Photo courtesy of Claire Anderson

At Large in Ballard: Claire

Claire Anderson expresses herself through writing, public speaking, teaching and even sewing. However she derives her greatest satisfaction helping others express themselves, which is why she leaves Ballard in Friday traffic to travel to the maximum security section of the State prison in Monroe every month. Anderson and another Toastmaster member, Steve Lent, participate in the prison group’s philosophical round table. After the three hour discussion Anderson and Lent are free to leave, unlike inmates with years remaining in their prison sentence.

Accompanying Anderson and Lent on their monthly trip to Monroe Correctional Complex is Anderson’s yellow Labrador, DaVida. The dog is very popular with the prisoners. One man who asked to pet DaVida told Anderson, “I haven’t touched a dog in 20 years.” The dog isn’t along for the inmate’s benefit or as an ice-breaker. She is Anderson’s guide dog. Anderson has been legally blind since an optic stroke when she was 64 years old.

Anderson has only lived in Seattle for five years; in Ballard the last three. After losing her sight and a year of training at Miami’s Lighthouse for the Blind she decided to move 3,000 miles across the country. She has a son and daughter-in-law in the area. Not many people living in Florida choose to relocate to Seattle but Anderson loves it. DaVida is silent on the matter.

Anderson belongs to several local Toastmaster Clubs, Mensa, a sewing circle and leads a memoir class at NW Senior Center. Unlike young students in her early teaching days Anderson finds adults highly motivated, perhaps none more so than the men at Monroe’s penitentiary who wrestle with discussion topics such as “what is identity?” This topic also intrigues Anderson as an individual, and a writer. “I’ve had my ‘identity’ stolen. I’ve been married twice and had three different last names.”

Anderson has also had her self-identity changed as a result of the optic stroke. Although she can see large objects in front of her and even read a word if it’s at 150 point typeset, Anderson went from a woman driving along Route 66 to legally blind in seconds. She resisted learning to use a cane, “It would be shameful for everyone to know that I was blind.” However as person who thrives on activity Anderson couldn’t just sit on the couch and mourn her altered circumstances. Through Lighthouse for the Blind she learned to use a cane, touch type, cook and even thread a needle. She soon realized using the cane, “Could save my life.”

An author of two business-related books in the 70’s Anderson has almost completed a book about her experiences in Guide Dog Camp that she claims she may be titled, “Sightless in Seattle.” Friends receiving her camp stories begged her to compile and publish them. Now that she’s taken it on, Anderson is motivated to complete, “My life work.”

Upon arrival in Seattle Anderson first tried living in a senior community on Stone Way but found it too much of a cocoon. She wanted more interaction with the world. Now she lives close to Ballard Commons and its skate bowl: she also takes the bus frequently. This puts her in contact with life stories every day: asking questions of the skateboarders, answering questions about the yellow Labrador who is always with her.

Most of all Anderson enjoys is working with others. She had an idea for a memoir class she wanted to offer; a meeting with Carlye Teel, NW Senior Center Director, provided the opportunity. Her free memoir class launched last July. Anderson didn’t want payment, just to, “Get in there and do it.” Many of her students at the NW Senior Center don’t have previous writing experience but want to write their own stories, often for the sake of their children.

The students brainstorm possible topics and then prepare a piece each week. “Don’t worry about spelling or typos,” Claire reassures them. “I won’t be able to see them anyway.” One of her senior center students said her daughter phones every week to check on the topic and has her mother read the piece to her over the telephone. Often the daughter calls back the following day and demands, “Read it to me again.”

“The goal here is to catch the memories of your life so you have them for your children,” Anderson reminds her students. But she thinks a larger audience will be interested in stories about learning to have a guide dog and being catapulted into so much change in her 60’s. But it is helping others to express themselves that she considers a two-way gift. “When I do things for others, I get more joy than when I do things for myself.”

Claire Anderson is a member of the Ballard Writers Collective. Her memoir class is Fridays from 1-2 p.m. at NW Senior Center. She is also teaching The Artist’s Way on Thursdays.

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