Over the weekend I attended a conference in Memphis. It was the first time I’d been there since 2001, when I lived in Little Rock. Some friends invited me along for an overnighter including a show at the beautifully restored Orpheum Theater, followed by some nightlife fun. If you like architecture and you get a chance to see a show there, do it! Even if you’re not interested in the show, it’s worth it. I don’t get over there often. It’s at least a five-hour drive from this part of the Ozarks.
It was one of those conferences with “breakout” sessions going on in different meeting rooms. You look at a schedule and decide which one looks like your best bet or take a break if none appeals to you. You can mingle in a common area and nibble the finger food set out on a long table. Sounds simple enough, right?
It was simple for me back when my vision was better. Now I have to use a high-tech magnifier (it cost $600) to read the schedule and get help finding the room I needed. Finding a seat wasn’t hard, but seeing Powerpoint presentations was impossible. Sometimes I could tell what the speaker was was talking about on the screen, other times I couldn’t. I needed help identifying food set out on the snack table and again during the buffet-style meals. People were happy to help, but it made me self-conscious to slow down a line of hungry people behind me. I made it a point to get in line early, not only because view a buffet line as prey, but also so I could find an unoccupied seat without having to roam around a crowded dining room with a plateful of food.
While making polite conversations with others at my table, I also had to identify food, spear it with my fork, and mind my table manners. At one meal, the salad was overloaded with olives, which I hate. I had to eat several because they were In my mouth before I knew what they were. By the end, my food was jumbled up together on the plate and I thought back on the brief phase I went through when I was a kid, when I didn’t want any of the food to touch each other.
But, the biggest and most isolating change that happened when my vision wosened in 2003 was losing the ability to recognize faces and expressions more than a couple of feet away. Because of that, I can be very alone in a crowd—even when people are extremely warm and friendly, like they were last weekend.
I have an excellent sense of direction, an internal compass that almost never fails. But, in order for it to work, I need to get a good look at my surroundings. To get to my room from the elevator, I had to make a couple of sharp turns and it left me disoriented, then frustrated, then angry because I can remember when things were easier. Sunday morning, I wanted breakfast and remembered the nearest restaurant was across a four-lane street and was buffet-style. Not worth the risk. I found a small room on my floor with vending machines. The one with food was framed in bright lights so I had to lean in and squint even more than I usually do. This particular machine had a flashing keypad, though. The bulb didn’t have a short. It was designed to light up a row at a time in quick succession, giving it the look of a slot machine that paid winners in sweet and salty snacks. Do they really need to lure people—particularly Americans—to a vending machine with flashing lights?
I gave up and went back to my room, glad I had snagged a cookie from a table the day before and saved it.
I wanted to look around at the urban landscape of a bigger city, even if we didn’t drive through any particualry interesting parts of it. I wanted to be able to navigate the common areas without it feeling like an expedition. I wanted to find the Men’s Room all by myself like a big boy.
Yes, people find me inspiring, and I hope that continues. I’m comfortable around the house and around the town where I live. Being in unfamiliar places is more work for me now. I work harder to see things. I have to commit things to memory faster. I come back from a two-day conference exhausted, physically and emotionally—because I can remember when life was much easier. I was legally blind before, but barely. I got around with little trouble. Even my friends occasionally forgot I had vision problems.
Today, I’m starting to feel like myself again. I’m at the brink of an exciting future that includes speaking engagements, a published memoir, an inspirational web site, a YouTube channel, and probably more income to go with it all. I’m focusing on that as best I can, letting The Ghost of Accomplishments Future save me from The Ghost of Vision Past.