Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 14 Issue 3
How To Fall Well
By Pasquale S Toscano
Sed me hercule ut a ceteris oblectationibus deseror et voluptatum propter rem publicam, sic litteris sustentor et recreor.
But, by Hercules, the more I am deserted by other delights and pleasures on account of the state of the Republic, the more I am sustained and recreated by literature.
—Cicero, ad Att. 4.10
On the penultimate day of inpatient rehabilitation, my physical therapist taught me how to fall—and then get back up. Falling was not in my estimation a skill that one “learned.” But I was told that when it happens, I’d need to do it the right way. Not if it happens, but when. “Because it will happen,” my therapist insisted. And it will happen to all of us, one way or another. I’ve indeed fallen no fewer than nine times since my accident. Yet I have emotionally fallen too, and I’ve been picked up again—by literature. Family and friends have, admittedly, helped as well (for which I’m immensely thankful). But it was literature that empowered me to make sense of my needs and communicate them to others.
Let me explain.
I recently read Johanna Hedva’s , “Sick Woman Theory,” which emphasizes “that a body is defined by its vulnerability, not temporarily affected by it.” She suggests that we are “continuously reliant on infrastructures of support in order to endure,” and, therefore, must deploy “the most anti-capitalist protest”: to care for one another and to care for one’s self. We must take on the historically feminized and, as a result, often invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. Hedva argues, we must take seriously each other’s vulnerability, fragility and precariousness, and to support these qualities must champion a “politics of care.” .
I agree wholeheartedly. But two questions remain: How is this “politics of care” ever to emerge, and what should we do to catalyze its development? To my way of thinking, we can begin by encouraging more people to read more literary fiction.
What follows then are my reflections on literature’s importance to me as I perfect the art of walking. I’ve come to realize that Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1849) and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2008)—in addition to other thematically-related texts—prove essential to falling well. That is, these works have inspired me to capitalize upon my shifted perspective from the ground, in the aftermath of a fall, to re-envision the importance of human relationships and to resist the hegemonic narrative of “rugged individualism” which too often precludes us from realizing that successfully managing the inevitable falls of life, whether metaphorical or physical, requires that we depend on others to keep ourselves upright. For, if I learned nothing else from my stay in the hospital, I learned that the success with which you fall is not determined by the fall itself but by the strategies you deploy to (figuratively) pull yourself back up.
On July 5, 2013, a truck careened into me while I was riding my bicycle. I was paralyzed below the waist. My doctors were unsure of whether I would ever walk again. One of my lumbar vertebrae had burst. I had suffered a spinal cord injury. My legs were dead weight; my bladder and bowels, nonfunctional.
I had lost myself. The person I considered myself to be had been killed off, that healthy and virulent nineteen-year-old man who didn’t have to be secured in a harness just to take a step, and that only with the assistance of four technicians’ helping hands. I felt small and weak and humiliated, when, for instance, I was learning to self-catheterize with a nurse standing right over me, staring at my privates, or when I shat the bed because I couldn’t control my bowels in this post-accident world. I was confronted with the task of reimagining my future, salvaging what meaning I could from a seemingly meaningless sequence of events.
Although our circumstances are wildly divergent, it was not until I read Tennyson’s masterwork In Memoriam—a stunning elegy for the poet’s friend and possible lover Arthur Henry Hallam—that I came across language which I felt adequately communicated those feelings of abandonment and loneliness and utter terror for the uncertain future with which I, like Tennyson, was, and at times still am, contending. Take for instance his commentary upon the “strife” between a supposedly benevolent God and nature, “so careless of the single life” (55.5, 9). The bard struggles to understand how this tension—after the premature death of a man destined for greatness—impacts a bereft shadow of his former self:
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry?
In the hospital, I too wondered, “what am I?” when I woke up one evening to find my mother sobbing by my side, or when I first learned to transfer myself from the bed to the wheelchair, or when we first met with the wheelchair salesperson. “What have I become!” I cried, if only to myself. I too was an infant in the night (who couldn’t so much as go to the bathroom without the assistance of caretakers). I even wore a diaper. Still, I desperately yearned to believe, as does Tennyson, that “somehow good / Will be the final good of ill.” My doctors were so fearful of giving me false hope, however, that they didn’t give me any hope at all. So it was left to me to “trust that good shall fall / At last—far off—at last, to all” (54.14-15).
Although I tried to make the most of my subsequent leave of absence from Washington and Lee University, there were some days when I wasn’t so sure “good” would indeed fall, mostly when I realized that every frame of reference I had for overcoming adversity came up short, since, as Tennyson notes in his prologue, “Our little systems have their day; / They have their day and cease to be” (l. 17-18). But one system prevailed: English-language literature. Even as I write this, I think of Tennyson as a friend, for we have forged an empathetic bond. It seems as though the English poet gets it. And that’s a comfort.
