29 May, 2008

"The doctors told us you'd never amount to anything, Jane. But look around..."

I have realised some of the reason I am so intent on the specific project I want to do. Not just that it naturally combines all my nerdy interests. Not just that I'm happy to have a clear picture and am reluctant to go back to the drawing board.

Those who've been reading my blog for a while might remember the post I wrote for a friend who recently died, a woman named Alia. l'Arche, for those unfamiliar with it, is a network of intentional communities centred around men and women with developmental disabilities. You don't go to work at l'Arche. You go to live at l'Arche. Not just "live" in the sense of sleeping and eating there - you go to live life in all its complexities, joys, and sorrows. The point of l'Arche is to be a friend, to learn from the disabled core members, to allow yourself to simply be human. It is not a "job" you can leave unchanged.

I was only there at l'Arche Daybreak for two four-month terms, hardly any time at all in l'Arche terms. But those eight months sparked an interest in disability as a concept, a social force, an academic study. Some of the earliest books on disability I read, in the community's library, opened my eyes to the reality that people with intellectual impairments were (are) often treated differently, even prejudicially. I realised that it was (is) common practice (especially in certain protestant denominations) to deny baptism to mentally disabled children and adults.

I read A Place to Hold My Shaky Heart, a small book of mini-biographies of some of the core members in the community. In it was the story of Carol, a woman who I was living with at the time. When Carol was born, she wasn't baptised. She was placed in a large government institution instead. No one bothered to teach her to talk. When she came to Daybreak (in her 40s, I believe), she still could not talk. One of the other core members in her new house taught her to sing "Happy Birthday" (an excellent song for any occasion), and she learned a few other words. Eventually, the people living with Carol decided she should be given the opportunity to be baptised. I honestly do not remember how they discerned the answer, but I can tell you from experience that "non-verbal" people are perfectly capable of expressing themselves, if you know how to listen. Carol was baptised, and she was radiant. She had finally been welcomed into the community that should have been her birthright. She knew that she was no longer on the outside. Now, I've just paraphrased an entire chapter of a book, and if anyone was moved by my clumsy retelling, I highly recommend the whole book.

Mike and Francis are two men I lived with as well. They, and other members of the Daybreak community, are the altar serves and Eucharistic ministers at the community chapel, the Dayspring. Services at the Dayspring are unlike any other. In a world where an autistic child can be barred from his church, people at the Dayspring are welcome to wander, to cry, to wail, to laugh, to dance, and to pray aloud as they see fit. They occupy places of respect and honour.

One final story. During my first term at Daybreak, I lived with a woman named Jane. She was stubborn, loud, opinionated, and she was my sunshine. She drove me nuts, many times, but I still consider her one of my dearest friends. There is not time or space here for me to describe how she changed my life. I remember her 59th birthday, though. In this house, it was customary that the food part of a birthday celebration be followed by an exodus to the living room, where everyone gathered would have a chance to celebrate the birthday person. A memory, a prayer, a story of how a person had been changed, anything was welcome. The room was packed, with people sitting on the arms of the couch, standing in the doorway, sitting on the floor, and after we'd been around the room, it was her father's turn to speak. He told us how when Jane was 4, the doctors had told him she would never amount to anything or be anything, and he would be best off sending her to an institution. Not knowing any better, and trusting the doctors, he did so. "But look around," he said. "Look at all the people whose lives you've touched, Jane. Look how important you've become."

These people made me who I am. Their lives and stories have been the inspiration for my academic ideas. It is their exclusion and marginalisation, followed by their inclusion and centring, that prompted me to ask "What happened in the medieval period? Carol, would you have been baptised, then? Would the Daybreak core members be offered the Eucharist, as they are now?"

This project isn't just academic curiosity, for me. It is answering a deeply personal, and even spiritual question. The story is important.

My dear Daybreak friends, this is just one more small part of your legacy.

Look, Ma, I'm famous!

Round Two in the exciting news of Alison's academic life: my own guest post at In The Middle.

