My first day of school jitters reminded me of being a kid.  I barely slept a wink the night before classes began.  My younger sister is graciously allowing me to crash on her couch while I’m in Seattle for classes every 3 weeks.  And she even made me a “first day of school” sign along with all sorts of school supplies and snack goodies waiting for me when I arrived at her apartment.  Sisters are the best!!!

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One of the questions I’ve been asked most about going back to school is, “What does MSW mean?” Master of Social Work is the full title of the program, and the field has a long and interesting history (which I am totally geeking out over, so if you have a few spare hours, I’ll take you on a trip down the memory lane of social work compliments of my required course readings).  Social work is often one of those obscure fields of work that leave people who don’t work in the field wondering what exactly it’s all about. While some consider it a noble profession,  others have negative impressions based on personal experiences or observations from the media.  Some have accused the field of having a bit of an identity crisis since practitioners work in a wide variety of roles.  From my perspective, the social work field is appealing because of these vast opportunities including leadership and direct service roles, research, policy, “licensed” clinical work, and many opportunities to affect social change.

The following definition was approved by the IFSW General Meeting and the IASSW General Assembly  in July 2014:

Global Definition of the Social Work Profession

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance well-being.

The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels”. (www.ifsw.org)

I’m still in the process of exploring the type of field work (internships, practicums, etc) that I’d like to pursue, which comprises a large percentage of my education in this program.  Meanwhile, I find myself feeling inspired by the faculty, and fellow students in my cohort.  After meeting many of my professors at orientation in September, I am not at all surprised that this is a top ranked program worldwide.

But still….why social work? Why now? Well, first of all there is A LOT of work to be done when it comes to oppression and social issues in this country, and around the world.  I’m rolling up my sleeves, and ready to be in the thick of it because there is too much pain and suffering for me to ignore this calling in my life.  I’ve woken up to the fact that I am extremely privileged in many ways, and yet my disability has allowed me to experience a degree of prejudice and inequity firsthand.  Also, the advocacy and education work that Joy and I started on this blog over 6 years ago would likely not exist if it were not for the counseling services I received from a licensed MSW, which gave me the space I needed to explore feelings of grief, anger, and sadness over my vision loss.  I am beyond grateful for the people in my life who are supporting me as I begin this journey – my husband, kids, parents, siblings, extended family, friends and neighbors.

“In the unceasing ebb and flow of justice and oppression we must all dig channels as best we may, that at the propitious moment somewhat of the swelling tide may be conducted to the barren places of life.”
― Jane AddamsTwenty Years at Hull House

 

This is one of those topics that, in an ideal world, would not need special attention.  But since we at Doublevision blog believe strongly in educating the public and bringing awareness to blindness related issues, this post is necessary.  All these points are based on real actual situations that have happened to us or someone we know.

“How did you get here?”
In a society that highly values independence, most adults have their own personal vehicle and cannot fathom otherwise.  For those who cannot drive, alternate modes of transportation are necessary, including public transportation, Uber, rides with family / friends, and walking.  We often need to put more thought into our transportation than simply pulling out the car keys, but we manage to make it work.

Joy recently had this experience at a work training in SoCal.  She walked into the training session where a handful of other teachers were sitting, waiting for the morning to begin, and the trainer noticed her guide dog. After saying hello, she immediately asked how Joy had gotten there.  While other teachers were met with “How are you?” or “Good to see you.”, Joy was asked to explain her mode of transit while the group sat listening.

(Note: If you are truly concerned with a person’s transportation needs, kindly offer a ride.)

“Do you know where you’re at?”
Chances are, yes, the person holding the cane or guide dog harness is fully aware of their location and surroundings.  Our friend Keith, fellow VIP, recently had this experience with a stranger at a train station marching up to him and asking if he knows where he’s at.  Keith, being the light-hearted guy that he is, was tempted to reply. “Do you mean like emotionally?”

(Note:: If someone looks lost, blind or sighted, the kind thing to do is say, “Hello, do you need help with directions?”)

Silently wave and keep going, hoping they sense your presence and identity.
Waving is an automatic social gesture that comes so naturally that it is often hard to control the wave and dash mentality.  But it is possible to both wave and offer a short greeting.  I honestly did not realize how many waves I was missing until my daughter was old enough to talk, and started asking things like, “Why did you not wave back to the neighbors when they passed by us?” It may not seem like a big deal to wave at a person who can’t see you anyways, but it matters.  Social customs of greeting one another are part of how we as humans feel connection in our society.  On the flipside, no need to shout and wave obnoxiously to ensure the person has your attention.

(Note: A simple, “Hey, it’s John. How’s it going?” works wonders.)

