Friday, January 23, 2009

foi response from Rhea Speights (AL)

i've tried to write down what the experience was for me though i guess i'm still experiencing it in some ways. the following is a fairly dry report of things that happened. i don't feel especially gifted in assigning words to feelings so maybe when i reread this entry, i'll be able to refeel some of what happened.

near the end of the 24 hours, maybe sometime around 7 or 8 or 9pm, i was crawling around on the floor telling myself that if i got on my feet and moved my arms around more, i might be a little warmer than i am now and the time might pass a little quicker. i felt someone nearby leaning over and i heard an older man's voice say "thank you so much for doing this. this is very similar to what it's really like. and nobody pays attention." maybe i was hallucinating, but still, it made me feel better about my self-induced suffering.

the beginning was difficult, the middle was easy, and the last 5 (?) hours were miserable. i guess i feel like those last 5 hours are the reason i was there. i thought about other people in the world suffering because of greed and power and fear and stupidity and while i didn't know how much longer of my 24 hours i had to go, they have no idea if any end will ever come. it was a humbling experience and i am grateful to have participated.

the first bit of information i received when i arrived at the bookstore was that there were 140kids milling about and a ska band playing upstairs. also, the internet bill hadn't been paid on time so i wasn't going to be setting up any webstreaming. the director of the bookstore had actually enlisted volunteers to help me set up and "babysit" me during hours the store isn't normally open. most of the ska kids left just before midnight and a handful of bookstore staff were around when I started. my earplugs hurt and only muffled sound. the store seemed to empty out except for two folks who talked for a long time about nothing i could understand and ended their conversation with "Well, it's not like she cares!" i assumed they were referring to me and i feared they had just concluded that it would be ok to make out on the couch while i was still in the room. maybe all they did was trade who was going to stay the night.

the beginning was difficult. i was alone. i hit my head on a table and a couple of bookshelves (or maybe the same bookshelf a couple of times). the heat had been turned off for the night. the two pairs of pants and three shirts i was wearing weren't enough to keep me warm. i was a little uncomfortable and a little tired. i thought i had planned out the previous day well enough to accomplish last minute tasks and get enough sleep, but the coffee shop where I work needed me to change my shift at the last minute and then i was too nervous to take a final nap before heading to the bookstore. before the sun had come up, i knew and had practiced the 5 activities that would break up my day:
1. warming-up exercises. i did 20 or so sun salutations in a row very early in the morning. i went through bartenieff exercises on the floor. i did my 3rd grade modern students' favorite warm up exercise, several times throughout the day.
2. exploring the bookstore's landscape with my fingers. the first time i did this it scared me. then it got easier. then it got difficult again.
3. dancing. in the sense that folks might have expected when they read the word "performance." the event felt like an anti-performance. i didn't always know if anyone was around or if they were there looking for a book and i was in the way or if they were there for me. i had a good time playing with movement and sometimes just checking how difficult it was for me to balance without being able to see or hear.
4. drinking water or coffee which included the complications involved in finding those items
5. going to the bathroom.
These were my options. If I was done with one, I could move to another.

i'd go so far to say that the middle of the day was easy. there were people in the store hanging out. some hobos had spent the night upstairs (i had no idea) and were playing guitar and singing for a nice chunk of time. the internet was turned back on and i realized that two of the staff were trying to set up the webstreaming for me. i hadn't yet let anyone know that i could hear at all, but since they were trying so hard and had gotten so close, i thought i should share my username and password (i don't even know what they look like and i use the same password for everything. did i become incredibly trusting in those first 10-13 hours?). they still couldn't get the webstreaming to work, and i now i had revealed that i could hear. i was disappointed in myself. i thought part of the project was to feel isolated and perhaps i had just injured my purpose. mike, the guy who runs the bookstore, was relieved i could talk and said i was much less creepy now. mostly they let me continue as i had before they knew i could hear, but mike would periodically ask if i was still ok. i usually responded with a thumbs up. the director of the school where I teach posted a video from this part of the day on youtube:

i thought it must have been 9 or 10pm, but it was probably more like 6 or 7pm. my thoughts were getting dark. when i heard about miguel's project and the opportunity to represent alabama, i thought, "AWESOME!" that was my reflex reaction. and thinking about the project the weeks before had mostly been practical- where will i do it? what will i need? who do i tell? But on the monday before new year's eve, I started getting nervous and occasionally scared. i worried that i would obsess over petty things like not getting invited to some party or i'd spend too much time thinking about the ways i've failed as a friend. i expected a transformation, but what if i transformed into a monster? And this is about the time that those sorts of thoughts started swimming through my head. my movement consisted mostly of walking back and forth on a path where i felt the heater blowing and occasionally i'd roll up and down through my spine. a group of people came in and asked if they could talk to me. i asked one of them to identify himself and laughed like a crazy person when he told me his name. i don't know why that was my response but i had enough sense to immediately regret it. they asked me a series of questions like What have i been doing today? What have i been thinking about? Do I consider myself a disciplined person? Why are we doing this? I felt like i was taking a test i had overprepared for. I knew what my answers were because i'd been repeating them in my head all day. I was honest about having petty thoughts and How do i feel now? I'm over it. I'm finished and just waiting for someone to tell me it's midnight and i can see again. that's what i needed most, my sight. they thanked me for answering their questions and i guess they left. i crawled around on the floor. i heard a man say, "thank you so much for doing this. this is very similar to what it's really like. and nobody pays attention." i wished i had had the sense to say "thank you for your comment. i will process it later." but i'm sure i smiled too brightly and said "ok" and "thank you" too many times. i went to the bathroom and gagged for a while. i thought i might puke. but i didn't have anything in my stomach to puke up. this thought made me laugh. i crawled around again until i couldn't. then i sat and rocked. i heard my friend sarah's voice but i didn't feel any better. some time later i heard my friend kim's voice. she had promised to be there at the end to let me know that i was done. she had said she was bringing me a salad! i must be done! kim sat in front of me and placed her hands on my knees. we talked about how i felt and she asked if i wanted to know what time it was. i thought i might have a half hour left so it would be ok to know, but she told me it was 10:30pm. this news seemed awful to me. The only way i made it through the last hour and a half was because kim spent that time rubbing my shoulders and back and describing people who were in the bookstore. my friends counted down the last 10 seconds and when i removed my blindfold, my eyes couldn't hold onto the edges of objects. everything seemed to slip together into a wash of colors i couldn't distinguish. i had seen the bookstore 24 hours before, but over the course of the day, i had completely reimagined it into something else, a much bigger and brighter and much more organized-looking space. it must have taken a good twenty minutes for my sight to feel normal again. i ate a delicious salad. kim drove me home and i slept for ten hours.

the birmingham news put something in the paper about the project on new year's eve so regulars at the coffee shop and parents at the dance studio where i teach have been asking me about the freedom of information project. now i don't know how to answer their questions. did i do this for me? i do feel like i did something difficult. and maybe other difficult things will be easier to do now. but really the project feels like something i just contributed to and it had nothing to do with me, like i donated my time and my body but i don't feel any personal pride in an accomplishment. i love that this thing happened with or without me.

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