On the feast of St Agnes

I intended to write about being a failure, to title this post something like—very straightforwardly—‘I am a failure.’ But then I came across the collect at vigils (the office of readings, to be really precise), which reminds us that God chose ‘what is weak in this world to shame the strong.’ I am not sure there is much in my particular form of weakness to shame anyone else. Yet the line made me stop and think about the relationship between weakness and failure, and that habit of God’s to choose the small and insignificant (like young Samwise Gamgee or Lucy Pevensie) to carry the day.

There are a whole array of measures against which I can count myself as having failed—the sorts of measures used to measure success in various areas of life. What does it mean to be a ‘successful’ parent? Really, I expect that true success in parenting doesn’t show up until after the parents are no longer around to appreciate it. So we settle for other measures, like our children’s achievements, whether these be on the field (or the pitch, if you prefer), or in the classroom, or in good citizenship (as it was called when I was at school). So far, I am not getting any points there. My kids are still growing up, and they’re not leading the field in any of those areas. I hope and pray that they will grow up to be content, and kind, and truthful.

Then there’s my career. I had a conversation years ago with a colleague in which we agreed that our careers had been non-traditional. For me, that means having survived at the edges of academic, on the margins of university departments, from the beginning. (Just now it looks like being squeezed out entirely—isn’t that a sign of having failed?) my colleague’s non-traditional start has recently found her photographed next to the Pope with a small group of other important people. Perhaps I should reconsider my term. Something like ‘anemic’ might be a more apt descriptor for my academic ‘career’.

So it goes. One of the very worst things that a person can do, of course, if compare herself to others. But boy do we do it a lot. Apparently one of the mums at my kids’ primary school used to keep a list of the top ten best-looking dads. It is, unfortunately, both soul-crushing and an extremely tough habit to break. Obviously I’ve failed there, too. Still succumbing to the temptation to measure my life against others’.

What does all this have to do with St Agnes? Just this: her main claim to fame is having died well for her faith. She was only 12. She hadn’t had a chance to do anything else—no academic achievement, no successful family of career, no works of service. Just a love of God and a willingness to give her life for what she believed. We usually think of martyrdom as the high bar. But I don’t think it is, necessarily. The living sacrifice to which all Christians are called is the long, drawn-out version of St Agnes’ martyrdom.

Bearing all the petty insults and inconveniences, and all the unpleasant people, and all the disappointments that will never be noticed by anyone may be harder than the once-and-for-all death at the executioner’s hands. At least I think it is for me, and I suspect I am not alone in this. So my prayer today is for all those who feel like they’ve failed, like their work or their lives don’t make a difference, for all those who are living hidden lives faithfully and will, in the words of George Eliot, ‘rest in unvisited tombs.’

St Agnes, pray for us!

A meditation for the feast of the Immaculate Conception

I hope it goes without saying that I’m thinking about the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s an old doctrine, hundreds of years older than its ex cathedra proclamation in 1854.

It occurred to me this morning, reading the couple of paragraphs offered by universalis, that being free from original sin didn’t just allow Mary to say ‘Yes’, but to say ‘Yes’ without selfish motives. The remark that sparked this reflection was not central, and I had forgotten it by the time I picked up my pen. But it was like a window being opened and letting in a draught, or the smell of a neighbour’s bacon cooking. In my imagination, the main barrier to saying ‘Yes’ to God is fear. After all, it is what the Angel Gabriel said to Mary: ‘Do not be afraid’; ‘Noli timere‘. It is also what Jesus said to Simon Peter in the boat full of fish: ‘Do not be afraid.’ Yet fear is not the only potential obstacle to Mary’s faithful yes–that is, if she were tainted by original sin. A faithful yes might also be spoiled by pride, by a calculation of what she might gain by it.

What a great bargaining position to be in! ‘Well’, she might say, ‘see what I have done for you, God…’ Talk about the opportunity for guilt-tripping your offspring. And when your son is God, imagine the power you might have as a parent. No, fear is not the only sin from which Mary needed to be free. Its partner in selfishness, pride, would have been equally disastrous. She might have said yes for the wrong reasons.

