In Blind Daylight
Below, in the subway, sitting on a blue blanket, her hair hangs, golden, straight, long, down her back. Beside her lay a black lab, chin resting on his crisscrossed paws. A guitar in her lap, she’s singing a song I don’t know. Albums and tapes sit next to a small basket filled mostly with coins and a few one-dollar bills.
Her song ends. The dog sits up. Putting a dollar in her basket, though at the time I was living on a meager, self allotted $25 a week allowance, I ask her who wrote that song. She says she did. She asks me what I did. I dance with a modern dance company, study Tai Chi, and I’m beginning to teach something called the Alexander Technique.
I’ve heard of the Alexander Technique. I’d love to study. My voice gets tired after about an hour, my back too. I ask her where she lives. In Germantown. Me too. I’d be happy to give you a lesson in exchange for one of your albums. That’s a deal she says, handing me an album and a tape.
Ellen rings the doorbell right on time. Up the steps and straight back through the kitchen, I say. Up the steps and straight back through the kitchen she says to her dog. Her dog leads the way, Ellen follows and I follow Ellen. Watching her walk up the steps I see she’s exceptionally upright, but quite stiff throughout her entire body. (I later find out that her stiffness came, in part, from years spent walking with a stick and bumping into side mirrors of big trucks, and such, things now that her dog sees well ahead of time and avoids.)
After a brief introduction as to what Alexander’s work is about, I suggest we begin simply with her sitting back in a chair. I encourage her to slowly and softly sink into a comfortable slump. Ellen I say, slumping and uprightness are not two different positions, one wrong and one right. Together they make up a range of motion, and emotion, a continuum upon which you can learn to slide up and down easily and comfortably. We spend a good bit of time on this until her rigidity, which feels like fear under my hands, is gone.
Ellen, I say, for purely selfish reasons, sing me a song. Smiling, her smile large and expressive, she says, I won’t be needing my guitar for this one…
I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom, for me and you. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue, and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, What a wonderful world.
The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by,
I see friends shaking hands, saying, “How do you do?” They’re really saying, “I love you”.
I hear babies cry, I watch them grow. They’ll learn much more, than I’ll ever know. And I think to myself, What a wonderful world.
She finishes. I ask her how that felt. More comfortable she says. I could hear how my voice sounding smoother, less raspy. I could see everything more clearly. Later I learn Ellen inherited retinitis pigmentosa, and could see well until she was six years old, when her sight began to fail. By the time she was twelve she was legally blind, as opposed to illegally blind, she used to say.
Ellen, how do you feel, not in your body, but as a person, just as a person inside yourself? I feel less guarded, like there was a wall around me, and now there isn’t. I didn’t know it was there. Yeah, less alone; I feel less alone. Great. That’s it for today. Call me if you want to continue.
The next day she calls. Bruce, after the lesson I went to the park and sat on a park bench, where I often sit, and play. I sat down and I didn’t feel like playing, so I didn’t. It was enough just to sit in the warm daylight and feel myself in the world without my “wall.” A man came over, asked if he could sit down on the bench next to me. First time that ever happened! You know, I sing as a way of reaching out to people. And here I was, reaching out to nobody, and somebody walks right up and sits down next to me. We talked a lot, and for a long time, about real things. It was so effortless.
Bruce, I’d like to study more. Sure, just pay me what you can afford. I’m a new teacher. I need the practice.
Ellen and I worked together for two years. At some point she wanted to learn Tai Chi, said she couldn’t figure out how to study it because she couldn’t see it. She heard that it was beautiful and she liked the philosophy behind it. Sounds like Alexander Technique in motion. That’s how it feels to me, and yes, I’d be happy to teach you Tai Chi.
Through touch and language I led her through every little movement, over and over again. Her movement memory was great. Ellen loved my touch. You know, people want to help me all the time. Well meaning, they grab my arm and pull me with one hand, while pushing me with the other. They squeeze me, jerk me, and push me down to stop me. But you do almost nothing. Your touch is so soft and I know exactly what you want me to do and where you want me to go, and then I just go there by myself. I have good teachers, I said.
Guiding her with my hands, I would do the form closely behind her, like some benevolent shadow. Though I was behind her, she followed me. I followed her following me.
Balance was not an issue for Ellen. She had plenty of practice balancing without seeing. She knew where the ground was through her feet. Her vestibular balance must have been good. It looked like her hearing helped her balance as well. She seemed to know the precise angle from which a sound was coming.
Most challenging was getting Ellen’s form spatially accurate. I began by getting her to imagine herself inside of a large cube. I got her to sense front, and back, and sides, the front diagonals, and the back diagonals, that is, all the corners of the cube, and of course the top and the bottom. Once the cube was firmly in place, we began trimming off the edges of the cube until, there she was, moving clearly and calmly within an invisible sphere.
Ellen came to know, kinesthetically, exactly how far, exactly how many degrees, for example, her hip joints had to rotate in their sockets for about a hundred little movements in the Tai Chi form. She applied this same sensitivity to her ankles and knees, to her wrists, elbows and shoulders, to her spine and head. Each joint became a compass.
I taught Ellen how to see kinesthetically. Ellen taught me how to live like a blind man, who just happened to be able to see.
The more the senses open to the world, the more the world opens to us. And the walls they come a tumbling down.