Today we are pleased to announce that past contributor Hannah Lee Jones has been recently featured in Ruminate Magazine. Hannah’s poems “When My Mouth First Opened” and “October” can be read in Ruminate’s Issue No. 44. Purchase a copy by clicking here.
To read three poems by Hannah Lee Jones in Issue 16 of Superstition Review click here.
Emily Rose Cole is a writer and lyricist from Pennsylvania. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and has received awards from Jabberwock Review, Ruminate Magazine, Philadelphia Stories, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, Yemassee, and Passages North, among others.
I am in a wheelchair. It’s the first thing that people notice about me—unless, of course, they’ve been hypnotized by my haunting blue eyes. But excluding that surprisingly uncommon occurrence, those who focus on my disability might conclude that my life is more difficult than the average bear. But actually, sometimes, I have it too easy.
Strangers praise me for maneuvering my chair successfully in public without plowing down innocent bystanders or careening into walls; they praise me for smiling or laughing; they praise me for being able to maintain a job and my own apartment without parents to look after me, or they praise me for making attempts at humor, even if I use bottom-of-the-barrel puns or the spare Dad Joke.
“You’re so amazing,” they tell me. “You’re really just…something.”
I smile and say thank you. But inside, I don’t know how to feel exactly. When I articulate this ambivalence to friends, some tell me I should be angry. I’m being condescended to and, dammit, I need to make the person understand how wrong that is! Or else, they tell me I should be pleased, as the person is simply trying to be kind—and besides, my friends go on, maybe they’re used to people with disabilities who just can’t do what I can do!
Neither reaction suits me. Frankly, I don’t have the desire or will to be angry about every accidental slight, especially when such compliments arise out of a desire to be kind. Or perhaps people imagine particular tasks or good humor would be nearly impossible for them if they were suddenly in my wheels—I’m sure that would be difficult. But only at first. For me, everyday tasks in my wheelchair are simply everyday tasks. Should I really believe the most trivial of accomplishments are the exception rather than the rule for people with disabilities? Shouldn’t our assumptions err less on the side of being surprised by ability?
There is a flip side to this scenario.
At the Senior Awards Night when I was in high school, I took home three of the top awards. One voted on by my peers and instructors as that year’s Best Girl, one for Excellence in English Studies, and one for Excellence in Social Studies. Years of hard work were finally being publicly recognized! But that night, my friend, toting two of his own awards, said, “I mean, of course the girl in the wheelchair won the Best Girl trophy.” I looked to my then-boyfriend for support, but he simply laughed and said, “I mean, you know why they voted for you.”
They were teasing me, but beneath their smiles I felt a jab. I wanted to fight their claims. I wanted to remind them how hard I worked—that I was 4th in our class because I loved school and learning, that they couldn’t diminish my accomplishments with the suggestion that it was unearned simply because I am disabled. But my arguments died in my throat. Maybe, I thought, they were right.
That same year, I won a full-ride scholarship to an Indiana university of my choosing. As part of the application process, I was required to write an essay about any barriers to my education that I’d successfully overcome. I wrote about my disability and the number of school days I missed for health reasons. I wrote about the time the school administration tried to keep me from enrolling in the Honors block for fear I couldn’t keep up with its academic rigors. And I wrote about the encouraging teachers and mentors who called me special without it being code for handicapped.
Again, there were those who said the scholarship was given to me simply because I’m disabled—because I have a story to tell. But it’s not a story I parade around like a show horse when it suits me. My disability comes up again and again in my work because the car accident that left me paralyzed is the lens through which much of my life has been focused. It is an integral part of who I am.
A friend of mine recently told me she once opened the door for a woman in a wheelchair and the woman yelled at her for doing so, for assuming she couldn’t do it herself. Such a reaction is almost unfathomable to me, to repay kindness with rudeness rather than with appreciation or even a gentle correction. I never want to be like that woman; I never want my words to paralyze someone into inaction. I merely wish to acquaint others with one aspect of my experience.
I want others to know the questions I ask in regards to my life and to my writing that don’t seem to have good answers. Like how can I ever really “earn” something important when even the smallest accomplishments elicit praise? Or how many of the accolades I receive are simply because the bar for someone with a disability is so ridiculously low that even I could jump it? And even if those accolades have nothing to do with my chair, will there always be those who are ready to cast their doubts upon my worthiness?
When my husband and I recently took a road trip with our two young children, the talking was deafening. As we hit open highway surrounded by mostly trees and hills, my husband tried to play a game. “OK, I’m going to count to 15 and see who can stay quiet,” he said. The record for silence in the car that day was about six seconds.
