Watching a hand remain motionless while a ball falls towards it is a new experience for me. After 25 years of juggling, I have developed an autonomic response that stops objects in my vicinity from hitting the ground. So it was with growing discontent that I watched my student Damian's left hand let the bright orange bean bag pick up speed en route to the floor.
It landed with a thud and only I was surprised.
It was 20 years ago that I first tried to teach a blind person to juggle. In those days I had the attention span of a housefly and when I realized it was going to take longer than 10 minutes, the challenge lost its appeal. But if a quarter century of juggling does nothing else to the spirit, it teaches patience. And it seems that the mountains we hike but never conquer still stand waiting for a more mature and able climber.
How do I articulate the movements to a person who has never seen anything I might use for analogy? What words or examples could I offer to aid someone in catching a ball they can't see? How could I map out the complex patterns without a visual demonstration?
After only three sessions, Damian Pickering has taught me that there is much more to juggling than meets the eye.
The first time we spoke on the phone I knew that I had found my subject. As the 35-year old Director of Public Affairs for the Rose Resnick LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, Damian is an accomplished professional who has not let his disability interfere with a rich life. He's married, articulate, motivated, and extremely efficient.
"Where do you want to meet? What should I bring? Let me check my schedule and write down your number." His questions were rapid fire and specific.
While my direct experience with the blind is limited: a Stevie Wonder concert in the late '80s and a big fan of Mr. Magoo, Damian appeared more organized than just about anyone I know. I thought that if he could juggle his life this well, three balls was going to be doable.
I carefully considered how I would approach our initial meeting. After all, the first sentence in any good juggling lesson is, "Watch the ball as it arcs from your right hand to your left hand." I developed a few plans of attack for teaching Damian, as well as some special props to hopefully help us overcome our obstacles.
I bought some balls that make noise, brought plastic shopping bags that fall slowly and make noise, and made a stick with bells on the end in case he wanted to try to flip something from hand-to-hand. I covered the end of the stick with bubble pack so he wouldn't hit himself in the head. My fear was that he would show up at work the next day, stand up at a meeting and explain to a group of subordinates that the bump on his head is from a juggling mishap.
Driving to his Berkeley home, I tried to put myself into the mind set of a blind man. I shut my eyes at a stoplight and imagined a life with this view. I flashed on all that I see throughout the day: the white hairs that have slowly crept onto my dog's snout, the ever-expanding green patches of growth on brown hills, and the friendly end of a juggling machete making its way to my hand. I admitted that I take that vision for granted. I thought about how brave Damian was to agree to this meeting and silently wondered what in my life would represent a proportionally difficult challenge. I came up blank, opened my eyes, and drove on.
His wife opened the door and Damian gave me a bear of a hug. His collapsible cane was folded up in his front pocket and its red tip poked me in the belly. I told him that if he wanted to do that again he was going to have to buy me a drink. His delicate laugh came in stark contrast to his strong facial features. He had long black hair and a pair of dark brown glass eyes. He spoke slowly and used his hands as extensions of his words, touching his chest, forming objects, and applying eye drops at lightning fast speed. He was excited to get started so one at a time I placed all the things I brought with me into his hands. He started to laugh maniacally and I thought that was a particularly good sign.
It was an hour before dusk and we stepped out into his courtyard to begin. I asked him if he ever saw a juggler because, in my naiv e te. I thought it might help if he had. He told me that he had been blind since age three and the only thing he ever remembers seeing is the Golden Gate Bridge. How perfect. I had him visualize the cables of that bridge and told him they arc on the same path that I want his hands travel. With that one tip we went from zero to a perfect toss. How lucky that the only thing he remembered seeing offered an ideal schematic for juggling.
I had him stand behind me and hold my wrists while I juggled so he could feel the motions I wanted him to emulate. We talked about what the balls do in flight. In his own way, he was able to see anything if given enough detail.
