Friday, 31 March 2017

Actually, the biggest worry Denise and I had when Abbot first arrived was that he and Tessa wouldn’t get on. Tessa was our pet dog, the golden retriever we’d taken in as a rescue puppy some years before.

Tessa lived on for most of Abbot’s first four years with us and mostly we needn’t have worried. Nevertheless, theirs was a quirky relationship and not without its moments of tension.

Long before Abbot’s arrival, Tessa had established a set of favourite places, all round the house, where she could get some sleep. Sleeping was what Tessa did best. Whenever I remember her face, it always has that ‘just-woken-up’ expression on it – half grumpy, half confused.
Whenever we had to leave Tessa at home alone for a short time she would head straight for the landing to catch a nap.
 When Abbot and I returned she’d appear at the top of the stairs, hair all over the place and staring short-sightedly at us. The look on her face clearly said: ‘Do you mind?! I’m trying to sleep up here.’
Her favourite spot for a snooze was always the rug in the hall. Tessa came to regard this rug as exclusively her property. When we purchased a new hall rug the biggest consideration was whether or not Tessa would like it. Both the old and new rugs were always covered in her hair and no matter how many times we ran the Dyson over it, the hair would reappear within what seemed like seconds. 

Every morning when I came downstairs I would retrieve the rug from under the radiator, which is where Tessa preferred it, and put it back in the centre of the hall. Moments later, Tessa would follow me down from her nightly watch on the landing... As she passed through the hall she’d shove the rug back to her preferred location, under the radiator.

Abbot sometimes used to get involved in these little territorial disputes. Whenever he was feeling annoyed with Tessa he’d take himself into the hall and plonk himself firmly in the middle of her rug. As she stomped past him, I swear I could hear him laughing.

Abbott also used to assert himself in other ways. For example, sometimes he’d make a hell of a noise with a pink, squeaky ball, which used to get on everyone’s nerves. Still to this day (long after our poor Tessa passed away) he will sit in front of the bookcase where his toys are kept and stare at them. He’ll then look from Denise to me and swivel his head back to where the toys are. He’s got a huge collection of toys but this pink ball has always remained his favourite, mostly I suspect because it annoys us all so much. It used to bug the ‘you-know-what’ out of Tessa. Abbot would sit as close to her as possible and then squeak it as loudly and as fast as he could. This was torture for Tessa and she’d look at us as if to say: ‘Have you never heard of sleep deprivation?’ Eventually, even Abbot wouldn’t be able to stand the noise any longer and he’d wander out of the room in search of some other mischief. Once he’d gone Tessa would grab that ball and set determinedly about removing its squeak. Unbeknown to Abbot, Tessa was very good at this so by the time Tessa left us Abbot was up to his fifth ball, without him ever knowing. One day the shop will stop stocking them and then we really will have a problem.

Getting back to dogs, Abbot and Tessa would both await Denise’s homecoming each evening with great anticipation. One night this caused a slight incident. Abbot was trying to tick Tessa off and had taken up position on her rug in the hall. In retaliation she’d taken up his usual spot at the top of the stairs. He was facing up the stairs sticking his tongue out at her and she was facing down the stairs scowling at him. This had been going on for several hours and the offer of Bonios and several much loved toys could not coax either party away from the impasse. I was just contemplating inviting Boutros Boutros-Ghali – the Egyptian expert in international relations and peace studies – to come in and mediate and I was wondering if I had enough milk to make tea for all those blokes in blue berets when the front door opened and in walked Denise.

Hostilities were at once forgotten. Tessa almost threw herself down the stairs to be the first to greet her mum. At which point Abbot decided to stand up and say hello to his mum too. The two dogs collided and Tessa was sent skidding across the laminate floor. This was only the beginning of the trouble. For two weeks afterwards they spent all their time staring at each other from opposite ends of the room. I was just on the verge of getting old Boutros and the boys round when something curious happened... I went next door to see my neighbours and when I came back I found them snuggled up together on the rug. Dogs, eh!

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Stephen Gardener asked a question on Facebook. He asked "will there be guide dogs in heaven"? To which I whole heartedly respond that I believe so. I have no theology to back it up but you won't change my mind on it. 

All this reminds me of what I wrote back in my book in 2008, long before we lost my beloved Abbot.

Oh, yes. And there will eventually come a day when Abbot will no longer be with us. I know that all those who love him will be heartbroken. However, he is like a guardian angel. I know I’ll always feel his presence close by. And then one day I’ll arrive at heaven’s gate and St Peter will want to know why he should let me in. I will have to admit that I don’t deserve it.

He’ll say: “I’m sorry, you’ve been a lair and a cheat.” And he’ll be right. “You’ve been a drunk,” he’ll add. True. “You’ve been bitter and bad-tempered.” True again. “You’ve been unfair to the people of Sunderland.” Ah, yes, I’ll admit it. “I’m sorry,” St Peter will go on, brisk and business-like. “You’re in the wrong place.” Then Abbot will pop his head round the gate and say,

“It’s OK Pete. He’s with me.”

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Feeling rather fragile today so really don't want to dig in to the emotional stuff right now. So how about I tell you a nice Abbot story?

 I remember one time when Abbot and I encountered two gentlemen blocking the pavement. They were deep in conversation and totally unaware of our presence. I asked Abbot to stand and said ‘Excuse me’ to the gentlemen. There was no response and they didn’t move. I tried again in the same polite way, but still got no response whatsoever. After a third, equally unsuccessful attempt Abbot put his head down, pushed his shoulders out and ploughed his way through them. When we were past them Abbot stopped and looked back. He fixed the two men with a very stern glare which started at their toes and worked its way up to their heads. Then suddenly Abbot threw his head up and gave
 his tail a flick as if to say, ‘You’re not worth bothering with’ and set off on his way again. As we’d been waiting for the men to move I’d been concocting some very rude things to say, but Abbot’s look had said all of those things and a whole lot more besides.
“Well done, son,”
I said. “I couldn’t have sa
id it better myself.”