26 May, 2008

SSDMS Blog-Launch!

That's right, folks! Item number one in the exciting news of Alison's academic career is the launch of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages blog!

Being in the right place at the right time, I am one of the "gvbernatores" of the new blog. Not much is happening yet, but I'm sure things will pick up in the near future!

22 May, 2008

Limbo - I can't go any lower!

More like, I refuse to go any lower. Raise that stupid bamboo pole higher, please!

Okay, enough with the metaphors. I've been having advisory issues. J and N are both wonderful people, but our interests, we have found, are just a tad too far apart.

My interests have always been in religion, and I've always found Church Law interesting, as much as I knew about it. Teenage exposure to catechetical debate matured with my interactions with David and our Berthold/Hermes/Thomas of York* project. Even the incomprehensible Philosophy of the Mind course added to it.

So to me it is rather natural that I be drawn to philosophy, Church law, and pastoral manuals. When I applied to York, I did not realise that the department had very little theological focus. That part is my fault - every grad student should be very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the schools they apply to. I was drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of York - and medieval disability studies practically defines "interdisciplinary."

So today I met with P, who is both a wonderful fellow and quite knowledgeable about the things I need to learn. We need to have another meeting - one with J and N, most likely - and try and sort this out. In the meantime, I will be busily proving myself as a worthy student for P to supervise, as he is understandably leery about just accepting someone "off the street," so to speak.

So I'm still in limbo, which is not exactly a fun place to be. Hopefully we can sort this out. I hope that as we branch out into into a widely-accepted (or at least widely-known) discipline, fewer students of medieval disability will feel this misfit syndrome.

I hazard the guess that students of medieval disability have an extra struggle for acceptability. Those who come to the field later on, as established (or at least accredited) scholars only have to worry about publishers and peer-reviews. Negativity on those fronts can be damaging, but it likely won't derail an entire career. As students, our advisors aren't familiar with our background, goals, or methods, because they aren't disability scholars themselves, and they really haven't even encountered much in the way of literature. And that's nobody's fault - it's just a factor of an emerging discipline. But they are responsible for our degrees, and we need to struggle extra to make ourselves comprehensible. As more of us fight our ways through and become available to mentor or supervise our own students, I hope it will change. If there are any professors in the field reading this, I tip my hat to you. It's because of you that this isn't harder still - keep up the good work.

* Hey, guess what? I'm in York! It really doesn't lose its thrill.

It figures.

I'm off to return some library books today, but due to some post-travel confusion I found myself hungry and having a free hour on my hands. So I went down to Subway (very nice staff, and the best breakfast value hands down), and I decided while I was sitting there with my free tea I would look at the library books I was about to return.

Barbara Swain's Fools and Folly was about what I would expect for a book published in 1932, and does have a number of interesting sources in the endnotes. I especially appreciate the citations from the Patrologia Latina, because that is not a beast I want to just start wading through. Nevertheless, the book suffers from the classic "disability = sin" problem, and it seems to me that Swain got the causal relationship backwards: one is not declared a heretic or sinner because one is seen to be a fool, one is a fool because one is a sinner. I.e., only an idiot (in our modern figurative sense) would act contrary to God's Law. I think this usage of the word "fool" is indeed highly figurative. She also discusses the Ship of Fools and the Feast of Fools, generalising quite a lot from a small handful of sources.

The other book, Ronald Finucane's Miracles and Pilgrims is quite excellent, and I sincerely wish I didn't have to give it back to the library today. He addresses the issue of the plurality of the medieval church, and that the small little parish of St. Margaret in Little Tiny Village is not the same Church as the Vatican. Catholicism has never been completely "top down", despite the importance of the hierarchy. There is an element of "bottom up" as well, and a great many people somewhere in the middle. This "middle Church" is where I find myself the most intrigued when it comes to disability.

