Life in Parentheses
There are brackets in life that I think of not so much as stolen time but rather small gifts of time. Those half hours on subways or buses preclude — oh, well — getting the laundry done or answering piled-up emails. All you can do is polish off a chapter of that book in your purse.
After I graduated college, my dad asked my mom why I still carried books everywhere.
“They’re her security blankets,” she said. In a way she was right. If I have a book with me, I feel like I have a friend I can call on. Someone who, if I turn to her — it’s usually a her — will say something witty, poignant, or wise. Sometimes we read to enter different worlds, to meet people who are largely our opposites. But often it’s to find a mirror. To hear thoughts of our own, but better articulated or more fully realized, and to see something akin to our own experience, reflected back to us. I’ve found quite a few such gems in Anne Lamott’s writing on motherhood. In an essay titled “Mother Anger: Theory and Practice”, she writes of “the terrible feeling of isolation, the fear that everyone else is doing it better.” Each time I read that passage I choke up, flooded with relief.
One morning I was on a bus, trapped in stand-still traffic in the Holland Tunnel. Fortunately, I had an as-yet-unopened book with me by another mother/author — Marion Winik. She wrote The Lunch-Box Chronicles when her children were young and she was a single parent. I pulled it out of my bag, eager to recognize something of myself within its pages.
Instantly, I was drawn to her humor and candor. Like me, Winik started out married to her children’s father and had been unable to fathom otherwise. Kindred spirit, I thought, stretching my legs as best I could in that small space.
As a young mother, my new author/friend joined a support group in which only one member was unmarried.
Then, there it was: An aside that this one single mother was “unbelievably also saddled with a permanent limp.”
I read the sentence again. “Our one single mom (who was unbelievably also saddled with a permanent limp) I regarded as a saint.”
A saint? Okay, I told myself, Winik is recalling how naïve she had been before her situation changed. I’m sure she quickly learned that widowed and divorced moms are neither martyrs nor saints.
But there was still the limp and the word unbelievably. Why was it unbelievable? Because the idea of a person being dealt both single parenthood and disability was too much to absorb.
I swallowed hard, realizing that according to this book, a Child Magazine Best Book of the Year, I was a worst case scenario. The person on the wrong end of There but for Fortune. Unbelievably, to borrow a word, I was the biblical Job.
Thankfully, I was on my way to visit my friend Hope who, believably or not, also happens to be a single mom with a limp.
Before I even took off my coat, I showed her the page. “I couldn’t get myself to finish the chapter.”
“Why bother? It’s too infuriating” But unlike me, she was neither hurt nor surprised.
As Hope poured fragrant tea for us, she told me, “When my aunt heard I was getting divorced, she said, ‘It’s bad enough David has a crippled mom. Now he has to have a divorced one too?'”
That night, I read the passage to Dan. A fellow writer, he made me laugh by pointing out the unfortunate use of the word saddled in relation to limp.
“Giddy-up,” he said.
But like Hope, he wasn’t surprised by the sentiment. After all, blindness — a common metaphor for ignorance — is often written about with just that. In “Blind Men”, poet Heather McHugh describes her subjects as: “Alien as mannequins, a little/ ludicrous. Solitary, creepy . . .” McHugh’s poem is a loose translation of Baudelaire’s “Les Aveugles”, which is equally negative. But Baudelaire’s poem, which was written in the 19th century, can be regarded as a sample of thinking of the time. What I question is McHugh’s choice to claim the piece without attempting to redeem it in any way.
Somehow, as sensitive as we’ve grown to racist language in our culture, we don’t even hear the prejudice with which we speak of disability. Knowing this, I couldn’t really fault Marion Winik. I felt wounded and misunderstood. While she depicted me as a symbol of the worst that could happen to a person, I actually tend to see my life as rather enviable.
After all, I became a published poet while still in my early twenties, and I continue to receive accolades for my writing.
I have deep, authentic friendships.
I’m raising a healthy kid who’s smart, witty, and who, at 11, still really talks to me.
I love all my jobs: mother, writer, librarian.
I live a stone’s toss (picture it skipping across the Hudson) from a cultural mecca.
And, thanks to my — albeit painful — divorce, I now have a man in my life who’s also my close, close friend and with whom I have the sex life of a teenager.
As for the limp, it’s part of me and it informs my life, in many ways enriching it.
Of course, people who don’t really know me might not understand this. Nor would they be aware of my list of blessings. They might see my awkward walk and hear that I’m on my own with my son and feel bad for me. I imagine this is what happened with Winik. She didn’t know her disabled acquaintance well enough to discover the parts of her life she actually found difficult, and those for which she felt endlessly grateful.
We can only turn people into symbols — saints, sufferers — if we keep them at a distance. I’m guilty of it too, of allowing one characteristic define someone for me. When I’ve come across women who are dressed and made up a certain way, I’ve been quick to decide they lacked depth and sensitivity. Of course it didn’t take more than a conversation to learn how wrong I was in my assumption.
Whenever I’m feeling troubled by something someone said or wrote about me or, more specifically, my minority group, I try to extend that person a little grace. It doesn’t do anyone any good when I literally close the book on them. Better we each step out from the parentheses that limit us and really get to know each other.
2 replies on “Life in Parentheses”
Thanks for including me in your story. I just had a conversation with a minister this morning about sin and disability language. There is a constant need to find language that conveys the goodness and advantages of living life in different bodies. It is, as you say, knowing one another that destroys cultural stereotypes and distortions-and that may bring peace in the world.
I know exactly what you mean when you say that Ethan is healthy. You are not thinking about disability. But I wonder if a reader might misinterpret this. Just a thought. Peace, Hope
Beautifully written and important, Ona. I hope that Marion Winik has the opportunity to read this.