Silence is an interesting concept. Pre-children, when I was surrounded by too much of it, I created noise and clamor: turned on a fan, tapped my pencil against my desk, hummed Blondie. I rebelled against either its calmness or vastness that forced me to think too much. These days, as a parent of young children who barely let me finish a full sentence or a thought or a line of poetry, silence is a locked room whose key I lost in some dream years ago.
I was reading an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and memoirist Tracy K. Smith on femmeliterate, where she talks about 21st century feminism, being a teacher of language, social responsibility as a poet and how motherhood has changed her writing. She had an insightful take on it, which was that caring for young children has forced her to develop a lightning-reflex creativity and agility – and this new form of response crossed over into her writing process:
I have to pick someone up from school, drop somebody off, etc., etc., so my ritual or my practice is when I have the time, and I know I need to get down to work, I just get down to work. And oddly enough, I think those constraints made me more productive. When I was younger and living alone, I could waste all this time, and I could kind of just tinker with things slowly; now there’s a real hunger when I have the space …
I’ve been thinking about the ways my life changed – mostly since having my second child two years ago. The demands of caring for small children has its many ups (all the firsts, the enchanting laughter, the hugs, etc.), downs (tantrums, projectile vomiting, the aforementioned unceasing talking and activity) and the unexpected (how the energy and needs of two children seems to create its own tornado that only quiets when they’ve gone to sleep). At the end of the day, it’s hard, no, let’s say almost impossible, to push my tired, still-feeling-like-post-pregnancy body and mind into writing and editing mode.
I was reading Amy Clampitt’s poem, “A Silence,” and kept re-reading this part, which shows all the chaos we’re surrounded by (all kinds of disordered things) and how after processing them, a (creative) silence opens:
beyond the woven
unicorn the maiden
God at her hip
bluebell and primrose
growing wild a strawberry
chagrin night terrors
past the earthlit
(we shall be changed)
a silence opens
For writing parents, that silence might be different than what it used to be. As I steal time here and there even to write this blog, the dishwasher runs noisily behind me, my daughter is playing a loud game on her tablet and my old cat is meowing for his night food. It’s hard to sink deep into that creative trance I used to get into before when I really did have hours of silence. So it’s two things: It’s writing through the din, and it’s also looking for a space and time to secure that needed and actual silence.
What’s seemingly contradictory to me saying how exhausted I am and how hard it is to write is that this year and early next, I’ve got three chapbooks and my first full-length poetry collection coming out. Ray Bradbury wrote, “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” This feels true, in that having children opened me up (bodily and spiritually) in a way I hadn’t been before – and both vulnerable and resilient in a way I hadn’t been. I found strength in the ability to grow my children, but also to persevere in my work. But like Bradbury wrote, you need to know how to tap your tired self to let our writing fodder out.
Being a mother writer, I often feel that I shouldn’t ask for help, or that I should be able to nurture my children all the time, and work at the job that pays me a salary, and then also do the writing that fuels my heart. And do it all in the clamor, in the middle of the fatigue. A few weeks ago on a Saturday, I went to the dentist to get two cavities filled (my children were at my parents’ house). When I got home, my lips hung strangely because of the Novocain and I couldn’t speak clearly: Yet the house was strangely silent. It was like floating underwater. I felt hungry. For one hour, I wrote, rewrote and edited in the bright sunlight and was nourished in a way I hadn’t been.
In that same interview with femmeliterate, Smith also talks about being strong enough to know she deserves to take time away from mothering for her creative work. That’s an area where I still struggle, in acknowledging that it’s OK to take time away from parenting, that perhaps it doesn’t have to be at 5 am or midnight, when I should be sleeping. That I can find an easier way to make it work, instead of making it hurt when I take that time:
… it’s really important to find a way to secure that time and space to make the work. As a mother there are so many demands that it’s a genuine struggle to say ok, I’m not going to be a mom for two hours; I’m going to write. But I think it’s essential to do that: enlist somebody to help you with your child so you can be a writer for part of your day. … it’s really important to create security for the writerly self that is a woman and that is an author. Without apology.
Listen to Franz Kafka who wrote, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” And it seems so simple – find the silent time and the whole world will come to you, so you can translate it into your art. But parenting and writing are never simple, of course, so as I write now into dusk, into squinting through my glasses at this bright screen, with my son calling good night, mama over and over, I commit to writing through the din and then making my own silences (where I can transfigure what world I find).