September 22, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Mialise Carney
I found God in a dusty Christmas Tree Shop on Cape Cod when I was seven years old. God was a white and gold pocket Bible my grandmother insisted on paying for, pressing it into my grimy, sweaty kid hands. I was enthralled by the hastily painted gold “My First Bible” lettering on the faux leather cover, the thin, unraveling ribbon-bookmark, and the plastic smell of the waxy pages, full of tiny, unknowable, archaic words but so easily ripped.
That summer, I dragged my mother to every church within a twenty-mile radius. I attended every Saturday and Sunday mass regardless of denomination, sometimes two a day. I wanted the coolest wood beneath my feet, the brightest stained-glass windows, the highest steeple, the hollowest stone echo to reverberate my restless bones. I wanted to feel infinite and tiny, awful and holy.
Molly McCully Brown parallels these feelings in her recent essay collection, Places I’ve Taken My Body, where she examines her life with cerebral palsy, a painful movement disorder developed at birth. McCully Brown was also captivated by religion and places of worship as a child, especially during a family trip to Spain where she climbed to the peaks of ancient cathedrals and threaded her body through tiny monastery doors.
The memory of her time in Spain leads her to a six-week artist’s residency in Bologna, Italy. Bologna is a beautiful, ancient place full of antique shops and historic churches, but it’s also home to uneven cobblestones, creaking staircases, and murky bars, many inaccessible to her wheelchair. Tired and hurting, McCully Brown writes from her Bologna apartment about the guilt of being unable to experience the city as someone able-bodied. In “In Smoke and Exhaustion,” she writes, “It is unforgivably selfish to have taken this opportunity away from someone who could make more expansive use of it . . . who could tell you, after weeks in this old and stunning city, about more than the hands of the people who smoke here: how they are beautiful, and moving, and then gone.”
McCully Brown highlights how travel is framed by an expectation of the able body, that a disabled person is viewed as selfish for wasting an opportunity if they are not able to climb a hundred decaying steps to see a sunrise or kneel down to pray at a church. Yet, she parallels this expectation by offering what she can of her time in the city: an observation of hands, the impermanence of smoke, present like the city and always in the process of going, moving on.
McCully Brown examines the complexities of anger and its role in her life. In childhood, anger fueled McCully Brown’s determination to recover from multiple surgeries, live with daily painful muscle spasms, and claim her independence to travel alone. But during the uncertain year between undergraduate and graduate school, McCully Brown’s anger became a forest fire, hot and unwieldy, constantly smoldering just underneath the surface. In “What We Are,” she writes, “Some fine thread of devotion has always run through everything I do. It’s tiny and shining and down there somewhere, even overgrown by rage.” Anger is a necessary tool for survival, but it needs to be patiently cared for—a wild, bright forsythia bush cut back each spring to make room for the flowers waiting to grow underneath.
McCully Brown complicates her ideas about survival, exploring memory and what it means to forget in order to survive. As a child she memorized poems, repeating them to herself at night, a disembodied voice swallowing her spasming and aching body until she existed in someone else’s words. As an adult, she imagines the childhood body and its memories, the body that climbed trees and chased her brother in the uneven, roaming fields. In “A Brief Litany of Forgetting,” she writes, “If the space forgetting engenders is an emptiness, a missing thing, a wound, then it is also the field burned on purpose, without panic, to make it fertile for another crop.” What our bodies forget, what that forgetting leaves behind, isn’t a void, but a clearing, ready to be used again, thankful for what came before.
Although I no longer worship a god, I feel a deep appreciation, a humbling, when I stand at the edge of my parent’s yard and look to the swampy woods where I spent most of my childhood, lush and full in the muggy New England summer. I recall the moment when McCully Brown helps her parents move out of her childhood home. She stands at the edge of the field, gazing out to where she knows her favorite climbing tree hides in tall grass, swaying and warm. She knows the tree is there, hidden in overgrowth and she wants to see it again, to return to the memory of it. This itself is a type of religion, a longing to remember a place we are unable to return to, hopeful that the memory, unburdened, is enough.
Mialise Carney is an MFA student at California State University, Fresno. She is a multimedia editor at The Normal School and a creative nonfiction editor at Nightingale and Sparrow. Her work appears in Atlas and Alice, Menacing Hedge, and is forthcoming in Your Impossible Voice. Follow her on Twitter @mialisec.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
April 27, 2012 § 11 Comments
Managing Editor Sarah Einstein discusses a recent blog post on writing (and not writing) about a disability:
On the River Teeth blog, Jason Dutton has posted an insightful post about identity, embodiment, and personal narrative. He discusses the choices that face him as an essayist with cerebral palsy whose instinct is often to leave his disability off the page:
I tried to avoid it. For a while I entertained the idea that I didn’t need to mention cerebral palsy unless the reader needed clarification. But I couldn’t write about a birthday party without mentioning why it took a lot of effort to climb a set of stone steps in front of the birthday girl’s house. I couldn’t write about my longing to be a stage performer without revealing why I can’t perform. Before too long, I realized that cerebral palsy had affected nearly all of my existence in some way or another.
Dutton examines the difficulty of putting experience on the page. When he writes about the way disability shapes his actions–say, walking across the parking lot at work–he feels the mechanics of his disability take on too much weight, that the essay becomes darker than he wants it to be. His impulse then is to reassure the reader, to normalize his experience, to say that he’s okay.
Except that’s not honest either, because getting tired in a parking lot isn’t fun. I’m lying when I’m cheerful and I’m lying when I’m not, and I don’t know how to find the honesty in between. But maybe it’s enough to start by admitting when my words don’t feel quite true. Maybe writing about the honesty of disability will help me recognize what I feel, name the emotions I don’t know, chart the points at which “true” and “false” are so interconnected as to be rendered inadequate descriptions. Maybe finding the honesty of disability is much like exploring the honesty of betrayal or love or life, and maybe writing about disability isn’t much different, or any less significant, than writing about anything that is real and true.
And we agree. Writing about disability isn’t any less significant than writing about anything that is real and true. Dutton’s insightful look at his own process can help all of us think about what we put on the page when we write ourselves.