It’s comforting because works like Tennyson’s have empowered me to make sense of the juggernaut, eddying whirlpool, Charybdis-like riptide of emotions that course within me when I try to articulate what continues to be so emotionally and physically wearying about the accident. Because the truth of the matter is that, whether they realize it or not, people put you on the clock after a major life-altering event occurs, which is to say that they expect you to be over it within certain temporal parameters that generally coincide with when they’re tired of hearing you gripe about what happened. That’s another reason why Tennyson is a pal of mine, if only in my mind: he took seventeen years to process his grief, and my guess is that canto 130 doesn’t mark the last time he thinks of his friend either.
Shortly after the accident, I had the good fortune of reading a contemporary novel-in-short-stories which aligns thematically with In Memoriam: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The eponymous protagonist realizes she’s “needy,” but can’t quite communicate her needs to others; instead, she alienates herself from friends and family alike despite stressing to her students that they mustn’t “be scared of [their] hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger,” Olive declares, “you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else.” Though characteristically straightforward, hers is a lesson that stuck: when I first returned to W&L, I was “hungry,” which is to say that I was “needy,” which is to say that I had missed out on an entire semester and frantically hoped to make up for lost time. So I sedulously engaged my best friends and roommates in conversation, knocking on their doors when I returned home from class, attempting to be as supportive as possible, slipping notes under their doors, writing messages on the bathroom mirrors with dry-erase markers. In other words, I didn’t give them enough “space.” “But why do they need space?” I thought. After all, I had been gone for twelve weeks. The world was moving on, yet I was just becoming a part of it again.
In canto 7, Tennyson writes of Hallam’s “[d]ark house, by which once more [he] stand[s],” when still he misses his dear friend too much to bear. Soon, “[t]he noise of life begins again, / And ghastly through the drizzling rain / On the bald street breaks the blank day” (ll. 9-12). Just as the English bard bemoans the start of a new morning when it seems the rest of the world has forgotten Hallam’s passing, so too I couldn’t help but to envy my peers who sauntered across campus, prattling on about their plans for Wednesday night (does anyone really need to party on a Wednesday evening anyway?) or their recent breakups or how annoying their parents were or their professors or the grade they got on their last test. This is not to say that I consider these things unimportant, because I don’t. Nor is the notion that everyone has their own cross to bear lost on me. Because it isn’t.
But all around me, people were living life as they always had, and, to make matters worse, there was the physical beauty of the Shenandoah Valley manifest every which way I turned. I realized then the pathetic fallacy is just that: a fallacy, one big, fat, old disheartening lie. Here too, Tennyson and I are of one mind: he laments, “Climb thy thick noon, disastrous day; / Touch thy dull goal of joyless gray, / And hide thy shame beneath the ground” (72.26-28). Although I was ostensibly “living my life again”—needing only an ankle-foot orthotic brace for my left ankle and a cane by the time I returned to school—there were days when I saw nothing but gray while others beheld a radiant kaleidoscope of opportunities that mostly had to do with venturing out to fraternity houses for alcohol. How was I to explain, then, that all I wanted was for us to spend time together, albeit in a setting that was conducive to my physical needs, when close friends felt as though they were missing out on some fundamental aspect of the college experience?
What I discovered in these months is that, often times, the more you need people, the less they want to be needed. Which is to say that it becomes difficult to communicate your needs and your concerns and your fears for the future in a way to which others are responsive. Towards the end of the book, Olive feels similarly lonely as she “lay[s] on the bed in the little bump-out room” of her home “and listens to the transistor radio she held to her ear,” longing for the voice of another person because her husband has died, but not before complaining that she never apologized for anything, and her son has turned his back on Olive after criticizing his mother’s volatile mood swings (268). You might be wondering why, if she was so apt for company, Olive made life on her husband and son so difficult in the first place. But too often she felt overwhelmed, “fighting the sensation of moving underwater—a panicky, dismal feeling, since she has somehow never managed to learn to swim” (61). Strout later explains that in Olive’s “private view,” “life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well,” the quotidian joys of a “friendly clerk” or a waitress “who knows how you like your coffee” (61-2). All this, she concludes is “[t]ricky business”—because, well, it is.
Still, Olive wants to love and to be loved despite seeming cold, aloof and unfeeling to the people she most needs to love her. Eventually it’s Jack Kennison—an older gentleman-turned-more-than-friend she comes across one morning on the walking trail—to whom she emotionally capitulates. Here, we have two people averse to communicating their feelings, but when they finally do, widow and widower begin to realize what they’ve always felt but never could articulate to anyone else,
that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies [are] as needy as … young, firm ones, that love [is] not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it [is] a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her [Olive’s] platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered. (270)
These final reflections resonated with me, then, because I felt as though all too often people were flicking off my love, flakes at a time, and squandering our days together, as in these three instances:
Like Olive, I failed to communicate my disappointment. I failed to articulate my needs.On the one hand, why is it that people don’t have the insight to realize how hurtful their words and actions and, often, inactions truly are? On the other hand, sometimes people don’t get it until you give them the chance to do so. And I’m not absolving myself from this indictment either. We Americans have really been screwed over by “rugged individualism” because it’s antithetical to “falling well.” Because we see in a book like Olive Kitteridge how problematic averting the outside world can be: it leaves you bitter and hopeless and defeated. You begin to lose perspective; you wait there on the ground and pray that it’ll all be over soon, never understanding that the most essential aspect of living life is learning to live with others—and learning to navigate the joys and agonies of human relationships. For his part, Tennyson at last declares:
I will not shut me from my kind,
And, lest I stiffen into stone,
I will not eat my heart alone,
Nor feed with sighs a passing wind.
