Quick Mid-Year Update

   Well, it’s my birthday month, and the midyear point of 2022, somehow, someway. So I thought I would write a quick last-six-months update.
    I spent January laying low, until the end of the month when my parents visited. We took a trip to Orcas Island, did some shopping, watched some waves, and tried to figure out the off-season restaurant schedule.
    February I started my pole instructor training AND my year-long writing class in earnest. In April I left dreary un-springy Seattle for ten days in Oakland with Rose, one of my oldest and dearest friends. Even though I worked during the week, walking around Oakland gave my brain some new-city novelty. I toured some coffee shops and on the weekends, Rose and I went for small hikes and kayaked in the Elkhorn Slough. It was my first time kayaking in salt water. I found it bracing and lovely.
    Seattle’s spring was cold and wet. Now, in the last week of June, it is starting to finally feel like summer and I am feeling more alive. I hope for a long summer. I would like to eat peaches well into September.
I hope all of you are doing well!

  I think the pandemic has brought up a lot of desires for different people, and I hope it has also brought clarity. For my part, I have realized the vitality of movement in my every day life, and not only movement, but expressive movement. Movement as art, as practice and performance, even if the performance is just me alone in my living room, sliding around in my socks on the wooden floor. Even if the performance is just for myself and all the selves I’ve been that have led me here.
    I know I’ve written about dance before, most probably when I started pole dancing in 2014. I’ve continued to take classes but have largely focused on strength and flexibility work, while mostly ignoring the “dance” part. During this past year, I’ve started wanting to  understand the dance side better, to be able to incorporate some less intense, more flowy movement between bouts of hanging upside down.
    Sighted dancers have tried to teach me choreography over the years. I have tried to learn, and seemingly have mostly not been successful, at least in a visual “look like everyone else” way. Looking like everyone else was very important to me as a kid in tap dance class, and as a highschooler in show choir. To be frank, I think it was important for my instructors, too. As an adult dancer, who isn’t competing or trying to prove myself to my peers, I’ve come to rethink the idea that I need to look like everyone else. Why? I’m not everyone else, so what’s the point of hiding that?
   A few months ago, I heard a podcast interview with Krishna Washburn, a blind ballet dancer who teaches beginner ballet to adults. Her project, called the Dark Room, consists of a beginner class and a mixed level class, taught over Zoom, our pandemic overlord. Both of her classes are free, as a nod to blind communities generally being unemployed or underemployed. I was so thrilled at the prospect of learning dance from a blind instructor so I signed up for the next 8-week beginner session.
    That was in May. Now, I’m in my fourth month of mixed level class and my mind is busy memorizing French words for new movements I have never asked my body to do before. I’m completely in awe of professional ballet dancers: the total body awareness required in every move, and I’m just doing very beginner dancing! Truthfully, I’m in awe of Krishna, who describes body positions and steps through the tilt and balance of the body. The angles of the arms and transfer of weight. The energy flowing in a diagonal line from outstretched fingertips to an outstretched leg. I feel free to move in my own way, at my own pace, without worrying about anyone watching me. One of the great advantages of all of us being blind!
    I know Krishna puts intensive time and work into designing her classes. Each piece we dance, she says, can take 15 hours to choreograph and memorize. We have new pieces every two weeks, and a rotating collection of units focused on families of movement. We all love her and love the blatantly obvious care she puts into our classes. Last week, a fellow student was thanking her for her dedication to us, as happened fairly regularly at the end of class, and sharing some not so positive experiences he’d had in other dance classes. Krishna listened, said thank you, and then said, “I do this work because all of you deserve the very best. Truly, in this world, you deserve the best teacher and the best classes, ones that center your needs.” It might sound disingenuous, but I felt near tears when she said that. I had never heard anyone say it with such conviction, that I, as a blind person, deserve the best. If I’m being honest, a part of me still thinks I deserve whatever crumbs a visual society can sprinkle my way. If I get 50 percent of the same experience with something as a sighted person does, I’m made to believe that is “good” and “progressive.” If I feel a little less on the outside and a little more included, it’s time to celebrate and claim we’ve done all we can. And here’s Krishna, working her ass off for her blind adult students, because we deserve the very best. My only hope is that we can give her all the grace, love, and support that she deserves, too.

