My Encounter with a Wise Blind Folk Singer in the Orange Dress

“Fear can get in the way of living your life and expressing yourself. Life should be an adventure” —Suzanne Holland

I had seen her before. She was wearing an orange dress and her signature flowered sun hat. But, did I really see her? It wasn’t until the third time I witnessed her singing and strumming her guitar that I realized she was blind. She had a picture of her father with a sign that read: "In Memory of My Father Jack Holland, July 3, 1921—March 9, 2009" which would put him at 88, the same age my mom died. At the end of the makeshift memorial sign, she had written: "Happy Trails Daddy. Love, Susie." Her full name is Suzanne Holland. She had a stack of CDs on a table in front of her, one called Suzanne Holland singing Leonard Cohen songs.
We chatted a bit. I told her how much I enjoyed her music. I dropped a few dollars to the pile of cash in her guitar case.

This is her story in her own words: 
“I always tell my sweetie not to worry about my safety and I have absolutely no fear. There have been moments in my life, I’ll admit, when I’ve been afraid—like that night on the beach in South Africa, where I’m from, when a boy started messing with me. Oh yes, I was chilled with fear. But rather than show it, I played a game with him. I took my plastic eyes out and put them in my mouth, stuff like that—just to freak him out. I toyed with him for about an hour, till he got bored and ran away.
Fear can get in the way of living your life and expressing yourself. Life should be an adventure—if I feel like going on an excursion, please don’t anybody remind me that I might fall. I hate words like ’trip’ or ‘fall’ or ‘handicapped.’ When people ask me how long I’ve been blind I tell them ‘What’s the difference?’ The visual thing is so strong—they believe anybody who can’t see must be hampered. Of course, you are in some ways. There’s the feeling sometimes of absolutely no stimulation. It’s so boring—a blank feeling in front of me. It hurts not to be able to see they sky...
But there are many sides to life, so many beautiful things, and I like to go looking for them. You pick up landmarks if you want to know where you are. Like an iron gate that makes a noise at my feet just before I come to an Indian shop, or the smells of incense and spices and things from a clothing store I enjoy visiting. Once I heard a boy say, ‘Just look at her—she sees all things around her!’ But that’s because when I’m near objects I can hear their outline. They’re completely silent and I still hear them. How to explain it? Like parked automobiles—they cast a shadow on my field of audible vision. It’s an incredible thing that you develop. That’s why I don’t walk into walls and squash my face. I can hear openings in walls and doorways, the difference between a car, a tree or hedge, and know when to turn when I reach a street corner. I lost my mom in 1999. She was run over by a car in Capetown. I used to neglect my mom and dad, but learned a very hard lesson when she died...I always ask people, ‘Do you have a mom and dad?’ Without trying to preach, I say, ’Always look after your mom and dad.’

Postscript: Although Suzanne had to have her eyes removed when she was 8 months old, to prevent the spread of cancer, she doesn’t let it define her. She left South Africa for America in 1988 on a whim. She taught herself to play the guitar when she was 14. “The hardest thing about being blind,” she says, “I can’t see the stars, and I can’t hop on a bike or take a walk anywhere I like.” When asked if being blind affects her music or her outlook on life, she said: “Not really. I just try to take things as they come. I feel happy when I play. It always makes me feel better. It is a point of joy.” The late Leonard Cohen, whose songs she sings once said: "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." There is plenty of light in Suzanne Holland.

Last photo credit of Holland by Linda Hubbard Gulker, 2009