Tonight I was inspired by a painting while walking home from the grocery store with my cane. It hung in a gallery window, illuminated by brilliant light. It really made me think…..
Every moment I lock that front door, and step bravely out into the unpredictable world, I am being taken care of by someone or something else. Each day, my Guiding Eyes for the Blind Labrador Elvis, ‘takes me’ to and from the places I need to go, finding curbs, stairs, doors, crosswalk buttons and navigating obstacles and people in my path to keep me safe. On days I’m running with friends, I’m tethered by my wrist to theirs, and they ‘tell’ me where to turn and give me verbal instructions on how to navigate my surroundings without falling. And finally, I use ‘the stick’, my dreaded cane, that ‘feels’ things on the ground before I knock into them, and warns other pedestrians and cars that I’m unable to see them clearly. I am ‘tethered’ to these forms of navigation, each and every time I leave the safety and comfort of my home.
So as a blind/ visually impaired person, you can imagine how wonderful those moments are when i DON’T ‘have’ have to be ‘tied’ to something or someone. The moments when I’m in an empty ball-field surrounded by nothing but grass, and I can run care-free like a kid without worry or risk of injury. The times I’m at a familiar friend’s or family member’s house, and I can walk unassisted. Or finally, when I get into the water at my YMCA.
This painting tonight was of two women in a commercial pool. It was from the perspective of being underwater, watching one woman gracefully swimming underwater, the smile and bubbles rising to the surface. The other woman was mid-dive into the cool, clear blue waters. It hit a part of me that was so visceral and full of raw, uncomfortable emotion. I wanted that painting. I craved that feeling of being free, even if only for a second.
I’ve been a ‘fish’ long before I was walking. My family owned an above-ground pool, and every waking hour that I wasn’t in the barn with my pony, you could find me in there. I would swim ALL day, getting completely ‘pruned up’ until dinner time when we’d have to call it quits. Hours of sharks and minnows, underwater breathe-holding contests, diving for pennies, sprint races, and fantastic somersaults filled my days, and it was all I ever wanted to do. I started on the local swim team at age 6, finishing my swimming career as a senior in high school.
My hair was constantly green, I smelled of chlorine, and my muscles always ached, but I loved every moment of it. I loved the camaraderie of suffering through early season outdoor swim workouts at the local pool, where the cool air caused a fog to rise over the water, as we shivered in our suits. Eventually, I was recruited to the diving team, where I got to use my love of showmanship to flip, twist and dive into the vast, deep water. I developed a fear of the deep end of the pool, remembering that the vastness of the giant aquatic space felt dizzying to me, and caused panic attacks. Still, I didn’t quit. Little did I realize that it was likely my eyes ‘playing tricks on me’ as my eye disease was beginning its slow and steady progression towards blindness. Eventually, I used my swimming skills to save money for college, by becoming a lifeguard. It frightens me now to think that I probably was vision impaired even back then.
Fast forward to present day, and I’m a triathlete training for the Paralympics. My ONLY advantage as a ‘newbie’ to this sport is my love and affinity for the water. It is my home. I can go to the pool, tie up my guide dog to the lane marker and dive right in- no help needed. I know I reach the end of a 25 meter pool in 17 strokes, like clockwork each and every time. I can do it while humming a tune in my head, going over my mental grocery list, contemplating quantum physics, you name it- I can ‘space out’ to it. The water is my ‘safe’ place.
When my eyes hurt after yet another glaucoma surgery, I can close them, and STILL feel safe and free in that water. I feel light, almost elegant, something I would FAR from describe myself on land. I feel powerful. I love thinking about ‘grabbing’ the water with my triceps engaging all the way until my hand touches my thigh. I like to imagine that I’m 6 feet tall, and can stretch my body infinitely to reach the other side. I love staring down into the vast blue waters, and watching the tiles go by, faster and faster with each building speed set, until they all blur together. And I do this BY MYSELF.
So, when you see me at the pool next time, and wonder why I’ve dropped my goggles to the bottom, and am doing a hand-stand while fetching them ‘for fun’ or when you see me doing flips in the middle of the deep-end because I CAN, or ponder as I just lay there on my back like a starfish and stare up into the vast white ceiling while giggling, realize that I’m not crazy. I’m in my happy place. The one place I won’t hurt myself and the only place I don’t need your help. I’m ‘un-tethered’. I think I may have just bought my first painting…….