But she didn’t. She didn’t because of the mystery we celebrate today: her Immaculate Conception. If Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane shows us what a human will looks like in perfect cooperation with God, Mary shows us what it looks like to live without sin. It’s not what we think, I expect. It certainly isn’t what I think of when I dream of a life without sin. Sure, she ponders in her heart the remarkable experience of his birth and the days that followed; together with her husband, she took the baby to be presented at the temple, as the law required. The Holy Family made the trip to Jerusalem in the company of the faithful. And then, she scolds her son for staying behind without a word to his parents. She felt that worry and hurt so common to parents. She intervened to save a couple’s marriage feast–as the gospel reading for vigils today reminds us. Mary was the life and soul of that party, for certain–not the holier-than-thou sort of person I’d associate with the words ‘without sin’. And the one who said yes to God didn’t take no for an answer from him. ‘Do whatever he tells you’, she said to the servants.

So also she says to us: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ I’d like to think that the reward for doing so is ‘the best wine.’ But it seems unlikely that the servants had a chance to savour it. What they did get was a front-row seat at our Lord’s first miracle. I’m not sure what that means for me today, but I’d like to find out.

Hail Mary, full of grace…

Deo gratias.

A meditation for the beginning of Advent

Advent is a time of preparation. But how shall I prepare? How do I make myself ready to welcome the Holy Infant when he comes? ‘Let it be done unto me according to your word,’ says Mary. Dangerous words: inviting Almighty God to enter in, to do his will in us, through us, is a very serious business indeed. I wonder whether Mary knew what she was getting herself into. I imagine not: her special nature meant freedom to say yes, not foreknowledge of the consequences of her assent. Would she still have said yes if she knew how much it would hurt? I suppose, if she knew the whole story, she would have seen from the outset that it was worth it. And it is difficult to imagine how much a child’s rejection will hurt before you have even become pregnant.

Ah, Mary! You know the pain mothers feel. ‘A sword will pierce your own heart’—is that not the way of motherhood? Our Lord’s first miracle, as recorded in John’s gospel, he performed at you behest, but not without resistance. ‘O woman, what have you to do with me?’ he asks, rhetorically and not very politely; ‘My hour has not yet come.’ Is that any way to speak to your Mother?

I would have rankled. ‘Don’t call me woman, son,’ I might have said, ‘I am your mother.’ It hurts when a child distances himself from his mother. I know. I’m not sure I could have simply let it slide. But she does. Ignoring his cheeky reply, she addresses the servants. ‘Do whatever he tells you,’ she says. And so unfolds the miracle of the water and the wine; Jesus saves the wedding at Cana.

Was this an ordinary interaction between Mother and Son? Did Jesus routinely speak to Mary like that—‘woman, what have you to do with me?’ It sounds so cold. For all the tenderness we find in the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and the poignant image of the pietà, there seems to be some tension in their relationship. Jesus is unapologetic when they find him in the temple. We have heard his tone at the wedding at Cana. And then there is the episode recorded in the synoptic gospels in which his mother and brothers come to find Jesus. He says, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Were he anyone else, we would think of him as a spoiled, ungrateful son. Who disavows his own mother, allowing anyone ‘who does the will of God’ to take her place? How hurt she must have been over and over again, as he slipped away from her. ‘A sword will pierce your own heart,’ indeed.

Mary figures for us the pain in child bearing that I think is bound up with the curse in Genesis 3. The pain of loss that the pietà captures does not begin with our Lord’s passion. No, Mary’s passion is life-long. From the moment she finds she is pregnant before it is appropriate—what will she do?—until she sees him crucified, being the mother of our Lord is a path that leads through suffering. She is worried and hurt like the rest of us: being conceived without sin doesn’t make her invulnerable.

As much as she shows us the enduring pain of motherhood, she also shows us the fierce tenderness of an ideal mother’s love. However many times he rejects her, she keeps following him. When the disciples are all scattered, she remains.

