A recent concert in Los Angeles featured the blind mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin giving the world premiere of the orchestral setting of a poem she wrote, "Do You Dream in Color?" by the contemporary American composer Bruce Adolphe. It's a successful, affecting, thought-provoking piece perfectly suited for programming during Disability Awareness Month-or any time.
In different musical circles I had heard of Ms. Rubin; but the main reason I happened to go that night was that a lobby art display by blind or partially sighted artists from the Braille Institute included a print by a close friend of mine. I'm grateful for the chance encounter with Rubin, because I purchased a copy of her memoir, "Do You Dream in Color? Insights from a Girl Without Sight" (Seven Stories Press, 2012) during the intermission. Maybe I would learn something about what it involves to be friends with a blind person.
Rubin's book reminds me somewhat of another inspiring memoir about disability, Harriet McBryde Johnson's "Too Late to Die Young," highly recommended for its searing, scathing perceptions of a world not set up for the physically challenged. While Johnson makes no secret of her avowed socialist outlook, and Rubin doesn't even mention the word, any reader will be moved by the similar expression of honesty and clarity about how we look upon difference.
Rubin calls it as she sees it. Lucky for her, she was born into a family with an enviable level of creature comforts, who spared nothing to give her the best education and the widest opportunities to develop her singing voice. Her gratitude for that is boundless, as it is for those along the way who saw what she could do and gave her the chances to do it. At the same time, Rubin also questions the institutional rigidity and shallow understanding of human potential found in schools and some governmental and charitable organizations meant to help.
In simple, direct language with little pretense, and with an artful economy of storytelling, Rubin recounts her life as a gradual unfolding of self-understanding that also grants her understanding about the world around her, with its snobbishness, exclusivity, and limited imagination. Surely she is aware that not all kids grow up with the advantages she enjoyed: It's perhaps the only criticism I might have of her book, that she doesn't use it, except by inference, to comment on the generally inadequate resources provided for most blind people.
In a book explicitly published "for young readers," Rubin is to be congratulated for the way she portrays her emerging sexuality. From the very beginning we are aware that Rubin has matured into an open lesbian, with her life partner Jenny named first and lovingly on her dedication page. In her exuberant uniqueness, she represents Everywoman, entitled to her quirks of personality, her individuality, and her commonality with all of us as we experience the human condition.
"Everyone in the world wants to feel needed," she writes, "and to understand her purpose. Mine is to be an artist, an educator, a responsible tax-paying citizen who is paid her worth, and to be a contributing member to society who just so happens to be blind."
Rubin's book is a heart-warming "human interest" story a reader will grow from, into a wiser, more compassionate fellow citizen. I can only hope her book earns her a heap more lucrative singing gigs. And let's hope we find some good social purposes for the income tax she'll responsibly pay!
Photo: Mezzo-soprano and author Laurie Rubin (via Seven Stories Press)