While I set our bedroom to rights today (we painted it on Sunday), I listened to two fascinating episodes of “Conversations with Richard Fidler”.
The first was a chat with Ron McCallum who was born premature in the 1940s and the little humidicrib they put him in was pumped with pure oxygen (a gap in medical knowledge at the time) which irreversibly damaged his eyes. So from soon after birth he has been completely blind. Now he is a law professor at Sydney University. It was a lovely conversation – the two men seemed to interact so easily and naturally and I felt like I got a tiny peek into the challenges and repercussions of being blind.
Next, I heard Mandy Sayer being interviewed about a book she has written called “Australian Gypsies: Their Secret History”. I had no idea there were Gypsies in Australia and I knew nothing about the history of Gypsies or why they have been so distrusted by Europeans. Now I would be interested to read the book! It’s an amazing, colourful and difficult history of displacement and persecution but also of adaptiveness and inventiveness.
And then, after lunch, I suddenly remembered that I had received a text message on the weekend from a local bookshop telling me my order had arrived. After I had the beginnings of dinner sorted, I set off to go and pick my order up, excitement tingling inside me. It is the third time in my life that I have had the honour of holding in my hands a book written by a friend. I was at University with Jessica White who has now produced her memoir (Hearing Maud) which, ever since I first knew she was working on it, I have been ever so eager to get my hands on. At age 4, the treatment Jess received for Meningitis affected her hearing. She has 25% of her hearing left on one side and nothing on the other.
On thinking about these three stories, of people often forced to live on the fringe of society, I realise there is a distinction to be made. Obviously deafness and blindness are considered as disabilitiies where being a Gypsy is not considered in that light (although society has done much to disable them).
As a Gypsy you are born into a community with a strong culture and a language and a set of rules. As a person born into a “normal” family and then suffering a disability, you are not automatically part of a community which is like you. You either try to find a community or you seek to enter into the greater society as seamlessly as your disability will allow you.
Mandy Sayers mentions in her interview with Richard Fidler that suicide is virtually unheard of among Gypsy communities because there is such a strong focus on community. She said that and it rang in my ears because I have listened to TED talks where people, in search of the key to human happiness, track it down to relationships. Strong, healthy relationships with other humans.
Anything that makes those relationships harder to pursue is such a difficult thing to deal with.
After leaving the security of his mother’s guidance, Ron McCallum spent years coping by himself. He studied law in Canada, and talked about enduring the 24 flight with nothing to do but sit and be in his own head. His study involved having books recorded onto cassettes and listening to them over and over and over again. His memory was his best ally. He was terrified of being thought slovenly and always made a huge effort to dress well and to keep busy. He said at least twice that his nights were very lonely. I can’t remember exactly when, but at a work function back in Australia he is seated next to somebody who he finds very boring. He hears a clear female voice from across the table and goes to find the owner. Her father is an eye specialist and she understands Ron and isn’t uncomfortable with his disability. They fall deeply in love and marry. On the podcast, you can hear in Ron’s voice his continued devotion to her. These days technology is a massive help to him. He is grateful for so much but, through every expression of gratitude, his wife surfaces again and again. Relationships are so key.
And now, reading my friend’s memoir (I am already nearly halfway through) I see the same theme. The loneliness of not being able to hear. The stress of socialising. Right at the beginning in an interview, a man says to her “The problem with people like you is you make deafness look easy.” And it’s true. As her friend, I can vouch for that. I was only superficially aware of the difficulties she faced at Uni and in social situations. I have always thought I was reasonably empathetic but I guess it’s very hard to empathise with something so foreign to your own daily experience. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel bad for not thinking more deeply.
So I don’t mean to under-estimate the difficulties of the Gypsies. Not by any means. It’s just coincidence that three stories hit my mind all in one day and two of them held a particular thread of my consciousness that was beautifully expressed in contrast to the strength of the Gypsy communities. I really do want to read Mandy Sayers’ book and find out more. But tonight… I am deep in Hearing Maud.