by Caroline Benavidez
From the Editor: Caroline is the second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico and has been a Federationist for more than three decades. This presentation was one she gave to keynote the convention of our New Mexico Affiliate:
First, a little about me: I'm over sixty-five and have been blind since birth. I've been a member of NFB since 1989. As a member, I've benefited from the experience and knowledge of the NFB family, and I've had the honor of passing on some as well. I've shared drinks and tears and insights. I've pounded gavels, written policy, and joined forces in changing what it means to be blind.
In my personal life, I've been a classroom teacher of sighted children and blind children. I've been a wife in two lovely marriages and raised two kind and caring adults. I bake sourdough, crochet things to wear, garden things to eat, and participate actively in my family and community.
I'm holding in my hands a piece of pottery. It is a wide vase that I purchased when I first moved to New Mexico. I found it in a shop on the Jemes Pueblo. In order to bring this vase with me, I had to climb up to a high shelf in my kitchen, where it is displayed with other pieces in my collection. A layer of dust had to be removed before I could pack it.
While thinking about my many years, two parts of me surfaced and emerged to result in what I'm going to share today. They are a pursuit and a belief. As a Christ follower, I've read in the Bible that God has frequently been called the Potter, and we humans are referred to as clay vessels. During my college years, I took pottery for several semesters, and what I learned about the process, as I practiced at being a potter, made this reference come alive.
When one creates a clay vessel, the potter starts with an intended vessel shape in mind. Will I make a vase or a jar or a pot? Of course, there are many other types of vessels. The desired shape determines how the vessel is made. First, an amount of wet, cold, gritty clay is placed on the wheel. With both hands, as the wheel is turning, the clay is worked to compress, smooth, and center it. With experience, one learns when the shaping can begin. Next, the basic shape is created—a taller cylinder for a vase, broader for a jar or pot. Slowly and carefully, while the wheel is still turning, the cylinder is opened up with the fingers. Water is periodically applied with a sponge to keep the clay pliable so that it doesn't crack. The fingers go in deeper and pull outward until the desired shape is reached. Care is taken to pull evenly and to stop in time to allow for a thick enough bottom. Then, with great care, the piece is finished with special tools and techniques and removed from the wheel. If this stage has been successful, the piece is ready for the kiln. Some vessels are fired over 2,000 degrees twice: first to harden it and then to glaze or finish it. As you can imagine, so many things can happen throughout the process to flaw the vessel, making it imperfect. Sometimes it is so flawed or too broken to be of any use, and it's thrown away. Most vessels are still useable, imperfections and all. A dent on the side, an uneven spout, a bubble in the glaze. None of these imperfections make the vessel unfunctional. In fact, they add uniqueness to the creation.
All the details in the making of a clay vessel lend themselves to spiritual application as Christ followers. The ones I want to bring into my thoughts for you today are that the Master Potter intentionally creates His clay vessels with a purpose and for a function. The imperfections become part of the artwork, not devaluing it.
In our One-Minute message, we say, "Blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future." But blindness is definitely a characteristic, one that all of us here share. It needs to be reckoned with in our daily encounters with people. Probably even today someone commented, either in fear or amazement, as you performed a simple task. What I hope to challenge you with today is this: can blindness be the characteristic that refines you? Some synonyms for refine are: elevate, focus, hone, improve, perfect, polish, sharpen. Can our blindness hone and perfect us? Could it refine and sharpen us? The answer depends on how we allow our blindness to affect our outcome.
I recently learned of a young lady who had been blind since birth. She had graduated from high school with the deep-seated belief that no one would hire her when they had the choice to hire qualified sighted people. She was willing to live at home and live her life dependent on others. She had an additional disadvantage of kidney disease that required dialysis. Many would have agreed that she was justified in her belief. A persistent blind friend encouraged, pleaded, insisted that she pursue a stint at an NFB Training Center. She finally gave it a try. We all know that took a bit of courage on her part. At first she was resistant to the firm insistence that she was capable. She now has the possibility of a future transplant and a customer-service job.
A man I know became blind as an adult. He had to give up his career. His wife left him, and he found himself helpless, dependent, and depressed. He could have understandably stayed there. However, he ended up, with the influence of other blind people, entering a new career. He became a teacher at one of the NFB centers, pouring out encouragement and practical techniques to his students. He has also been seen in the halls of our state and national government advocating for the rights of blind people.
I'm sure this young lady I mentioned a moment ago will benefit from techniques others use and will probably have the opportunity to share ones that she has discovered. Both of these people became refined by their struggles and set-backs. However, they chose to be refined, not confined, by their blindness.
After preparing for many years to be a classroom teacher, I interviewed at the school where I had done my student teaching. I fully expected to get hired because they had seen my capabilities first-hand. I was not hired and, in fact, learned that the potential grade team had gone to the district and argued that I would require too much of their assistance. I was devastated and questioned my sanity for even thinking I could win. However, I had already interacted with several blind teachers, who encouraged me and restored my confidence. I lost a discrimination suit. But, after writing an editorial explaining the misconceptions and alternative techniques, I was hired by a principal who read my piece and interviewed me. I could have avoided all the anger and tears. But I had qualified blind people pouring and sharing and standing with me. Years later, I could use my personal experience to pour and share and stand with others.
Most of us here can look back on our own experience with blindness and isolate times when we would have found it easier to be the vessel who tucked ourselves in a storage box or pushed ourselves back on a dark shelf. Maybe you're there now. I'd like to ask you: were you designed to be a pot to pour out encouragement? Maybe you are a covered jar storing practical advice and techniques or a slender and graceful vase standing ready to advocate. Perhaps you are still receiving from others who are further along in the refining process. Yes, blindness may be like that bubble in the polished glaze or that dent in the smooth shape or that nick in the spout. But your blindness does not affect your usefulness or change your purpose. It can be the characteristic that has made you stronger, kinder, empathetic, and inspirational. No, blindness is certainly not the characteristic that defines you or your future. It can be the characteristic that refines your own low expectations as you face its challenges, allow it to sharpen and improve you, and then pour out, sharing with and standing with others.