Writers watch people. We eavesdrop and register details we find significant. During her 2017 Traverse City visit, Pulitzer-winning author Elizabeth Strout said she created an entire novel from observing a gesture shared by a young couple riding the subway.
Yesterday, at my hair salon, I overheard a customer tell her stylist, “I'm annoyed with my husband.”
“Why? He's a great guy,” the stylist replied.
“I know, but he's driven a small wedge between us. He jumped ahead and watched three episodes of OUR favorite Netflix show. Watching that show together is intimate,” the customer said.
“Sometimes, before I'm awake, my wife rushes to complete the crossword. I guess we can't control what our spouses do when we're not around,” said the stylist.
The salon conversation hinted at the power of little disconnects. Individually, these slights appear negligible. Left unchecked and accumulated, they can ruin a relationship.
I remember meeting friends at a hotel conference center. We planned to have dinner elsewhere. When I arrived, I found my friends seated at a high top table in a nearly empty bar. Noticing me, one of the four immediately stood up. It was an awkward moment; them waiting for their check, me lingering by their table. A table which literally loomed over my head. Obviously surprised, one of them said, “We're busted. We have able-ism guilt.”
Other times, folks in my inner circle have chosen to sit in balconies, bleachers and at step-up counters and bars. Acquaintances have boasted about taking the stairs, just as I've entered an elevator. I've lost count of the number of times a professional conference facilitator has asked me to bow out of group exercises because the activities weren't accessible for all. Or, how often someone has said, “I know you're invited to the (party/restaurant/you name it), but it's not accessible.”
I realize people have the right to do what they want. Are they sometimes unintentionally thoughtless? Can I be too sensitive? Perhaps these feelings highlight the differences between me and others; the choices they have that I don't.
My husband, Tom, and I have been married 36 years. Everyday, we navigate his able-bodiedness and my disability. When we're at functions that include activities on upper floors without an elevator, he takes cellphone photos so I can see what I can't get to. At a crowded buffet line that's difficult for me to navigate; he sends me photo texts so I can select what I want. If we're at a concert and there's a standing ovation, he doesn't stand up. He stays seated with me. I never asked him to do this. He sees it as a sign of respect for me. Our intent is to be sensitive to one another. We work to share experiences, so neither of us feels left out.
Last fall, for over a month, I watched a gifted chef create an elaborate nightly meal for 13 people. Everyone at the table had different food requirements, from diabetic to vegan. Yet, as each of us approached the serving table, none of our individual dietary needs stood out. By paying attention to each person, this chef seamlessly created community through beautiful food.
And that gesture was, indeed, significant.
Contact Susan Odgers at email@example.com.
She is a 31-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 42 years. Odgers is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University.
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