Marilyn Brandt Smith and Bonnie Blose
YOU CAN'T SKIP THE SCARY STUFF*
"What is something you did which, given the chance to repeat, you would not do again?" That question was proposed as a prompt for writers.
I met Bonnie in a writers' group on a voicemail phone system popular with blind hobbyists. Our friendship grew richer through private calls and live phone conferences. We often discussed topics before writing about them, and one summer morning with the 3:00 AM courage of a wide-awake night, Bonnie answered that question.
"I never tell this story to strangers," she began. "This came from a Bonnie you don't know. I was ignored, almost undermined, by the people I moved to Ohio to share my life with. Bill hadn't told them I was blind. That was their first surprise. I was interested in cultural and educational things like books and informative radio and TV shows—they weren't. I didn't fit into their world. They didn't talk to me on the phone; they didn't listen when I asked for simple courtesies like not blocking my path with their cars always parked in front of our house.
"I suppose I had been subconsciously waiting for a defining moment, and it came one summer Sunday morning when I was home alone. While outside for a breath of fresh air, I found another one of those cars blocking my way. It was just a little thing. We weren't expecting company who would need to park in that spot, but I guess you could say the dam broke.
"I started out by kicking the car. Then I beat on it and scratched it. The adrenalin was pumping, the rage had to go somewhere. I went into the house and found the toolbox. What I couldn't do with my hands, I did with a hammer. Did I care about watchers? No! Did I care what happened later? Not at all. Scratches became scars and dents became valleys. Finally satisfied, I went inside, and waited for the other shoe to drop.
Bonnie almost whispered, "It never did. Did I win? Did they finally get the message that I was a voice to be dealt with? I felt better, of course, but later I felt guilty or at least amazed that I let my anger and frustration lead me to a violent solution.
"Nothing was ever said at the time, but years later, I learned it was a vintage collectable from the 60's, being restored by a close family member. It cost thousands to repair. My sister-in-law told me much later that she admired and respected me. I suspect that my little temper tantrum might have had something to do with that. Although I didn't make any drastic changes at that time, I Think I understood that there was an unmeasured strength somewhere inside me. If push came to shove, as it did later, I subconsciously knew that there was a Bonnie who could cope. I just had to find her."
A few months later in a private call, I was reminiscing with Bonnie about that story. "It's hard to picture this young blind woman taking a hammer to some jock's prize auto like that, especially knowing you as a mature, problem-solving, sensible woman of today. You've had quite a life."
"By the way," she laughed, "did you get those essays I E-mailed you?"
At the time, I was editing an anthology of stories by writers with disabilities, and Bonnie trusted my judgment enough to ask for critiques on essays she'd written over the years. What she really wanted to know was whether I had read them. I needed that nudge, and when I read them, I couldn't wait to get back to her with my comments.
"Your essays are thought-provoking. You realize what you're doing is journaling? Of course, you don't have dates and times, and everything isn't exactly sequential, but I might feel a series of memoir articles brewing here."
"Jordan has hinted at that," Bonnie told me, "when we're just chatting before or after the radio show we do together about books. But talk to me some more about journaling. Should I be doing that?"
"Not if essays work better for you," I told her. "Just save everything. You never know when it's all going to gel, and you want to be ready. You can get editorial help so you don't have to worry about every little punctuation mark or simple word choice."
"But who would want to read it, and who would publish memoirs from someone they've never heard of?"
"You never know," I reminded her. "We writers look for interested audiences; readers look for writing that keeps them wondering what's coming next. Yours does that. You have a following from Jordan's show on WBZ, and from your own listeners on ACB Radio and your extensive work with Accessible World programs, promotions, and interviews. You have an unusual perspective from growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country."
"Oh, those V's and W's," she laughed, "I worked at getting rid of that accent. My brother still has a lot of it."
"You had the hard-working parents, the large extended family, and the small town that didn't know much about blindness. You wrote about being fascinated by the phone and the radio. That essay about animals was good, but we need specific references to the kitty or puppy or farm animals you knew as a child, and how you came full circle, and have two adorable cats today. We don't feel your love if you don't talk about rubbing them, feeding them, and worrying about them.
"I loved the way you wrote about sneaking extra phone calls with a little help from your mother. Anything that let you reach beyond your close-knit world grabbed your attention."
"I think that's why I was so captivated by my aunt," Bonnie explained. "In her own frivolous way she expanded my horizons beyond our world. She was flamboyant, daring, and paid special attention to me. I almost lost sight of how valuable my mother was in my life. Aunt Gloria was my heroine for quite a while."
"When you write it, you need to show us things your aunt did that your parents never would have done. Show us what drew you to her: movies, clothes, travel, humor. You said your mother didn't act jealous, and didn't protest your attachment to her?"
