The Blind Lady That Came to Dinner

In every chapter of my life, I’ve hosted dinner parties. One guest years ago left an impression I still think about.

At the time I was living in Westchester County, above the Bronx in New York. I started a dinner group on and several people joined.

One evening a few hours before a scheduled dinner, I stood in the kitchen prepping food. A knock at the door made me jump. I lived on the third floor of a walkup building that had a locked entryway on the street level. Normally I had to buzz visitors in. I called out, “Who’s there?” and a raspy voice answered, “It’s Alice.” I recognized her name from the RSVPs and opened the door. There stood a stout woman wearing big black sunglasses, a white cane in one hand, a plastic bag in the other. She stepped in, speaking casually as I backed out of her way.

I’m not a fan of guests arriving early and unannounced. And I can’t recall ever having anyone reach my apartment door without me buzzing them up first. I was unnerved. But there was no time to ponder the startling inconvenience of Alice’s arrival.

She made her way to my couch, her white cane tapping ahead of her, and sat down. Getting comfortable she explained she had things to occupy her and not to mind that she was there. She put on some headphones and that was that.

I had a friend visiting and we’d been cooking together. Hesitantly we resumed our work. I wondered if Alice’s headphones were playing any audio, or if they were a device to help us relax. Was she listening to us?

The evening was fun. An eclectic group shared food and lively conversation. Alice was an interesting and enjoyable guest. She told some of her story — growing up poor and blind in a Latino home in Queens. She’d written a book entitled, Never Be Discouraged; With God All Things Are Possible and left me a copy. Every time I see it on my bookshelf I feel the distinct impression of her brief presence.

From her home in Queens to my apartment in Westchester, public transit is a several-stage endeavor. It takes more than one subway change to get to Grand Central Station, tickets purchased for the commuter train, finding the track, disembarking in an unknown town, navigating unknown streets, finding an unknown building, and entering the apartment of a stranger. It’s a significant journey for anyone. But when you are completely blind?

I’m familiar with every part of the commute described. Many times I’ve imagined Alice making her way up and down the stairs of the subway system, across the great halls of a massive travel hub, crossing the busy street between my building and the railroad platform.

I know that neural plasticity heightens other senses when someone is blind. Even so, there is no way to make that trip sightless without stumbling, probably falling, definitely getting pushed and pressed by the hurrying crowds. Despite hundreds of trips, I regularly get lost when navigating Grand Central.

I am in awe of Alice. She’s accomplished more in her life than most able-bodied, sighted others have. She was an interpreter for the Supreme Court for over thirty years. She founded a non-profit called Helping Hands for the Disabled of NYC. As part of her work with the charity, she delivers food and necessities to those who are in need. She wrote and published her memoir.

But her astonishing list of accomplishments isn’t what I think about most. I imagine her navigating one of the busiest, complex transit paths I’ve traveled. I wonder about the level of courage and confidence it takes to make that journey blind. I imagine fellow commuters stuck behind her slow, exploratory steps. I imagine her experience of the movement of air, the echo of noises, the swirl of energies; a guidance system most know nothing of. How does it feel to experience others without body language or visual cues? And how is it that despite the slower pace and numerous obstacles, she got further (my front door), sooner (hours earlier!), than any other guest I ever hosted?

It’s not a mystery to me actually. It’s a metaphor.

I think of Alice as the woman who demonstrated the way I experience life as a neurodivergent mystic. My brain is wired in an uncommon way. For most of my life, I’ve struggled between trying to keep up with standard expectations, and the unbearable frustration of having keen senses that others didn’t and dull senses where others’ were keen. You can’t tell by looking at me that I’m different. But as a kid, I wanted nothing so desperately as to “be normal.” I didn’t know why I was different, just that I was.

These days it’s called ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But that phrase is a catchall for a variety of individuals whose brains operate differently. It’s a way to identify a particular group of people who don’t fit a cultural system designed for efficient, copious, methodical production and consumption. We don’t move with the crowd, we don’t always notice or assume group routines. Our mode of travel looks odd and ridiculous against the current of those moving in rhythm.

It’s draining to be different. It’s twice as draining once you learn to pretend you’re not. Learning to “pass” seems helpful, but the anxiety of being found out, the energy of adapting against your nature, the nagging suspicion that you’re fundamentally flawed, compounds over time. It’s exhausting to steer with an apparatus that’s not aligned with the environment. Where others can cruise along, I’ve lived my life gripping the wheel to keep from swerving in a zillion other directions at any given moment. Actually, that’s not quite true, I’ve mostly swerved through life.

