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News / Clark County News

Blind man sees eclipse through others’ words

Friends, strangers write poetry, descriptions for Washougal resident

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: August 26, 2017, 6:00am
6 Photos
John Furniss, who is blind, did his best to take in the solar eclipse in downtown Washougal on Aug. 21. And many sighted friends did their best to describe the experience for him.
John Furniss, who is blind, did his best to take in the solar eclipse in downtown Washougal on Aug. 21. And many sighted friends did their best to describe the experience for him. (Contributed by Anni Becker Furniss) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — It was like a yellow hammock. It was like a half-chomped wheel of cheddar. Or, it was like a huge smile in the sky. How about a big yellow toenail clipping?

That was the view from Clark County, where on Aug. 21 the moon briefly covered 99 percent of the sun. If you’d traveled down into the path of totality, though, the solar eclipse was like nothing in this world. Silence and strangeness. Nighttime in the morning. A black void surrounded by streamers of cosmic fire.

John and Anni Becker Furniss didn’t travel down there; they went to a downtown Washougal gathering where John stood in the changing sunshine while Anni read him poetry and descriptions by artistic friends (and complete strangers) who participated in her Facebook event, “Eclipse for the Blind.”

John Furniss is blind. That’s the result of a suicide attempt with a gun at age 16; fortunately, he survived and thrived after that. He even continued to build his skills as a carpenter and fine artist who works with wood. He gets help when it comes to selecting colors and hues, he said, but his visual imagination and his ability to work spatial problems in his head has always been strong.

“It’s like I’ve got a computer design program in my head,” John said. “I can do whatever I want. I’ve got blueprints in my mind.”

John Furniss met Anni Becker a few years ago at the School of Piano Technology for the Blind, where he was a student and she was painting an instrument for the “Keys to the City” piano festival. In fact, they met when he accidentally plopped his hand onto her wet paint and both said, “I’m so sorry!”

It took a few weeks, but Anni eventually screwed up the courage to ask John out. He was embarrassed at his poverty, he said; on their first date they went pea picking in his garden plot at the Marshall Community Center.

It was true love, she said. “I hadn’t dated a blind man and he hadn’t dated anybody in years,” she said. “It was challenging,” but she loved learning experiences like putting on a blindfold before making peanut butter sandwiches.

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“I showed her how much fun it is,” John said.

The couple eventually married at the Marshall Community Center garden.

“John talks a lot about science,” Anni said, but she was nervous discussing the upcoming total solar eclipse with him. He’d never see the amazing and rare visual spectacle.

“I was bummed,” he said.

But the couple move in artistic circles, and Anni realized she could enlist her friends to help fill the gap. She posted her “Eclipse for the Blind” Facebook invitation and crossed her fingers. John said it gave him something to look forward to.

On eclipse day, the couple went downtown. John felt the light slipping and the temperature dropping, but it was words — uttered by people around him and already pouring onto the Facebook page — that really moved him.

“It was like a carnival ride,” he said. “It was tense but fun. It was a little bit scary. When everybody started going ‘oh wow,’ it was like the first hill of the roller coaster.

“The best thing was the way everybody in the whole community got together to share it,” he said.

The whole experience — the cosmic event and the community connection — moved Anni to tears. “I felt very emotional. It really gave me a sense of what it must be like for him,” she said.

Finding the words

As of Friday afternoon, the “Eclipse for the Blind” Facebook page contained several dozen contributions, running the gamut from astronomically poetic to grimly political. Most aren’t trying for high art; more than a few begin with some variation of “this is hard to describe” or “wish I could find the words.” No music turned up, nor did anyone create a sculpture for John to run his hands over.

Here are a few excerpts:

Kathyrn Hightower: “Mild, wild cheddar wheel. Clean bite from upper right side.”

Koko Ono: “Olive pie slowly turns into Death Star. Radical silence, suspended splendor. The loudest quiet I’ve ever felt.”

“I’m not a joiner,” wrote Anne McQuary, but a neighbor pried her outside and shared his eclipse glasses so she could gawk like everyone else. “All of us, one, in a state of wonder.”

Linda Garcia: “All was quiet, all was well, all was forgotten, and all was equal. For a few moments. How I wish that could last just a little bit longer in this world.”

Linda Weirather: “We predict well, even if that can’t buy an empire now.”

Kelly Keigwin: “For a few minutes it was as if everything stopped and took notice of the universe in its awesomeness. And just like that, back to business as usual.”

Jenney Pauer: “The water … shimmered and rocked as if each speck of dazzling, reflected light was a soul jumping madly into the air from the waves, waving its fists, desperate for attention. I felt it was shouting, screaming, “We are alive!” I felt it too. I was alive.”