this is part of a set of blogs in preparation for a chapter in a journal which asked me to write ” on your work in relation to your personal activism and advocacy with the onset of austerity, and the intersectional tensions as a disabled women involved with a diverse set of communities. In particular we thought you may want to contribute a chapter about your personal reflections, that rigorously capture the new and emerging issues for disability activism” …..
In the 1990’s, I went to USA on my own – one of the people I met was at the Asia Watch: Human Rights Watch office, Sydney Jones . I went back home to Strasbourg and the impact on me is obvious in that I wrote one of my first poems, Cocoon:
I stay in my tight cocoon
warm, snug and sheltered
from famines, war and strife
human rights violations
I watch you at your valiant job
in the asphalt jungle
teleconferencing across frontiers
being au courant with the latest events
in some far flung dictatorship
I am envious of you
the modern day Jeanne d’Arc
My domaine rests
with getting children places on time
school, music leassons, gym, swimming classes
cooking meals, dressing dinners
sorting out clothes, battling dust
mine is the mundane
that I am plotting,
this cocoon is well spun
books lined on shelves
the world without
the world within
an indolent world
so redolent of
a pampered expatriate existence
I am loath
home and hearth
I cannot shed
bonded and bounden
my surviving abuse
lax self discipline
like the hermit crab
scuttling with its borrowed shell
not showing its soft underbelly
in deadly fear of
written in the 1990’s
I loved my children and adored being a mother, I enjoyed the priviledges of being expatriate in a beautiful city, playing host to the many visitors and new residents that it attracted (and still attracts). I had dinner parties almost every week, reveled in cooking for them all. I’ve even helped cook for two Archbishops of Canterbury, being part of the English Anglican community.
My French was rudimentary but it was sufficient for what I needed to communicate. I was in a bubble of an idylic existence. I did Zen meditation with a French Dominican priest. I had no idea of what my disabled community was doing in the UK – living amongst mostly white, non disabled community. I went to the university women’s association formed to welcome expatriate and sometimes, diplomatic wives. Learned to have vin noveau tasting sessions, how to make kugelhopf.
Seeing Sydney awoke something in me, the activist maybe. I started chafing at being the homemaker. The children had grown older, I was unhappy and our marital relationship deteriorated. Something in me broke and my mental health took a knock and it exacerbated my post polio syndrome. I fretted, scolded like a fishwife and at the time, there was a lot of roadworks. Strasbourg was being dug up for building the tramlines in which made Strasbourg the accessible city it is now. But at the time, it made me feel like a prisoner. I wrote this poem during that period in my life – kitchen table blues.
I grew to understand what loneliness meant when you re not alone. I understood what violence can mean which is not physical – the gaslighting and financial abuse. The inability to ask for help, the helplessness in not able to articulate the failure of a relationship when you have no one close to hear you. Everyone knew us as a couple, what looked like a wonderful caring spouse. The lack of support when you re a disabled person is even more acute when you re dependent on the one person. Strasbourg has also a transient population, some of my best friends had also left.
However, one of the most influential event during that time for me, was a Redemptorist retreat I did in Dublin lead by a nun from California. I left a family holiday to do a retreat for some time on my own. I cannot remember the details but the lesson I took away was that women should not let themselves be martyed whatever the figure on the cross signified. The message came with more strength in that it was from a nun. I might be wrong in my interpretation of that message but it gave me an impetus that I did not have to stay in my unhappy state inspite of an innate feeling that I would be abandoning my children who are my responsibility – however I realised that my mental health was at stake. What use would I be if I became mentally ill? I should say I had no doubts that they were very well grounded and they had no problems in school with consistent good results and their schedules were filled with after school activities. In the end my children had never accused me of abandonment but I believe my ex did.
p/s I now know the nun mentioned here is Rosemary Chinnici who wrote the book Can Women Re-Image the Church?