In his excellent novel “Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides offers the following resplendent passage:
“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. ”
There’s a hint of Mark Twain here—Twain who once said: “…mastery of the art and spirit of the Germanic language enables a man to travel all day in one sentence without changing cars.”
But emotion, which is necessarily complex should absolutely require hybrid expression. Any true account of feeling must be composed of elaboration. Disabled people know this and live it. “The disappointment of finding an auditorium is inaccessible, when the talk for the evening is about human rights.” “The misery of being asked by concert security to leave the theater because your wheelchair is blocking the aisle.” “The humiliation of being told we just filled that job when just this morning you were encouraged to come in for an interview and now they see you’re blind.” Compared to these, Eugenides hybrids are tame, even quaint.
Disability is both corporeal in-pleasure and un-pleasure, which is to say embodiment is diverse and dynamic, refined, lovely in the mind itself, and yet, whatever is not enabled becomes transitive and dislocating. There’s a simultaneity to ableist narrations of un-belonging and my crippled friends know the phenomenon quite well. Hybrid ableism reduces one’s affect, bleaches the mind, and it’s a tedious. “The loss that occurs when you’re told your protests for inclusion are tiresome to the normals.”
Sometimes, like a tightrope walker who sees what he’s actually doing I think about being disabled. Blind, walking ordinary streets with a cane or dog I’m a spectacle. I mean this: disabled folks are mirrors in which the non-disabled observe their private, imagined selves. You know the phrase: “there but for the grace of God go I.” There are days when I say: “to Hell with going out.” Being stared at 24-7 is a drag. And it takes energy to ignore the stares. Yes. I know what you’re doing. I really do. News flash: the blind know when they’re being looked at.
Starting with the industrial revolution people had just enough disposable income to sit around and stare at each other at least one afternoon a week. As everyone who hails from a historically marginalized position knows, there’s a taxonomy to staring. The Victorians knew who and what went where and as cities became increasingly crowded the disabled were not much fun to look at. Worse, in a machine age they weren’t employable. Gone were the old cottage industries—sewing for the blind, blacksmithing for the deaf. Asylums were just the thing—out of sight, out of mind.
Back in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law I told one of my disabled friends: “What until they get a load of us!” The signature aspect of civil rights laws is increased visibility. For the first time in one hundred and fifty years the temporarily abled would have to look at the paralyzed, the blind, people who breathe through tubes, who flap to talk.
And then there are the complex emotions. A woman approaches me on East 61st St. in Manhattan. “My dog died,” she says. “Oh dear,” I say. I know about this. I do. She’s attracted by my guide dog and a switch has tripped in her grief gizmo and all she can think about is her loss. If I was walking with a white cane she wouldn’t have said a thing. “My poor dog died,” she says again, as if saying it once wasn’t sufficient to convey the awfulness of the story. And I’m frozen on the sidewalk. This isn’t the first time. For years strangers have invaded my happy thought bubble to share their dog death stories.
She starts to cry, this stranger, and she reaches out. “Can I touch your dog?” she asks, half weeping, half speaking. The process has taken just a few seconds. I’m reminded that four seconds can be immense. Satan fell from Heaven to Hell in just that time. I understand we’re having an unplanned and wholly unscripted spiritual moment. I can’t allow myself to freeze. A decision must be made. If you have a guide dog you’re not supposed to let strangers touch her (or even friends for that matter.) A working dog is doing just that. It’s not looking for love in all the wrong places. When you’re at home, voila, the harness comes off, and love is all the rage. But not on the sidewalk, not at a street crossing. You’re a team, the two of you, a survival unit. That’s just the way it is. “Yes,” I say, “you can touch my dog.”
And this woman, this strange weeping woman, drops to her knees, pushes her tear streaked face into my Labrador’s face, my surprised dog, and she actually moans.
There are so many corners to grief. So many lofty defeats inside each of us. So many exhaustions, facts, deserts, infinities, unexplored planets.
The non-existence of a dog has incited a vast, soft, exploration here, beside a row of parked delivery trucks outside the Hotel Pierre on a windy autumn day with dead leaves flying in circles like butterflies returned from the after life and she’s weeping into my dog’s thick fur.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but we have to go now.” And I back up. Corky looks at me, as if to assess how far the grief has traveled. I think she wants to know if I’m OK.
I tell her to go forward. We move away. We enter the silent invasion of the future.
I think of her often, this woman, who loved her dog, who is drowning in the stone pool of her loss.
I think of the dismal routine of New York City or any city.
I think of the unselfish nature of chance encounters.