Monday, June 04, 2007

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Years and years ago, the first time I went to lecture in Nova Scotia, I met Jim and Deb. We had powerful things in common and got on right from the start. As things happen in a world where everyone is too busy the only contact I had with them was when I visited them in memory. This often happened when people spoke to me about policies regarding sexuality and I told people of the work that had been done in Halifax - the work that had brought the three of us together.

So on Friday, when lecturing in Halifax, I arranged to have lunch and catch up with both of them. Even though the time was brief, it was nice to just sit and chat a bit. During that lunch a woman with an intellectual disability came up to speak to me. I had noticed her in the audience and I was pleased to see that a number of disabled folks had come that day to that talk. It was a talk on self esteem and I told a number of stories about how people establish self esteem through the relationships they cultivate - including the relationship with success, with establishing themselves against all odds in the community at large.

I saw her listening intently to my talk and though she laughed along with the audience, hers was a thoughtful face in the crowd and I could see emotions play across a face that seemed to typically look placid. I was in the middle of telling a story to Deb and Jim at lunch when she arrived at the table. She was extremely polite and stood waiting for me to finish. Instead I stopped and looked to her.

She told me that she liked how I spoke, she liked the stories and she liked the humour. I could see that this was not easy for her, that she had coaxed herself to come up to speak to me. I knew, then, that she really had something to tell me. In few words and a gentle tone she told me that she lived in the community.

She paused.

Let it sink in.

She was one of the free.

She then told me that she had a place that she lived in and that she liked living there. There was deep, deep pride in her face as she let me know that - like the people in my stories, she had risen above expectations.

"I think," she said, "that if you can live on your own, you can do anything."

I agreed with her and thanked her for coming up to speak to me. She smiled, almost relieved that she had managed to come and tell her story, and then turned and walked back to her table where she had had lunch. Something I had said must have moved her deeply, made it so that she wanted to share her success with me, let me know that she understood what it was to make good, get home, surprise everyone.

Small town eyes
will gape at you,
In dull surprise,
When payment due
Exceeds accounts received
At seventeen

This verse from the song, 'At Seventeen' by Janis Ian came to me unbidden as I watched her take her seat in the auditorium after lunch. Then I looked and saw the others with disabilities arrive and take their seats and look expectantly up at me. Waiting for the next part of the talk, the next story. And I was in awe of them. Because their stories, stories I didn't know, were triumphant stories. They were all of the age when 'at seventeen' they would have been diminished, disrespected and dismissed. But here they were, equals in an audience of equals. Hearing my stories of others with disabilities differently - as stories from within community.

I think her name was Mary.

I apologise to her if I got it wrong.

But this Mary was quite contrary - because she beat the odds, defied expectations, and became a woman, living freely in Halifax, relying on herself.

After the lecture she would go home.

Who'd have thought that was possible.

At seventeen.

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