Ralph and company

The disability center where I work exists in a tight-knit community, and my job provides me an opportunity to work with various organizations.  I regularly walk to the senior center, retirement communities, the university, or the printer.   Many area restaurant managers and retailers contribute in our annual fundraiser to raise money for services to people with disabilities, and I have communicated with them at certain times of the year.  In the cross-over of efforts and sharing of referrals in this community, I’ve come to know some very good people.

Since I see folks regularly, I learn a little bit about them.  For example, I consult our printer, Ralph, on our newsletter and marketing needs and have slowly developed a relationship with him.  When I visit his business to pick up projects, he greets me personally and we chat.  By coincidence, Ralph has a disability himself–cerebral palsy.  He has overcome a lot, including an absent, alcoholic father and poverty in addition to his disability.  In spite of these things he has found his way in life and work.  A few weeks ago, Ralph told me a story that stayed with me on many levels, partly because it relates to the mission of my organization.

Ralph married a woman with three children, and her youngest happens to have cerebral palsy like her stepdad.   This youngest daughter was an infant when Ralph married her mother, and the wife’s parents chose to blame him for the granddaughter’s disability despite the fact that he wasn’t the biological father.  Though hurt and offended, Ralph stuck it out and became a devoted husband and stepfather.

Local doctors, whether through lack of knowledge or some other reason, told the couple there was nothing to be done for little Trisha and that she would never be able to walk independently.  Again Ralph ignored the pronouncement of others, and this time he stepped in where the medical system fell short.

Since there was no recommendation of therapy and few resources for the financially strapped family, he began to work with Trisha.  He held her up by her belly while she moved her arms and legs about.  He held her middle and set her hands and knees to the floor as she oriented and developed strength.  As often as he could he moved her limbs, massaged them, helped her sit and develop core muscles.  When she grew older he designed some leg braces for her and helped her to walk with their assistance.  Now she is eight, and she can walk without aids.

While my organization helps people use resources and maintain independence despite their disabilities, Ralph has accomplished a great deal on his own.  He learned the printing business and is now running his own company.  He is raising three children and doing his own brand of physical therapy with his stepdaughter.  He has used his intuition, and he has experimented.  He has been loyal to himself and his family, and he supports his community with good service.

He’s a humble fellow, without a college degree, but he’s a smart man, a man who doesn’t always accept what the doctors tell him, who believes in himself, who taps into his own resources, intuition, and ability to heal.   He is a great example of what my organization was created to foster—resilience, connection to inner and outer resources, and involvement in community.  He consulted his own wisdom and used his instincts in helping his stepdaughter, and he has tapped into some resilience and intuitive healing wisdom.

I am fortunate that my job provides an experience of old-fashioned community and the individual business-owner within it.  Ralph’s story teaches me that all of us can choose how to react to things and what perspective we take.  It also reminds me that some of our fancy higher education, medical technology, and corporate power are not of much use without the involvement of a thinking mind-body and engaged heart.  Encountering people like him shows me the value of my humble little position in disability services.  Both Ralph and I live and work in a model one would call alternative, in the best sense of the word.

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The next step

On February 2, I celebrated my year anniversary at my current job at the disability center.  I am proud of having survived, and proud of having opened up to new tasks, new experiences, new perspectives.  And I’m ready to move on.

It’s true.  This year has been an amazing one for which I will be forever grateful.  I am now blind to physical disability, seeing people rather than wheelchairs.  I am well-schooled in the fact that appearances mean little, having been surprised by people’s resilience, love, tenacity, and wisdom, no matter what their circumstance or education level.  I have taught yoga to people who respond to the mindfulness and who wake up in their bodies, even though those bodies are injured.  And I have seen community at work in a loving way.  Best of all, I’ve seen societal values turned on their head:  There is no pretension here, where we are all equal, all struggling, all misfits in our way.  We cannot and do not pretend or posture or hide behind status.

At the same time, my mind is not on the government program I am supposed to oversee.  I am restless:  I am clear that I need to write and to teach.

On my anniversary day, I sat at lunch on a park bench in the sun, thinking of how sometimes opportunities fall in our laps, and how ready I am to more fully engage with work, how ready I am to teach and write about new models of health and healing.  Later that evening I received an email inviting me to apply for a position teaching holistic health classes at a community college:  I blinked and rubbed my eyes to make sure it was real.

Perhaps that higher power is guiding, is interacting with me.  In this work life, I seek to be open to presence, to letting go of my ego while honoring my temperament and my heart’s desire.  I am aware of my ability to deceive myself or simply to overanalyze, and I practice prayer and meditation to find my way.

Sometimes I feel a source of support:  It feel as though the spheres are aligning, and I am deeply grateful.  I believe we are one with the earth and with each other and that we need to listen for our true paths if we are to survive.  God or goddess, gaia or universe:  It speaks to us and we must choose whether or not we will listen.

On the spectrum of disability

Before I worked at an independent living center I attended a workshop with Matthew Sanford, a yoga teacher paralyzed from the chest down.  In the workshop, he brought up the fears able-bodied people feel around disabilities as well as the commonalities among people in both conditions.  A gifted teacher, Sanford has provided helpful guidance to me and many others.  His intimacy with trauma, disability, and healing speaks deeply to me, as does his mission to change the perspective of the medical community and to educate on the mind-body relationship.