“Are you blind?”
Asking someone with a cane or a guide dog whether they are blind is like asking someone in a wheelchair if they are paralyzed. It’s not how anyone wants to be greeted, and is a very awkward conversation starter. To clarify, we are usually open to questions, especially if someone is truly curious about vision loss, but a blunt question like that right off the bat feels out of place.

How do most people with sight loss want to be greeted? The same as most people, with warmth, kindness, and a few words.

 

 

The question of “How are your eyes?” pops up from time to time at a social gathering with friends or a holiday meal with extended family.  I don’t find this question rude or intrusive, but I’m never quite sure how to answer.  Especially when the question often seems to come out of nowhere – not even closely related to the last topic of conversation.  Is the question being asked as a polite “How are you?” to which a “Fine” or “Okay” is expected.  Or is the questioner hoping for a detailed description of my last trip to the optholmologist? Did they see me accidentally dip my finger in the salsa bowl, thus prompting them to wonder how much more vision I’ve’ lost since they saw me last?

My typical response goes something like, “Well, RP is like getting older – it happens so slowly over time that you don’t notice the changes on a day to day basis.  Yes, my eyes are worse than they were 5 years ago, but I can’t exactly define how worse.” The questioner typically changes the subject as abruptly as they started it, leaving me to wonder if I’d given a clear enough answer.

A recent trip to a retina specialist at the Casey Eye Institute provides an updated answer to the “how are your eyes” question for those interested in details. Continue reading

This blog has unintentionally become a long lost friend. The kind of friend that you treasure and wish you stayed in touch with more. As the days pass by, this friend frequently comes to mind and yet the fullness of life continues to distract from finding time to connect. But this friend is always there when you return, waiting to pick right back up where you left off. Alas, so much time has passed that a quick text “hello” won’t do.

Now here we are, finally sitting down for that long awaited cup of coffee. Let’s catch up.

First off, I’m going back to school! I know, can you believe it?! Here I am teetering on the tail end of my 30’s with 2 young children, and I’m going to be a student once again. I’ll be pursuing my MSW (Master of Social Work) at the University of Washington in Seattle beginning this fall. My husband pointed out that I will be on campus with students who were born the year I graduated from undergrad. Super helpful fact – thanks babe.

Classes haven’t even started yet, and I’m already behind on my reading. I’m excited and slightly overwhelmed as I peruse the course schedule for this 3 year program. Between research papers and commuting to Seattle for classes, I will find time to give updates on my new life as a student/wife/mom/daughter/sister/friend/yogi/grant-writer/crisis-line advocate/blogger.

Now I want to tell you all about my crazy amazing summer. It started off with that retreat I’d been talking about forever. Yes, the Brene Brown Rising Strong retreat at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. I’m not sure if I should start with the inspiring women I met, or the 35 foot high climbing wall/ropes course, or water skiing for the first time, or breath-taking hikes, or the magical disappearing foot scrub. It truly was an experience I will cherish forever. Oh, and did I mention the group of bad ass blind women with me on this retreat? Our tribe continues to grow.

Joy and Jenelle wearing sunglasses and helmets at the high ropes course in Park City, Utah.

Next up, family camp at Enchanted Hills in Northern California. Incredible camp counselors and staff, HOT weather, the best talent show I’ve ever attended, and quality time for the Thomas/Landgraf families. It doesn’t get much better than that. You have to listen to the fun interview with Joy and family from the last day of camp.

My 4 year old son riding a horse with a camp counselor while another camp counselor leads the horse at Enchanted Hills Family Camp.

My 4 year old son riding a horse with a camp counselor while another camp counselor leads the horse at Enchanted Hills Family Camp.

I can’t leave out my trip to Portland to see my best’ies combined with a visit to the Casey Eye Institute to meet with a new retina specialist. I will have to tell you all about that visit over our next cup of coffee, as some of the details are interesting. My husband and kids picked me up from my appt, and with my eyes fully dilated, we headed straight to Mt. Rainier where we enjoyed meeting up with family. One of our beautiful hikes included a rickety bridge with a sign that read “One person at a time”. Whoever said I wasn’t a risk taker?

Jenelle standing on long thin suspension bridge.

Jenelle standing on long thin suspension bridge.

After returning from all these travels, we were blessed to have a full house of visitors throughout the remainder of July and August. If we had more time, I would tell you about all the fun we had rafting the river and SUP boarding at the lake, followed by delicious BBQs. But this cup of coffee is about done, so we’ll need to schedule another one. Hopefully it won’t be too long until next time.

Oh, and did I tell you Joy started a new job? Well, I’ll let her tell you about that.