  This month I am taking a sabbatical in Tumwater, which is just outside of Olympia. The idea came to me by way of my dear friend Sheva, whom I caught up with in person when she was visiting Seattle in August. Sheva is a seeker, someone I admire very much. She’s also someone who’s been doing lots of travel in the past few years, living in different places on work exchanges. I asked her where she’s been lately that she particularly liked. “I know I’m going to have to move eventually,” I explained, “There’s going to be a time when I can’t afford Seattle any more.” “I really liked Olympia,” Sheva said. I’d never thought about Olympia before. I assumed I would need to move out of Washington State to find another city with good transit and good vegetarian food. It turns out that Olympia does, in fact, have both. And since I’m working remotely right now, it seemed like the perfect time to book an Air BNB and see if I would fit with Olympia.
   Even though all of that sounds quite premeditated, I don’t actually have an end goal in mind for this month. I’m tired of end goals. They only serve a person so much, and there are enough areas of my life that are goal dependent. Here, I’m trying to let go of expectations, be in my present surroundings. It’s hard not to get caught up in future planning, but I am trying.
I’ve been exploring Olympia and going for walks with no particular destination. The coffee is great, the bus drivers have been truly courteous and amazing, and downtown Olympia has been easy to orient and get lost in. Kiva has an enclosed space to run around in at the back of the cottage where I’m staying, and she has been using that space to contentedly sniff for hours. I don’t think there’s much running happening. I’ve been working, writing, and cooking. The days pass quickly.
   Right now I’m eating a late breakfast at a diner in downtown called New Moon Cafe. It’s a worker-owned cooperative restaurant, and they have great vegan food. I like the vibe here, down-to-earth and unpretentious. It’s inviting and warm.
  The thing is, I’ve been feeling so stuck lately. My job is a dead end, some of my relationships feel stagnant. And the thing about being stuck in those areas is that there’s not much I can control there, not without other people doing their part. What I can do is create my own momentum, remind myself that I am myself: independent, capable, resourceful, open, and curious. I forget this in my day to day, but I hope I will remember this month after I return to Seattle, and remember that I am still me.

Hi my beloveds, how are you? I realize it’s been ages since I’ve been here, and I’m not sure why. Or, I’m a little sure why. Writing has been hard, but it’s been hard since the start of the pandemic and the reason I thought it was hard for months was that nothing new was happening in my life. I’m a creature of novelty. The other day I got paranoid out of my mind because I watched a video about narcissism and one of the top traits is novelty-seeking. Also, the title of the video was something like, “Why are narcissists always bored?”, and I read that and was like, oh shit, that’s me. If you know me and haven’t mentioned to me that I might be narcissistic but you think I am, please let me know.
   Anyway. Now things are sort of happening. I got my second vax in late May. Then waited the 2 weeks for science, then went out for a celebratory beer. I saw my friend’s band play at the farmer’s market in my neighborhood on my birthday, and 2 weeks ago I returned to my pole studio for in-person classes for the first time since March 2020. Even though these things are things I used to do, they are new again because of their absence in my life, and yet, even they have not inspired me to write.
   Of course, any writer worth a semicolon, (and semicolons are worth a lot, when used judiciously), will tell you that if they waited for inspiration to strike before they write, they would never write. You’re supposed to write anyway, even when, especially when, you’re not inspired. Those are the secret writerly rules. And I have been writing, unmotivatedly. My word counts have been feeble, though the writer rules would tell you not to pay attention to word count. What I’m saying is, there’s just not much to see here.
   What I’m also saying, if I’m being honest, is that “reentry” or “getting back to the new normal” has been difficult for me. Not impossible, not in a way I anticipate will last forever. I’ve had it blissfully good this past year: being able to work from home, having work at all. My struggles are with the reentry into ableism, into a world that I have battled with my entire life. The thing about not taking transit for 15 months is I almost forgot what that was like: people trying to schmooze my dog, telling me uninvited stories about their disabled friends, or the time they were “legally blind” for 5 minutes before they got the right glasses, or stopping me in the middle of a block to ask, “Where’re you trying to go?”, as if I am constantly lost. I also forgot how much energy it takes to navigate sidewalks with stuff everywhere: cars parked in weird places, people loitering, posts and poles and parking meters and restaurant tables and millions of other little things. I am easily frustrated and easily irritated. I’m probably a little depressed, probably a good time to get back into therapy. I am lucky to have that option, too.
   This morning I walked over to a coffee shop in my old neighborhood that I haven’t been to since early last year. There’s a big wall up blocking the stairs I usually take to get in. A guy leaned over it from the other side: “You have to go around,” he said. I stared at him, trying to hear over the brain-breaking rumble of Stone Way construction.
   “Around,” I said.
  “Yeah, just go left at the corner and go down the other way.”
   “Why?” I said stupidly, like he was the coffee shop guard and could explain all the changes this place  went through during the past year.
   Miraculously, though, he could. “Since they serve beer on this patio, the city made them put up a wall.”
   “Cool,” I said, “I haven’t been here in a while. Thank you.”
   That seems to sum it all up: I haven’t been here in a while. Where “here” is “anywhere.” So I’m getting used to being places again. It’s going to take a while. I’m going to have to be ok with that.

