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From Phyllida's Desk

Why I Write

Will, Intellect, Sensation, Emotion, by John Covert. (Oil on wood)

A few years ago, when I still had a job, there was another part-timer, a woman I'll call Kerri, whom I only saw occasionally when our schedules overlapped. We always enjoyed talking, and when I discovered that the retina of my left eye had torn, the result of my severe nearsightedness, Kerri began to tell me about her husband (I'll call him Ben), whose eye problems were similar to mine, but about ten times worse.

Jim was losing his sight. And he was, understandably, frightened and depressed.

At this point, as Kerri and I started discussing, for the first time, the fraught topic of "disability," she revealed herself to be one of those, what I think of as disapproving doubters. Her first anecdote was about a friend or relative, someone only seen at Thanksgiving, who exhibited "learned helplessness." Always asking for ("demanding"?) help. Always claiming to need more help than Kerri judged was warranted.

If we're being urged nowadays not to be afraid to ask for help, it's people like Kerri who force us back into cautious silence, people whose first reaction to a claim of disability or difficulty is: Are you sure? (Are you really disabled? Do you really need help? Do you really know your own body and abilities?) People who think first of the scammers and the malingerers, the fraudsters and the grifters.

It's the culture, how most of us are raised. Don't burden others. Manage on your own. And never, ever, complain.

Perhaps the last conversation I had with Kerri occurred shortly before the Covid layoffs, as Ben was heading into blindness. (And yes, I know that the visually challenged themselves are the first to say it's not a tragedy.) But the transition from sighted, to impaired, to loss–especially in middle age–can be a terrifying journey. It's not only the problem of accomplishing daily tasks, great as that is, but the loss of pleasures, of reading, and seeing–art and nature and movies and television; the faces of one's family.

Kerri compared Ben's situation to mine, with my deformed hands (and wrists and arms, although people rarely "see" those). "You just do what you can," she said, admiring, since I had rarely spoken of my feelings about it, what appeared to be uncomplaining competence. "You manage, you do the tasks you have to. If things are difficult, you find a way."

Her last comment, as I was throwing out my lunch trash to head back to work: And if you can't play the piano, so what?

And that's why I write.

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