My husband recently befriended a blind lady named Laura*. Almost daily, with the exception of the first two months of the year, Laura walks along a pathway set above a little canal near our apartment (and hers) using only her white cane and an incredible sense of direction. She’s about 48 with a lovely disposition and short brown hair. It was near this waterway where they met one day when she was walking so fast that Alex worried she might take a tumble down the concrete stairs leading to the path. He needn’t have worried—she knew exactly where she was going, as he would soon learn. It turns out she’d been commandeering this walkway for years, and had already sussed out her landmarks and orientation points and was in total control.
After he pointed out that there was water below the path and she should be careful, she politely told him (in not so many words) ‘Look buddy, I appreciate your concern, but I got this.’ They started chatting anyway, and began running into each other more and more. After awhile they formed a bond. I like to walk there too, so I also got to know this gem of a woman.
We quickly learned that Laura didn’t go there just to make small talk with strangers or get her daily exercise, although those are both somewhat true. Her main goal is to sit by the water’s edge and listen to two different passenger vessels that pass by several times a day. She knows their schedules, down to the minute, and makes sure to be by the water’s edge for at least 15 minutes before they arrive. The passing of each ship is an event that takes probably all of 4 minutes if I’m being generous, but she arrives early in order to enjoy it to the fullest. She says it’s like a meditation, perhaps even a religious experience. She can hear them before they turn the corner and feels drawn to their sound. The ships’ captains know Laura, and blow their horn when they pass ‘her’ spot by the canal. Her mother sometimes accompanies her on these strolls and always brings Laura on one of the maiden voyages at the beginning of each season. Waiting for the ships is a ritual that has become more than just an important part of her life—it’s truly her primary joy, the highlight of each day.
Alex often gets into deep discussions with Laura about life: politics, art, anything really. She loves sci-fi movies and ‘intelligent’ documentaries, and has a wicked little sense of humor. She is nothing if not practical, because she has to be. Alex has a remarkable way with people, and can ask tough questions without appearing rude or like he’s interfering. It’s truly a gift of his. (I do not have that gift.) Fairly early on he asked her what it was like to know that others could see but she couldn’t. She explained that it’s a lonely life, but that she’s resigned to it and mostly content. She always leaves us humbled and wondering why we would ever complain about anything.
Once we were chatting with her and I mentioned something about my spiritual stuff. I can’t remember what it was; probably Reiki or something. Alex said, ‘Oh, Marian, did you know? My wife is a bit of a witch. (His mother tongue is German and he calls me a Hexe). So I told her a little about my beliefs and mentioned something about us ‘all being one, connected by universal laws.’ We had never discussed anything like this before, and suddenly she went silent. There was a pregnant pause, and something in her face changed. I was a bit anxious and impulsively wanted to fill the silence (I AM American after all!) but something told me to wait. I thought, ‘Uh oh, I just freaked Laura out. I know that look. Next time we see her, she’ll be all, ‘Oh I have to hurry! No time to chat!’ But then with a curious face, she said in her clipped Viennese accent, ‘I am interested in a lot of things, including what you just mentioned, but I am absolutely NOT spiritual. Not at all.’ But then she proceeded to deliver the following in virtually flawless English: ‘Although…I do feel deeply connected to certain things. I love my two ships. I feel so connected to them; it’s as if they’re a part of me… I feel, hear and know in my depths the difference between them, as if they were my own children. Some people love humans, some are connected to animals, I have my ships.’
And as the daylight began to fade and we all got up to leave, Laura added, ‘We are all made of stardust, every single one of us, and sometimes we just align with things wholly and completely.’
I just stood there for a minute, fully in awe of her. Not in just her uncanny ability to get around, or her stellar English, but also her ability to create—and delight in—a profound sense of magic in her tiny, dark corner of the world. How many of us could walk that path, both literal and metaphorical, without a sense of self-pity or sorrow? I’m not sure most of us could.
*not her real name