I am not a Hashtag: More Thoughts on PWD

  A few years ago, I wrote a post about the acronym PWD, (persons or people with disabilities). I’d like to expand on that here, because it has, as I feared but suspected, become ever more pervasive as my years of work in accessibility have progressed.
   For a bit of grounding, if you’re new here, hello! I’m a blind person. I’m also a person who is a lot of other things, but for this context, I will focus on the blind bit. I’d like to tell you a little about my employment history, which has mirrored thousands of blind people and people with other disabilities in its chaotic trajectory. I am 35, and have only worked at a company as a fulltime employee, with health care and benefits, for the past two years. (Not even two years, a year and 7 months, more accurately.) The rest of my adult life, I have either been unemployed or underemployed, working a series of temp, volunteer, and contract jobs, making minimal if any money and having no access to employer-provided health care. My parents provided me a safety net. I was extremely privileged and lucky, but many people don’t have that luck. My lack of employment and reliance on my parents’ generosity caused me incredible guilt and shame. I had anxiety and insomnia to the point that during the day, I would sometimes get lost and confused outside on the streets, or forget what I was doing, or picture how much easier everyone’s life would be if they didn’t have to deal with me any more.
     The statistic that gets thrown around is that 75 percent of blind people are unemployed. We are cautioned by some against giving this statistic, because it often does not account for retired people, people who aren’t actively looking for work, or people with other circumstances that might prevent them from working. I choose to use the 75 percent though, because it is accurate in its implications: a staggering number of blind people struggle to find work, much less build meaningful careers. These struggles come with all the consequences you’d expect: poor mental health, poverty, and continued societal oppression.
    Right now, I am lucky enough to have a job. I test experiences on Microsoft applications for accessibility and usability. Awesome, I’m lucky to have work, especially right now. That I have held a steady income throughout this pandemic has been nothing short of miraculous.
    There’s a problem though, one that makes me unhappy on a daily basis and sometimes contributes to a low-thrumming hopelessness I feel about people with disabilities being able to integrate fully into the workforce. My colleagues have been using the term PWD to refer to their customers and users with disabilities, and they also use it to refer to me and my colleagues who are disabled. In this instance, my colleagues and I are all blind or visually impaired. Yet, we are simply referred to as the PWD team. It’s as if my job title is Lauren Back, PWD. It’s as if my job role is Lauren Back, PWD. I’m never recognized for my professional skills, only my PWDness. The other day I was in a meeting and someone wrote in in the chat, “So excited about the new PWD hire!”
    Frankly, this language is extremely othering for me. I am not a PWD hire. I am not part of a PWD team. In an attempt to do the “right thing” and hire people with disabilities, we need to be careful about over-correction leading to the same issues of othering and isolation occurring in the workplace as well as outside of it. I hear people talk about wanting to make devices and apps that help people with disabilities succeed in the workforce, help them thrive and get promotions and contribute to the diverse human tapestry. Great! If that’s how you feel, don’t throw us all together on a special team and give us a hashtag so you can look noble and good to other corporations. Though I believe many people are sincere, the real way to ensure a change is to integrate, to take skill into account, to treat us like individuals with specific talents and interests and not just a interchangeable “PWD” monolith.
    One last thing: my colleagues with disabilities and I are all blind or have low vision. “People with disabilities” encompasses many more disabilities than just blindness. Would you say, “So excited for the new blind hire!” If that makes you uncomfortable, you probably shouldn’t say, “So excited for the new PWD hire!” Would you say, “So excited for the new LGBT hire!” or the new POC hire, or the new woman hire? PWD is reductive. Please treat us as individuals, with the diverse interests and talents of any able-bodied person.
    I welcome any feedback on this post and I am open to dialogue. My word is not, nor should it be, the last word. Please feel free to share this post or excerpts from it whereever you think would be helpful.