I think his teaching on yoga and healing is applicable to everyone.  Hasn’t each of us experienced some kind of trauma, some kind of search for healing or wholeness?  Whether we have a visible or invisible disability, or we simply have emotional wounds or limited beliefs about ourselves or limited social skills, we need to find our wholeness and self-respect.  We need to find our meaning and connection with others.

I share an office with a man who is quadriplegic, and each day when he arrives at work, I remove his hat and pull a file for him.  I consider these small tasks a privilege to perform because he is my friend and cohort.  And because they are a clear expression of our interrelation with each other.  I know this man as complex and normal as anyone, though I also think he’s a bit more evolved in having come to terms with his disability and valuing himself and his life.  He is bright, has a dry and deep sense of humor, a cool demeanor under stress, and an easy way of asking for and giving help.  His “boundaries” are strong but flexible, and his solid kindly presence is a comfort to me.

Another coworker is in a wheelchair and has a tracheotomy tube:  He cannot eat solid food, and he speaks with a whisper.  Yes, I feel sad for him, and I feel scared at the prospect of what life gives us to manage, and I wonder if he feels left out of social meals and gatherings, as I have from time to time.  At the same time, I am grounded by reality in his presence, sobered by our common human condition with all its vulnerability and tragedy.

My coworkers, both able and compromised physically, have taught me to take difficulty more in stride.  As a staff, we provide respect for anyone who comes in, from the special needs kids who help out twice a week with their teacher, to the man with schizophrenia who imagines people trying to tap into his computer and control his life, to the young man on parole trying to manage reduced vision.  The welcoming attitude demonstrates, or should I say embodies, the truth, that everyone has worth and value, that no one is lesser.  In fact, I barely see disability anymore.

I see my commonality with the state of disability when I encounter my psychological ruts or react, fight, say things from my childish self.  We are all limited in our humanity, even as we withdraw from others or grow angry and hurt them.  I think of my own introversion and lack of skill with boundaries, and I think of close friends with bipolar disorder, or people I know who are narcissistic and never seem to change, only to implode in their marriages or work lives as they age.   I often find myself wondering if might be possible for all of us to show up without hiding these things, and yet seek connection and resources and new learning about wellness and emotional freedom.

The challenges of love and loneliness, work and finances are held in common.  My coworkers who talk with me about disability, about growing up with cerebral palsy, managing MS, dealing with daily life, have taught me that our struggles are similar, if not varying in degrees.

Most profoundly, I am aware of the shared experience of losing physical function.  We seem to have a tendency to equate physical appearance with who one is, to make assumptions about personality or inner reality. And yet we also know, even if only on an unconscious level, that we will all experience disability, or death.  As a yoga teacher I am curious about what it means to be whole within an injured or deteriorating body.  I seek to learn how to experience more embodiment in such a state.  To help others yes, but also because I know we all will experience some disability at some point.  And because I seek to come to terms with my own eventual decline.

I see shared experience when I teach yoga at work while all of us sit in chairs.   A lesson in the fundamentals of yoga is absorbing in whatever physical form.  Someone’s practice is interesting to me whether it is a standing pose, a difficult arm balance, or aligning the spine and feeling through one’s torso while sitting.  Each of us struggles to be present, to let go, align, and breathe—to wake up to our experience.

Matthew has a DVD called “Beyond Disability.”  I believe the title refers to starting where we are, finding wholeness from there, and healing.   His personal experience with trauma and loss infuses his work as a yoga teacher dealing with injured bodies.  Yet he is so fully engaged in life that one sees how the term disabled becomes less relevant, and he inspires others to engage as well.

Truly this opportunity to work where I do has taken me beyond the concept of “normal” just as it has taken me beyond the concept of disability.  I barely see disability any more, and I am grateful to be less self conscious of what I perceive as my own shortcomings, such as my shyness and recurring boundary issues, to let go of more ego as well as its brother insecurity.   I feel cleansed, cleared to learn to show up as myself and to do my best given my own abilities and circumstances.

Over time, I have grown accustomed to a model in which we respect the state in which people find themselves, and it reminds me of the acceptance and loving-kindness we provide for ourselves in meditation.  At work we make things work for individuals or make a mutual decision to look for another environment.  Time is not wasted pounding a “square peg into a round hole.”  The respectful and welcoming attitude at work which seemed novel to me at first has become mundane in its constancy, and yet it is rare.  Might it be extended?   Can you imagine CEOs and CFOs, all the competitive high tech and financial and healthcare folks able to acknowledge their own disability or dysfunction and be more evenly respectful of others?

Each day I learn about our rights to live as fully as we are able, and I learn that if we claim these rights, there are supports for us.  If we get past the anger and our own ego/insecurity, we usually find aid, whether from God, humans, or nature.

Disability is more visible in some, but the challenge and aspiration is the same for all, and it is to live as fully as possible.  For society the gift of people with disabilities claiming their rights is great:  to see that life and love and heart are not dependent on fully functioning arms and legs.  That, even in a rupture between mind and body, body is alive in mind.  And sprit is alive regardless, reminding us of the mystery in our existence.

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