’s  life changed when her youngest  daughter Ellim at the age of seventeen  had a brain injury during an horse riding accident and became wheelchair-bound.   Martie’s other three children grew up and followed their own dreams but Ellim is at home with Martie and Dirk in their farmhouse adapted for the wheel chair.

During our visit Martie handed me a jar of preserves  she had made from apricots she picked from her trees on her farm  near Bethlehem in the Drakensberg.

“Something to remember me by there in America,” She said.

How could I ever forget her? The one who was patiently reading and spelling to me while I was silently losing my sight due to Retinitis Pigmentosa.  How could I ever thank her enough as we sat there in a court yard of a South African restaurant. We sat side by side under a tree like so many years ago. We were together as if the more than forty years didn’t pass like the blink of an eye. I lifted my glass of wine in salute to her.

Daily in rain or thunder, in sunshine and starlight Ellim is always dependant on Martie’s hands. Martie’s hands that massaged the useless legs, the injured spine. Those same hands cooked the apricot jam and brought it to this place to give to me. Those hands that have to lift her daughter of nearly 30 years of age from her wheel chair into a bath, onto a toilet seat or into bed. Those hands who picked her daughter up for dead but persisted with rehabilitation when others thought it was in vain. Martie’s hands guided Ellim’s, taught Ellim to re-learn and regain the use of her hands. Ellim can knit and sew today.

“Walk away” they told Martie and dirk at the hospital after the accident. “Forget you had her, she’ll never recover and if so she’ll be a vegetable.”

The hospital personnel didn’t know my friend like I did. Martie stayed at Ellim’s bedside for months and    sang and talked to her while she was in a coma. When Ellim finally came out of the coma she couldn’t speak. Martie brought a flute to the hospital and held it to Ellim’s lips and thus   embarked on restoring Ellims speech.     Her knowledge of voice   production as a voice coach served her well. She encouraged Ellim to breathe out through the flute. This was a slow and difficult process. Hour after hour, day after day week after week Martie encouraged exhaling through the flute. Eventually Ellim produced a small sound in the flute with her out coming breath. This was the first positive sign the diaphragm and muscles in   Ellim’s lungs and throat were strengthening.  By using this technique Martie eventually coached Ellim to turn sound into words.  It was an uphill battle and long and drawn out process to reawake the speech faculties of the brain as well, but today Ellim can speak.

I took the apricot preserves from Martie’s hands  with so much admiration and respect .  I know when I’ll eat it in Nashville I won’t share it with anyone for it is precious, almost holy. When I eat it will be on special bread in celebration of my friend Martie’s hands.

Running on the lip of the ocean.

I’m running on the lip of the ocean, between the lisp of the waves and the silence of the sand. My feet crunch over crusty shells and coral. I feel free, so free.   I swing my arm, pumping hard with elation. …but I feel unbalanced.  I lift my knees,  lean into the breeze … yet  I feel unbalanced.

I remember my days on the track flying between the white lines listening to the applause when I was our school’s champion short distance runner. My friends said I ran like a gazelle. But that was long ago before black blindness came and this is now and I feel unbalanced.

Suddnely I realize why. Only one arm pushes.  Only one hand strokes the wind.  My other hand is in my pocket keeping my arm still by my side.

For all the many years of blindness I’ve walked with a white cane or a sighted guide, holding my cane or  holding onto an arm or hand. Both arms had forgotten how to work together while running and walking. I pluck my hand from my pocket and throw my arm out. I windmill my arms and skip  with happiness at this realization.   At last I’m in balance! I run and run on the lip of the ocean, between the lisp of the waves and the silence of the sand. My ears are in tune with the eb and flow of the waves.  My heart speaks deep wishes for many more unencumbered runs on isolated beaches towards the laughter of my husband.

Estelle...Untethered on the beach
Estelle...Untethered on the beach

Eluthera  09

Art for the soul and finger tips

For the ninth year I was privileged to attend the Rendezvous Royale art auction and show at the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre in Cody, Wyoming.  I was allowed to touch the selected sculptures while my husband had the challenging task of describing the paintings to me.

