My height changed abruptly in 2010. Until then I had been the tallest person in every room, at every event, in any setting at all, with only the rarest exception. If I ever had to meet someone I didn’t know, at an airport for example, I would tell them to look for the tallest person; and this never failed to be true. I would go years and years without meeting anyone taller than me. It is a very odd thing to be distinctly different from everyone else. My work as a carpenter regularly took me into public schools and I was acutely (and uncomfortably) aware of a ripple of quite audible (and often unprintable) comments in my wake.
Now it’s somewhat the opposite, I very rarely meet anyone shorter than me, unless it is a child. And once again, I occasionally hear the hushed comments people make as I pass. But these days they are complimentary, …in the main.
The change from six foot seven to four foot six came, of course, with my introduction in 2010 to a wheelchair named “Bugger”. The world viewed from 4’6” is startlingly different. It’s “all bums and belt buckles” as one friend poetically observes. But there are subtler observations that have renewed my view of life.
At 4’6” I’ve learned…
…that much of the world belongs to somebody else.
I rolled off a tram in Melbourne last week, did a little zig-zag through the pedestrian barrier, and a sporty little car kindly waved me across the road. But there was no ramp to climb the gutter. With a lane of cars building up I looked up and down to no avail, and had to retreat to the tram stop once more. My eyesight is officially mediocre now, but I’ve taken to carrying a small scope in the city for such occasions, and I was able to conduct a thorough visual search from the tram stop – no ramp! There are ramps almost everywhere of course, and an occasion like this is rare. Nonetheless, I know what it is to be in a minority. For the first time in my life I regularly experience being the one who doesn’t belong, and this is the foundation of a new worldview: moving from the main stream of able-bods to a by-water of odd-bods.
…that people are nice.
I must look dreadfully helpless. Everywhere I go people offer to help me. I don’t leave home without it happening. Doors, obviously, are the main event. Now and then it is helpful to have a door opened, although there are only two doors in our town that I can’t do unaided. One – absurdly – is the front door of our school, a school for disabled children. The next help-arena is the self-serve supermarket checkout, which is more challenging because I’m tempted to feel annoyed that people think I can’t manage those machines. Nobody can manage those machines! The other time I regularly attract helpful offers is if I stop. When I’m sitting still helpers find me irresistible. But everywhere I go I meet people who are just so very nice.
…to avoid my own reflection.
When I was tall I found my reflection amusing more than anything else, after all it’s good to be tall. But when I see myself reflected in a shop window nowadays, I cringe. I’m quite used to the look of the world at 4’6”, but I don’t know that I will ever get used to the look of me.
.…that I am a sacred cow.
People are horrified if they think they have offended me. I find it amusing when receptionists say to me, “Please take a seat over there.” Sometimes I challenge this simply by holding their gaze a moment, with a raised eyebrow. I don’t generally need to say, “I brought my own”, and when they realise what they have said they are flustered, devastated, only occasionally amused, but I am quick to reassure. I am a sort of local treasure, everyone looks out for me. Teen Girl, who has down syndrome, is loved by everyone too, and I feel this is a huge credit to our society: generally it is a scandal to treat a disabled person badly.
…that miracles abound.
There are some who are forever “hoping for a miracle”. But what if the miracle is already here? What if the miracle isn’t restoration to health, winding back the clock, but discovering the grace to live life as it actually presents itself? I’ve learned so much at 4’6” that I don’t want to go back even if I could. I’ve gained far more than I have lost, and discovered that the miraculous realm is so close at hand that it’s hard to avoid.
…that I still have the White Gaze.
I will never forget the moment an Aboriginal man turned away from me when I went to enter a clothing shop in Alice Springs. He told me he could not go in, that he would not be welcome inside. I was 18 and this man had embraced me as a faltering teenager and taught me his language, his faith, (and how to clean paintbrushes with a rock). We had been travelling together for several days, sharing our meals and the driving of a large lorry that neither of us could properly operate, and over the months we had become good friends. I had no idea, not a clue until that moment, that Australia was a divided nation. But it was not until the decade I am living in now that I perceived how deeply rooted in my own cultural mentality the divisions of race still are. I learned at 4’6” that I am still a racist. Years of struggling to overthrow this ugly facet of my character have achieved little. In becoming one of a minority I began to see how unthinkingly I align myself with the majority. I think of myself – and this terrifies – as one of the true and the good, the master race. I saw my friend of so long ago on my last trip to Central Australia in 2010, and it was a shared joy. But it does not change what I know to be true of myself: I am still ridiculously quick to judge someone simply because of the way they speak, or the way they look. I judge people in wheelchairs, for goodness sake!
…that noses look far worse from underneath.
I sometimes wonder if the betrayal of my own physical body has left me distrustful of all things physical. I think of people, myself especially, purely as biology. As animals really, zoology. Noses, necks, knees, bellies, bottoms – it’s all too much! Everything human now looks fragile, unsightly and vulnerable. I seem to be preoccupied with potential or evident failings, and I can no longer see remotely the grace that Leonardo and Michelangelo saw so readily. This is one part of my current experience that I really, really dislike!
…that God comes to you disguised as your life.
This is the most illuminating thing I have read this year, and I think would be profound whatever your view of God. There’s not a lot to say, just that eventually you realise that it’s not a different life that you need; that all the “what ifs?” and longings for alternate versions of yourself lead you nowhere at all. It is the actual, physical, painful, joyful, terrible, tangible, particular and immediate experience of your very own life that leads you to peace. If you allow.
…that l’m not as smart as I thought.
My changed perspective has brought me to new insecurities; it has forced me to reconsider. So many things are not what I once thought. Is it merely youthfulness, or does having a fit, capable physique also feed the sense that we know it all?
…that depression has it’s place.
This thought is controversial, and I mean no offence. Not for a moment am I referring to the medical condition of depression; I mean occasional depression as a part of normal life. Our mood inevitably swings down as well as up, but our cultural expectation is upward, upward, upward. If we aren’t having fun, we just aren’t trying. I disagree, and at 4’6” I’ve had many opportunities to look inward and downward. Introspection is a balance to exuberance, which I find more natural, and although I don’t relish the times my mood sinks I am learning to value them. I have gleaned precious somethings, occasionally, at the black dog’s kennel: a reality, a fellowship, a check to my other extremes, an empathy, a grace perhaps.
I think it is the experience of reduction, not just in height but in so many facets, that has taught me most. I’m grateful for it. I’m very glad I have come to taste a different life, to the side of the main stream, away from the confidence of the majority. I’m truly very glad.
PS. A week from today I will be at sea, on a ship, with all of my children and grand children. Seventeen of us! That should be something worth writing about in January, next time we meet.