This week, I had the pleasure of co-presenting at the Spring ADA Paratransit Conference with my friend and fellow blogger Keith Edgerton.  I felt instantly at ease alongside this seasoned public speaker as we shared our experiences of using public transportation with visual impairment.  Each year a transit authority from one of Washington’s Counties puts on the event.  39 out of 40 counties were represented at this conference held in my hometown of Leavenworth.  Talk about a short commute!

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Photo Description: Jenelle (left) and Keith (right) standing outside in Leavenworth with the Cascade Mountains in the background. Continue reading

Joy and I took a little “holiday” from blogging at the end of 2016.  We were busy enjoying a family visit together in the Northwest filled with snow shoeing, aerial yoga with our girls (including Roja!), and ringing in the new year at “pretend midnight” for the kids and then official midnight for the adults.

Photo Description: Scenic winter picture of our family snow shoeing.

Image may contain: 8 people, people smiling, mountain, sky, snow, outdoor and nature

Photo Description: Aerial yoga swings hanging from the ceiling with red mats underneath.  Roja is laying on a red yoga mat in the left corner of the picture.

Fast forward to January.  The egg nog is long gone, the holiday decor packed away, and it’s back to the routines of daily life.  In many ways it feels refreshing.  A new year offers new beginnings, and yet old habits often follow us into new years. I’m choosing to share one of my on-going challenges knowing that many of us struggle with our inner critic.  I invite you to try some self-compassion exercises along with me as a step towards a healthy 2017.

This “self-compassion lesson” begins with a story followed by some self-compassion exercises.

The sun streamed brightly through the trees, illuminating the large piles of crisp white snow as I rushed out the front  door.  I chatted distractedly with Joy on my cell while grabbing the long blue sled from the front porch and tossing my son’s after school snacks and snow gear onto it before zipping off.  Joy and I finished up our conversation as I walked the 1/2 mile to Benny’s preschool.  I quickly plucked his lunch box from the sled to prepare for his famished after school snack requests, and discovered that the bag of snow gear I had packed him was no longer in the sled.  I’ll just retrace my steps and find it on the way home, I thought, and signed Benny out of school.  I knew finding a white plastic grocery bag against white snow would be challenging, but Benny is a good little helper and I figured we’d stumble on it eventually.  But soon we were home with no bag of snow gear.  My husband. who works from home most days, had just started his lunch break and offered to take the car out and look for the missing gear.

Meanwhile, I started making lunch, but was so distracted with texting friends and neighbors about the missing items, that I forgot about the sauce simmering and burnt it to a crisp.  My husband used his entire one hour lunch break searching for the items with no luck.  I felt defeated as I recalled how much money snow gear costs, especially the brand new high quality Burton mittens that just arrived from Amazon the day before.  I could feel the tight knots in my empty stomach as I scrounged around the fridge, trying to put together a new lunch, and I snapped at my husband when he asked me a question.  He retreated back to his home office, likely relieved to escape the presence of his edgy wife.  Tears started rolling down my cheek as I thought about how much I had screwed up that day.

My pity party was interrupted by my phone ringing.  It was my Uncle Mark calling.  Joy has written about our uncle in previous posts.  He calls each day from his room at the nursing home to read us the AA prayer of the day.  Though Mark’s developmental disability keeps his mind at the age of an adolescent, his intuition often exceeds his mental capabilities.

I sniffled as I picked up the phone. “Hi, Uncle Mark.  I’m kind of having a bad day.”

I proceeded to tell him about my lost items, burnt lunch, and cranky behavior..

“I’m sorry you burnt lunch.” he stated in a flat tone.

“Thanks,” More sniffles.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s snow pants.” he continued, still mono-tone.

A few more tears rolled down my cheek as I muttered another “thanks” into the phone.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s hat.” he offered.  Oh man, is he going to say sorry for every damn item I lost?
I wondered to myself, feeling grumpier by the second.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s new mittens.” he added.

I was about to mutter another bland thank you when I heard him say, “But you’re still a good mom.”  Now the hot salty tears came flooding out of my eyes as I sobbed,”Thank you, Uncle Mark! I really needed to hear that right now.”

Uncle Mark’s words cut right to the heart of why I was crying.  I wasn’t shedding tears over lost stuff, or martial tension, or burnt lunch.  I was feeling inadequate as a mom, and I was beating myself up over my mistakes.  Mark’s simple affirmation caused me to remember all that I have learned about the importance of self-compassion.  I first learned this concept from Brene Brown and Kristen Neff, and was able to put it into practice at the Daring Sisters women’s retreat last summer.  For yesterday’s fiasco, I chose to write myself a self-compassion letter, which is far less complicated and hokey than it may sound.  Other times, I’ve chosen a guided meditation.  There are lots of great tools to choose from on Dr. Neff’s website. 