Finally, there are the people who are quite openly rude. For example, once when Abbot and I were walking down the stairs to our local Metro station I said to Abbot ‘Tickets, son’, which is the command I use to get Abbot to take me to the ticket machine. A lady behind me immediately piped up:
“Look at that! The dog even buys his ticket.”

Another time, as Abbot and I were approaching the local library, a complete stranger suddenly accosted me...
“Excuse me,”
the lady said.
“You do know that’s a library, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied, aiming for a patient tone.

 “Then why are you, a blind man, going in there?” “Because the dog’s books are overdue,”
I replied.

That reminds me of my favourite guide dog joke. A man takes his guide dog to the cinema to see the latest Harry Potter film. All through, the dog leans forward, apparently glued to the screen. As the lights go up a woman sitting behind me leans over and says:
“Excuse me, but during the film I couldn’t help noticing how interested your dog was. Don’t you find that a little
the man says.
odd?” “Well, yes,”
“He didn’t like the book.”

I also have to mention that there is the occasional time when people go out of their way to stand up for me. I had only had Abbot a few weeks when we bumped into Maxi, who is a comedian and old friend, outside a gig. I couldn’t resist the temptation: I made Abbot sit and as Maxi passed by I put out my hand and said:

“Penny for a blind man, sir.” “Fuck off. You’ll only drink it,” Maxi said.
An old lady across the street heard this and didn’t realise that Maxi and I were old mates... so she started belting Maxi with her umbrella and berating him for the way he’d spoken to me.

Another time, Abbot managed to completely astonish some friends. A group of us had gone along to a concert at the Newcastle Opera House – to see Maxi and his comedian partner Mitch. I was the only sight impaired person in our party but I was also the only person who happened to know the way. We’d arranged to meet under the clock in Newcastle’s central railway station and made our way to the theatre from there. Abbot and I set off in the lead and I noticed that at every junction Abbot would stop and check that the rest of the party were still with us. Needless to say, this has endeared him greatly to the other members of our group.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Last night I was feeling totally uninspired to write today's blog, so I did a very silly thing< I gave you all the chance to ask questions. What was I thinking? 

Anne Marie Organ put me right on the spot, so I am going to do my best to answer her as honestly as I can. 

At the time I was told about my sight loss we had moved away from my native Tyneside to be part of a CharismaticRoman Catholic community in Leicestershire, we had only been there a few short months when I got the news. So there my wife and I were hundreds of miles away from home with a bunch of new friends who we hardly new when the bombshell of my sight loss dropped on us. 

Within three days I'd lost my driving licence and my job, both down to my sight loss. I was in free fall. I simply didn't know what to do. 

At first I felt so ashamed I simply ran away, I got on a train and went missing for three weeks leaving my wife and all those close to me worried to death. 

Of course, in hindsight I deeply regret this but at the time I was just running. I spent that three weeks drinking my self silly and seriously contemplating suicide. 

Somehow a friend found me, to this day he will not tell me, but find me he did and brought me back home. 

Most of my church friends dropped me at that point, it seemed to me then and still does today that they were more shocked at my bad behaviour than they were about my sight loss. I felt abandoned. 

More than 27yrs on I still find this really difficult, so what I propose today is to take a break at this point and continue from this point in tomorrows blog. 

Peace to you all.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Today's blog takes the form of a quote.

“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'

'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit. 

'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.' 

'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?' 

'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.” 


             Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit 

Sunday, 26 March 2017

For churches that are serious about making the inclusion of disabled people a serious commitment there will definitely be a price to pay, we feel that is only right that we make you aware of it. If we are to be serious about inclusion for disabled people then it would simply be unethical not to seek that inclusion for everyone. It is for this reason we must stand in solidarity with the LGBT community and support them in their struggle for for full inclusion too. As we have said earlier, it is for the LGBT community to work out their theology and the arguments that go with it but the job of any church that claims to be “inclusive” is to make sure that “everyone” regardless of ability, disability, sexuality, race or gender is welcomed and included, there can be no exceptions.

For churches that make the difficult decision to welcome and affirm both disabled and LGBT congregants, there’s a kind of “coming out” process that is no less traumatic for the institution than it is for an individual. The church faces rejection from some of the very people who once called it family; it often finds itself emotionally isolated and financially unsupported; it endures accusations of godlessness and warped theology. It becomes the outcast. And like disabled and LGBT people themselves, sometimes the burden becomes too heavy, and the affirming church cannot survive.

So why then would a church go out on a limb for the disabled and LGBT communities? Sometimes it starts with relationships. Other times it starts with a study and understanding of scripture that is different from traditional views. Sometimes, a church changes simply in response to the soft, subtle tugging of the Spirit. Whatever the impetus, the motivation boils down to a single attribute: a willingness to audaciously love both disabled and LGBT Christians.

We are called to care for “all” with the kind of sacrificial love so many of us claim is the hallmark of the Christian faith. The people who have become our friends over the past three years are literally sacrificing to be with us, bringing us “outcasts” into community at the cost of offending friends and losing relationships they care about.

We are called to be a people that can wrestle with difficult questions and come out stronger. We must not be threatened by a diversity of opinions on issues that are not core to the faith. Even in the midst of disagreement, we know God is big enough to hold us together. It has been a painful but valuable lesson learned. In these communities, the resurrected body of Christ continues its work.

Do we have any input for churches  who are looking at adopting policies that allow room for disabled people who exhibit challenging behaviour or for churches that acknowledge same sex relationships? It’s almost certainly going to be a painful transition. There will likely be hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and financial troubles. The only advice we have is the same advice so often given to young, hurting disabled or LGBT people: It gets better. Not only does it get better, but you come out stronger, with a capacity to love more audaciously than you ever imagined.

