Friday, February 17, 2017

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

"Bodies of Work ", said the reminder that popped up on my cell phone.  I'd put the event on my calendar weeks before the election--  a night of "disability culture ",  artistic expression by and about people with disabilities.   At the time, it seemed like a good excuse to get out of my apartment.  Now, it was as necessary as oxygen.
There were readings from original works-- plays and essays, humorous and reflective.  Good enough, but not particularly memorable.
Some guy walked onto the stage carrying a potted plant.  He threw it on the floor, picked it up, and threw it again, shattering the pot and spilling its contents.   He pulled a roll of masking tape from a plastic bag, fit the pieces of the pot back together like some sort of jigsaw puzzle, and re-potted the plant.  His representation of life with a mental illness.
  Definitely memorable.
But it's the dancers who made the biggest impression on me.  Three women.  I recognized the first.  She use to live in my building.  Tall and thin, with jet black hair, coffee colored skin, and thick red painted lips.  I thought  of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait.  Her body leaned on a sparkling silver cane.  Carefully she turned toward us, shifted her weight, balanced, and lifted the cane in the air, thrusting it with defiant pride.  Bearing a look which dared anyone to question her, she turned again, cane still held high, and marched around the room.  The second woman followed.  What she did escapes me.  The third, however.  .  .
She came in five minutes after the others.  Left crutch, right foot ; right crutch, left foot.  I knew that walk.  The same walk I began learning when I was three years old.  I knew the curve of her back too.  I' d seen it in a picture of me in my twenties standing looking at my mother.  This woman' s skin was dark black though .  Her hot pink shorts stretched tightly around her stomach and thighs.  She wore a flowered bikini top.  I envied her self-assurance.  I would never have been caught dead in that outfit.  Not in my twenties, and certainly not now.  Crutch / foot;  crutch / foot,  she turned, until her back was directly in front of us.  Planting her crutches firmly in front of her body, she leaned all her weight on them.  .  . and wiggled her hot pink butt in our faces. The genie is out,  I thought .  The genie is out of the bottle.  You can refuse to enforce legislation.  You can dilute it 'til it's meaningless.  You can even make fun of the way we move and speak.  But as long as our pride lives deep within our bodies, as long as our pride stirs and moves our bodies, the genie is out of the bottle. No matter how hard you try, no matter what you do, the genie is out of the bottle.   And you can never put it back.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Calling on the Ancestors

My mother was in her early 40's during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Having three children ages four, five, and almost seven , she piled stacks of National Geographic's onto our basement floor so that if we needed to survive there for any length of time, she would at least be able to educate us. Decades later, she told me that during that time she also tried to teach us to recognize trees by the shapes of their shadows, so that if we were ever imprisoned and unable to look out of a window, the shadow of a tree could help us preserve our sanity. When I was a teenager and some idiot legislators try to dilute the impact of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, she found me in the bathroom crying."Martian Luther King didn't cry", she said.  "He got to work fighting."

My maternal grandmother was born and raised in Georgia. She did not leave the state until she was in her early 20' s, the year the Navy sent my grandfather to live in Haiti. My grandparents also had three children. My mother was two, my aunt was one, and my uncle, if he was even born yet, was an infant. Left largely to her own devices, my grandmother, who did not complete college, ordered the curriculum with which she educated each of her children so that they successfully passed tests and met state requirements every year until the curriculum ended and they left Haiti in order to enter High School.

My great-grandmother Minnie was a widow.  She was a single parent long before anyone ever acknowledged there were such people. She had three daughters. When her husband died, she renamed her youngest daughter Albert, after him. Once when she saw a bill collector coming down the road to her house, she brushed her hair, smoothed her apron, put a smile on her face, and went to the door to meet him with dignity and grace.

My father's stepmother, Mildred, the woman I knew as Grandma, watched the father she cherished die when he stepped in front of an oncoming car to save the life of his profoundly intellectually disabled wife, my grandmother's mother.  Seventeen-year-old year old Mildred instantly became responsible for raising her two younger siblings, both of whom she eventually put through college. Mildred grew to become a woman who insisted that her grandchildren move through life with class, manners, and decorum. I don't think I fully appreciated that until recently.

Helen Gilchrist, whom we called Jingle, was a close family friend. I don't remember a word she ever said to me.  But I remember her black dresses and pillbox hats; her angular face, her firmly set jaw, the worn wood on the top of her cane, and the white-knuckled death grip with which her hand held it-- a grip I know only too well. I remember the occasional streaks of gray on her artificial leg. Like wrinkles in flesh, they told me she had lived, and endured much. And I remember that she drove a car.  In the early sixties. When people with disabilities didn't do such things. To my four or five year old self, she was an image of strength. Of the strong woman I could become.

Helen Keller was the child I got sick of.  Who people constantly talked about--The  pathetic, inspirational, "handicapped"  child whom Annie Sullivan turned into a human being. The child who "overcame" her disability like I was supposed to overcome mine.  Today I know that she became so much more:  An advocate for people with disabilities.  A suffragette. A radical socialist, and a founding member of the ACLU. I didn't like her then, but I'm claiming her now.

These are the women who have nurtured me. They made me who I am. They survived dark and difficult times.  And because they did, at least one child was able to survive and thrive.  By blood or by circumstance, they are my ancestors. And I am calling on them now--To hold and inspire me; to breathe through and empower me.  So that at least one child alive today can survive and thrive into tomorrow .