Rites of Passage

Source: Look Into My Eyes/wikimedia commons

The next time I see Willa, we debrief about the encounter she had had with Andrew, whom she had mistaken as a piece of sculpture. She says, “He is beautiful,” and then pauses.  “At least I think he is!”  Her acknowledgment that her vision is limited is typically accompanied by humor, a wry awareness that her perspective may not match other people’s. The humor regulates the grief and terror she faces.

I’m aware that I don’t know how much Willa sees.  She saw the beautiful planes of Andrew’s face, but that was when she was literally three inches away from him.  She moves in and out of my office easily, and walks steadily and quickly on the sidewalk around town.  She always hugs me goodbye, and rests her cheek against mine: her sense of space, always strong in an architect, remains, and gives her confidence to move through the world and her changing position in it.  Willa gets the big picture, literally as well as figuratively, in her blindness. But she’s not so good at the details: reading the blueprints on the table at work, differentiating between sculpture and a living body. 

Today she starts with: “I just came from a meeting with a client.  It’s a small job: we’re renovating the entry to his house.  The design has the wood flooring perpendicular to the way you walk, which is unusual, and he told me that he didn’t like it, didn’t want it that way.”  She pauses, and one side of her mouth comes up in a tolerant smile.  “We talked about it, and I explained why I had designed it that way: how the design would slow people’s pace in that area, so they’d stop and see the artwork on the walls, and how the perpendicular lines would affect the stretch of space into the kitchen straight ahead. I had a lot of reasons for wanting it to be perpendicular, and I gave them all to him.  They are good reasons, and the resulting visual effect will be subtly stunning.  He insisted he didn’t like the idea.  We’re standing in the entry, looking down the space toward the kitchen, and I knew that I was right and he was wrong, so I said, ‘You’re the client, and I’ll change it if you insist.  But you’re paying me for my vision and my expertise, and I tell you that if you choose to not have the floor the way I’ve designed it, you’re making a mistake.’”  Willa pauses, looks up and smiles at me.  “He thought a minute, and then said, offhand, ‘Okay, do it your way.’”

I laugh.  “Smart move, Mister!”  She nods. “It sounds really interesting,” I comment, “to have the floor that way.”  She picks up the thread of conversation immediately, her passion for design bubbling out.  “It’s the way it should be in that space. That’s why I played my ‘I’m the architect’ card.  I know what’s right for that space.  I know design.”  She stops for a minute, and then adds, “That’s why I sometimes feel like I just can’t lose my eyesight.” 

We sit with the enormity of the loss.  Eventually I say, quietly, “You said last time that you are in a state of liminality.”  She turns her face to me as I continue.  “Liminality means standing in a threshold from one place to another.”  We smile at each other, aware of the entryway with its perpendicular lines: a threshold she controls.

Willa nods. “Yes, that’s where I am. I wish I had the expertise, or even simply the vision—” she laughs.  “The figurative vision to see where I’m going.” 

Again, there is a brief pause between us.  I find myself thinking of her walking in town, pausing to listen for traffic at intersections before crossing a street. What dangers lurk in this transition she is entering?  How can I help keep her safe?

As if reading my mind, Willa tells me that she went on a bicycle ride over the weekend: “By myself, on country roads.”  I stare at her. Country roads have cars, not many, but some. “I had a bit of a scare,” she says with a rueful smile but a serious tone.  “I suddenly realized that I had gone through an intersection without realizing it.” “Without realizing it?” I echo.  She tells me which intersection, and I felt a jolt of fear hit my heart.  “You went through that intersection without realizing it?” I say slowly.  “Yes.  Scary, huh?”  I swallow.  “You could have been killed.”  “Yup,” she says, “or been disabled, or caused a driver to get hurt or killed in an effort to avoid hitting me.” She’s not flippant; she’s frightened.

She offers a possible accommodation: “I guess I could try to find someone to ride with me, someone who would tell me if an intersection is clear or if I need to stop.  But I’ve ridden alone all my life. What I love about bicycling is being alone out in the country, the smells, the sounds, the feel of the wind and road, and of course the beauty of the landscape. Which I can’t really see anymore.”  Grief etches her face.

Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography

“Willa,” I say, “you have to stop riding.  It’s too dangerous.”  A long silence.  “You’re saying that with authority,” she comments at last.  “Yes.”  “Authority like my telling my client that it would be a big mistake if he changed the design of the entryway. I’m paying you for your expertise, and you’re giving it to me.”  “Yes.”  Willa nods.  “All right,” she says, “I hear you.  Okay. I’ll give up my bicycle.”  That last sentence is only time I have ever heard Willa’s voice wobble with tears.   

Source: Fanoftheworld/wikimedia commons

Willa shakes herself, as she does when she feels anxiety gripping her a little too tightly.  “I got my piano,” she says, punctuating her need to change the topic.  “And I called a woman who is supposed to be a really good piano teacher.  She’s coming over on Wednesday.”  Her children have bought her a piano for her 70th birthday.  She has experience playing guitar, played trombone in her high school marching band, sang in a local chorus “until I couldn’t read the music anymore.”  We discuss the ways music, like architecture, is abstract, creating meaning out of the relationship between what is there—a sound, a physical mass—and what is not there—silence, emptiness.  Happiness enters me when I picture her at the piano: the instrument has the potential to meet some of the needs that architecture, and her bicycle, have filled for her.   

“I had a great dream the other night,” Willa says.  “I dreamed that I had just finished a really big project. There’s usually a party when a project is done, and there were a lot of people at the party.”  Willa is far away in her thoughts; the vision in the dream absorbs her.  “I thanked everyone involved in the project, and then I said ‘I am so very happy to have been able to do this work, to make this building, because I have done so while legally blind.’  There’s a ripple of amazement in the crowd, and then I leave: a grand exit into retirement.”  She laughs.  “I love it when dreams are so incredibly obvious,” she says.

I sit quietly, reveling in the creative work she is doing.  And then I raise the possibility that she is in the midst of various rites of passage: rites of separation as she acknowledges her lack of vision, and relinquishes her beloved bicycle.  Transitional rites:  getting the piano, learning to transform mass into sound. The outline of a rite of incorporation: the dream of the swan-song party marks the way to a new role, new identity. She puts her glasses on and focuses her attention on the space over my right shoulder.  “I will have to think about that,” she says.  And I know she will be back next week with some designs for passage through the liminal space she is in now. 

Working with Willa leaves me alert and stimulated: the alliance between us is emotional, certainly, but also intellectual and spiritual. In session, we talk about literature— figurative blindness in Moby Dick last week; literal blindness in a short story by Raymond Carver the week before that. We talk about love and sex, faith and good works. We oscillate between the abstract and the material, choreograph a dance between loss and growth. 

When Willa leaves today, she gives me her usual hug, but looks in my face rather than laying her cheek on mine.  She still has her glasses on, and I think she really sees me.  She is three inches away from my face, as she had been from Andrew’s the week before.  “This is good,” she says, and her tone holds the reverence she expressed when she described Andrew’s face as beautiful.

There are holy moments in therapy, and today the architect made my office a cathedral.

Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography

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