We have come to regard the exclusion of anyone as a “sin”. The pain experienced by those made to feel excluded is a pain we should not consciously subject anyone to and is something we believe we will be held accountable for. No matter how fundamental our differences may be with any marginal group, causing them to feel excluded can “never” be the answer. It is through “radical welcome and inclusion” that we discover what draws us together is far stronger and more important than what divides us.

Audacious love knows no boundaries. It is a love that acts before it assesses, that kisses the leper and plucks wheat on the Sabbath for the hungry. Remember that the greatest commandment is not monitoring the rules, nor keeping company with the righteous; the greatest commandment, always and forever, is love, love not just for some but for everyone.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Scripture tells us we are made in his image, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made but here's what was going on in my head when someone first mentioned a guide dog.

In our 21st century world, image is everything. This is the designer age, where image is king. All our possessions must carry the right label: we have BMW cars, Nokia phones, Nike trainers and Armani suits. We shop at the trendiest stores because everything we purchase and where we purchase it makes a statement about who we are and our standing in the world.

How can I step away from this world of image? Getting a guide dog would be far from cool. I feel I must resist it with every fibre of my being. After all, the problem is not so much having a sight impairment as being perceived as having one. I’ll suddenly be disabled not just by a lack of sight, but
 by a negative stereotype that pervades the whole of our society.

And in any case how can I abandon all the years I’ve dedicated to the cause of hiding my sight impairment? Believe me, I’ve become very, very good at doing that. I’ve raised it to something of an art form, something I’m particularly proud of. It’s always been imperative that no one should know the severity of my sight loss. I’m not alone in this. Ask any sight impaired person... we all do it to some extent. Me, I’ve taken it to Olympic standard. We memorise things that a sighted person wouldn’t even turn a hair over: phone numbers, price lists, bus timetables, addresses... Many other trivial items are committed to memory so that we’re not seen to be struggling in public.

Until now I’ve managed to maintain my elaborate scheme to throw people off the scent, the true extent of my sight loss. Each morning I listen to the newspaper review on Radio 4’s Today programme. I also buy a newspaper and scan the larger headlines and pictures. In this way I make myself familiar with the main stories of the day, even though it means using a magnifying glass, even though I keep losing my bearings on the page and even though I can’t do it for too long. Then, when a conversation comes up, I feel able to contribute on an equal footing. No one ever need know I can’t read properly like other people. I’m pretty typical in this respect... We sight impaired people never knowingly place ourselves in a situation where we might be open to ridicule. We devise all kinds of fantastic excuses to make it impossible for other people to guess the severity of our sight loss. But I had taken this to a whole new level.

Yet here I am about to make myself more vulnerable than I’ve ever been before in my whole life. I know I have to take this next step, but I feel far from happy about it. I was deadly serious about the promise I made to Denise because I knew our future depended on it. But that voice in my head is still urging me to continue running. Go on, Dave. GO ON! You can do it. Just get the hell out of here!

Friday, 24 March 2017

Back in the late eighties when I was first told of my sight loss, it felt like the end of the world. I was forced to surrender my driving licence which also meant the end of my career. I could not keep up my mortgage payments and had to sell my home. 

So within a year I'd lost my job, my home, my confidence and for the next ten years I raged at the injustice of it. I was too angry to take any of the help and advice that was on offer and was on a downward spiral of anger and self pity. 

Here is the story of the day someone first suggested I needed a guide dog.

At first I think it must be a bad dream, a nightmare. I need to check. I tug at the hairs on the back of my hand. It bloody hurts. That doesn’t happen in a dream. I must be awake then. Great. That’s just bloody great.

I’m trudging down a corridor in an old Victorian building, dragging my feet, trying to hang back, thinking to myself that these Victorians really knew how to build. They were the people that built all those imposing buildings, buildings that were designed to intimidate little people and keep the plebs in their place.
Everything about this building makes me feel small and insignificant. The glazed tiled walls are closing in on me.
The corridors echo to memories of the footsteps of the lost and bewildered.

What am I doing in this horrible building? The atmosphere hangs in the air like the smell of damp leaves on an autumn day. The pain of all who have suffered here permeates the very fabric of the building. It oozes from the wood and stone and drifts through the halls, like mist on a November morning.
This is a cold place. A sad place. A place where too many dreams have been broken, too many hopes dashed. It’s like walking into a fog... Before you know it, you’re cut off. There’s no way out. I’m filled with feelings of panic and dread.

As I push open the huge oak door and step forward into that unknown territory, the world of the blind, I see my reflection in the brass doorplate. It’s a look I know all too well: the look of a person who is desperate, frightened, angry. As I enter, I see the waiting room is full. It’s packed with people like me, people who have spent years in denial, afraid that their sight loss will be used as a weapon against them, so that they can be held back. These people are all wearing the same haunted expression of people who’ve spent too long on the run. They’re desperate, like me. I know that look because I see it every morning as I peer into the shaving mirror.
After reporting to the receptionist, I sit down, comforting myself with the fact that I’ve managed to postpone this moment for years and years. I’ve had a good run but it’s time to face the music. Sight loss is now such a big issue for me, I can no longer hide it from other people or – even more importantly – from myself. Damn, I think, I’ve got the wrong shoes on. I’m wearing dirty great boots. Today is a day for trainers. The impulse to run from the truth is still there, goading me. This has been the pattern in my life so far. In my younger days whenever anything happened to upset me, I used to lace up my trainers and take to my heels. I would run just as far and as fast as I could until I felt utterly exhausted. As I got older and I realised my eyesight was failing me, I would jump on a train and head off to another town, a couple of hours away, often without a by-your-leave from employers, family or friends, and drink myself silly in the vain hope that drink would blot out the pain I was feeling, but there’s always the morning after the night. I’d be gone for days. Sometimes I wouldn’t come back until someone came and found me. Even though I knew it was a horrible thing to do to people around me, including my wife Denise, I just couldn’t face the alternative. Today, feels like one of those days. I know I’m not going to be able to face this...

