A perfect winter day – crisp and still with a sun that speaks happiness. Two children, two dogs and two women undertake a walk that might be considered quite long for the youngest child. But we are in no rush. It is school holidays and we feel the generosity of the sky in our blood. Our destination is a clearish patch in the bush near the firetrail that winds along the side of the ridge. We settle there in the sun, on the grass, cushioned by our own jumpers and watch the kids clamber, the dogs frolic and the shadows shuffle. Kookaburras add to the jovial mood.
In the back of my mind is Jessica White’s memoir – Hearing Maud (which I devoured voraciously over about three nights). I am puzzled by the idea that she might be better off using sign language. I understand that she feels between worlds, and I guess it must be distressing. I have listened to Trevor Noah (and read his book) talking about not being black and not being white in Apartheid South Africa. It’s a horrible problem of placelessness.
I also think I grasp her frustration with the constant effort of lip reading and straining to hear and having to explain over and over to people who don’t know about her disability. I have had a similar conversation with another friend whose child has a disability that is not visible. It feels like people don’t believe her. Both stories contain a sense of being misunderstood and therefore mistrusted. “She doesn’t look like she has a disability…”
But I am still puzzled. How can it be better to be more limited in who you can communicate with? Trevor Noah’s solution was to learn all the languages he could and be privy to all worlds. I don’t think it helped his sense of identity but it gave him passports. Choosing signing over speech is, in a sense, relinquishing a passport.
Two days later (a much colder, greyer, wetter kind of winter day) I drink coffee with another mother while our children participate happily in the screaming melee of an indoor playground. I tell her about my confusion. She tells me something quite personal about herself and then says “It taught me that you can be on the same journey as lots of other people and yet see it with totally different eyes.”
I like this view and I recognize that the wisdom in it is this: you don’t have to understand; only to accept. My Macquarie Dictionary which my parents gave me when I was at University (and which my kids marvel over as the most enormous book, ever) defines acceptance as:
“1. the act of taking or receiving something offered. 2. favourable reception; favour. 3. the act of assenting or believing: acceptance of a theory.”
I think the third definition is the most important here. I need to believe Jess. It is not fair of me to treat it like an academic argument or even a question of logic. I am not deaf. I will never know exactly what it is like for her. Not really. Reading her book was a good glimpse. But even despite her careful crafting, I’m sure there were thousands of stories she had to leave out.
The other day in a local supermarket I was behind three women. My eye was instantly attracted to the tallest of them and I soon deduced that she was transgender. I marveled at how feminine she was in her movements and mannerisms. It was only something about the shape of her face that gave her away and, when she spoke, the timbre of her voice. I thought about Paula Stone. I just can’t help wondering about the force that drives such massive decisions. I once attended the Australian citizenship ceremony of a Malaysian friend and it made me think quite hard about what she was giving up and what she was taking on. No one country is perfect and therefore to move so permanently could be somewhat of a grieving process. I missed aspects of Australia terribly during my one year in China. And I don’t only mean the food or the culture – I mean the sky, the space, and the birds and the foliage – things which can’t be transported.
So imagine choosing to move into a new body and a new identification! What are you giving up? What are you gaining? These brave people step knowingly into a fringe group, driven by some inner voice, some inner knowledge. I can’t pretend to understand it but I can accept it.
Like the winter weather, my world view has gone from clear to cloudy.
Accept. Believe. Sometimes it’s critical to empathy. Other times it’s fatal to logic.
Shit! What a conundrum!