Disability, Embraces, and the Grand Tetons

I grew up on a steep divide but it wasn’t geographical. Instead it was a ridge or a chain of mountains both inside and outside me. I didn’t wish to be blind. I wanted to play baseball. And perhaps, more significantly, I wanted to be a scientist. Neither baseball or physics would happen for me. I became a poet. Compared to physics I think poetry is easy. All you have to do is step barefoot on a worm like Theodore Roethke, and you’ve got a poem. Poems fall out of cupboards like a box of starch loaded with spiders.

A popular phrase in advocacy circles is “embrace your disability”—but I’ve always thought the “d” word too mountainous for a hug. No one who’s disabled experiences a singular thing—a kewpie doll of physical difference that can be clutched to the chest. No. You can’t embrace your disability because, in fact, it’s a chain of mountains—highly articulated peaks with physical and metaphorical obstacles. I can’t stand it when I hear someone say “embrace disability”—one might as well embrace the Grand Tetons.

But I have another reason for hating the phrase “embrace disability”—one thinks of  how difficult “embraces” really are for the disabled whose hopes for love and sexual life are often next to impossible.

Do you embrace your human loneliness and the near impossibility of intimacy with others?

Do you embrace your unemployment? The erosion of rehabilitation and health services?

Or the fact that doctor’s offices in the US are largely inaccessible?

Or that colleges and universities are woefully trapped in a 1970’s model of disability services?

Or that public transportation, especially airlines, treat you like a cockroach?

So I don’t like the word “embrace” which is just plain tomfoolery. And I don’t like “accept” because it’s too passive and vaguely defeatist.

Exult. Rejoice. Be rapturous. These are all too American. Don’t worry. Be Happy.

It just isn’t easy. The emotional rain isn’t gentle.

Once upon a time in Ithaca, New York, I encountered a man, a rather disheveled and clattering old man, someone the locals seemed to know, for we were in a diner, and he was going from table to table chattering with breakfasters, not asking for money, but essentially playing the role of the Id, sassing people, perhaps in ways they required, who could say, but there he was, pressing into each person’s space, piercing the psyches of strangers with his needle. He called a cop “Porky” and an elderly woman “Grandma” as he lurched steadily toward me. “Oh Doggy!” he said. “Doggy doggy doggy!”

Then he said, “What kind of fucking person are you?”

I tried my best Robert deNiro impression: “Are you talking to ME?”

He was not amused.

“A prisoner!” he shouted, for the whole diner was his stage. “This dog’s a prisoner!”

For a moment I felt the rising heat of embarrassment and rejection. Then, as he repeated my dog was a slave, I softened. In a moment of probable combat I stepped far back inside myself, not because I had to, but how to say it? Corky was unruffled. She actually nuzzled my leg. The nuzzle went up my torso, passed through my neck, went straight for the amygdala.

I smiled then. I said, “You’re right. And I’m a prisoner too.”

I don’t know if it was my smile, or my agreement that did the trick, but he backed up, turned, and walked out the door. Strangers applauded.

I’d beaten a lifetime of bad habits. I hadn’t fallen into panic, or rage, or felt a demand to flee.

I sat at the counter, tucked guide dog Corky safely out of the way of walking customers, and ordered some eggs. I daydreamed over coffee.

When I was eleven years old I fell onto a pricker bush. It’s hard to say how I did it, but I was impaled on hundreds of thorns. My sister who was six at the time, and my cousin Jim who was maybe nine, fell to the ground laughing as if they might die. I begged them for help which of course only made them laugh all the harder. I remember tears welling in my eyes and their insensible joy. I also knew in that moment they were right to laugh—that I was the older kid, was a bit bossy, disability be damned. I was the one who told my sister and cousin what to do. Now I was getting mine. My just deserts. In the end I tore myself from the monster shrub and stormed into the house. I sulked while they continued laughing outside.

Perhaps I thought, there in the diner, I could live henceforth in a new and more flexible way.

“Is it as simple as this?” I thought. “One simply decides to breathe differently.”

I saw, in a way, it was that simple.

Saw also how a dog can be your teacher. And while eating wheat toast I thought of the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada:

Live in Joy, In love,

Even among those who hate.

Live in joy, In health,

Even among the afflicted.

Live in joy, In peace,

Even among the troubled.

Look within. Be still.

Free from fear and attachment,

Know the sweet joy of living in the way.

But you see, that’s the poet in me. It’s easy to imagine disabled life is a matter of grace.

And though I have these moments, I know I’m high in the Grand Tetons, still looking for a path.

 

 

 

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