Touching The Boat

Harper's CornerJessica Harper
By Jessica Harper
November 2010

"Life is full of challenges.
Some we create, while others are thrust upon us..."

I recently heard about a woman who, as she neared her 60th birthday, decided to take on something challenging. “I know,” she said. “I’ll swim from Cuba to Florida!”

I, too, had a significant birthday recently, and I’d been thinking in terms of new challenges, but more along the lines of improving my texting skills, or organizing my sock drawer. If I told my husband I wanted to swim 103 miles, he would have me committed, or at least suggest I upgrade my bathing suit. But we live by different standards than the woman quoted above. She is Diana Nyad, once the country’s most famous female long-distance swimmer.

Ms. Nyad swam around Manhattan in the 70’s, which made her famous for way more than fifteen minutes. Shortly after that, she made her first attempt at the Cuba-to-Florida swim, She failed (due to bad weather), and gave up swimming for thirty years. This fall, she’s again undertaking that 60-hour swim. She’ll be followed by a boat whose crew will hand her food and water. These are the rules: “You can stop, “ Nyad says, “But you cannot touch the boat.”

I am quite a bit younger than Nyad. (Well, maybe not quite a bit. Let’s just say I’m younger than she is and older than Justin Bieber.) But I am inspired by her example. I went in the pool the other day and swam twice as long as usual. While swimming thirty minutes using a flotation device does not put me in Nyad’s league, I felt that it was a step in the right direction.

More to the point, since I just had this big birthday, inspired by Ms. Nyad, I am going to make my goals for the coming year a little loftier. I might even start that new writing project that seems so huge, so daunting. I know that to get through it, I will have to stay focused, pace myself, maybe stop occasionally along the way to summon fresh energy. But I’ll be thinking of Diana Nyad, and, I will try my damnedest not to touch the boat.

But while we’re on the subject, let’s consider challenges of a different stripe. I’m referring to those that we do not choose for ourselves, mountains we’d rather not climb, journeys we’d prefer not to take, battles we’d just as soon not engage in. Those of us with PXE understand these unwelcome challenges all too well.

I was privileged to be an honoree at the recent opening night dinner of PXE International’s biennial conference. But when I stepped to the microphone to express my gratitude, I wept. This took me (and probably many others) by surprise. Later, I believe I figured it out.

As I go through my daily life, I, like so many PXEers, experience myriad minor (and sometimes major) frustrations due to my vision loss, and I also carry with me a deep-seated anxiety about what the future holds. For the most part, I push my feelings about this aside, down deep, and get on with my life. But at a PXE conference, when you check in at the hotel that’s teeming with PXEers, you check in to full awareness and ownership of your disease. It’s a special time to get better informed, to share stories and meet new friends in the community, and it’s also time to man up. There’s no room for denial at the Marriott. I let my guard down that Friday night, left my armour at reception, and a lot of repressed feelings rushed forth.

But as the conference progressed, my feelings changed.

My difficulties are pretty insignificant compared to those of many other people I met at the conference. After my emotional moment at the podium, getting to know some of these people brought me back to resilience and optimism.

One such person was Kate Williams. When we met, I was struck by her beauty, poise and abundance of positive energy. Then I heard her story. Kate was a human resources executive living in Los Angeles when she lost her vision. She had to leave her job and then, her city, which is not user-friendly without a driver’s license. This multi-pack of losses would have crushed many people, but Kate picked herself up, dusted herself off, moved to San Francisco and now has a business counseling people on career change. (Her workshop on that subject at the conference got a great response.) She is a shining example of how to make the best of adversity, and just meeting her turned my head around.

While Diana Nyad is indeed a heroic role model, inspirational with her display of extraordinary atheleticism, Kate Williams and others like her are unsung heroes who meet equally daunting, but less welcome challenges every day. For them, touching the boat is not even an option.

So, while I hope that I, like Nyad, will always set goals that cause me to reach beyond my own expectations, I also hope that I can accept the challenges presented by PXE, whatever they may be, in the way that Kate Williams does, with amazing grace, good spirit, and determination.


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