Southern legitimacy statement T. Jeremy Smith grew up on a dairy and tobacco farm in South Central Kentucky. After spending much of his childhood running from his older brother, Jeremy spent 20 years as an adult running from the degenerative retinal disease that continues to steal his eyesight. Jeremy now lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and works as a mental health professional when not screaming Bruce Springsteen lyrics into a microphone.
Blonde, Hot, and Blind
Heidi stands two feet from me, but we couldn’t be further apart. She’s three, maybe four years older than me, in a period of life where three or four years seems like a lot. Her poise and self assured manner add to a cake that needed no icing.
Thin, with long curly hair that frames her face and falls in graceful waves down her back, she stands straight as an arrow, strands of beautiful blonde curls reaching across her shoulder to direct functioning eyes toward her breast. Long, shapely legs end with a pair of shorts, well above the knee. The only object that seems out of place is the white cane she carries in her right hand.
“I’m just not comfortable riding the bus, getting off in the dark, while carrying my cane. You know what I mean?”
“Sure. You have to consider personal safety, things I don’t worry about as a dude.”
Heidi and I have been temporarily paired up as we cross paths in the administrative offices of our shared Graduate School program. Being two of the three visually impaired students in our program, someone thought it a good idea to introduce us.
I ask some very practical questions about campus, about the community, and the two of us walk out of the office into a hallway where several other folks, students, administrators and faculty mingle before or after class. Heidi swings her cane with proper technique from one side to the other, stopping just beyond a shoulder, when the cane’s tip gets momentarily stuck on the lip of a stair. Forced from her hand, the cane spills to the ground with a clatter that draws every eye in the corridor. Two, possibly three men move quickly, stooping to grasp the white cane and heroicly return it to the waiting hand of the damsel in distress. Thank you’s granted, Heidi continues on her way, rewarding us all with one final view.
In the time I spent at the University of Vermont, I’m not sure I ever saw Heidi again, but our meeting left me with some serious questions about what it means to be an attractive woman while blind, and how that differs for men.
I grew up in an area with very clear gender roles. Men work. Men don’t cry. At the intersection of Southern values and a John Wayne kind of masculinity, men did not ask for help and only the fiercely independent could expect to survive. Those who did not meet this exacting standard for manliness were taunted relentlessly or left to die on the vine, fruit judged imperfect.
This bullshit model for manhood remains, and fundamental to this failed ideology is an open disdain for weakness. Set against my childhood obsession with heroism, an obvious conflict emerges.
How does a man with real needs express those needs without becoming and/or appearing to be “needy?” How does a man maintain his sense of confidence and self worth as circumstances chip away at one’s independence, one’s sense of competence? How does a blind man behave with chivalry? What is heroism to the man who cannot do the things he believes heroic?
I stand outside my office waiting for the door to door shuttle service I use to get around town. It’s cheap because it’s not at all precise in its arrival or departure time. In other words, cost correlates with a lot of standing around waiting, mumbling profanities under your breath.
As usual, my mind is elsewhere, focused on tomorrow, the weekend, or some earworm that’s lodged in my brain. I have an ear bud dangling from one ear flipping through junk e-mail or a Facebook feed where I read one in ten posts. For this reason, I don’t hear the shuffling feet or the sound of the walking cane tapping its way toward me. My white cane is folded and tucked into the ragged messenger bag I carry to and from work, so I have no excuse at hand for my inaction.
I have no idea if its an elderly man or woman that passes me by, but the sound of soles scooting across the ground , barely being lifted from one step to the next immediately reminds me of my 91 year old grandmother. Under normal circumstances the smell of strong perfume would likely aid in my identification, but I smell nothing. The elderly person is beside me now and I finally pull away from the device in my hand long enough to realize I could be helpful. I make a quick half turn to the front door of the office building and consider walking the two or three long strides that would place me at the door in time to hold it open for this elderly individual, but in bright light, I cannot see them and I fear I might accidently kick the cane from their hand. The momentary pause is long enough that I now fear swinging the door open and smacking the individual in the head with it as I grab and pull it toward those wishing to enter.
As a result of these many possible disaster scenarios, I do nothing. I turn back to the road as the door opens and the individual enters. I have visions of a scowl thrown my way before they walk inside, but I cannot know if that’s reality. My feeling of inadequacy is true however.
Twenty years have passed since I stood talking with Heidi. She lives now in my memory, a vision of physical beauty and graceful adaptation to a thing I have fought my entire life. Scarred and mamed from the years of constant battle, I persist. No surrender.
I see so differently now, and the image that exists in my mind is not one I could actually see today. In the best of light, with appropriate contrast, a suitable backdrop, and specialized sunglasses, Heidi might be pieced together from a composite, flashes stitched together after twisting my head and neck in every conceivable direction, instructing her to move this way and that as if I were conducting a modeling shoot. This is what it means to have a limited visual field. Only portions of my eye function well enough to provide information my brain can interpret. It’s why I ask people to describe the photo I’m looking at. With orientation to what’s in front of me, I use my imagination to fill in the gaps. Sometimes this works, bringing an image to life as my friends describe the new guitar they bought or a photo they uncovered from fifteen years ago. Sometimes I smile and pretend.
I could touch Heidi if she stood before me today, to know what I was missing. It’s the only way to form an image I can trust. And I could get kneed in the balls for my trouble.
Visual impairment can’t be easy for anyone, and I hesitate to make any claim suggesting that Heidi has had an easier go of it than I. But I would hazard a guess that she’s not sitting alone on a Sunday morning. Of course, I overlook the issues, the pressures that are hers. Heidi wore no make up the day we met; yet, her outfit and hair seemed carefully put together. Even with extremely limited sight, Heidi felt the same expectations of presentation every woman faces.
I imagine her standing outside my office building, the elderly person walking by. In dark sunglasses and professional attire, Heidi waits patiently, cane in hand. I’m confident she never tucks her white cane away, never seeks to hide from what she is. There she stands, straight and proud and unflinching, as all manner of judgment passes her by. She helps when and where she can, unperturbed by a wish unfulfilled.
My version of masculinity, of heroism and courage are all born of comic books, Saturday morning cartoons and He-Man. I don’t look to the actions of the men around me when I consider what it means to be honorable, heroic, I look to movies and novels, characters born to a world of imagination. My version of masculinity is one that lives in fantasy, in the stories and tales human beings have been telling for the entirety of our existence, a demonstration of the virtue possible, and not reality. This is a delusion that must change.
Heidi’s physical beauty was a smoke screen, a diversion from what might have been the true value of our interaction. In all my male arrogance, I overlooked the strength and courage before me. Enamored of soft skin and flowing hair, I failed to recognize the power Heidi represented. When we met, my eyes were an inconvenience. They forced me to use audio books, limited my transportation options, but they were not the overwhelming influence they are today. Fifteen years before I needed a white cane, Heidi was already using one. Facing down her own fears, she did it, with perfect posture, a cheerful attitude, and a drive to be part of the world no matter what. Fuck He-Man. Heidi should have been my hero.