At the Margins

Milling around at a reception recently I lost track of my husband. Everyone was standing, coffee in one hand, some form of questionable sugar product in the other, chatting amiably. I spoke with a neighbor I hadn’t met, a local artist whose work I admired, a lively woman who is adjusting to a new season of life. All these were conversations that might well have continued happily for some time.

Then I spotted my husband, sitting on a bench provided for those who found it fatiguing to stand. He was talking with a man whose sturdy cane leaned against an outstretched leg. The bench was near the exit door. People who made their way to that corner were shrugging on coats, disinclined to make one more stop on their way out. Expressing his pleasure in meeting John, the man mentioned matter-of-factly that his visiting occurred mostly on the margins of any gathering he attended. So many “coffee hours” or receptions depend upon standing. Those who sit are hidden behind a screen of vertical figures. They don’t “mill.” They learn, if they keep coming, to accept whoever drifts their way and engage.

I began to think about how many social occasions depend upon health, and how even slight disabilities can change one’s social opportunities, objectives, motives for attending festive occasions, notions of what “friendly” looks like. I remembered a good-natured but edgy essay by a man with AIDS who visited an art museum in a wheelchair. He described his view of the paintings with titles like “Still Life Obscured by Large Gucci bag” and “Portrait of the Artist with Obstructed Face” and “Landscape Interrupted by Backpack.” Disability awareness, like diversity, has received wider and long-overdue attention over the past years, but really developing that awareness—the habit of noticing in situational, sudden, flexible, subtle, imaginative, and compassionate ways—is an ongoing education for all of us.

Years ago when I asked a student who came to class in a wheelchair what was the one thing she’d most like her able-bodied colleagues to “get,” she immediately said, “Whenever you can, sit down to talk to me. I get so tired of being looked down upon. I find myself longing to look someone in the eye at eye level.” Perhaps that stuck with me in a particular way because I’m tall and, especially among other women, I “look down” a good bit. But eye-level encounter matters. When a doctor sits to ask me how I’m doing, it changes the conversation. When I squat to talk with a small child I see how they open up, suddenly aware I’m taking them seriously. “Eyeball to eyeball,” as my husband puts it, is where truths may be told that you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else. I left that bench by the door after the reception resolving to find a similar bench at the next public meeting, or a folding chair in an under-populated corner–and change my eye level. There, slightly beyond and beneath the noise and haste, some lovely, lively moments, unavailable at other altitudes, may find room to happen.

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