We’re starting the week off right with a luminous interview from Elizabeth L. Sammons. Elizabeth’s interview bridges the Sacred Space series and the October Interview series—opening a dialogue about faith and disability that is rich and rewarding. I know you’ll enjoy this extended conversation!
Elizabeth L. Sammons, age 50, is a Program Administrator with Ohio’s disability vocational services: Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities. De facto she conducts extensive research, outreach and writing for their agency statewide including both blindness and other disabilities. In the past, she has taught English serving in Peace Corps in Hungary, represented our culture in the then Soviet Union on a cultural exchange program, and served as interpreter for cross-cultural, faith and government meetings.
She enjoys creative writing, both fiction and nonfiction; paid and unpaid community interpreting using Russian and French fluency; keeping track of friends locally and around the world, particularly as touches the faith experience.
How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?
I was born with cataracts on both lenses; operations before school age restored vision in one eye to encompass color and basic shapes. I use Braille and audio for my reading and writing needs.
Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?
Always a white cane. It’s true that a cane won’t show me directly to a door or elevator, but nor do I need to feed, water or clean up after him; his name is “Stickie.” Nor do I have to tell his funny name to nosey strangers, and I feel secure with him swinging over the pavement to guide my path.
Are you active on social media? If so, share any of your links that you’d like my readers to know about:
I lack the time and patience to delve into any social media except what I call my “literary scrimmage site,” which is my blog. I invite you to visit for a mixture of poetry, memoir, humor and philosophy written over the past 4 years. I utilize NFB Newsline for much of my current events reading.
What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?
A lot of people think that someone “afflicted” as many people say, with a disability, faces this disability as the major difficulty in life. In my case, this is not true. While I readily admit the inconvenience of living life in a physical world not labeled, leveled or linked with nonsighted people in mind, the far greater challenge for me is to balance the idealism of a perfect world and spirit that I have held since childhood, with the day-to-day “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” encountered by us all. I think that many middle-ability, mid-intelligence, mid-income, mid-life people have come to a balance on this question, accepting the monotony or the petty aggravations pertaining to most days in our lives as simply the things that happen… the things to expect. Most likely it is my desire not to compromise which has given me the label from others of being “passionate,” and my internal label, “disquieted by the act of living.” Regarding how I handle these dissonances, see next question.
What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?
Since I’m thinking about music, I will give a quick point to this question with the song title “I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends.”
Words and music are a very present help in time of trouble. I never worked to develop this, but I have the idiosyncrasy of coming up with songs containing a certain word. For example, as soon as you say the word “Bridge,” I might think of the phrase/song “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and also “London Bridge is Falling Down” or even “Shall we Gather at the River” since the word “Bridge” converts to a picture of “River” in my mental gaze. This word association with music often comforts me and just the right lyrics, both secular and sacred, come to mind for me, a blessing not called for consciously.
What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness? How would you change this belief?
People who inhabit able body’s under-estimate the abilities of people with disabilities including blindness. When able-bodied people are in a role of authority (employer, teacher, counselor, parent, mentor etc.) in the life of someone with bodily challenges, that person unfortunately often conforms to that belief without even examining the life he or she could live instead. I use humor in responding at times “I have half a century of experience on this… you don’t even have a day, so why do you think I can’t do such and such?” Another response I gave especially when I was younger was “OK, just give me a chance and let me show you how I can’t.”
In faith communities, a grave error people can make is viewing a congregation member who is nonsighted or with any disability as the object of one-way charity. It is an empowering act when that person can serve on congregational council, help in child care or teaching, pass out bulletins, offer artwork, interpret for non-English speakers, or any other role that frames the person’s ability and communal presence.
What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?
Ah, there are so many books! If I had one and only one book, it would need to be the Bible, not only because of faith, but for its mix of history, poetry, philosophy and voices over centuries of compilation. . If you take mercy on me and allow me a second book, I suppose it would need to be a form of Wikipedia, because my curiosity is never satisfied.
What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?
I came across Betty Eadie’s Embraced by the Light during one of the hardest times in my life. Her perspective, gained through two out-of-body experiences and enriched by her Native American heritage, indicates that we are living as spirits in this world through the bodies we inhabit. Our purpose and connections are things that we cannot see in larger perspective while we walk on this earth, but we must be conscious of our neighbors, our influence and our joyful duty to illustrate love in everything we do and in every choice we make. While I fall extremely short of this faith philosophy, I agree with Carl Schurz: “Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.”
What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
I have written one secular book and am now researching and writing a second novel, which is a faith novel based on the life of Stephen, (Christianity’s first martyr, Acts 6-7.) I hope to finish this novel and to find a non-self-publishing opportunity for both these fruits of my mind. The work of my pen is the only mental fruit that I can leave when I depart our era, and I pray that anyone interested or in need of these writings will find them at the right time, both during my time on earth and afterwards. For a reason I cannot rationalize, I feel a profound peace and assurance that this prayer will be fulfilled.
What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?
Many people are intrigued that I speak 3 fluent languages and an additional 3-4 languages with reasonable competence. I love the tongues, tones and trumpets of faith as they play out in various cultures. Our journey of faith is necessarily as much a cultural experience as it is a spiritual walk, and it is fascinating to me to see the translation of faith in many ways of singing, means of accepting messages, houses of worship and foods/drinks of sharing. To me, a language is like a code-cracking puzzle or joyful equation to solve. I feel deeply moved and blessed that I have had the chance to speak with so many people who without my taking the effort to walk into their linguistic territory, I could never have known.