Below is a step by step guide to writing a self-compassion letter that I found on Berkeley’s Greater Good In Action site.

Time Required:15 minutes. Try to do this practice once per week, or at least once per month

First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. It could be something related to your personality, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life.

Once you identify something, write it down and describe how it makes you feel. Sad? Embarrassed? Angry? Try to be as honest as possible, keeping in mind that no one but you will see what you write.

The next step is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike.

As you write, follow these guidelines:

  1. Imagine that there is someone who loves and accepts you unconditionally for who you are. What would that person say to you about this part of yourself?
  2. Remind yourself that everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like, and that no one is without flaws. Think about how many other people in the world are struggling with the same thing that you’re struggling with.
  3. Consider the ways in which events that have happened in your life, the family environment you grew up in, or even your genes may have contributed to this negative aspect of yourself.
  4. In a compassionate way, ask yourself whether there are things that you could do to improve or better cope with this negative aspect. Focus on how constructive changes could make you feel happier, healthier, or more fulfilled, and avoid judging yourself.
  5. After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it later and read it again. It may be especially helpful to read it whenever you’re feeling bad about this aspect of yourself, as a reminder to be more self-compassionate.
 Another tip I learned from Dr. Neff is to add “I love you. I love you. I love you.” at the bottom of your letter.

Given the holiday that’s right around the corner, and the political tension in the air, I find gratitude and attitude are two words to focus on this month.

I’ll start with attitude because if that’s not in the right place, then it’s difficult to approach gratitude.  While this is by no means a ground-breaking message, I believe it is a message we need to hear again and again.

I was reminded of the impact attitude can have on life at church on Sunday.  As I scrambled into the last pew (late as usual, two rowdy kids in tow), I wondered what Pastor Denise would preach about, given the recent election.  Similar to the country at large, our congregation is divided on many topics, including the recent election.  Yet Pastor Denise chose to deliver a message about attitude.  Not exactly what I was expecting, yet exactly what I needed to hear.

The sermon reminded me of how my vision loss has given me an on-going opportunity to choose my attitude.  For example, it often takes a whole lot of juggling to figure out transportation for my kids and me, and I feel angry and discouraged that this part of my life takes so much effort.  I sometimes find myself caving to a negative attitude, grumbling ”I’ll just stay home rather than hassle with all this.”  While I allow myself to feel sad and frustrated, I don’t allow myself to stay in that space.  I choose to move forward.  I choose to participate fully in all that life has to offer.

While choosing a positive attitude is not always easy, it ultimately brings more fulfillment.

Which brings me to gratitude.  It turns out that saying “thank you” is more than just polite manners.  Expressing gratitude leads to a healthier, happier life.  All this according to research compiled by my sister, Joy.  Read all about it in her latest Crixeo article, “6 Daily Gratitude Practices That Can Change Your Life”.  Perhaps Thanksgiving should be a year round holiday – for health reasons, of course.  Bring on the turkey, gravy, and pumpkin pie! And if someone (who shall remain nameless) accidentally dumps the entire gravy bowl into the sink right as dinner is being served, choose a good attitude.

Photo Description: Turkey on a computer with a farmer walking behind him holding an ax.  The turkey has a thought bubble that reads, “I wonder what it means when the farmer unfriends me on Facebook?”

Image result for funny thanksgiving images

When you live with a rare degenerative eye disease, it can feel isolating at times, as if no one understands what it feels like to be you.  Then, one day, you open up a book and read a story that makes you feel as if you’re reading your own diary.  This is how I felt when I read Look Up, Move Forward, a recent memoir by Becky Andrews.  While the connection I felt to the author drew me in, your life doesn’t need to mirror Becky’s in order for this book to captivate your attention.      

I first met the author, Becky Andrews, last fall when a mutual dream of creating retreats for blind and visually impaired women brought our paths together.  We connected online, and the majority of our correspondence focused on details for the “Daring to Own Your Story” retreats that launched last summer.  When I finally met Becky in person at the first retreat, she struck me as the type of person you just want to sit down with near a cozy fireplace and talk for hours.  The intensity of the retreat didn’t leave time for fireside chats, and I went home from the retreat wishing I had more time to get to know this energetic woman.   Continue reading

Following an epic 3 day yard sale (a pathetic yet lucrative way to spend Labor Day weekend), my eyesight appears to be at it’s best.  No, I have not discovered a cure for Retinitis Pigmentosa.  But I have discovered the cure for not being able to find what I’m looking for.  

Three simple words:

Own
Less
Stuff

I can hardly call myself a “minimalist”, and yet I’ve recently taken the minimalist approach in several categories, creating the illusion of improved vision.    Continue reading