Monday, April 23, 2012

Beauty and the Beast: Love and Disability

While marking books and finishing the preparations for writing my final paper for Intro to Theology--Prolegomena to a Caregiver Theology: Current Works on Disability Theology in Dialogue--I decided to drown out the baseball game in the other room with one of my old favorites, Beauty and the Beast.  (Note: the title for my paper is still in progress.  If you have any suggestions, please let me know!)  From a very young age, I found that I worked better with a movie that I knew very well in the background.  On the list of study movies is You've Got Mail, Beauty and the Beast, Sound of Music, Pride and Prejudice (A&E version, the Keira Knightley rendition makes me too mad), Amazing Grace, The Little Mermaid, 10 Things I Hate About You and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.  I know it's a bit of an eclectic list, but all of these movies share one critical feature: I know them so well, I can be reading intense discourse on subjects such as "God is the pure possibility of being" and still be able to anticipate the next line, song, or action of the movie without ever looking at what's on the screen or being distracted from the topic at hand.  All this said, it's no surprise that I would choose to put Beauty and the Beast on while I did my work this evening.  But, as God is apt to do, even this small, mundane choice served a divine purpose that I am still unpacking.

I had a brief thought as I got started on my work this evening that started a whole train reflections.  To begin with, I think I'm a lot like Belle.  I may not be perfectly proportioned or walk around with my nose in a book without ever running into something or hurting myself, but Belle and I, I like to think, share an independent streak.  I'll admit, when I was in high school, I wished for an independent streak without every realizing I already had it.  In fact, it probably wasn't until I started dating Justin that I really identified with my own sense of self-strength and independence.  (As a side note, I find it enlightening and refreshing that I connected with this part of myself in a deeper way the more vulnerable I became with Justin--isn't it wonderful that this is even more true with God?!)  I see this in Belle in a remarkable sense: she longs for an existence outside "the normal," she sacrifices her own freedom for her father's--which is, significantly, in a different mode than the "normal" female sacrifice of identity for the sake of her male authority figure--and she dares to see something lovable and dear about a man in a different shape than the "norm." (Are we noticing the abundance of "normal" talk here?)  All of these steps requires a strong sense of identity and an independent spirit.  All of these are steps I, in some for or fashion, have taken in my life. 

Yet, in this identification with Belle, I noticed something troubling:  the potential for long-term issues between Belle and the Beast goes away, all because she says "I love you."  Now, don't get me wrong, I think this story has a very important lesson to teach young girls.  But, like most Disney fairy tales, it also neglects a very important aspect of life: love only makes thing more complicated, not less.  And, the more "different" the object of your love, the more complicated life can become.  I love my differently-shaped, disabled, and dear-hearted husband, and our love is complicated.  Sometimes it is complicated by us, sometimes it feels complicated by the world in which we interact.  Either way, the wheelchair that has scratched up my walls, run over my toes, and "broken in" many of my shoes did not disappear the moment I proclaimed my love for Justin or even when we said our wedding vows. At the end of the fairy tale, Belle and the Beast--now a tall, strong and capable man---look "normal" together, dressed in their finest and dancing with all the grace a beast can't quite manage.  But, I wonder about Belle's sense of self. The ending of the movie can be read as "Look, girls, have a sense of identity and independence.  Choose to love the unlovable, and you will be rewarded!  All will turn out right in the end, and the man of your dreams will appear to protect and love you properly so you won't need to be independent any more."

I know this is a rather cynical reading of what might be an innocent fairy tale, but for once, I'd like the Beast to remain as he was.  To discover and grow in love in the midst of and through the "beastly" is the reality of my existence and that of many others.  I wouldn't change it.  I think Belle was on the right track when she said, "I want adventure in the great wide, somewhere...and for once, it might be grand to have someone understand, I want so much more than they've got planned."  Oh to be brave enough to embrace our grand adventure as it comes with all its twists and turns, its wheelchairs and impairments--how could it be a grand adventure without them?!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Disabled Living

What an interesting semester it has been!  With all the craziness of running between the seminary and the music school, sometimes I feel dizzy with the multiple fields of study I have to hold in my head at the same time: organ performance, service playing, organ literature, academic theology, liturgy and liturgical theology, much less taking care of my husband and our home..."overwhelmed" often feels too soft of a word for the daily realities of life.

One significant development this semester is my choice to embrace disability and caregiver theology as a life work.  My final project in Intro to Theology is a paper outlining current work in disability theology, which I will use as a launching off point later on in my studies to develop a whole theology of caregiving in relationship to disability theology.  I find this work incredibly fulfilling and meaningful, and taking in the information and processing is a joy.  However, on days like today, the caregiving catches up to me and I encounter one of my own disabilities: a lack of courage to speak.

In Intro to Theology, we are currently reading Places of Redemption by Mary McClintock Fulkerson.  One of the central issues Fulkerson's text raises is how bodies in a church function based on the expectations of "normalcy" between different races and bodily abilities (able-bodied/disabled).  Portions of this text speak profoundly to me as she discusses a church that commits to minister to local group homes and "special needs" individuals.  Justin decided to come to class with me yesterday morning because he knew this was a topic we would be discussing and he was interested to hear what the professor had to say and give his own unique point of view.

I loved what Justin had to say during class, and I think it brought to the foreground issues that churches do not always think about unless those with disabilities are a constant voice of criticism, such as "This is a very poor place to put someone in a wheelchair because every time people stand up, I'm cut off from the actions of worship."  However, I caught myself wanting to temper what Justin said several times because I felt like people would listen better to him if he was more gracious with the able-bodied approach.  But then, when I thought that way, the part of me that realizes the need for the disabled to have a voice would fight back and say, "No! Let them deal with the honesty Justin is offering--the honesty he expresses is your daily reality, and you trying to protect them from your reality does no one any good!"

But, being honest with people in a class about the real-ness of life with a disabled man is an overwhelming and draining experience.  When the sucking sound of stress and busyness is already close at hand, trying to explain and justify my life experience is a disabling experience.  My classmates get to leave class and walk away from how the church should respond to the disabled and come back to it another time.  I don't.  How church and society respond to the disabled shapes how my husband and I function to such an extent that on the best days I have intense energy to bring change and on the worst days, despair seeps in through the seams of my exterior able-bodied armor.

I am disabled--I lack courage at times when courage is most necessary, and my words are crippled when I most need them.

Praise to the abundant God who injects life in our weakest places!