Admitting I would benefit from using a scooter gave me the gift of freedom.
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I did not want to use a scooter at General Assembly. I brought my hiking poles with the thought I could probably walk to various things if they were not too far away. My handsome wife conspired against me, having seen the convention center before I did. Picturing the long halls and the concrete floors, she went to Patty at the accessibility booth and picked up the scooter that had been kindly reserved on my behalf. Zipping up to where I was sitting, she dismounted and said, “This is yours. Get in.”
During the spring and summer of last year I had to recover from four separate hip replacement surgeries, one every six weeks. A nerve was injured in one of the surgeries, so I lost the strength in the muscles that stabilized my knee and lost most feeling in my foot. It has taken a lot of work and patience to get back to walking even short distances. I’m grateful to be able to do that, and to know that recovery will continue.
When I got onto the scooter and pressed the joystick forward, suddenly everything changed. I could participate in any workshop, no matter how far it was from the general sessions room. Leaving the session to “run” to get a cup of coffee was a new possibility. Zipping back and forth to our hotel if I forgot something, going to lunch with people who could walk several blocks, became privileges I could enjoy. I’ve had hip problems and wobbly gait since I was nineteen, when I had a bad fall off a willful horse. On this little trustworthy pony I could zip along, passing temporarily able-bodied people in the hallway and on the sidewalk, not having to move aside to let faster people go by me, going fast enough that the wind lifted my hair and cooled me.
The experience of getting somewhere without being worn out and in pain by the time I arrived was exhilarating. Pain makes my brain noisy and steals my good temper.
In the family I grew up in, being injured or ill was something about which to feel shame. If you were a good victorious believer, you would be blessed with energy and health. No one ever said that out loud, but when my mama got breast cancer, she went looking for an “unconfessed sin” in her life. When, as a child, I said, “I have a headache,” my mother looked at me, laughed, and said, “Children don’t get headaches!” If I ever said in front of my dad that I felt sick, he’d ask, “Do you need to go to the hospital?” If you didn’t need to go to the hospital you were fine. I ended up with a lot of anger and shame when I got sick or hurt, as if somehow these things don’t happen to really good people. I never felt that about other people’s illnesses or injuries, just about mine. As I say, all of this lives in the underlayers, and I shine the light on it when a remnant of it shows up, and it dissolves like the fog it is.
I expected to feel more shame, riding a scooter, but after two minutes the false shame was swept away by the speed of freedom.
After having been injured a year and a half ago, I have become comfortable asking for help. After getting a couple of salads at the market for my wife and me, I realized once I was back out on the sidewalk again that they hadn’t given me forks. A group of people came by on their way into the market, and I asked one of them if they would please get me some plastic forks that I could take with me without going back into the store. He came back out with a smile and three forks in his hand.
It was harder for some people to see me as myself scooting through the crowd at a sitting level instead of a standing level. I’m privileged to have enough people in my life who see me that it didn’t bother me too much.
The people in my congregation who use crutches or chairs or walkers lift their chins to me in greeting. We know a little about each other’s world. Living in a mortal body is a complicated business. Moving in the world without reliable feet and legs has a multitude of invisible challenges. In Kansas City there were pretty good curb cuts so I could navigate, but there were construction sites blocking us, heaved areas creating peril on the sidewalks, precipitous drop-offs, and heart-stopping risks in traveling on the streets. I lifted my chin to the other scooter-around-ers.
I felt surrounded by kind people who sometimes didn’t see me. I moved amongst goodhearted people who were sometimes not completely in their bodies, so they stopped right in front of me without noticing, they let the elevator doors close when they should have held them—the penny didn’t drop fast enough for them to react. I got bruises on my arms and knees from elevator doors closing on me. My worst problem and my greatest joy was my own recklessness. I like going fast, what can I say? I learned that I should not go fast into an elevator: I ran myself into the wall and hurt my toes pretty badly. You would think I would have learned my lesson, but I didn’t. It’s hard to understand how extraordinary, how uplifting it is to be able to go a speed faster than a hobble.
I zipped by Patty and told her how wonderful it was. “As soon as you surrender, you get the freedom,” she said.
“That’ll preach,” I said.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)
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