Brendan Foster and Steve Cram are not the only runners to hail from Jarrow. Oh no’ I could give those guys a run for their money any day.

The seconds tick past. Needless to say, I haven’t come here willingly. I feel as if I’ve been dragged here, kicking and screaming, even though I’m actually alone. It’s just that I have no options left... I’ve simply run out of ideas. Years of refusing to recognise what’s happening with my sight loss have been driving a wedge between me and all those who love me. Their lack of understanding begins to wind me up and eventually sends me spinning in to a rage. You wouldn’t believe the anger I’ve felt and somehow I haven’t been able to stop myself from lashing out at people. On a rational level I know it’s not their fault (well, a lot of the time) but this is not a rational thing. This is an affair of the gut which has been burning me up for years.

Now, even though I’ve decided I’m going to face the music I don’t feel remotely happy about it. Boy, am I unhappy! I feel like I’m giving in. I’m dammed if I’m going to do this thing graciously. Here I am, about to hand over control of my life to the doctors, social workers and various other do gooders, who are going to lead me to places I don’t want to go. These do-gooders are going to make decisions that aren’t theirs to make. How are they going to affect my life? Will I still be able to earn a good living? Will I still be able to hold my own in the world? Will I be in control? I begin to curse myself for getting into this situation.

I feel totally hopeless. I watch the other poor lost souls in the waiting room, who are just like me. We’re all people who no longer have control over our own destiny. Poor sods. I hope you don’t imagine I’ve been caught, though... On the contrary, I was the one to turn myself in. I was a master of disguise and something of an expert in the art of evasion techniques. They would never have caught me. Oh and don’t go thinking I’m a criminal either! No, I’m just a man who has always believed that sight impairment is socially unacceptable, on a par with robbing old ladies. I‘ve been made to see myself as a kind of public nuisance. Suddenly, the receptionist speaks.

 “You can go through now, Mr Lucas.”

I obediently walk into the tiny little office and am instantly transported back to my childhood. It’s like falling through a gap in reality. In my mind’s eye I can picture my mother spitting on her handkerchief and rubbing the chocolate stains from my chin. (She would go on rubbing until the skin was red raw.) As I remember this I feel her hand on my back pushing me forward over the threshold and I can feel my feet slipping and sliding as I try in vain to resist.

I do a reality check in an attempt to pull myself together. My wife, Denise, used to be a sister at this hospital. For her it was simply a place of work, a building that held no terror. For me, though, it’s always been a place of fear. Just stepping across the threshold instantly transports me back to the most painful parts of my childhood. Here I am, a 40- year-old man with the mindset of a six-year-old. Damn this place! And damn the circumstances that have brought me here.

Really, this building should feel like a second home. As well as my sight impairment, I was also born with a heart defect. So between the Eye Department and the Children’s Cardiac Unit, I often spent long periods of my childhood in various parts of this hospital.
How is it that one building can rob me of all my adult faculties and return me instantly to my childhood? How come I suddenly feel I’m no longer in control? How come other people get to make all the decisions here? Why is it that my opinions are of no importance to anyone here? Whyis it that every time I walk through that huge oak door I feel like a midget in a world of giants? It’s like Lilliput in reverse. I’m dammed if they’re going to tie me down.

A phrase from my childhood echoes in my mind: ‘Shut up and do as you’re told.’ My neck begins to stiffen and I feel my shoulders hunch. Again I return to being a child with short trousers and little National Health glasses that leave deep grooves behind my ears. Here I am, a 15-stone six- year-old, about to face up to something I’ve spent more than 40 years trying to avoid.

I’m still in childhood mode when I sit down in this woman’s office. I look at her and know at once she’s more than just a mere megalomaniac, she’s a witch. She reminds me of Morticia from The Addams Family, that satirical televised inversion of the ideal American family. I can picture this woman sitting in that big wicker chair from the TV programme. Of course, I know I’m being unreasonable but at this point in time, no one could change my mind.

The woman smiles sweetly. The six-year-old me clenches his teeth and waits for her to ruffle my hair. I promise myself that when her hand comes towards me, I’ll bite her fingers. Nevertheless, I try really hard to force the six-year-old me back into the deep recesses of my mind. Making another big effort, I smile right back. Anything she can do, I can do better.

Morticia rolls her eyes at me. I roll them right back. I concentrate really hard and force my features into what I hope is my most withering look. I don’t know why really, because I’ve often used that look and to date no one has taken any notice of it. Why it should be any different today, I don’t know. Time seems to stand still, the silence is numbing. It seems to last an eternity. I’m waiting for her to speak but when she finally does, I’m totally unprepared for what she has to say.

“I think it’s time you thought about a guide dog.”
My world explodes. The ceiling seems to be falling in. She’s still speaking but nothing is getting through. All I can hear are the words ‘guide dog’ echoing in my head. Guide dog? A fucking guide dog?! They’re for blind people. What the hell is she trying to say? Is she crazy? Do I look like a blind man? A High Court judge inside my head suddenly booms out:
‘DAVID LUCAS! You shall be taken from here to a place not of your choosing and be given a guide dog. Henceforth you shall be known as ‘Blindy Lucas’. Children will laugh at you in the street. Middle-aged women in twin sets and pearls will coo over you. They will take you to the seaside and buy you candyfloss. You will be given a short-back-and-sides and a set of hand-me-down clothes.’

No bloody way is this going to happen. Every fibre of my being is screaming at me to run. Run, Dave! Just bloody run! But something is making me stay, although I have no idea what... Somewhere deep in my subconscious I know that this is right. Why, then in the days leading up to this meeting when I was imagining every possible scenario did I not hear the words ‘I think it’s time you thought about a guide dog’?