All the unseen pain of motherhood, Mary brings into the light for us. Without rancour or bitterness, she never scolds—though she admonishes her wayward 12 year old. And she doesn’t complain about how cold he sometimes seems. She doesn’t regret having given herself up to be the mother of this unusual child who brings her so much grief.

Of course it wasn’t all thorns and barbs. There are many joys as well, and Mary would have known these also. But in the season of Advent, when we are surrounded by images of a young and radiant woman beaming with joy over her infant Son, we ought to remember that her discipleship, like ours, took her through hurt and loss. It is the way of the cross, on which Mary is uniquely poised to lead us.

So we should not hesitate to let our prayer this Advent be, ‘Let it be done unto me according to your word.’ We should tremble, perhaps, for there is no knowing where such a prayer will take us. But we can be sure that the Lord is there, and Mary has already made the way for us.

Deo gratias.

On disability and illness in a time of pandemic

Life finds a way. So said Michael Crichton (often) in Jurassic Park. True: and yet humans, like the misguided individual who thought raising dinosaurs from extinction was a good–and lucrative–idea, like to mess around with life. This morning I was frustrated almost to tears by the human propensity to play God, especially when disability is concerned. We want to avoid illness and disability–not just for ourselves, but for our families–whatever it costs.

Health, illness and disability. What do we expect for our lives and the lives of our children? Health. We expect health and well-being. We expect the usual range of abilities and capacities: to see, to grow, to hear, to learn, to walk and run, to feel, to think and read and write. These are all good things, and there is nothing wrong with hoping for them, even expecting them. The trouble comes when we begin to believe that we are entitled to well-being and certain forms of achievement–and so are our children (whether we have them yet or not). And we decide which limitations we will accept and which we won’t. Of course we all want to be healthy, and we want our children to be healthy, and insofar as it is up to us, we ought to do what health requires. At the moment that involves some extra caution–more frequent and thorough hand washing, avoiding public places when possible, and wearing a mask and keeping our distance when it’s not possible to stay home. (Soon, perhaps, it will also involve a vaccine–which is good and yet a symptom of the very thing that worries me so much these days.) In more ordinary circumstances we know we ought to eat healthy food, get fresh air and exercise, limit our alcohol consumption, and give up smoking. And I suppose most of us try, a good bit of the time, to do those things.

Even with the ordinary and extraordinary measures that we can take, we may still fall ill. If we manage to avoid COVID-19 (looking all the more possible if this vaccine is as good as it seems to be), we can catch cold, end up with pneumonia, break a leg, go down with norovirus, or develop cancer. Much of what comes our way in the realm of health, illness, and disability is beyond our control.

I hate that, I admit it. I am a bit of a control freak, and like a lot more order than life with four messy kids and a non-neat-freak spouse affords me. I hate it that, despite reasonable eating and exercise habits, my “fat” jeans have become my “thin” jeans and the “thin” jeans of yesteryear have long gone to some lucky person who came across them in a charity shop and could fit into them. I can’t even control the ordinary, daily-life things that I think I should.

Maybe you are better at housekeeping and staying slim than I. But the point is that there are only a very limited number of things in life that are ours to decide, and these mostly fall into the category of responses to what life throws at us. We are not masters of our destiny, we are scrapbookers, arranging the materials we’ve been given into a pattern that makes sense to us. We cannot make one hair of our heads white or black (as Jesus observed)–at least not by sheer force of will. We cannot change our height or bone structure (oh, how I wish I could make myself 5’8″ and fine-boned!), we cannot cast away our spectacles and think our way to perfect vision.

So when I heard on the radio this morning about the careful and agonised consideration that went into a fictional couple’s decision to terminate a pregnancy based on a Down syndrome risk, I thought, ‘oh, poppycock’ (or maybe something less appropriate). It’s not that, because I have a child with Down syndrome, I think nobody should terminate on that basis. I never wanted to have a child with Down syndrome–I was sure I couldn’t handle it. My strategy was to have kids before age 30 and so reduce my risk. When that plan failed, I never thought that termination was the alternative. When I was expecting my first child, at 32, it was out of my hands. And, like Nicola Enoch, who criticised the termination storyline, I’m glad that I failed to avoid having a child with Down syndrome. It’s not easy. But my daughter’s life is absolutely worth living, and it is worth everything that it has cost me to be her mum.