It was at this point that I realized, much to my surprise, that I knew little about what a ball does as it travels from hand to hand.
While watching Damian patiently visualize the whereabouts of an object in space, I realized that the way a ball rolls off the fingertips determines where and how it will land. I noticed exactly where on the hand that first contact is made when catching. I saw how much faster a ball goes up than it comes down. My jaw dropped at the fact that balls rotate as they move through the air and how the catching hand compensates for that rotation. And there it was - the bet I would have lost for sure. If his right hand threw the ball a bit forward or backward, the left hand adjusted for the catch; I would have sworn that would not have happened.
Twenty-five years of juggling redefined as my blind student dropped ball after ball.
An hour had passed and the sun was well on its way to Japan. At the risk of sounding like the world's biggest sissy, I had suggested we move indoors.
"I'm having a hard time seeing the balls," I said.
"Tell me about it," he laughed.
It was time to get him catching. We were both determined to get those balls to land in his waiting and outstretched hand when all of the sudden he stumbled onto the answer.
A ball thrown out of his right hand banged him in the chest and bounced into his left hand. Voila - the bank shot! A technique used by basketball legends for decades has finally found its place in juggling. By tossing balls from his right hand into his left breast bone and vice versa, he was able to feel the timing and identify the whereabouts of the incoming ball. At the end of the 90-minute lesson, he was easily doing ten throws with one ball and got 30 in a row one time. Planting a seed for the next meeting, I wanted him to feel what it was like to juggle two balls. After a few tries off the backboard of his chest they both landed in perfect rhythm. I forgot that he couldn't see me coming and I hugged him so hard that I think I scared him.
On my drive home the streets looked cleaner, people walking by seemed to be more expressive, and the sunset over Mt. Tamalpais looked like something produced by a special effects team.
So how far can this go? I let my imagination run wild and I see him juggling clubs in a precise and predictable pattern. He is on stage cracking jokes to an appreciative crowd while the balls are dancing effortlessly from hand to hand. He is seeing another impossible dream realized.
Our weekly lessons have continued and Damian can juggle - not to the level that I saw in my imagination, but far beyond. The threadbare balls that were brand new six weeks earlier bounce off his chest with an endearing thump. His way of seeing requires sound and that is pure, splendid ingenuity. When he bends to pick up a ball his hands delicately survey the area and, like dependable hunting dogs, find the fallen treasure.
Occasionally he holds the balls out in front of his body and squeezes them tightly. The veins in his arms come to the surface and he taps his hands slowly onto an imaginary drum. I see him just being with the situation, visualizing what he is about to do.
The silent pauses that come in working with Damian offer a refreshing conversational cadence. Taking sight out of a relationship seems to lessen the need for aimless small talk. Damian typically breaks the silence with a funny or insightful snippet and then proceeds on to a good ten throws of juggling.
"There is such a conflict between thinking what to do and not being able to do it, or not thinking about it and just doing it," he blurts out.
"Damian, are we talking about juggling?," I want to make sure.
He relaxes his shoulders and laughs. "It feels like I am so close to being able to do this when I don't think about it. When I just start tossing them and let it happen naturally it seems like there should be a Pink Floyd album playing and the pattern should go all night."
"Tell me more about that," I query.
"If juggling is sex then I feel like I have my zipper half way down. But when I drop, it's like a premature" --
"OK Damian, we're going to put the metaphors away for a while," I insist.
I know why this whole idea didn't work out 20 years ago. Typical of a 19-year-old kid, I wanted it to be about me. And while I doubt I've matured all of that out of myself, this project is at least about us. For every minute I spend juggling with Damian I am rewarded in ways that continually surprise me.
I have gained a deeper level of understanding in my own juggling because of this experience. For the first time in my life I see my throws and catches as equal partners in an artistic creation. By helping Damian to visualize the flight of the balls through space, I more clearly defined that path for myself.
And I realized that one of the greatest rewards of teaching is - learning.