In my son’s childhood, we tried to use a “swear jar”. Mostly for the adults, the Mason glass jug sat on the keeping shelf as a warning for our foul mouths. My then-husband and I avowed to insert a quarter for each uttered profanity. My son had to contribute something less, since most of his “swearing” consisted of mimicry. The haul would be donated.
We filled the container many times. The act did not cure us of swearing, but it gave us a nice pool of change if we ever needed any. Once in a while, we’d dump the coinage into another container and send a check to Habitats for Humanity. We kept using the curse words of which we yearned to divest ourselves. I still do. I’m often reminded of a little tin button worn by a colleague at the Ag law firm where I worked in Arkansas. In tiny letters, the badge proclaimed, “Sometimes You Just Have To Say ‘What the fuck?'” Indeed.
Though the swear jar did nothing to tame my vocabulary, in retrospect, it gives me a rueful idea. I should have carried one with me all these years and collected a quarter for every person who queries about my ‘walking problem’. I’d be retired now, instead of still slaving away with six inches of grey roots and increasingly weak legs.
I have never understood the license that people seem to accord themselves when confronted with someone of a different ability level. I strive to quell my grumbling about their ineptly articulated curiosity. I have encountered this unsettling proclivity from coast to coast, year in and year out. I’ve responded with various levels of acrimony. Only children and the patently gracious get a straight answer, though for the youngest ones, I pick an explanation that allows me to reinforce road safety. “I didn’t hold my mother’s hand when I crossed a busy street, and I got hit by a car,” I will say, bending to their level. All true; but the incident, which happened during my second year of law school, only explains about 10% of my issues. The kiddos inevitably stare and reach for their care-giver as they assure me that a similar folly would never befall them. I mentally dust off my hands and inwardly smile. Another tiny life saved.
Children often ask if my mommy kissed the boo-boo on my leg. The youngest, least-inhibited among them pat my closest appendage. A few wrap their small arms around my legs and try to heal me with their own affectionate bestowals. I assure those little doctors and nurses that their ministrations help the situation. I feel so much better, I cry, in a small but cheerful voice. Their radiant smiles linger long after they skip away behind their parental units, the latter of whom often apologize if I’ve been offended. I fervently assure them otherwise.
With adults, the charitable aims do not ring as true.
Numerous “tiny house influencers” have made their way to my minuscule doorstep to interview me. I’ve become the poster child for sustainable living “in spite of” a disability. On my own YouTube channel, the most-watched clip addresses challenges living in a tiny house despite my disability. Clearly, the idea of life as a gimp fascinates folks.
For myself, I find the fixation on my wobbly legs mystifying. I consider the manner in which I matriculate the earth’s surface to be the least interesting aspect of my persona. My writing takes center stage. The experiences that life has afforded me sits second on the list. Personal philosophy formed by those experiences allows me to maintain lively conversations. Stop me when you’ve heard enough!
Putting aside my serious response to the gentle queries of children, I gauge my answers by the intent of the inquiring adult. The focus on my disability seems to stem from two diverse considerations. Half of the folks who want to know about my medical condition hold a look of smug self-assurance in their eyes. There but for my superior genes go I, their gaze informs me. The other half shine with genuine compassion and interest. How do you cope; and what can I learn from your perseverance, they ask, in less direct but equally clear language.
I feel like someone’s lab experiment. I want to say, let’s talk about the weather — Rainy where you are? I want to point out that I’ve coped with so many greater challenges. I can’t list them, lest my enumeration should read like lament. Oh, don’t get me wrong! Living as a disabled person in an ableist world frustrates me. I decry the barriers over which I daily stumble. But I also disdain the pitying glances that inevitably make their way across the street as I climb the curb. So many times, people have judged that I fall beneath their notice because I walk with what my ex-husband once described to his daughter — whom I had not yet met — as a “gimp in [my] get-along”. How much I would rather he have raved about my wonderful writing, my dazzling smile, my prowess in the courtroom, or the smattering of adorable freckles across my nose! I suppose he thought he had to warn her, like cautioning that I might be contagious or suddenly break out in a chorus of Broadway song.
What it’s like living as a disabled person apparently intrigues so many. For my part, I strain to fit myself into an able-bodied box. I’m unabashedly ambulatory. I’ve only recently, and due to the development of a new and progressive condition, started regularly using a walking stick. For years, I imagined that I looked more normal without a cane, despite an unending supply of blunt remarks to the contrary. Like my crooked teeth, my wild Syrian curls, and my short stature, the wobble in my legs should be just another quality that draws little attention.
As I near my seventieth year, along with my quest to live complaint-free, I strive to accept anything about myself that cannot be changed. I can’t make myself less disabled despite sixty-five years of effort. Instead, then, I’d like to make myself less intolerant of my disability and of the often hurtful reaction of others to my condition. I’ve not attained either goal as of yet. But I’m still trying. And, to paraphrase the now-famous words that might actually have been uttered by Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley, while existence persists, there’s room for improvement.
It’s the twenty-second day of the one-hundred and eleventh month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
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