    Hi everyone, how are you all doing?
    It’s hard to know what to come here and say, honestly. I feel the desire to write to you, and yet I have nothing of interest to write about. I haveo/,n’t been traveling. I haven’t been on a bus since March, so I have no good “people being annoying on public transit” stories. I realized the other day that I have, somewhat without meaning to, crafted a very busy virtual life, what with choir practice and recorder trio rehearsals and, along with my teammates, completely reorganizing the Real Rent Duwamish campaign. I still work my dayjob. I take writing seminars. I talk to friends on the phone and my family on Zoom. I cook and make jam sometimes and watch my dog retrace circles around the living room and kitchen. I take my pole dance classes, virtually. I started kayaking on Wednesdays with a friend who is now my neighbor, and that’s pretty much the outside in the world highlight of my week. I read my books. I rack up meters on my rowing machine.
    So I am busy. It’s a nice life, really. I am no longer constantly obsessed with remembering the last time I left the house and calculating when I might get the opportunity to leave the house again. That desire has gone from panicky and grasping to low-grade, always in the back of my mind but not particularly urgent. Our “new lives” are becoming chronic instead of immediately shocking, and I feel the sustained fatigue of my “new life.”
    I have a gratitude practice, which I’ve been doing for several years, where I write down something I’m grateful for at the end of each day. Sometimes it’s more than one thing, but I only require myself to write down one so that I have no excuse not to do it. Looking back over the last few months, my gratitudes have become simple, present-focused moments: sitting in the sun, eating a peach, steaming coconut milk for my coffee. (Actually, many if not most are food related.)
    Intentional gratitude does help me constantly check my privilege. I am safe. I don’t have an essential job. I am ok right now.
   But I do have to hope for life to be more than this again. Someday. Please.

Disability as a Strength?

So, hi, everyone! Did you miss me popping in here to complain about yucky icky ableism? If so, you’re in luck! If not, you’ve been warned.
So, here’s the thing. I work in tech accessibility. And there’s someone I work with, for more precisely, who has been on a mission recently promoting this idea of “accessibility as a strength.” His premise is that rather than falling back into the societal prevailing narrative that people with disabilities have limitations and weaknesses, we need to view disability as a strength. Or, put in his own words, “You see, that’s another way disability is ACTUALLY a strength.” I picture him doing a self-congratulatory mic drop every time he says this.
Here’s why it’s awkward to be in the room, (Zoom or otherwise), when this line of discourse commences.
First, it’s just weird to have a disability and to hear able-bodied people talking about disability as if it is this thing outside of the space we are all currently sharing. I feel a tension around “people with disabilities” as this amorphous group of anonymous people that we need to be thinking about but that are not living and breathing right here in this room. “I’m here!” I want to yell. Except that then, I will have to speak, and when I am called on to speak in a room of able-bodied people, I feel like I’m being asked to embody a radically diverse community. All I am is blind. Disability encompasses so much more than that. So I feel stuck in between silence and speech.
Secondly, I feel frustrated with the binary of strength or weakness. Yes, it’s important to look at disability through a frame other than weakness. But the default alternative does not have to be strength. The alternative could simply be another shade in the tapestry of lived human diversity and experience. I’d argue that line of thinking should be the default, not the framing of strength versus weakness.
I hope in my lifetime we will experience advancements in hiring, to the point where people with disabilities are known and represented inside and outside the workplace. Where we are a regular part of visible life in those workplaces, and our disabilities are not singled out in big speeches but acknowledged as part of day to day life.