If there is anything that I have learned in my fifty-one years on this planet, it is that I do know with certainty what is best for me. ‘Even the wise cannot see all ends,’ as Gandalf said, and I believe I am not to be counted among the wise. Life unfolds in mysterious ways, and  however sensitively a decision to terminate a pregnancy is portrayed, it is still a decision that ends life. I don’t mean that it terminates the life of an embryo, though it does that. I mean that it interrupts life’s unfolding; such a decision is like leaving life’s crooked path and striking out into the undergrowth to right or left. ‘There are no safe paths’, as Gandalf also said, but it does not follow that we ought therefore to head out into the pathless forest. (If you know anything about Gandalf’s advice, you’ll know he insists that leaving the path is more dangerous still!)

It is simply not the case that we can leave one path that looks like it ends in disaster and make our own way to that happy ending we have dreamed for ourselves. No, as another wise character once said, ‘one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it’ (Master Ugwe, this time). We cannot straighten life’s crooked way, and we cannot avoid every catastrophe that awaits us. Sometimes life really, really sucks. It is never, ever fair. Usually when it feels fair to us, that’s only because the balance is tipped in our favour, not because the scales are perfectly balanced.

I wish I could tell you there was a guaranteed happy ending. Nope. There’s no guarantee of that. All I can recommend is trying to find peace in the middle bit. Recycle. Love your family. Eat your vegetables. Do what you can. And don’t worry about the danger of the path. It’s probably better to stay on it. You never know when there might be giant spiders or murderous trees in the forest.

A word of encouragement from Granny Nancy

Thanks to Paddy McCafferty and Izzy Armstrong-Holmes for posting this to Facebook.

Ireland’s oldest citizen, Nancy Stewart, aged 107, has written an amazing letter to encourage everyone in these difficult and anxious times 🙏❤️

To Anyone Who Needs a Reason to Keep Going:

My name is Nancy Stewart and I was born on the 16th of October 1913. This weekend I turn 107 years of age.

Imagine turning 107 in a world pandemic. This definitely is something very unusual even for me and all I have been through. I live in Clonard in County Meath and have lived in my home for over 83 years.

I lost my husband in a car crash in 1989, and lost my twin daughters Margaret in 2007 to motor neurone and Anne in 2010 to utter heartbreak of losing her sister. I’ve lost all my friends throughout the years which comes with living so long on this earth.

I’m very lucky to still have three daughters Kathleen, Mary and Olive and one son Finian and I have 84 grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren.

I have faced many heart-breaking moments and also have seen many hard times in our country witnessing world wars, division in our people and numerous sad times for our nation.

I write to you today to send you my love and to offer you my prayers. We are in a very difficult time at the moment in our country, in our lives and in our world. But I reach out to you in this letter to offer you hope, faith and belief that everything will be ok in the end.

We are in another stage of this battle against the virus but we will get through this. Like everything I’ve been through since the day I was born in 1913, no matter how bad things have got, I’m the living proof that we can survive and in years to come, this will just be a distant memory.

I have a great faith and it has helped me keep positive throughout the struggles I’ve met. I thank you for keeping your faith and for keeping your resilience strong, through this hard time. Sadly for the moment, we can no longer stretch out to a friend and embrace them nor can we call to each other’s houses.

But I’m here to share my story. I have been in lockdown in my house since March, alongside my granddaughter Louise and even though it has been a tough time, we have got through it together.

We drink tea. We say prayers. We bake. We laugh. We make phone calls. I can even video call lots of my family and friends and am making new friends everyday that God gives me on this earth.