Someone’s made a mistake, that’s why. This bit is totally unscripted... and now is not a good time for ad-libbing. I feel so angry! I’ve never known anger like this. How dare she? This woman who’s never met me before, who knows nothing about me or my life. She’s trying to pin a label on me, a label that says ‘BLINDY’. Well, I know exactly where she can stick it and she’s damn lucky I don’t tell her. This will mark me out as disabled, the very term that started me running all those years ago.

I’m on the verge of telling her all this, when I realise how futile it is. Tonight, as usual, this woman will mount her broomstick and fly off over the rooftops of Newcastle, back to her home and family. She’s just doing her job. This is simply routine to her. But that one simple statement has blown my whole world apart. How can anything ever be the same again? Witch, I thought. You bloody witch.
I really need to get out of this office. I’ve successfully avoided this moment for over 40 years and now everything has turned to dust in a split second.

I stuff my hands in my pockets so that I can be sure not to punch anyone or anything and I stomp off down the corridor, right out of the hospital, half out of my mind. My philosophy has worked for me so far and it’ll just have to work for me again: when things get too uncomfortable, just run! But running is a young man’s game and I’m starting to feel my age. 

Even as I jog along in my “Kicker” boots, I have to admit there is one very big fly in the ointment: I’ve promised my wife, Denise, that I’m going to face up to whatever’s going on with my sight, stop running and stand and face it.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Jarvis and I are both still deeply shocked by the events of yesterday. Jarvis would simply like to share this picture as a sign of his solidarity. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Music has always been so much more than an interest to me. It’s what keeps me sane in this crazy world. It often provides me with answers to questions which I don’t even consciously know I’m asking. 

People often talk about music as the soundtrack to their lives. For me it’s even more fundamental than that: music has been my life’s road map. It influences all my decisions and guides me to new places – often places I’d never have dreamed of going to otherwise. For me, to be a spiritual being, it must be possible for a person to be affected by music. After all, music is the language of the soul. This is why it can often convey what would otherwise be unspeakable. For me, music can often express what’s in my heart far better than words alone.

Actually, I even have a theory about this. I have no real evidence to back it up, but nonetheless I believe it whole-heartedly. My theory is that sight impaired people make special use of music and explore its deeper meanings to an even greater extent than sighted people. Since we can’t read facial expressions or body language so successfully, we pick up all our nonverbal clues via sound. Nuance is a language we’re fluent in. Inflection and tone are our currency.

In the sighted world, I often feel at a disadvantage not being able to pick up on cues that are purely visual. It’s even easy to feel inferior or paranoid because it’s like trying to conduct an argument when only your opponent has access to the full facts. 

In the world of music, on the other hand, I feel I have the upper hand. This is my home ground, a place where I feel the odds are more stacked in my favour. This is largely why music remains my favourite art form. I prefer music to literature, art or movies. With music I’m on more than just a level playing field with the sighted world… I feel like I’m the one with the upper hand. Music has always been a safe haven for me, a kind of sanctuary and a place of retreat. Whenever I feel sad, lonely, upset, depressed or in any way troubled, the chances are I can be found listening to music or playing my guitar. When I feel like shutting the world out and telling mankind to go to hell, it will be music that brings me back out of myself. It provides me with the resolve to carry on.

Denise has sometimes accused me of being a musical snob and to be totally fair to her, she has a point. But in the sighted world where I miss out on all the other nonverbal cues, it’s nice to feel that sometimes I’m gaining insights that sighted people are missing out on. You have access to people’s facial expression and body language. Meanwhile, I have all the nuance, inflection and tone of music. It’s my true domain.

Over the passing years, many other interests and even passions have come and often faded away. Their remnants are stacked in boxes in the attic because I try to kid myself that one day I’ll take them up again – even though we all know that’s not going to happen. Music has always remained, though. There’s no thrill greater than rushing home with a new CD and popping it straight into the player. I still love to hang about in guitar shops, dreaming of owning their many treasures. I surround myself with musicians too. Last night I mentally compiled a list of my mates and I discovered that only three of them were not musicians.

There has always been something about the setting of words to music for me. Words set to music become more significant, their meaning stronger. Words in song embed themselves in the mind, reverberate and echo. Loudon Wainwright III, one of my favourite songwriters and a well-known hellraiser and teller of the tallest of tales, once said: ‘I cannot lie in a song.’ In fact, I often find Loudon’s songs just too painfully honest – I find myself feeling embarrassed as if I’ve overheard something private. It’s like reading someone’s diary.

The music of songwriters such as Allan Taylor, Jackson Browne, Ray Davies, Dougie MacLean and many others has often been the only thing I’ve been able to cling to. Songwriters such as these have kept me sane at times when I was closer to the edge than I’d have cared to admit. I use their songs to relate to things that are generally unspeakable, not just focusing on the lyrics but also on the backing track, which can often speak to me far more deeply. The arrangement is very important to me… it’s what conveys the artist’s smile or frown. Because of the secret messages which I feel are communicated, I like to think of music as a secret language to which only a chosen few can have access.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

After more than fifteen years as a guide dog owner I now feel like a different person. I have a new business, a new home, new freedoms and I’ve returned to many old interests that I’d abandoned because of my sight loss. I have spoken about how I used to regard sight impairment as a stigma, a label that carried with it a badge, which I felt unable to wear. That day back in the hospital when I was put on the visual impairment register, I decided that if I must wear such a badge I would wear it whole-heartedly and with pride. I’m now a fully committed card-carrying blindy.

All of this is thanks to Abbot and now Jarvis I owe them everything. I can’t begin to tell you how much life has changed and how much better it is now. I look back on my old life and it’s almost as if it belonged to another person. Nevertheless, I have to admit that my sight impairment has left some scars that not even Abbot and Jarvis have been able to heal. On this very blog I’m sure you’ve noticed some bitterness...

I wasted too many years – from that day in 1987 when I was forced to give up my ‘proper job’ until almost ten years later – simply running away from being a blindy, a thing that scared me to the core. 