I Take my Chances

I was listening to All Songs Considered the other day and heard mention that Mary Chapin Carpenterwas out with a new album. I was reminded that back in the day, I had a Mary Chapin Carpenter album on cassette. I searched Spotify. Sure enough, Come On Come On, released June 20, 1992. I would have been 6, three days from 7. I was not expecting much as I started the first track, but honestly, the minute I heard that twangy guitar, so iconic of 90’s “modern” country, I was transported to my family’s station wagon, primed for a road trip. I thought about Sugar Babies, a candy I favored that my parents would buy when we stopped for gas. I am sure I haven’t thought about Sugar Babies in decades. They were sweet and texturally unremarkable. I can’t fathom the tastes of a 7-year-old Lauren, but I digress.

More than any holiday, any Christmas or Halloween, I am nostalgic for summers. My childhood summers feel idyllic as paintings, as memory ages them. I often feel the most cut off from my childhood and my family in the summer because I live in Seattle, where the air carries no oppressive humidity and temperatures stay around 70 most days. It’s a weird thing to mourn: I’m sure if I still lived in the middle of the country I would be cursing the heat like everyone else. As it is, I indulge in the heat and music memories of my 7 and 8-year-old summers.

I’m not going to pretend this music is objectively good. I’ve never claimed my tastes are particularly high-brow, Sugar Babies being the prime example. However, I will say that Mary has a lovely voice, and a range that I can sing in, which is not usually the case for pop stars. But also, her songwriting is, if not the most original, really empowering. I recall “Passionate Kisses”, the song that I adored on the radio and the reason I asked for the cassette in the first place. I believe I asked my mother what passionate kisses were, and I think her answer was satisfactory: enough information to tamp my curiosity. Also, apparently, enough information that I didn’t feel like asking any follow-ups.) The whole point of the song: MCC wants things. She says, “Is it too much to ask, I want a comfortable bed that won’t hurt my back?” She says, “Is it too much to demand, I want a full house and a rock and roll band

Pens that won’t run out of ink, and cool quiet and time to think.”

She says, “Shouldn’t I have this, shouldn’t I have this, shouldn’t I have all of this and … passionate kisses from you.” Let’s not forget the bridge: “I shouted out to the night, give me what I deserve, cause it’s my right!” And, all I can think as I’m listening to this song, nearly three decades later, “Damn right, it is your right! You should have everything!” And so should I. You could do worse as a 7-year-old little girl-person than to listen to this song. Assertive, uncompromising, clear-headed. Qualities that will serve you, little girl-person, very well.

As I listened through each song, I was awash with nostalgia. It was an unexpected salve to this really wretched year. But the best song, I think, the one that would have influenced me the most if I believed in subliminalism, would be “I Take my Chances.” The hook, “I take my chances every chance I get.” Again, a somewhat cheesy line. Again, a line that might as well have embedded itself into my subconscious, because it is how I have chosen to live a lot of my life. I’m not a daredevil, exactly, but I have intentionally tried to live in a way that feels authentic and in accordance with my values. Once I figured out what society expects a life trajectory to be, and realized that is not how I want MY life trajectory to be, I have worked to define my own path. Thanks Mary!

“Now some people say I shouldn’t tempt fate and for them I can’t disagree. But I never learned nothin from playing it safe, I say Fate should not tempt me.”

Happy summer to you. Sending you love and light and hopes for some fun, low-stake chance-taking in the months to come.