And that’s a very important thing to say. If you are feeling low, make sure to try call someone or even go for a walk. I also ask God to help me if I’m feeling low. This is a hard time for everyone but please make sure you keep yourself well and wear your mask. If you keep healthy, your mind will stay healthy too.

Keep talking to one another. All my life I have always believed in chatting and drinking tea and saying a prayer or a decade of the rosary and it has got me through. This is our moment to keep our faith and to keep believing that everything will turn out ok.

We must try to make sure we leave nobody behind and also that we don’t lose sight of each other. This is a moment for humanity to step forward to take care of the other. We must mind ourselves but we must also mind all those around us. Look up and smile even if you have your mask on.

Your eyes will smile and that might be all someone needs to keep going. No good deed ever goes unnoticed so try your best to keep being good. We are not here to live for ourselves but to live for each other.

I can’t believe I’ve made it to this age, I only feel like I’m 50 but now that I’m here, all I can say is please God I’ll be here for my next birthday. We must always look forward. I can’t believe I’m the oldest person in Ireland living in my own home, I don’t feel that old.

When God wants me, he will come take me but for now I will keep enjoying my life, I’ll keep loving my family and I’ll keep saying my prayers day by day…..oh and not to forget eating lots of good wholesome food is my tip. Good food and lots of tea is my secret to a long life as well as keeping positive as best we can. We must always look forward and hope for the best.

Thank you for thinking of me in your prayers and your thoughts and I promise I will think of you in my many rosaries I say everyday.

Thank you so much for reading my letter also and I hope I have, in even a little way, helped you feel less alone in this moment. There is always hope and once we keep talking to one another, no day will seem empty and we can get through this together. It only takes a small candle to take away the dark and in each of us, we can be that light in the world.

This hard time will indeed pass like all the rest and all that matters is that we helped each other through.

Many blessings and much love,

Granny Nancy x

Clonard

Co Meath.

Psalm 142 and the enemy within

The enemy pursues my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead, long forgotten. Therefore my spirit fails; my heart is numb within me. Ps 142.3-4

Depression–the enemy within. This is one of the most apt expressions of the experience of depression, for me, that I have come across. I return to it again and again–or, rather, it returns to me in the daily office, at Lauds or at Compline. Whether I pray it in the moment, feeling the failure of my spirit and with numb heart, or with the psalmist from a place later in the psalm–a place of hope and relative peace and light–I know the enemy still pursues my soul. I remember clearly what it is like to feel that my life has ben crushed to the ground and to cower in the face of encroaching darkness.

I read recently, in the acknowledgements of a new book, an expression of gratitude for a spouse who saw the author through two seasons of depression. These sorts of reports–the experience of going in and coming out the other side of depression, a “before” and “after” somehow identifiable and discrete–puzzle me. While I have had some long seasons of peculiar numbness of heart (one of which began to lift on the feast of St Teresa of Ávila nine years ago), I move in and out of that dark place far more frequently than I would like.

Depression is the enemy that stalks me constantly, sometimes striking me with great force from behind, other times attacking head-on. Struck from behind, I fall to pieces, and slowly re-gather myself like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 (but without the malevolence, I hope). When I see my enemy coming, as I sometimes do, I fight. Sometimes I even win. It is amazing how powerful the weapons of fresh air and exercise, of restful days and good nights of sleep, are against the darkness that threatens.

The achievement of a long peace, however, is not my experience. I cannot look back to a “before” depression and I am certainly not living “after” depression. No, I come through each battle (or emerge from the shattering darkness) with the sense of having survived once again. That doesn’t mean the war is over, any more than the seven samurai hung up their swords after having driven the baddies from the vulnerable village. I do not overcome. I do not claim victory. I simply live to fight another day, and, I hope–by the grace of God–to survive again.

Lost in thought?

Tonight I should be joining a zoom discussion of Zena Hitz’s lovely new book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. I’m not–or I will only be in and out, as I flit from chores to bedtime rituals and back again. Not that I couldn’t just put the TV on and check out of the household evening routine. After all, that’s what the kids are doing now, as I write. I am not going to draw up a chair with a glass of wine for a chat about the intellectual life with a load of fellow academics because we are the proverbial choir. I’d rather save my evening away for a discussion of such a book with other mums and people who work with primary school children.

