The federal government of our neighbors (okay, neighbours) to the nor
ALA Editions, 2015
th has spoken against my wily ways once again. This time, my unexpected–and undreamed–offense falls between the covers of a professional book. I mailed a copy of Libraries and the Affordable Care Act, fully labelled for Customs, and it came bouncing back from the border station near Scarborough, marked inappropriate for import. Okay, smarties, you have government-supported healthcare up there already (although it’s not national healthcare but rather province-by-province assured). Would it really have hurt anyone to be exposed to my admittedly dry prose steering US public library staff through their sophomore efforts with what the US (and 17 states within it) have on offer for those of us who are…well, south of the border?
My intentions in mailing it were pure: no plan to poach either patients or library patrons. I was mailing it to someone–admittedly a former US public librarian–who was beset with curious questions about how this set of 2010-enacted laws work. Heck, if the book’s good enough for library staff here, what could it hurt to share the info–with one person, mailed to a home address–there?
Or maybe I should interpret the official rejection as the book’s very first review. In which case, I am in big do-do beyond my border rep.
It’s almost exactly seven years to the day that my attempt to receive a then-six-year-old computer monitor coming across the border (again, south to north) was met with equal outrage. That time, however, I was on the north side and could be hunted down with the $1000C import fee demanded. Uh, no.
But, Canada, we gotta stop meeting like this: books meant for librarians trying to understand snaggly US insurance laws, antique computer monitors. What’s it gonna be in 2021? Should I start crafting a plan now? I’m thinking origami animals. Who can say no to them?
The well-coiffed and carefully casually dressed middle aged woman seated next to me at a cluster of airport boarding gates had suffered a deep bruise to her index finger hours earlier. The pain was so exquisite, she told me, that she simply needed to share the fact aloud. Neither whiney nor apparently self-conscious about breaking the kind of intimacy barrier between strangers that the setting typically inspires, she began our interchange with no small talk and instead, noting that my own fingers are bound in a clearly post-injury state, confided that she was startled by the level of pain she was feeling and felt so pressed by its force to speak of it that the visual cue of my recent experience with something that must be remotely similar gave her some immediate relief.
This is not how strangers of her age, class and culture typically present themselves to strangers, in my experience, and yet, I could meet her halfway across that peculiar landscape because her very forthrightness carried me there. She was asking nothing of me except to hear her. She had no expectation other than that in her own ability to communicate with another. Both were measures of her assurance in herself and her respectful recognition of another self who could understand.
This is the most essential breath of stories: the nexus of pressing narrative on the teller, the mutual trust between performer and audience, and the listener (or reader) as available to hear more than her own interior monolog. When my own attempts at telling sink on sandbars of audience discontent–“you tell it backwards;” “I want to know the end before the middle”–I have blamed myself. But maybe those particular listeners weren’t able to listen. Maybe my narrative could not broach their own personal space because that space was already too crowded with themselves.
Our separate flights were called. We did not mention any words of parting. No need for that existed. The teller had spoken, the listener had heard, the story had been able to take flight ahead of our embodied travels.
Back in 1985, I was lucky enough to take up now Harvard literature Professor Elaine Scarry’s first book, The Body in Pain: The making and unmaking of the world (Oxford University Press). It’s just the type of book I would not pick up planfully and am grateful, instead, to the Review Assignment gods for delivering it to me. Scarry’s asserts that the individual experiencing pain–whether as the result of intentional infliction or as a symptom of another condition–undergoes a revocation of the personal construct s/he recognizes as reality. It is not that the subject’s context undergoes objective change and yet, pain unmakes our contextual basis.
Ten years later, my house seemed to be breeding volumes by a very different Scarry: Richard Scarry, an American picture book author and artist, created a deep catalog of books in which animals of every species, anthropomorphically costumed, engage in every aspect of busyness the conscious body can express. There are books about occupations and books about vehicle use, books set in densely built cityscapes and others at sea. Scarry’s explorations of cheerful, colorful, overlapping busyness give the beholder pause: in fact, to explore Scarry’s busy world, one’s own busyness needs to be paused.
Together, these two Scarry’s taught, and reteach me when I can remember their articulations, that what I call “world”–that is, my reality–calls on me to construct insights that pain alters, and to take pauses to see that world in its busy details. Neither of these activities–recognition and pause–come readily to me as a matter of habit. Another damn good reason to read widely and catch the advisings of so many other constructivists.
Four weeks ago, I had an accident that has left me with multiple broken and dislocated fingers, as well as a couple of hand sprains, affecting my dominant paw. Such events necessarily come with a quantity of learning opportunities and lessons delivered uninvited. Some are painful, others rays of sunlight through the storm clouds, the condition that gives rise to the magic of rainbows. And, like rainbows, these phenomena are facts, stripped of supposition. While the storm centers can be analysed to reveal how limited my friendships are–a broken toy is readily abandoned–the beams invite celebration:
- The London cabbie who offered nothing other than patience as we counted through what remained of my coins to make up the fare from Marleybone road to Paddington Station
- The Heathrow Express employee who came to the rescue with a magnetic strip enabled ticket device when the Tube strike’s removal of staffed ticketing booths had left me unable to purchase a ticket in the chip-and-pin only dispensers
- The barmaid at Heathrow who insisted on carrying my pint of cider and second of water to a table for me
Back home, an acquaintance who has long eschewed both me and her partner’s friendship with me willingly stepped up to cut my now-progious toe nails. A week later, another casual acquaintance responded graciously to the need for ten fingers with which to squeeze open the battery-chirping smoke alarm and insert a new battery.
In a larger view, getting along one-handed has been eased by years of observing how a variety of local folks with permanent physical challenges have managed opening jars, closing long zippers, and other seemingly small and daily chores that most of us typically bring either two mobile hands or more than six digits to resolve. Their modeling has been invaluable as I go about keeping house and self in my enforced solitude.
Another cadre of spectral glimmers are the shopkeepers in my daily life: the barista who asks about my pain level everyday, reminding me to check and contrast it with previous days, both post-injury and when I was whole; the haircutter who overcame her initial panic–what-would-I-do-if-this-happens-to-me–to joke with me; the staff at my place-of-resort who put my dinner together so that no knife is required; the postman who stacks arriving boxes of books inside my apartment, a suggestion I would never have thought to ask of anyone.
Four weeks. Lost friends. Flaming depression as well as physical pain. And, shot through all that, the wonder of the kindness of strangers. Thank you.