Thinking about Fiction

For most of my adult life, (or at least for as long as I have known what Myers-Briggs meant), I’ve identified as an introvert. Though I’m not any kind of Myers-Briggs cheerleader, I do feel that “introvert” makes sense for me. I like being alone some of the time, and I find that the best way for me to reenergize is to do some solitary activity: reading, writing, yoga, watching bird cams or people gardening on YouTube, blah blah blah, etc.
Lately, though, people have been telling me my self-perception could be wrong. During these last months of isolation, I’ve talked to a few friends who have teased me about how much I “do” while offering compassion for the sadness I’ve felt not being able to “do” all my things. “I don’t do THAT much,” I keep arguing. “You do a lot,” they say. “You do way more than me,” they also say.
I’ve had a long few months to mull this over. I guess it is true that I do a lot. One reason is because I live alone, and in order to make that work for me, (and it has worked well for many years), I need to have a life outside my apartment. I need to have robust community outside, so I can come inside and recharge like a respectable introvert. But also, if I’m being honest, I “do” things because they give me a serotonin boost. My brain likes the flashiness of navigating a busy downtown lunch hour, or the challenge of learning a new skill with strangers, or the wonder of walking around a new neighborhood. And then, I like to take that home and write about it. And my writing fuels my desire to walk more, learn more, and experience more.
I’ve probably mentioned this in this blog before, but several years ago my friend Arlie bought me a shirt that says, “I’m going to write about this.” I definitely have. And I definitely still would, except that right now “this” is eating cold spaghetti for dinner, leaning on the door of the fridge in a quarantine-fatigued daze. “This” is pulling everything out of my front hall closet and trying to stuff in back again in a way that allows more space for more stuff that I am compulsively browsing for on the Internet. “This” is the one novelty of what feels like my entire week: hosting a Zoom meeting with some writing friends and blasting them all into randomized “break-out rooms” at my whim. “This” is obsessively wondering what I can eat next. “This” is not anything I want to write about. And my guess is that “this” is nothing you want to read about, (uh, sorry about that), since you’re likely experiencing another painfully similar version wherever you are right now.
So, I find myself sprawled on the floor with my dog vigorously sniffing my hair, (weird), letting my crazy brain daydream about fiction. Letting my imagination frolic somewhere that is not here, through stars and caves and deep underwater and high over rainforests and pyramids. Or, I flit above other people’s imagined lives, float above their living rooms watching the kid chaos and the spousal stress and listening to the thoughts of escape. In my mind, I write fiction. I write about experiences I can’t have right now. I write, pulling from, hoping for, an imagination I have not previously tried to find. I try to “do” all the things I want to do in a new way.
Are you trying to think about things in new ways right now? Or, are there ways other people see you in which you’re only beginning to see about yourself?

What I’m Doing

Watching the tiny seedlings I planted 10 days ago slowly sprout. Misting them gently and warming my hands under their grow light. Thinking about eating microgreens.
Participating in a recorder practice challenge. Some people do push-up challenges, I do recorder challenges and I’m not sorry. Playing my etudes and all the chromatics. Composing little dances and fuges for the bass.
Reading too much stuff about coronavirus and our impending doom. Not reading enough other stuff. Wanting to only read poetry for a month, but feeling that would be irresponsible.
Tracking my resident neighborhood robin on my walks around the block with Kiva. Contemplating how comforting it is that birds have no knowledge of this.
Finally being able to adhere to my long-held but barely-enforced rule, “Drink the tea you have before you buy more tea, lest your apartment become a tea museum.” Ditto eating all the jam I made last summer.
Worrying about my pickle supply. Some people freak out about toilet paper, I freak out about pickles. Aren’t we all unique and wonderful?
Feeling freaked out and discombobulated and anxious and all the things that prove I am not, in fact, unique.
Cleaning stuff like my fridge. It was really dirty. I am shame.
Hearing about babies being born and thinking that being born into this world right now seems unfathomable.
Sipping whiskey at my kitchen table, watching the light dim in the sky.
Stretching while watching the sun come up.
Feeling helpless. Feeling sad.
Hoping I can be resilient. Hoping I can continue to remind myself that right now, this is not about me and my discomfort and my loneliness.
Rolling on the floor with my dog. She is the cutest and the best and the most oblivious.
Wondering about all of you. What are you doing? What are you thinking about?
Stay strong, my loves.