Why? Because–and I don’t think the author would disagree with me here–the problem that reaches its apex at universities begins before the first year of school. It wasn’t surprising to find that my ethics students looked puzzled when I asked them whether they had come to the university because it was the only way to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. (A few gave me a knowing look, and smirked. But they didn’t raise their hands, either.) It wasn’t surprising, because from quite early on in primary school, pupils are taught to write ‘L.O.’ and to state the learning objective at the top of pages. (I caught my then 8-year-old daughter doing this at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and had to exercise tremendous self-restraint. CGS is about listening, not learning objectives!) Someone, somewhere, has decided that children are really just miniature adults, who like to be told why they are learning something, as if learning wasn’t something worthwhile for its own sake.

As I have said, the author would not disagree. And my colleagues wouldn’t disagree, either. But the people who have time to write the books are not the ones who sit with the 7-year-olds who are struggling to develop reading fluency and struggling even harder to understand why they need to learn to read fluently. If reading is about learning school stuff, and learning school stuff is about doing well on tests, and doing well on tests is about being employable (I kid you not, I saw a 7-foot by 3-foot poster in a primary school hall that indicated skills and traits that made a person more appealing to prospective employers), then if your dreams don’t tend in that direction, learning just isn’t important. Love of learning for its own sake has been squeezed out of the curriculum, and it isn’t just professors in the humanities that have noticed. It’s just that professors in the humanities are the people who have time to write letters to periodicals, and journal articles, and books.

I am not one of those people. My life is complicated by the needs of my children, who are extraordinary in sometimes demanding ways, my own struggles with basic sanity, and an impatience with injustice that remains as hot and irrational as it was when I was seven or eight. ‘But it’s not fair‘ I still protest, in spite of all the grown-up arguments for why it is what it is. So I am no good at explaining to the real grown-ups what’s wrong with the grown-up world. (This is the point at which somewhere in the back of my mind the idea that I should retrain as a Montessori teacher pops up, and I quash it with a memory of trying to do Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with boys between the ages of six and nine: I was rubbish!) And I also have a CV that appears ‘thin’ to people in the academic world; I look at it and wonder when I had time to write anything. 

Thus, I am opting for a different sort of evening. When I have finished my chores (the kids have done their share, I promise) and everyone is settled, the chances are very good that I will lose myself in Trenton, NJ* rather than Princeton. And tomorrow, I’ll get up feeling regretful that I missed the opportunity to have grown-up conversation about the intellectual life and its pleasures. I love learning and I don’t need an ‘objective’, but I am more at home arguing with my nine-year-old about whether the tree is a silver birch or a paper-bark birch (I don’t always win) or insisting that my 13-year-old son explain to me why fireworks explode in the microwave rather that just being entertained by the fact that they do. (Why do fireworks explode in the microwave? I could make up some stuff that might not be far from the truth, but I’d really like to know.) So, if anyone knows why fireworks explode in the microwave (beyond the basic, ‘because they’re explosives, silly’), let me know.

And thanks to all y’all who read my blog post last night and let me know. So wonderful to know we’re not alone.

the chaos inside

Once upon a time I went to a counseling centre–in Pasadena, CA. It has been at least a couple of decades since I was there. I remember a framed poster that read, ‘You must carry a chaos inside you to give birth to a dancing star.’ At the time–I was in my early twenties and hadn’t yet read all the Nietzsche I have so far–I thought it justified my internal turbulence. A dancing star sounded good, like the right reward for having struggled through the darkness and desperation.

A good few years on, I have yet to see anything like a dancing star. Just a lot more chaos. I’d like to be able to explain how it all worked out, to point to the low points on the journey and share the momentary, spectacular views. Not that there haven’t been splendid vistas along the way–there have, of course–but that the way is rather up and down and meandering: the journey is ongoing. The chaos is ongoing. I’m not certain that the dancing star is ever going to turn up.

