You know those fancy aluminum walking sticks that look like ski poles? Okay, fine, like orthopedic canes? Well, I went out and bought myself a pair.
My artificial hip makes it difficult for me to get enough weight-bearing exercise, and when I saw a few people using sticks around town, I realized this could be the perfect way for me to negotiate greater distances with less pain.
I didn’t consciously set out to neutralize the sticks’ prosthetic connotation. It just happened: colorful muffler and beret, whimsical shoes, stylish sunglasses, a little lipstick. I delighted in my jaunty new vertical companions, which I’d gotten in red. Every now and then, someone would stop me to ask about the sticks as if they were the latest fashion accessory.
But a man passing me the other day in a motorized wheelchair wasn’t fooled. “There’s power in numbers,” he remarked with a grin, having immediately pegged me as a fellow mobility-challenged person. Hmm. So much for cool sunglasses.
So which is it? Sporty—ski poles? Or impaired—canes? Which is my true self?
I know, I know, they both are. Still, I find the question intriguing, and not just in terms of physical mobility.
As a writer, for example, I’m drawn to dark and squirmy topics. I can’t seem to change that any more than I can help having undergone total hip arthroplasty. Sure, I try to explore my subjects in an entertaining way, but I wouldn’t bother to write if I weren’t obsessed or haunted by something. Writing is far too much trouble for that.
When I publish my work, I’m hoping that the thorny content and the fun I’ve had with it come across in equal measure. But I never know.
“I really enjoyed that one about your dad,” one of my readers remarked—following a column in which I mentioned my father’s having been a batterer. “You write about stuff that’s real,” the person went on. “It’s easy to relate to.”
It was a high compliment. I’d been seen and accepted, and had made this reader feel connected.
I’ve also had my share of excruciating kindness. “These columns must be so therapeutic for you,” gushed one person recently. Of course they’re therapeutic, but it’s humiliating to hear that from a reader. I thought about taking to bed and eating chocolates for a month or two.
But how much can I disguise my inner self? How much do I want to? If a reader, or a man in a wheelchair, feels my pain, does that mean I should change something? Or should I just keep at it, because the more “out” we are with our impairments and our differences, the more we can replace shame with connectedness?
I once heard this adage: what other people think of you, what they say about you behind your back, is none of your business.
I’ll never be that Zen, I thought.
Well, I’m still not that Zen, but I am traveling greater distances with less pain.
Published in the Piedmont Post, January 12, 2011
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