Harvard psychiatrist Dr Ned Hallowell has said,

“These people can feel a lot. In places where most of us are blind, they can, if not see the light, at least feel the light, and they can produce answers apparently out of the dark. It is important for others to be sensitive to this ‘sixth sense’ many ADD people have, and to nurture it. If the environment insists on rational, linear thinking and good behavior from these [individuals] all the time, then they may never develop their intuitive style to the point where they can use it profitably.”

It was only in recent years that I began to understand the interplay between my neurobiology and spirituality. My intuition rejected much of what was accepted around me and was drawn to what others ignored. I couldn’t be interested in assumed objectives. And I rarely found others to share the experiences that fired my imagination and motivated my choices. So much of life seemed ridiculous and intolerable, yet I knew that I was the one who appeared wacky and eccentric. It feels like being gaslit by the whole world.

The essence of mysticism is a hunger for what lies beyond the physical senses. A hunger to understand the data of a different discernment. What Dr. Hallowell calls a “sixth sense” is more like a variety of possible receptors, all tuned to the invisible. These ethereal senses are the origin of masterpieces in music, art, literature, science, engineering, political progress, and spiritual teaching. Their creators apparently managed to “develop their intuitive style profitably.” But these senses are also responsible for many more tragedies; addiction, wounded minds, broken lives, rejection, and isolation. Poverty, relationship failure, and mental illness are far more common than cases of brilliance and mastery.

Poverty. It’s a terrible strain to live misaligned with a world that demands priority for the tangible. The ethereal senses hardly offer a clear path to material gain. They demand obedience without a promise of proceeds. Those who persist, who honor their jagged journey, may one day realize they’ve traveled farther, arrived sooner, and produced things others never dreamed possible. But there are no guarantees. Producing what others find valuable is not the point of life and not a requirement of well-being.

Relationship failure. I was startled and unnerved to receive Alice’s knock on my door. Neurodivergents’ lives interrupt and unsettle those around them, particularly the closest relationships. It isn’t intentional. Tact, diplomacy, and norms that lubricate human interaction are often their duller senses. It’s painful to discover how much frustration and misunderstanding one can generate with zero awareness. It raises inner tension, lowers self-esteem, and increases feelings of isolation.

Mental illness. A constant struggle between trying to be “more normal,” and the gnawing urge to follow invisible signals can spiral into dark places. Tension frays the mind and creates weak spots in the soul. Poor psychological health grows entangled with unusual gifting, and the lines between genius and sickness become blurred. The ability to trust yourself is easily compromised. It is disorienting to live in a web of symptoms and strategies, inspiration and desperation, exquisite sensitivities and shocking insensitivities, painful rejection, and praise of outstanding achievements.

It’s enticing to simplify the narrative. There is always a choice to believe in illness alone, or genius alone. Some days you may choose one storyline, some days the other. The highs and lows become fits and starts, and all the while you hang on for dear life.

If I’d had an obvious physical difference like Alice, it would have made sense why I navigated awkwardly through life. Why I felt pulled in opposing directions or nudged by unseen forces. I have an instinct to pursue what is essentially valuable, unencumbered by expectations others feel obliged to. Yet following that instinct has been the crux of my struggle.

I can’t explain how I got to where I am. Flourishing. Despite the absurdity of my path, I’ve reached a place of stability, or rather, resilience. (I can’t promise stability will ever be a feature of my path.) Resilience is like the shock absorbers that turn jungle driving into pleasurable riding. I’ve discovered reserves of a strength that grows quietly, out of necessity. It is a by-product of life.

Marrying and divorcing twice looks tragic on paper, but each relationship gave me unavoidable friction to address. I loved and hurt and learned and grew. Parenting on my own has broken and remade me more times than I can count. Through it all, fidelity to this mystic urge to prize what is veiled from bodily senses is all I can explain for how I’ve survived the jagged storyline.

Whether I will develop my “intuitive style to the point where I can use it profitably” remains to be seen. My specialty is what I offer now, faithfulness to the unseen and each individual who hears its call, and my voice reaching for every corner, crevice, or cliff where they might be found.




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