Disappearing as I used to do for days on end and drinking myself silly was never a solution. As well as having my problems to face, I’d even have new ones because while I was in hiding I’d feel terrified that Denise would leave me not only because of my blindness or my unemployment, but also because of my latest disappearing act. If only I’d faced up to the truth sooner!

As I’ve already explained, my running and denial didn’t just hurt Denise (although that was bad enough) – it hurt so many other people too. I didn’t just quietly scuttle away on my own with my anger, I would mouth off to anyone who got in the way and I didn’t care who got caught in the crossfire. I feel deeply ashamed of the way I behaved. Some of the people from those times were eventually very supportive and were just pleased to see me get my act together in the end. But some of them couldn’t seem to move on because they were so hurt by my behaviour. 

I deeply regret this and I miss them terribly. I wish more than anything that I could make things right with these people. I’ve held too many grudges myself against people who’ve hurt me and in the end these grudges have only served to disable me further. Who needs that? I know only too well, though, how hard it is to let go of old hurts. If you’re reading this and you’re one of the many people who holds a grudge against me, I hope you will contact me. I want to make amends because at last the running has stopped...

OK, OK, I’ll admit there are still odd days when I still want to get the hell away and drink myself into oblivion so as to numb the anger. It’s as I said earlier: I’m a recovering addict and I have to take each day at a time. On angry days I still go out looking for someone I can vent my spleen on. People who know me would never refer to me as laid-back but Abbot and now Jarvis have helped me to become a person who is much more at ease with himself and I’ll be forever in their debt.

I had always believed that to be open and honest about my sight loss would place me in far too vulnerable a position: a position where I would be at the mercy of those around me. But Abbot and Jarvis have filled me with a strength that I could never have imagined. I now know that I was much more vulnerable in my former life than I could ever be now. 

What’s so amazing is that the very thing I feared so much really isn’t so scary after all, now that I’m here and facing it. I even like the way things are now! My biggest regret is that I didn’t wake up to the idea of a guide dog sooner. When I look back on all those years without a dog I can only shake my head and wonder.

Who knows what the future holds on the ‘road ahead’? I’m still afraid of the day when I will wake up and never see anything again. I know that one day the sight just won’t return again... and yes, I admit it, that still really scares me. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Some useful tips.

I neither want nor need your pity. Beer, chocolate and money are fine but please no pity. Read any article about a guide dog owner and it will probably contain the words “tragic victim”. Just remember this is not how we see ourselves and we are not looking for pity. 

Please don’t talk to me about the wonderful compensations of visual impairment. My senses of smell, touch and hearing and for that matter my sense of humour did not automatically improve as my sight worsened. It is true that I rely on them more than you and therefore I may obtain more information in this way than you do, but that is all. 
If you are curious about visual impairment I will discuss it with you but you must remember that it’s an old story to me and I have just as many other interests as you. 

It’s important that you speak to me in a normal tone of voice. You don’t need to shout or address me as you would a child. It’s only visual impairment; it’s not a lack of intellect. It’s important that you remember I may still have enough useful sight to deliver a blow accurately. 

Talk directly to me, not through my friends or companions and especially not through my dog. 
If you ever think that I may need some help, ask me. Let me be the one to decide - and please don’t grab my dog’s harness. To me, my dog’s harness is a sensitive instrument in much the same way that your nose is to you. How would you like it if I grabbed you by the nose? 

Let me take your left arm. I’ll keep half a step behind you so as to anticipate kerbs and steps etc. 
If you should ever have me as a house guest, then please show me the bathroom, the cupboards, the windows and the light switches too, it’s important that I feel orientated just as you do. For my part, I’ll try to behave as well as I can so you don’t feel the need to show me the door. 

Don’t be afraid to use everyday expressions such as “look” or “did you see that programme on TV”. I know that such phrases are accepted as part of our language and I am not some delicate little creature who needs to be kept in some politically correct crèche. 

Always leave doors all the way open or all the way closed, a half open door is a hazard to me. You will often see me sporting various cuts and bruises as a result of walking in to a half open door. 
If you ever have to leave me in an unfamiliar area, make sure it’s near something I can touch such as a wall or a table. Being left out in an open space can be both uncomfortable and disorientating for me.

If I should ever ask you for directions, please give useful instructions such as across the street and left at the next junction. These are a lot more helpful than vague descriptions like ‘over there’. Pointing is of no earthly use to a blind person - yet you’d be surprised how many people still do it. 

If we are in a pub or a restaurant then clear directions to available seats would be much appreciated. While I find my way there, you will have time to get me a pint from the bar. Please avoid the temptation to draw other customers’ attention to the dog (e.g. saying “look, isn’t he cute” etc). This may cause as much embarrassment to the guide owner as saying ‘look at the shiny wheels on the wheelchair’ would cause to a wheelchair user. 

Always be considerate, if you should notice a spot or a stain on my clothing; please tell me privately as you would wish to be told. 

Never refer to a visually impaired person as a “VIP”. This is a particularly patronising term and will almost certainly cause offence and you may not like the response you get. My usual response to the term VIP is “FU2”!

Never ever distract a guide dog when he’s working. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who try to talk to Jarvis as we’re crossing the road. 
Many members of the public think that you should never talk to a guide dog under any circumstances. This is not a view to which the Guide Dogs for the Blind association subscribe. Their advice is that you exercise some judgment. Wait until the guide dog owner is in a place of safety before asking them if you may fuss their dog. 

Approach the owner first, not the dog. Remember there may be a vital reason why the owner does not want you fussing their dog at that particular time. It may be that their dog is somewhat distracted at the time and fussing may cause the dog to become over excited. It may be something much more mundane. Maybe the owner is simply running late and you may not have been the first one to ask to fuss the dog on this journey, after all these are very popular dogs. 
A simple trip to the local shop which may take a sighted person ten minutes can take me twice as long simply because of the number of people who want to make a fuss of Jarvis. 

