The World Without (Part II)


I only saw one man herding a group of children at the Refugees Festival.  He was tall, thin and dressed in a long white garment.  As he urged his children to make way for me and my wheelchair, I asked him his country and he answered “Iran.” 

In conversation with a 9-year-old girl, I learned that she was born here but her mother was from Asia.  “Where in Asia?” I asked.

“A small country,” she replied.

“What is the country’s name?”

“Laos,” she said, not knowing that the little country of Laos is known—at least—to every American over the age of fifty.

Her mother’s family came to this country—no, she has no grandparents—but the cousins moved on to Minnesota.  They have come back to Syracuse now for a wedding—that greatest event that has drawn families together throughout the history of time and the world.

There is one thing about these people that strikes me very strangely.  I cannot get through the crowd in my wheelchair so, as I always do when people are standing with their backs to me, I reach out and gently but firmly tap on arms.  Among American-born people, this gets an immediate response, often as startled as if they’d been shot.  Among the Asian, Indian and African refugees, there is no response at all.  They don’t turn and look to see what has touched them.  Is it a matter of personal boundaries?  Do Americans have this special space around them, whereas refugees from other continents experience themselves as part of community, not as isolated individuals?

On stage—yes, there was a stage—groups performed, variously all-male, all-female, or mixed male and female.  The performances were done with a minimal sound system and few instruments.  Mostly, the performers and their audience relied on the oldest instruments in the world:  they clapped their hands.  And they danced and sang or chanted.  Imagine a world without electronics.  Imagine dancing and singing without instrumentation or amplification.  No T-shirts saying, “Miss Nancy’s Dance School,” just the people moving to the rhythms in their bodies.  Human beings are the only critters that have a sense of rhythm, the only beings that naturally move to the beat (see also:  American Bandstand, “I like it because it has a beat and you can dance to it.”)

Behind me, I hear an American woman complaining about a road that was closed by construction and she had to park her car and walk, and I am reminded of a refugee woman’s story.  Her country in Africa was in the throes of civil violence.  She came home to find her husband killed, so she took her children and walked to the next country.  She took her children and walked to the next country.  It was the only way to save their lives.  She carried them for days, weeks, she doesn’t remember.  When she got to a refugee camp in the next country, she was taken to hospital for treatment of exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition.  It was the only way to save their lives.

I continue to sit under the shade trees and watch the world mill around me.  Two little children with nothing but two plastic cups engage in hilarious play in the water fountain.  They do not need to be entertained; they are entertaining.  An old woman with a wrinkled face, wearing a red and yellow sari, has an American flag stuck in her hair.  Bicycles abound.  An old man holds a small child on his lap and they engage in finger-play.

I only see one cell phone.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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