What topics would you prefer to discuss?
While it brings me pain each day to walk along the imperfection of what we call “life,” I believe that the best is coming when my road ends on earth. Some close friends, particularly those raised in Communist countries, have asked me “Why does someone of your intellect believe in God?” On one hand, I can give an easy answer that even as they were raised atheist with little caring about matters of faith, I do not remember a single meal growing up when we did not open with prayer or a week when we did not dwell on faith questions together in my family. Thus both of us, the atheist and myself, were imprinted to travel certain mental and spiritual paths.
But that answer is incomplete. Beyond cultural context, while I understand many arguments pointing to God’s nonexistence, I equally comprehend those in favor of God, and the faith experience is my choice between the two. It is a decision that will do only good and no harm in my life, and I wish my post-Communist friends the hope that I lean on.
If I were speaking to a disability audience I might add that as a blind person, all my life, I have had to rely on those with sight to tell me many things about this world that otherwise I would not know… soaring of a gull vs. flapping of a sparrow… copper gutters turned tingly green with age… the smile of Mona Lisa vs. the grin of a Cheshire cat. If I lived only by what I knew through my own experience or intellect, my life would be limited indeed. If I stuck to my own experience, my world would be so small. But on the good days, borrowing another’s lens, I sometimes think that I can see nearly to heaven.
Do you believe in a God, gods, or other spiritual forces? If so, what name(s) does your spiritual force have? Where does the name come from?
While I simply say “God” and “Jesus Christ,” I believe as our Islamic brethren say that God has a thousand names… and perhaps more than that. Regarding other spiritual forces, unfortunately there are also evil forces in both human activities and in divine struggle.
Sum up your faith in three words. Why did you choose these words?
Faith, Hope and Love. This reply may sound pert, but if you think about it, what elements beyond this do you need in pursuing a meaningful life? (These words come together at the end of I Corinthians Chapter 13 in the New Testament, also called the “Love Chapter” for those who wish to read further.)
How do you practice your faith? What kinds of prayer, texts, service, or other rituals do you use?
I find prayer, song and recitation in a group context of great meaning. These acts, along with communion, make me realize that I am connected with not just one congregation, but generations, centuries and even millennia of believers of completely diverse cultural backgrounds, but who anchor their souls and spirits in the faith, hope and love in which I desire to live out in my own little life and generation.
Describe a moment when you knew that this faith was right for you.
Though I hold rather traditional Christian beliefs and was raised in a conservative background, I do not try to actively convert or evangelize. However, when friends and family have been in crisis, it is the well of my faith that has usually provided the insights I need to be of comfort or of meaningful presence. This included a recent death experience, the passing of my best friend. “The worst is behind you; everything ahead is good!” I told her…not “my” words, but words that came to me along the way to the hospital.
When I take the time to pray, ever so quickly, when I am in a conflict or a situation where I am contemplating a less loving or more destructive path than I could take, there has never been one time when some idea, person, or calm did not come to my rescue. My problem is taking that time and effort to call out for help.
Describe a moment when you felt that your god was real, that your faith was making a difference in your life.
It’s difficult for me to depict a single miracle moment in answering this question. However, I can safely say that the level of my awareness of God and his hand in my life is directly proportional to the difficulty of the situation. The more difficult the situation, the closer I feel my spirit to be linked with higher forces, as long as I take the time to ask for help.
Have you had any spiritual mentors or teachers? If so, describe their role in your life. How did they help you find your faith?
I have met far more people than I deserve along my half century of life who have shown me levels of love, respect, kindness and belief that were completely unmerited in the situation. One who comes to mind is a Jewish refugee whom I met in the USA at age 80, when he immigrated here with his children and grandchildren. He tutored me from an elementary level of Russian into exploration of the Russian great writers, and along the way we became friends. Always in departing from him, I felt a great awareness and love that wrapped my spirit like a blanket. I have tried to repay some of his generosity in serving other immigrants here and in depicting him in disguised form as a small but pivotal force in my first novel.
Where and when do you feel most in tune with your faith or spirituality?
The congregational experiences I mentioned above are one way, but another is when I go into nature, particularly when I am alone. No matter what my mood, the ocean speaks to me as no other force can.
What is one misconception that others have expressed about your faith? How would you correct it?
One can be a deeply believing Christian, even a conservative Christian, without being narrow-minded or intolerant of others as today’s media seems increasingly prone to depict. We can define the rights and wrongs that direct our spiritual walk without enforcing them on others. The example of how we live and relate to our neighbor is a far more vivid “Bible” than what most people will ever read.
Assign some “spiritual homework” for our readers. What is one practice, prayer, or lesson you’d like to share?
When I get into my blackest mood, I sometimes assign myself the exercise of taking one hundred breaths and with each one, thinking of something I am grateful for. It can be anything – as vast as the universe or as small and funny as my cat’s husky voice when he wakes up and makes me laugh. After the hundred breaths, I cannot help laughing and realizing that things may be in chaos, but that I am better off than I was feeling. Try it at least once and you’ll always breathe easier.