"She waited it out. I think she knew I needed to see another view of the world to appreciate my own world better. When the new wore off, I could see that stability mattered. Unfortunately, I lost my mother when I was twenty, so I never got a chance to show her, as an adult, how much I appreciated her letting me learn that lesson. If she had lectured, I would have misunderstood her motives. And speaking of misunderstandings, did I ever tell you about the money on the back porch?"
"I'm all ears," I answered.
"My twin brother found a bag of money on our back porch. It was over a thousand dollars, way too much to have been there. We couldn't figure out where it came from. Finally, my mother had to explain. She and George, a friend who was like an uncle, and who was losing his vision, were saving money secretly for the operation they believed would one day be available to restore my sight. There were many material things our family could have used, and it was a sacrifice based on the truest, deepest, and most unselfish kind of love. But I was a teenager without any confidence or self-esteem, and I misread it. I thought it meant they didn't love me the way I was, and were willing to spend money so I could meet their standards. It hurt my feelings, and of course, it hurt them that I had to find out about it at the wrong time."
"Bonnie, you are so good at looking back and seeing the little things that made big impressions on your life. That will help you write with depth. You write about a classmate who received all the attention and did everything right."
"I never thought I could equal her. Everyone held me up to her. The comparison frightened me and made me feel inadequate. Sure, we were both blind, but we didn't have the same abilities and skills. Books gave me a broader world to explore for fun or for escape."
"Did you stay friends, or was it a constant cat fight? You could show us some dialog. We'd get a better picture of the teenaged Bonnie. There's definitely some thought-provoking material here for a childhood memoir."
"You didn't write much from the young adult years," I said, "but I bet you continued to read."
"Other endeavors slowed me down a little, and Braille and books on record were hard to lug around, but yes, I read."
"You've shared experiences from your long-term relationship, and written about being a blind mom with a sighted son. You've made them a part of your recent essays. You've told us about the seizure that almost killed you, the fire when you lost everything you had…"
"What made that so devastating," Bonnie sighed, "was that I had been sitting in the room with all my music and books the afternoon before, thinking how lucky I was to have it all. My next vivid memory is the tug in the middle of my sleep, 'Bonnie, we have to get out, we're on fire, it's bad!' he said. I just froze. I was paralyzed. Half asleep, he helped me get out of there. If Bill hadn't been there, I wouldn't be here. An electrical short, who could have known? We stayed busy figuring out where to live, how to get clothing and food, and help our son Kevin deal with this traumatic change in our lives."
"I'm not sure you ever completely recover or forget the sirens, the shivering cold, going back to the empty lot and smelling the smoke where the house used to be," Bonnie continued. "Music haunted me for years. I didn't want to let myself love it again. Finally my best friend helped me get past my repression, and music is a big part of my life now. The reason you don't see anything in my essays about some of the earlier years is that everything was lost in the fire. I didn't have the courage or the energy to put all my memories and conclusions together again."
I paused to take it all in before making suggestions. "You did a good job with the smoke and the need to make peace with the fact that your house was gone, but we could use a little more. It would help us feel your loss if you mentioned specifics on the day before the fire—your Dan Fogelberg collection, the Braille magazines you were looking forward to reading, specific books you loved. Most of us have never been through anything like that. The morbid curiosity in us all makes us want to know the details. How long did you stay around and watch, were you able to save anything at all, did you have any animals?"
Bonnie was silent. I knew I had touched a nerve, so I moved on to another topic. "I read what you wrote about losing your partner, and your son losing his father."
"I couldn't help but compare my son's loss with that of Will Reeve after he lost both his parents. My son was devastated, but no matter how many apparent advantages Christopher and Dana Reeve's son had over mine, the pain is the same. Money won't buy relief from loss. Will received national attention. Kevin had family and community sympathy. But maybe the Reeve boy would have preferred not to be the focus of public attention."
"You could write a piece on surviving adversity. There are many who haven't been where you've been. Show how it stretches you to wake up one morning and realize you have to reinvent yourself, become a stronger woman."
"I stayed at the shallow end during most of my adult years, reasonably comfortable with my life. Suddenly, I was forced to face debts with no salary to pay them. I was angry with God. I had a son to finish raising, and no one to help me make decisions."
"Books preserved my sanity. I took an interest in preparing talks for the congregation at church, and became a lay speaker. That focus has taken me visiting to many churches outside my area. I had something to contribute to the world."
"Preparing those lay sermons helped you learn to organize material for good impact. That makes for good writing skills because the same sequencing and phrasing of word choices is what holds people's attention."
"How did the opportunity to co-host a show on books come to you?" I asked.