Sometimes this is fine, and no-one enjoys it more than me. Then there are days when time is at a premium and I need to press on. There have been several occasions when people’s feelings have been hurt because I didn’t have time for them to fuss over Jarvis. 

If you should see a guide dog owner standing still with the dogs harness laid flat on the dog’s back, this may be a sign that they are in difficulties and you could offer to help. Guide dog owners often carry a little sign with the word “help” on it. If you ever see one of us holding such a sign, then please help. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

There is a phrase much used in the Church Of England lately, a phrase called "mutual flourishing".  I've spent my fifteen year career as a guide dog owner and my understanding of that phrase is not something I recognise when I hear it bandied around the good old C of E.

All through your training with your dog they constantly bang on about the "bond" between dog and owner, almost to the point of it being obsessive. I have to admit that all those years ago when I was first training with Abbot I was starting to get cross with Lynne my trainer because like a broken record she kept repeating over and over that it was all about the bond. 

I was so wrong the bond I had with Abbot and now have with Jarvis has taught me about prayer, it is a relationship of "mutual flourishing". Let me try and explain.

I always tell people that Jarvis is a sentient being who works for me out of love,  love that is mutual, deep and heartfelt. 

All his life Jarvis has been lavished with love and care, he has never been mistreated. It is that love and care that he responds to. Every time I put on his harness and we leave the house, it is that love he is responding to. 

Jarvis cares for me and I care for him. I am Jarvis's sole carer. I am responsible for feeding him, I groom him each day, we play together every day, I administer any medicine he might need, I keep watch over his health and take him to the vet whenever needed. Now dare I say my fellow Anglicans, one of the most important parts of that bond, that mutual flourishing is that I am the one that quite literally clears up his shit.

In return Jarvis has kept me safe for seven years now without a murmur of complaint, he lives to care for me and does it brilliantly.

For me this echoes loud about the kind of relationship God wants with us and just as with Jarvis there is work to do in forming that bond.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

So far the main dog featured in this blog has been Abbot my first ever guide dog but in 2009 both Abbot and I had to adjust to his retirement, a whole other story, for another time.

So in June 2009 I was introduced to Jarvis. Jarvis has a totally different personality to Abbot. Abbot was always in your face where as Jarvis is very placid and chilled. However he posses a kind of quiet confidence that I soon grew to rely on.

Most guide dog owners after having been at it for some time develop bad habits, short cuts, dodges, ways of dodging doing things by the book. Jarvis however, will have none of it, and quite right he is too because it is because the book is there to keep us safe. 

On the first day of training Jarvis taught me how it was going to be. A few doors up from my house there is a green BT junction box, I know it is there, a permeant feature that I pass several times on most days, so as Jarvis and I were approaching it I started to move out in order to avoid it. Suddenly Jarvis put the brakes on and sat down, refusing to move. I turned to Stig our trainer who was following, he was laughing. I asked him what was up. He told me that Jarvis would not allow me to anticipate obstacles, it was his job to guide me and he was insisting that he was in charge. We set off again, Jarvis walked me right up to the box, then moved round it and back in again, once we'd done that he turned and gave me the stare, the stare that says "you won't do that again will you dad". Lesson learned.

Both Abbot and Jarvis have taught me many lessons that cross over in to my spiritual life but here is one that Jarvis continually reinforces. When your dog thinks you have made a bad decision, a decision likely to put you in danger, your dog will simply sit down and refuse to move un till you give him what he considers a safe command. Jarvis has a stubborn streak a mile wide and takes this rule very seriously. Guide Dogs refer to this as intelligent disobedience. Jarvis has developed this to an art form.

And so it has often been in my prayer life, I pray prayers making demands on God, decisions that God knows are unsafe and so like Jarvis he applies the brakes, he applies the principal of intelligent disobedience. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Disability and Jesus owes it’s very being to social media, we began Tweeting as soon as we were formed, it is a place we feel at home in, it has become the home of our community.
It’s an area Bill and Dave have done lots of work in on several fronts and they were greatly aware of the potential power social media can have used wisely.

Social media is so huge now it simply can not be ignored. Facebook now has over 1 billion active users who access the site at least once a month. Twitter has roughly a quarter of that. Like it or not, participate in it or not, social media is growing and shows no signs of going away.

For many this has been a tremendous blessing. Churches and Christian organisations have been able to quickly, effectively and most importantly, cheaply get the word out about what they are doing. These sites have functioned as excellent communication tools for churches and church organisations, not just in keeping in touch with the Christian scene but more importantly with the wider world. 

However there are some negatives, Christians get into arguments, and don’t always display their best behaviour and of course things can very quickly spiral out of control and before you know it a thread has gone viral, a thread that is not showing you in a good light. It is so easy to be provoked in such situations, there have been times we have had to check our own behaviour in this regard. 

So how do we, as Christians, use social media in ways that are consistent with our faith? In what ways does social media impact our faith for the good and for the bad? How do we use them responsibly and where are the lines of what is appropriate and what is not? How do you keep accountable in the land of no accountability?

Well it has been a huge learning curve for us in monitoring our on line presence, not rising to the bate when people deliberately set out to be provocative and not accepting followers of a dubious nature.

At the end of the day we have learned that social media is simply what we make of it, all of us have experienced that nuisance phone call, did we ever have PPI, would you like new windows etc, we do not give up using the phone just because of such experiences, and so it is with social media, just like any other form of communication.
We like to think of it as a twenty-first century way of doing just as the early church did by sending letters when travel was too difficult. We decided early on that as we had no budget yet a great need to get the word out, that social media had to be the way for us moving forward. We like to imagine that St Paul would have had a Twitter account.

But there was another even bigger reason for us. Because of the work Bill and Dave had previously been involved in, we had already learned that social media is where many disabled people live, people who are housebound, have poor mobility, suffer from lack of confidence, difficult financial situations, have had bad church experiences, sometimes even people who do not want you to know about their disability, everyone can control how they portray themselves on social media, it is one of the only true level playing fields. So we have found that all these people now hang out on the net.