The sculptures for the auction were ingeniously arranged among the paintings for their dramatic impact on the sighted visitors, but for me the exhibit unfolded inch by inch as the mystery of the pieces were revealed through my hands.   My hand-eyes interpreted the eye-hand creations for my mind’s eye.

At the entrance to the gallery I heard water. My husband guided my hands around a container.  I hugged the container to gauge the size of it, put my hands inside and found the water. With my wet hands I trace the figure.  At first I have no concept of the piece, but slowly my fingers found a life size grizzly bear sitting with one leg inside the water and the rest of him on the rim.  “Reach” said David and like the bear I was after the trout.  I had to stand on my toes to reach the tail of the fish. I explored the bronze grizzly who had plucked a trout from the stream by the Honored artist, T. D. Kelsey.  Just like the old instant photographs an image of the whole slowly developed under my hands.

As we wandered through the art, my fingers rolled over the finely executed shapes of man and beast.  I delighted in the contrast between the most subtle features and the bold, dramatic actions. The theme in the museum is western and, under my hands, bronze cowboys herded cattle, broncos bucked, a fawn galloped, steer, elk, and goat horns pricked my palms.   I could smell the metal and distinguished between rough and smooth surfaces.  I explored sculptures of Native Americans  in full regalia. Dainty bronze details of buttons on coats, the weft in a woven blanket, fish scales,  eagle feathers and wind in a horses main.  I’m overwhelmed by the precision and balance of the figures full of action and purpose.  Abstracts in marble wood, bronze and   glazed clay stirred my imagination. Such was the interaction I’ve had with the art during the festival.

Behind every piece is a story. Discovering the sculptures is like reading a book. My fingers start at the beginning of the book not knowing the ending.  As I touch along the plot develops into a surprise ending. The story book event sculpted by Vic Payne, called “train wreck,” affected me in this manner.   David placed my hands on a bear standing at attack. At first a bear on his hind legs is all that’s there for me.  Gradually I traced along a tree, then…oh my, a cowboy on a rearing horse trying to get away from the bear.  That is not the end yet!  Behind the cowboy is his pack mule loaded with the spoils of his hunt, elk meat and the trophy. Each detail acutely shaped to tell the tale. Though the bronze was cold under my fingers, the heat of the conflict was tangible. I imagine this scene could have taken place in the Thoroughfare, the wilderness outside Yellowstone, where I myself have ridden on a narrow mountain trail. Goose bumps spread over my arms and my scalp began to tingle as I remembered the narrow passage where no horse can turn around and flee leave alone with a pack mule in tow.

A scenario sprang to life as I caressed the delightful piece “And then what…?” by Charlie Ringer. Through the vitality of one of the cowboy figures I perceive a yarn is being spun and the reaction to the tale is conveyed in the body language of the listeners.  I stroked the dwarf-sized cooking utensils and other cowboy paraphernalia which surrounded the tiny campfire. If I could, I would have shrunk myself, climbed up to sit and listen to the tale and of course take a sip from the teensy bottle.

The task of describing the paintings rested on David’s shoulders. He painted with words what he saw on the canvases. A mountain lion ready to pounce, a laughing cowgirl introducing a little red hen to her horse. A rainbow colored grizzly bear, a trapper with his canoe…on and on he translated shape color and pictorial instance while I experience the paintings through my ears.

Usually art is inaccessible for the blind visitor, but during the art show and auction I’m allowed to touch the selected sculptures. In the galleries as well touch is welcomed for the visually impaired.

In sue Simpson’s gallery I touched work by T.D. Kelsey inspired by his latest trip to Africa.  Sue herself guided my fingers over three bronze Masai boys standing on one leg in a yoga-like position. These three comrades had their arms around each other, perhaps   talking or telling a tale or watching over their cattle. While probing     a stately  Masai warrior with his spear delicately balanced I listened to the voices of customers, excited over the display of art and I felt grateful for the inclusiveness of this exhibit.

My favorite touch experience in the Simpson gallery named “Field Trip” was of a female lion carrying one cub in her mouth while the other little one was following behind her. I immediately connected with my roots through the sculpture for, as a child in South Africa, this kind of scene was described to me in the Kruger National Park where when a cub gets tired the cub’s mother will carry it in her mouth for a while as they trekked from an old den to a new one.