"I've been in love with the words and the music of language all my life. The Braille and recorded books I read as a child have given way to computer files in refreshable Braille; players that look like small radios; and cards and cartridges that can be carried in pocket or purse. But they all offer the same comfort, hope, entertainment, and information.
"My mother was the first person who patiently listened with interest to my reviews and opinions about the books I read. Friends shared favorite books with me through the years, but I never felt that I was showing enough appreciation for the joy I received from reading.
"One bitter winter night I was listening to Jordan Rich on WBZ in Boston. He has a twice-a-year show about books with author interviews and listener participation. I wanted to be part of all that, so I decided to call. My heart was beating double time. 'Jordan, you can make a dream come true for me,' I told him.
"'I could?' he wondered, 'What would that be?'
"'I've hosted some book groups at libraries and on the phone, and I'd love to co-host your book show sometime.'
"'Give your number to my producer and we'll talk,' he promised. I thought that might be the end of it, but Jordan called me the next week. He asked me to be ready to discuss fifteen books by the time of his next show. I've been doing that show twice a year for ten years now."
"You turned a serious hobby into a regular media opportunity and a jumping-off place for other book-related personal growth challenges," I summarized. "Lots of people have aspirations regarding radio. Just think of all the talk show callers. You should write your memoir about turning a dream into reality. It could focus someone's thoughts on a real contribution they could make to a radio show or Internet programming. You've written about how the Internet has allowed you to bring writers, readers, and reviewers together for live discussions about favorite genre and various styles of writing."
"Five years after I joined Jordan's show, my best friend Nancy told me I was a natural for the American Council of the Blind Radio format if they'd invite me to do a program on books available for blind readers. She hooked me up with Marlaina Lieberg in programming. I did my personal interview live on her show, and immediately took on the hosting of 'Books and Beyond.'
"I interview authors, publishers, and the professional narrators who read books for the blind. We spin off into other blindness-related topics occasionally involving technology, good gift ideas for holidays, and newsworthy current events in the disability movement.
"'Books and Beyond' partnered with another Internet programming organization, Accessible World. They now carry the original 'Books and Beyond' shows."
"You could consider an article about some of the interesting people you've interviewed," I suggested. "Many are authors familiar to the general public. The narrators and program facilitators for the blind are well known to that community. Of course you'd have to research permissions, copyrights and such associated with your interviews."
"But it would be a wonderful way to thank them all publicly," Bonnie agreed.
"The cyberspace revolution has changed the way we write and publish. You wrote that funny piece about spam…"
Bonnie's laugh interrupted my thought. "Oh, I was so naive when I got my first computer. I wasn't on many mailing lists for a while, so I felt neglected, out of the loop, because I wasn't receiving any spam. People thought I was crazy!"
"Do you embrace the new ways of doing things?"
"I have to," she stated. "Blind people have at least six format choices for reading material, and we read newspapers by phone through the National Federation of the Blind News Line. If you're going to contribute or produce something you want to share with the world today, it has to be in a format they are likely to access."
When writing profiles on authors," she continued, "I check their websites, reviews of their books, and then write notes for my interview and for announcements. I can write something to showcase what I believe the interview will offer my listeners. Of course I read as much of their work as I can."
"In one of your essays, you talked about how much you enjoy reading to other people. You're still doing that, right?"
"I still read Braille books to friends on the phone, and I moderate an 'Author a Day' group on the Philmore voicemail system to increase readers' knowledge and curiosity about books and authors."
"You wrote about your best friend's health issues."
"I haven't written much about it, because I think that's really Nancy's story. I was there when she needed me through chemotherapy and beyond."
"Yes, I remember talking to you around Thanksgiving when it was 'touch and go.' You may very well have saved her life."
"No one knew her resistance was so low," she said. "I only knew she had to get help. I did what any best friend would have done."
"You can make Nancy's story come alive from your perspective without looking like you're a glory seeker. Show us your efforts to find Nancy's dad, and to notify her friend in town who cared for her guide dog and visited her in the hospital every day. Let us feel your frustration when Nancy couldn't talk, and you couldn't get information from the nurses. We need to be able to touch your compassion."
"I was so scared of losing her," Bonnie said softly. "Doing my show without her just wouldn't be the same."
"You write about your dreams too; I assume you have some new ones?"
"I believe dreams are often our expectations for ourselves. They show us the potential, the light, and the magic. Reality tests our dreams at times, and we have to push the envelope. Risk is valuable. I want to take my interviewing, speaking, and love of books as far as I can."
"Just be sure you write it all down," I reminded. "Share your story, it might plant a seed or move somebody's mountain. You just never know."
*"You Can't Skip the Scary Stuff" was originally published in Behind Our Eyes (2007); this version is from Smith's recent book Chasing the Green Sun (2012).