Perhaps I was foolish to mistake depression for some sort of spiritual gestation. I guess that’s a thing some of us do in those hopeful, early years of adulthood. Things have to mean something, and we need to be figuring out that meaning. Now I am not so sure: the chaos inside is just chaos. I am not any nearer to figuring it out now, three decades after I started trying.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any dancing stars, or that hanging on and working on the chaos isn’t worth it. It’s just that there is no formula that dictates how bright a star we are owed for the years of chaos we have endured. It doesn’t work like that. If I knew how it did work, I would try to explain it. But I don’t, and I am not sure that there is one way it works all the time for everyone.

So if you are on the chaotic road, I can’t tell you where it ends or how to get off. But I can tell you you’re not alone. I’m going that way, too. Maybe we can walk together.

on dyslexia and superpowers

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I think a lot about disability. This is not just because I have an 18-year-old with Down syndrome. It is also because I have a profoundly, excruciatingly dyslexic 13-year-old and a 9-year-old whose dyslexia is less devastating.

Knowing about my struggles with dyslexic kids, a neighbour (author and educator Adam Bushnell) kindly lent me Philip Schultz’s memoir, My Dyslexia. I can see why he commented that, for Schultz, dyslexia was ‘like his superpower.’ Having overcome his dyslexia to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Schultz credits his success to the blocks to reading and writing that seemed insurmountable in his early childhood. Not in spite of his dyslexia did he achieve what he has achieved, but because of his dyslexia.

Maybe so. I don’t doubt that the struggle shaped him. But not all dyslexics are as fond of books and words as he was (and never mind the slipperiness of the definition and diagnosis of dyslexia). And–more importantly–not everyone with dyslexia has his grit. He owes much to his persistent, even indomitable, self-belief: ‘even when the entire world seemed to be ganging up on me, some persisting sense of myself argued on my behalf’. Ditto for the young scientist Schultz admired, who called her dyslexia ‘her secret weapon’. I’d say the credit goes to her consistent, pig-headed determination and sheer force of will. Dyslexia provided her with a mountain, true. Hope and courage enabled her to climb it.

The challenge that people with dyslexia face is the same, at bottom, as the challenge we all face: to ‘learn to love what is weakest and most confounding about ourselves, because and despite and in deference to what is essential about us’ (all quotations p. 117). The great challenge of his life, and mine, and my children’s, and yours, is very simple. It’s all about not giving up.

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This is true whether it’s dyslexia or depression or Down syndrome (or just daily life during a pandemic) that challenges us. I almost wrote ‘afflicts’ there; I hesitated because it’s an unpopular way of thinking about disability. So negative. But affliction is exactly what Schultz describes; it’s what my son experiences; it is, if I am honest, the way I experience depression. And it is the affliction that stirs, in some of us, the gritty response that makes for success. The super power of the oyster is not the irritation provided by the grain of sand but the ability it has to smooth over that irritant until it forms a pearl.

In a sense, then, we are the most ‘disabled’ by the conditions that afflict us when we lack either the ability to recognise the grain of sand or the mountain for what it is, or we lack the hope and courage to surmount it. Most days, I would say that Anna, my 18-year-old with Down syndrome, isn’t especially ‘disabled’ by her genetic idiosyncrasy. Having thought through Schultz’s book, though, I see that’s not exactly what I mean. In terms of sheer not-being-able-to-do-stuff, Anna is always going to ‘win’ the competition for the most disabled. Yet she is not usually afflicted by her condition, and I am beginning to see why: she doesn’t see the summit. We clamber around on the slopes together, but there’s no determined ascent.

Maybe that’s why I’m still a little uncomfortable with these thoughts about mountains and overcoming. Why do some people make it to the top while others are defeated by the summit? I don’t know. I may not know much more about disability than I did before reading Schultz’s book. But I have seen in a new and crystal clear way that my kids who need to see the summit and learn to climb need grit more than any other intervention. And that is more helpful than I can say. Thanks for the loan, Adam.

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