For me, to experience art is to connect with art, and to connect with art is to experience art.  That is how it was again at the Rendezvous Royal art show and auction late September of 2009.

The (not-so) good old days—getting education as a blind student in South Africa

We often hear the joke from older folks today about how hard they had it in their school days—usually something about walking five miles to school every day through a foot of snow.

I didn’t have any snow in South Africa but I did get to struggle half-blind, through my schoolwork. In high school I had an embarrassing ugly pair of magnifying glasses which only focused when my nose was against the page.  Thankfully I sometimes had my friend, Marti, reading to me from our textbooks.  I couldn’t see the writing on the blackboard—yes in those days it was white chalk on a blackboard.  The learning trick was to memorize quickly after I finally figured out the print on the page.

Exam papers in high school were each three hours long. My principal got permission from the department of education to extend my exam session with another hour.  With my pitifully low vision I  couldn’t write on lined paper  and I was given blank pages  and a black pen so I could write as large as I needed  and see the contrast of the black ink against the white page.

My specialty was drama.  Till this day I thank my lucky stars for the school I attended and the teachers who recognized my ability in the theatre for they set my future career course.

On to the University of Pretoria

The requirements for university were three languages, Afrikaans, English and one foreign language, as well as science or math. I studied German and chose Math. Imagine math for someone who could hardly see! Somehow, someway I made it.

I was accepted at university and specialized in theatre.   Here it was the same situation—no aids, no Braille books, no books-on-tape, no talking computers just a constant barrage of text books I struggled to see to read.  Through the encouragement of teachers and professors I graduated but it was never easy. It was a constant struggle not only to study but also by now to pretend I saw things I didn’t.  In my country it was a shame to have a defect so I often found myself lying about my sight.

Today I’m happily, openly blind. It is so much easier socially to be totally blind.   Now I and others know I cannot see anything. Prior to total blindness I was never sure what I could see, perhaps a glimpse of something, or if the light was right more of something. If I didn’t know what I saw, how could I communicate to others what I could and couldn’t see. I’m pleased to take assistance in any way I can such as taking someone’s arm for sighted guidance.  Today I’m not tied up with pretending to see, my energy goes to performing speaking and writing.  My ultimate joy is the accessibility of information through all the latest devices and aids for the blind and I have become a reading fiend.

Educators for the Blind Conference

October 8-10, 2009, Macon Georgia

I performed my dramatic one woman show, Vibrations of Laughter -the story of Annie Sullivan, as a keynote before an appreciative audience of teachers for the blind. They graciously gave me a standing ovation. Actually two standing ovations, One for the Annie Sullivan and the other for the evening’s entertainment piece “Blind People Shouldn’t Vacuum” another one of my one-woman shows, sub-titled “An irreverent comedy.”

The next day during my talk on literacy I was interrupted by applause twice, once when I said, “Every morning when the American sun touches my cheeks I feel like blossoming because as a blind person In America I found so many opportunities and privileges.”  The next applause interruption came after my statement, “Today there is no reason to be blind and dumb.” I went further to explain what I meant by the word dumb—not to be educated enlightened and informed. For though blind people cannot see to read,   there is an amazing array of aids to make text accessible for reading, writing and research. Each one of these marvelous teachers was there to learn more about the latest technology and how to assist their students.

The exhibitors displayed talking software, voice activated software, sound screen savers, the latest in Braille and large print. As an example of what a visually impaired student can have today, a large flat screen with a camera was on display. The student can point the camera at a smart board and see what has been written on the smart board enlarged on the flat screen in front of the student. With a specialized pen the student can even take tests on the screen.  I drooled over all the aids that make learning so much easier than in my days as a student in South Africa. (I think I’ll follow this post with one on going to school blind in the old days in South Africa.)

When I speak to school children I say I wrote my book See the Ocean with my ears. I continue to explain how voice output software made it possible for me to become a writer speaker and performer. As I met the teachers for the blind and visually impaired at the conference my heart rejoiced over the work they do to uplift and educate those who need it most.

I repeat, each morning when the American sun touches my cheeks, I feel like blossoming.