Meet October’s Guest Blogger
Donna W. Hill
The Cryptic Calling: an author’s journey
Along an Unmarked Path
This photo of Donna W. Hill with her guide dog, Hunter in ” Glowing Mist in the Redwoods” is by Rich Hill
It was 1954. A four-year-old girl with blond banana curls was in the living room. The house was quiet. Her parents were at work; her brother and grandmother in the backyard. She felt relieved to be alone. She didn’t know, nor would she for 14 years, that she was already legally blind.
The voice startled her. She stopped breathing, her ears scanning the house. But, it wasn’t necessary. She had felt the message settle into her spirit.
“You are here to do something important involving music.”
What did it mean? She instinctively took it as an anointing from God, though one with a disquieting lack of detail.
That four-year-old was yours truly, and at sixty-five, that message still puzzles, intrigues and guides me. Initially, I assumed it meant that I was to become famous for my music. I didn’t share the experience, but I begged my parents to get me an accordion.
“You’re too small.”
Always a literalist, I was amused in second grade when — instead of the “massively-huge” accordion” — they bought me a piano . I progressed quickly, my nose on the brightly lit book, developing my memorization skills.
A Rude Awakening
Later that fall, I was selected for the Christmas concert. I was sure my ship had arrived. I was, however, wildly mistaken. I soon realized that there would be major obstacles.
“Go up to the top row of the risers.”
I was in the auditorium for our first rehearsal. I didn’t know what risers were, but I was soon on a contraption that shook and rattled with no way to steady myself. I didn’t understand how tunnel vision impacted my balance, and neither did anyone else.
Almost instantly, the director ordered me down, dismissing me from the group. She wouldn’t give me a few minutes to work it out or let me stand on the floor. The lesson wasn’t lost on me; although my voice was good enough, something more important about me wasn’t.
That spring, my teacher took my workbook away, despite my above average grades. She wasn’t comfortable watching me struggle to read. The other shoe dropped the following fall. I was placed in “Special Class,” where only first-grade large-print books awaited me. The thrust of my education was to fulfill the tiniest assignments, after which I was encouraged to play with pre-school toys.
My ophthalmologist was outraged. I was removed from “Special Class” and placed into a normal third grade class. The teacher, displeased with the placement, delighted in allowing open bullying of me and punished the girl who read me the questions from the board.
A Mission Slipping Away
By sixth grade, my vision was worsening, and piano music was far more complicated. My ability to memorize it was at a breaking point. I did what I thought any self-respecting twelve-year-old would do. I quit.
How was I supposed to interpret what I had heard in the living room? For the first (and far from the last) time, I considered the possibility that it could have merely been the ravings of a deranged mind.
In Search of a Miracle
Had God changed His mind? Or, perhaps, I needed to do something else first. If so, I knew what that was — get normal sight. It was obviously impossible to be successful without it.
Years before hearing televangelists discuss healing, I somehow knew I had to believe it would happen. Every morning for months, before I opened my eyes, I thanked God for restoring my sight, imagining the bright and detailed world that awaited me. My eyes, however, opened to dimness and confusion.
Progress and Compromise
At fourteen, I was devastated without music in my life. I asked for and received a guitar. Though I was too shy to share them, I started writing songs, beginning the inexorable link in my life between music and language.
In Junior High and High School, the bullying became more physical. The increase in work coupled with declining central vision necessitated a prioritizing of my work — literature and science were in; history and math out. Braille and recorded books were never discussed. I was legally blind in a world where it was more important to read and navigate with your eyes, regardless of how many mistakes you made, how much time it took, how sick you got or how many other things fell by the wayside, than to learn nonvisual skills.
The overt bullying stopped when I entered college. Nevertheless, I had lost the reading vision in my better eye that summer and was ill-equipped to take full advantage of the college experience. For the first time, however, I used recorded books and readers.
Reawakening the Dream
After graduation, I tried to make up the deficit. I trained with my first guide dog and learned Braille. I would pursue my dream of being a self-supporting musician — initially, as a street performer in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station.
I had my own apartment, kept an organic garden complete with a compost pile, baked whole grain bread and made everything from soup and tomato sauce to pesto and spanakopita. I started performing at schools, churches and other venues. I wanted my audiences to have a comfortable experience with a blind person and learn a bit about how we do things. I released two albums — “Rainbow Colors” and “Harvest.”
“If I had healed you back then,” said the same voice, “You would have never known that blindness didn’t have to limit you.”
While recording my third album, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After treatment, Rich and I married, and I finished the project. Just as “The Last Straw” was coming out, I found another cancerous lump. The drain on our energy and finances prompted a change in plans.
What about my mission? Had I done what I was supposed to do? Perhaps it had something to do with the many small contacts I’d had over the years. Maybe it was the man who wore out his copy of “Rainbow Colors” while recovering from an auto accident. Maybe it was one of the thousands of kids who had seen my school programs. I was well aware by then that we are all here to do something important. putting forth our best efforts and walking in love is the greatest, most difficult and most rewarding mission.
I didn’t give up. Blind people still aren’t being welcomed with open arms. Education, digital accessibility and unemployment remain major problems. I learned to use a computer with text-to-speech software to pursue another dream. In an effort to promote acceptance among the general public, my novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill was designed to allow the reader an intimate look into the mind of a blind teenager, embroiled in an exciting adventure. And, the music angle? Abigail’s a shy songwriter.
Donna’s novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill, an educator-recommended diversity and anti-bullying classroom resource for middle school and older readers, is available in print, eBook versions and accessible formats for readers with print disabilities. For more information and to follow Donna’s blog, visit:
Photo by Rich Hill. Photos used with permission of the photographer. Thanks so much!
Donna is a singer and songwriter. Click on the LINK below to enjoy listening to Donn as she sings, “Love of my Life.”
Special THANKS to Rich and Donna W. Hill for allowing me feature this story on the blog today!
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