All of us use the web as a major form of communication but because of all those reasons listed above disabled people rely on it so much more than others. 

It is a great sadness to us when we hear a church leader decrying social media and saying that they have no engagement with it. As we have just explained, social media is often the only way many disabled people stay in touch with the outside world, so to say you don’t do social media leaves you open to the criticism that you are not interested in disabled people. 

So for us, social media means we are able to have what is in effect a virtual inclusive online community where disabled people and others are able to interact on an equal basis. A community that is growing and is now over 7600 and still growing.

For an organisation like us which has no funding we could never have achieved the reach we have in under three years without the use of social media.

Our advice to anyone else would be that social media is what you make it. We have invested a lot of time in it, in building up relationships and in policing our accounts, not letting arguments get out of hand and making sure we’re not being trolled or exploited just for someone else to build up their following and most importantly adopting a zero tolerance approach to inappropriate content. 

Dave took on the job of managing our web presence both with our website and our social media presence. Having one person doing both the website and social media has enabled to have a joined up message with linked accounts and knowing that one of the team has an overview on the whole of our web pressence. Dave has treated it as his full time work and spends many hours each day on it, if you are not able to dedicate that sort of time maybe you could think of having a rota of several people. What we do know is that to have a serious social media presence takes a great deal of time, it’s about building relationships with people but trust us when we tell you it is worth it. 

Here are just some of the things we have learned along the way.

We have created a virtual community on social media, a safe space where disabled people who are hurting can express that hurt in all it’s rawness, this often makes for uncomfortable reading, sometimes people have complained to us about the use of such language by people struggling to come to terms with their disability, complaining that their behaviour is inappropriate. We have had to explain to those complaining that this space has been created for just such a reason, a safe space where those in crisis can shout at God, ask difficult questions and vent their feelings. We have had to say to some very churchy people, “sorry but this space belongs to those who are hurting, if you are offended and want someone to leave, then sad to see you go but bye bye”.

Social media is not just an another activity; it is important to regard it as an investment of valuable time and resources. It is a huge opportunity to surround yourself with people who don’t just support you and stay with you, but they pray for you, they inform your thinking and introduce you to new thinking, new people and places, it opens doors.

It is vital to regard social media as a distinctive ministry, whoever is looking after your presence on social media should be doing it out of a sense of calling not just because they have a social media account. That ministry needs support from the wider church community, it needs to be prayed for. It needs protection, it needs encouragement and vigilance. Above all even though we want you to have fun we also want you to take it seriously. Before you set up a social media account pray deeply about what you want it to achieve, who is called to do the posting and how available you can be as social media only works well if you can respond quickly. Leave your social media account for more than a few hours and you are in danger of coming across as unconcerned.

If you are unable to provide this kind of commitment to it then it is probably best left alone.

A gentle, humble and helpful approach will go so much further and open doors you cannot imagine. Think from a higher level and try to see beyond today, to not regard posting as a chore but an opportunity. Some hard work, prayer and insight will bring you to paths that will reward you so highly, it’ll make the little inconvenience you incurred so very worth it.

In Social Media the “squeaky wheel” gets the oil. You have to put yourself out there, to find people who will relate or even debate with you, depending on what you are looking for.

If we are going to enter in to social media whole heartedly we must develop a thick skin. With an unshakeable sense of self – and a commitment to being compassionate – nothing will faze you.

These days, social media is moving so fast, it waits for no one. If you’re late for the party, you’ll probably be covered by all the noise and you might not be able to get your voice across. It could only mean that if you want to be heard by the crowd, you have to be fast; and on social media, that means you have to be really fast. If you are not able to respond to comments within a short time of them arriving you will lose following.

You can never go wrong by investing in communities and the human beings within them, trust us when we tell you that for many social media is their community just the same way that maybe your parish is to you.

Always remember your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth or criticism you receive on social media will drag you down.

When you lose followers because of where you stand – you strengthen your tribe. We have found this to be so true many, many times, never sacrifice principals for numbers.

Try to use social media as an idea generator, trend mapper and strategic compass for all of your ideas. Often God will use social media as a way of confirming what you might be thinking or even as a way of stealing you away from what may have become a wrong path.

What makes you different, makes you unique and therefore makes you stand out. Don’t be afraid when you are told that you are not saying the same things as others in the same field, there is probably very good reason for that. Find your own voice and don’t be tempted away to use someone else’s.

Social media is here. It’s not going away; not a passing fad. Be where people are just as Jesus did.

Good content always has an objective, be clear in your own mind what the objective is and above all pray about it, get your followers to pray for you. We have a huge number of people praying for our ministry via Twitter and their prayers are tangible things that we feel all around us, propping us up, moving us forward.

Everyone starts out on Twitter or Facebook with nobody listening to them and nobody to listen to. How and who you add determines what Twitter will become for you. Choose carefully and prayerfully. Don’t just follow anyone and more importantly don’t just let anyone follow you.

Social media will help you build up loyalty of your followers  to the point that they will willingly, and for free, tell others about you.

The importance of gratitude is never forgotten. Always remember to thank followers for their help, support, prayer and encouragement, don’t ever take your followers for granted.

Engage, Enlighten, Encourage and especially…just be yourself! Social media is a community effort, try to see everyone as an asset.

Don’t be one dimensional, it is good to occasionally go off topic, to tell a funny story, to share something from your own life, it is important you show yourself and your organisation as rounded, that you can have fun and that you have concerns beyond that of your main cause.

This is a learning process and sometimes you have to fall in order to learn things.

Whenever possible reciprocate, if someone has been generous in sharing your posts with their followers then we must do the same wherever possible unless what they want shared contradicts the ethos of your organisation. There have been a few occasions when for that reason, we have had to say no.

People want to engage with you because you help them get what they want. They don’t engage with you to help you get what you want.