Mind Over Matter

Yesterday, on the trail of poets with disabilities, I came across the following book review. For poet Craig Romkema’s collection, Embracing the Sky: Poems Beyond Disability, Amazon.com had this to say:

“In this collection of poems, Craig Romkema describes the daily journey of an individual whose body is encumbered with the symptoms of autism and cerebral palsy, but whose mind and spirit are relatively unaffected. Forcing the barriers aside momentarily, he shares his life experience, offering insights into a life beyond disability. Writing of his hopes, fears, and aspirations, as well as his everyday reality, his poetry will speak in particular to others on the autism spectrum, their families, and those who work with them.”

I am thoroughly irritated by this review and have no desire to add the book to my Wish List. I don’t mind Romkema’s desire to connect with others on the autism spectrum or to share his experiences with cerebral palsy. In fact, the last sentence of the review is perfectly acceptable to me.

It’s this first part, about his “mind and spirit” being “relatively unaffected.” How can this be?

Of course, this reviewer (Amazon doesn’t specify whether the review was provided by the publisher or created by the site itself) employs the classic mind/body dualism that accompanies most discussions of disability. It’s the age-old aphorism, “The mind is willing, but the body is weak.” In the case of disabled people, especially public figures or disabled artists, the body is decrepit, but the mind!—the mind is indomitable. These sentiments usually lead to discussions of the “indomitable human spirit.”

I make no criticism of the indomitable human spirit here. I believe very strongly in the power of the human heart and the intensity of the human spirit.

But where would the spirit be without the body? How would we know about the triumph of the human mind, the virtues of the human soul, and the power of the human heart without the body? It is the body that translates these virtuous, invisible messages for us. It is the body that renders our beautiful thoughts into beautiful actions.

Of course, in order to credit our bodies, we must love them—and that is a challenge many of us fight daily. We must accept ourselves, our flabby, out-of-shape selves; our glasses-wearing selves; our freckled, awkward selves; the selves that need help going to the bathroom; the selves that rely on walkers, new hips, orthopedic shoes. And this we cannot do in the present culture of youth and beauty, the society that tells us we must be ashamed to exist in “broken bodies.”

Originally, I think, disabled people must have advocated the brilliance of their minds as a way to the public ear. Perhaps there was no other way to make themselves heard or felt; perhaps they had to convince the world that the spirits fluttering around inside their broken bodies were just as human, just as kind, just as loving and capable of human innovation.  So they, or their publicists, said things like, “I may live inside this crippled body, but my mind is strong and healthy” or “Despite my physical deficit—my deafness, blindness, or inability to walk, I can still carry on an intellectual conversation.” Somewhere in the corridors of disability history, people had to denigrate their bodies in order to elevate their minds. You can’t lift something up without putting something else down.

Or so I thought.

But now, as I reread this book review and get angry all over again, I want to change my mind on this issue. Rather, I want to give voice to a change that I’ve been feeling for some time.

Your mind cannot “remain unaffected” by disability. Disability, as with any other characteristic, touches every part of you—and that means your mind and body. Your spirit, mind, and body work together to form one entity, one individual. There is no way to separate yourself from your experiences, to draw a big red line that puts the physical weakness on one side and the mental strength on the other. To draw such a line is to make war on yourself, to say that parts of you are not worthy of recognition. Yes, your body may be broken, disabled, inept, wobbly, inconsistent in its strengths, but it is your body. And broken bodies, like “whole” bodies, have a valuable lesson to impart.

During my chorus rehearsals, our director often asks us to perform strange, kinesthetic exercises in order to free the voice and help us sing better. When I first started singing in choruses, about 10 years ago, I thought I was above such rudimentary gymnastics. “I don’t need to do that,” I regularly told myself, as I halfheartedly attempted the technique. My resistance came from a combination of denial and pride. I didn’t want to admit that it was difficult for me to understand the exercises, which were usually taught in a visual way, so I pretended that I was already good enough—that they weren’t any use to a talented singer like me.

Eventually I was forced to acknowledge that the exercises worked. I came across a persistent director who walked over and physically guided me through the movements—or I started to understand and perform the exercises on my own—or a fellow singer reached over and moved my hands correctly—and I heard a difference. As I leaned forward, standing on the balls of my feet, my heels off the ground, and my arms stretched out in front of me, I heard my voice change. It became stronger, more centered, and more agile. I started to create and hear a sound that I dreamed about: a thick, rich, capable voice. Yes, my mind decided to adopt these exercises, but it was my body that performed them. I have to credit both parts here.

Maybe it’s my bad vision that makes my ears so good. Maybe because I can’t see too well, I hear really well, so I can detect small changes in my own voice. Maybe this is so—but it’s not really what this blog is about.

It’s about a holistic understanding and appreciation of the self. It’s about loving who and what you are and realizing that you can’t banish any part of yourself. You don’t have to overcompensate for your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your size, your shape, your abilities or disabilities. You don’t have to tell the world, “I know you can’t appreciate that part of me, but this part of me is worth it.” Everything about you is worth it.

Someday I hope to have books of poetry for sale on Amazon. I hope to have books of prose and scholarly work up there as well. And I hope to have a book reviewer who won’t use the “tragedy” of my blindness to enhance the brilliance of my mind.

I am a writer. Not a blind writer or a female writer or a writer with brown hair or a young writer. I am all of these things at once. And if that seems overwhelming, if that sounds like too much, maybe you should examine yourself. Decide who you will be.

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