What I Mean When I Tell You that Ability is Constructed & Temporary

One day it was hard to walk.

Chronic illlness & chronic pain are realities that consistently sit in the background of my mind & the forefront of my body. However, everything seems so heightened since the recent calamities of the American healthcare system (deep sigh).

Fortunately, I have a social media sphere that seems to be familiar with the terms ‘ableism’ and have the basic understanding that living a ‘good life’ cannot and does not prevent pre-existing illnesses & conditions. However, there always seems to be the ghost of what is often difficult to name, to reason through, to accept.

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

Or in the words of Wendell’s 1989 feminist theory of disability:

“Our culture idealizes the body and demands that we control it. Thus, although most people will be disabled at some time in their lives, the disabled are made “the other,” who symbolize failure of control and the threat of pain, limitation, dependency, and death. If disabled people and their knowledge were fully integrated into society, everyone’s relation to her/his real body would be liberated” (p. 104)

I admit that I have often relied on this meaning. It’s understandable. It’s feminist (and even with all of the issues I hold with particularly White feminism, this piece is still helpful for me – or as my Grandmother would say, succinctly, “It helps to chew on the meat and spit out the bones”). It works for illustrative purposes, especially now, when we can see that reproductive issues go in and out of ‘covered’, ‘uncovered’, ‘ability’, ‘pre-existing condition’ (another deep, deep, deep sigh).

Yet I must also admit that this is only the beginning of the phrase’s personal meaning for me (even though I comment on the construction of ability and the temporary ability of our own bodies about four times a month, at least). This essay is a personal attempt to go a bit further.

I.
I am the child of a medical professional. I’ve seen my mother come home, take off her coat, plop down on the couch… only to receive more illness-related phone calls from friends & relatives.

“My daughter has a persistent cough…”
“My grandfather fell down the steps two weeks ago, and now…”
“This is kind of embarrassing but I’ve had these symptoms of…”
She was direct. She would refer. She knew that some symptoms would pass and others would not. And the trembling voices on the other end of line betrayed that no one ever expected that they would be the ones who would have to call her for advice. Until they were.

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

So, I learned how to listen to the subtle shifts of the body including which coughs would pass & which coughs were precursors to larger threats. She taught me to read vital signs & good breathing techniques for when shots were being administered. She tutored me in discerning when there might be signs of ‘wellness’.

“Look at the face, Jade. What do you see?”
Perhaps, more fat. Fuller cheeks. More or less dilation of the pupils. More hair. Less skin abrasions. And so on.

Some days she would come home & I would smell blood, faint cigarette smoke, and Lysol lingering on her coat. On harder days, I could smell that she had been close to someone who was experiencing physical decline, decay, or death. I’ve known my mother to be proficient in stalling these effects.

II. 
I called my mother, first thing, on the day that it became difficult to walk. My father, former gymnast, taught me how to wrap my feet with tape & bandages to construct better support. My mother told me to when to ice them, when to administer heat, and how many NSAID’s were too many NSAID’s. “There’s a good chance that this will go away, but there is also a small chance that it won’t… keep watching it.”

Whenever I’d visit, she would sit on the bed and take my feet in her hands. She would press her palm to the balls of my feet & stretch them upward. She followed each stretch on the sheet that my physical therapist printed. I winced. She prayed. We both tried to breathe through each movement.

III.
My family went to the beach on holidays when I was a teenager. I spent hours in the water, wading in to breast level so that my feet barely touched the sand. I stood-swam-floated for hours with the assistance of the water. Yet, back on land, my feet struggled against me. My mother offered her arm to me for balance but the 7 minute walk still took 25 minutes in total. We walked in silence for most of the way, both a bit baffled (one of the few times I’ve experienced my mother that way) because one day (it was a day in September), it was just hard to walk. And this persisted in June. My feet could not hold me as they once did, so the muscles frayed instead. The cortisol shots, intended to offer relief, only deepened the pain. Mom cut the silence: “It’s time for you to consider a wheelchair.” I still hear echoes of this phrase in my mind at times.

IV.
I was a teenager and I resisted the wheelchair. My only concession was renting one when we’d go to amusement parks, malls, or other places where I knew it was inevitable that my feet would fail me. My mother couldn’t understand why I was resisting so much and why I put both of our bodies under such strain. (The wheelchair was easier for both of us since I wouldn’t have to hold onto her arm in order to continue walking).

I didn’t really understand my resistance either, until this year, when I read a perfect description in Maranda Elizabeth’s piece on magic, pain, & trauma:
“my feelings (were) all tangled up with internalized ableism and fears about pain (will it get better? will it get worse?)”

Those things were paired with the way I’d seen people patronize me in the wheelchair, the doors & rooms that seemed near impossible to get into, and the people who watched with confusion and (sometimes) disgust upon discovering that I was, in fact, able to stand to transport into and out of the car. I wish I had the words then:

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

One day my father put a cane in my car. I found it when I was unpacking. There was a sword inside of it. “Mr. Biggs” became its nickname.

cane sword

V.
“Breathing in, I see chronic pain.
Breathing out, I smile to it”.
(a personal adaptation of the meditation practices written by Thich Nhat Hanh in No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering)

This year, I’ve made it a point to take more baths. Of course, baths can be very helpful for pain management but suffice it to say, I’ve taken it to another level this year: rose petals, epsom salt, crystals, white noise or a podcast playing in the background.

On one such occasion, I was listening to a dharma talk (the name of it escapes me now). The teacher noted that every morning he chanted about the suffering of life & the impermanence of all things. This made me feel like I could breathe.

I understood chronic illness and ability as constructed in a much deeper sense when I began to study Buddhism. A key tenet in the Buddha’s teaching is that all is impermanent. Everything. The configuration of our relationships. Our daily life. Our bodies. All changing constantly. All impermanent.

I grew up with a strong sense of Christian ‘striving’. (Let me be clear, I do not think that this completely coincides with the teachings of Jesus’ embodiment, but perhaps I’ll do some writing on Jesus, chronic illness, & the impermanence of the physical body at a later date). I grew up in a church tradition that suggested illnesses could be mitigated and even eliminated by sufficient prayer & belief. My Grandmother was fascinated by healing services (both televised and real-time) and she would take me when she could. I began thinking about transcending the body at an early age & still contend with Christian theologies of what it means to heal. Some, I accept. Others, I reject.

So, it’s accurate to say that in this sense, Zen Buddhism gave me a much-needed break from all of this processing: Your body will change because everything changes. Give up the delusion that it won’t.

Noted.

VI.
And one day it was easier to walk.

Except if it gets too cold. Except if I have been standing too long. Except if I’m wearing flat shoes (very ill advised in my case). Except if I danced too hard.

And if I wear the boot when I sleep. And when I hang my heels off the curb to stretch them before I continue walking. If I take off my shoes under my desk & roll my feet on a small, green tennis ball. If I wear my inserts. If I park close.

And some days, it is easier to walk just because ability is temporary

This piece was inspired by (life) and Maranda Elizabeth’s writing on magic, pain, & trauma. Please read that piece because it is beautiful.

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