I have walked with literature to walk in life; I realized, as I read these texts, that I am not alone. However, it took a literary community to remind me that I have an actual one to fall back upon. I was willing to confront and contend with the challenges of re-envisioning my future in the abstract, in fiction, before I could grapple with them in real life and with real people.
To Tennyson’s way of thinking, “for the unquiet heart and brain, / A use in measured language lies; / The sad mechanic exercise; / Like dull narcotics, numbing pain” (5.5-9). He suggests that writing anesthetizes. But I argue just the opposite: literature can facilitate feeling and empathy and reconciliation, with others and, most importantly of all, within oneself.
When I say that literature has empowered me to reconcile the disparate facets of my identity in a post-accident world, I mean that literature has emphasized to me that I am “handi-able” rather than handicapped. (Now time for a lengthy digression: The term “handicap” derives from the phrase “hand in cap,” “[a] game in which one person claims an article belonging to another and offers something in exchange” (OED). Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “handicap” would also be associated with card games and horse racing. It wasn’t until 1888 that it began, in the U.S., to signify “[a] physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” The term “handi-able,” however, makes good use of the suffix, “able,” which hails from the Latin abilis, denoting ability or worthiness. By using it, I hope to home in on the functionality—if not physically, then within the context of interpersonal relationships—one can glean from seeming dysfunction. My goal is to dodge “handicap’s” etymological root in sports, because grappling with disability is anything but a game, and to imply instead that those who are considered “handicapped” might think of themselves as “able-handed”—that is, able to tap into epistemological resources they’ve gained from their experience to reach out to others, whether figuratively or physically.)
Here, I use a term that one of my best friends once coined, but, in my estimation, it’s an apt one for considering how I can capitalize upon my accident to better my life and others’. With all this in mind, consider the following three examples from literary works, writing which has become an invaluable source of inspiration in my darker moments:
So much the rather thou Celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
Although Milton can no longer visualize the physical world, he harnesses his disability as a source of empowerment to gaze upon the spiritual one and, ultimately, to “justify the way of God to men” (1.26).
So too, the accident has presented me with a rare opportunity: I am uniquely qualified, at such a young age, to understand what it means to be helpless and vulnerable and dependent and unsure of what lies ahead and to be situated, when it comes right down to it, upon the razor’s edge of precariousness. I don’t have to wait until I’m an octogenarian to realize what Olive realizes, that love is not to be squandered, because I know already the tenuousness of the mortal lives we live. I know the importance of cherishing each day because, not so long ago, I was handed a form to write my living will. That was before surgery, the night of the accident--which is all to say that I’m ahead of the game.
I’m ready and prepared to participate in the “politics of care” which Hedva celebrates: I’ve forged empathetic relationships with people whose paths had never intersected mine before, because we each needed to share the onus of certain stories, certain secrets. We found each other. From my perspective on the ground, in those moments after a fall, I’ve learned things: I know that I can pay what love and support and empowerment I have experienced forward by writing about this experience and talking about this experience and using this experience as a means of connecting with people I might never have connected with otherwise. I’ve fallen, and I’ve gotten up, and it’s OK. More than OK, really, because I’ve learned “how to fall well.” And what that basically means is that I’ve learned how to be picked up well, by literature, by others, and even, on a particularly good day, by my handi-able self.
Dickens, Charles. The Story of Little Dombey. The Story of Little Dombey and Other Performance Fictions. Ontario: Broadview, 2013. 15-40. Print.
Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.
Hedva, Johanna. “Sick Woman Theory.” Mask Magazine. 19 Jan. 2016. Web. 16 March 2016.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon Teskey. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.
OED Online. 2015. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. New York: Random House, 2008. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. Tennyson: Selected Poetry. Ed. Erik Gray. Ontario: Broadview, 2014. 92-203. Print.
Pasquale Toscano just graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where he won several writing prizes and was published in campus journals. Four years ago, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed below the waist. With physical and occupational therapy, however, he slowly relearned to walk and now uses a cane and ankle-foot-orthotic brace. Toscano recently was awarded the Beinecke Scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in English with a focus on disability studies after two years of graduate school at Oxford as part of the Rhodes Scholarship program. He enjoys watching tennis, films, and musical theater.