There are important "top down" texts which treat with disability (Gratian's Decretals, for example, or the Fourth Lateran Council); and there are the "bottom up" parish rolls which recorded the active life of a particular religious community; and then there are the "middle" texts of the penitentials, which draw on Church Law, academic philosophy influenced by Plato, Aristotle, and Muslim philosophers, and the practical concerns of pastoral work. Perhaps that is why I am so interested in them. They're the middle ground of the discussion. I think I am going to cut this off here, because I want to develop these ideas further before committing them to the public space.

It figures (to go back to the title) that I would have these awesome thoughts the day I go to return the book. Hello, photocopier!

Meanwhile, I am now actually employed, and I have my first real shift on Saturday! Go me!

Also, watch this space for exciting news* in the world of Alison's academic career!


21 May, 2008

Kalamazoo Round-up, Day 1!

I slept in.

The book sales start at 8am Thursday morning, and since I did not intend to buy much this year (AHAHAhahaha...) I decided not to get up and fight my may through the crowds of people angling for the display-copy discounts. At 10am, though, I headed off to my first session, (Ab)normal Societies, which was pretty good. Before this, I had never seen a lecture delivered via sign language, and watching how that worked was pretty cool (though I felt bad for the interpreters who didn't know the Latin terms we were throwing around). I'm glad I was actually paying attention to the presider when she introduced the first speaker, because I heard her say he was going to be attending the University of York soon. Hey, that's my school! I am usually very quiet during Q&A, because I am shy, but afterwards I introduced myself to the speaker, Greg (who I have already introduced to you), and to another scholar in the audience. (We had a nice discussion of insanity and Judaism, and I'm eagerly awaiting translation of his book, because it sounds fascinating.)

Lunch was all kinds of fail. The vegetarian entree was half of a strawberry-nut-maple wrap, and even though I was annoyed that they were serving me dessert and not a proper meal, I made sad eyes at the serving lady and she snuck me another half. The soup was good, though. Somewhere around lunch time, I was making my way around the book rooms, when David came running up to me with a copy of Sandra Billington's A Social History of the Fool: "Alison, look what I found! There was only one, and I grabbed it right away! Here! I'm not telling you how much it cost, and anyway I get reimbursed by the university."* This is why he is called Excellent David.

After lunch we went to an awesome presentation on catapults, put on by three high school students and their teacher. They had spent the past two years researching and constructing a miniature medieval catapult. I have to say, those kids had guts. They were presenting to a roomful of the people whose books they'd used as research. And even though it was obvious they didn't know how to pronounce all the words they used (tree-tises and tray-buckets), they used them correctly. I was already feeling pretty exhausted, so partway through, I left and had a nap. I'm told that the rest of the presentation was just as good, and by the end everyone was trading tips and problem-solving back and forth.

I slept through the next session, too. It had been a busy week, I guess.

I made it back downstairs in time for the inaugural meeting of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages. We are reaching critical mass, people. Medieval disability studies is beginning to organise itself and by next year's k'zoo, we will be out there kicking down doors and demanding to be considered a legitimate field of our own. It was very refreshing, being in a room full of scholars who cared about the same thing. Validation is a marvellous thing.

Dinner was better than lunch, I think.

After dinner, I am sure I went to a session, but it slips my mind. Then it was time for the open bars - and the Congress specialises in open bars. If you want to, you can drink for free from about 5pm until the booze runs out at 10 or 11. The University of Toronto's reception is especially popular, and it was there that I ran into Greg again - and this time, we had a long and hilarious discussion. Rachel, the scholar who had organised the session that morning, helped to translate for us, but it got difficult as we got drunker and more voices joined in. Still, she did an admirable job, and I think the highlight for me was trying to explain Screech and its customs.

At some point I wandered off to ask David if we were going to be playing Latin Scrabble that night (so I could invite Greg and Rachel, if they wished), but I got waylaid by an interesting discussion with a scholar from Saskatchewan and by the time I made it to David, almost everyone else had gone to bed.

We still played Latin Scrabble, though, and I kicked everyone's butts. We discovered the next morning that I had actually won the Wednesday night game as well, on a technicality because I went out first. But then I went to bed.

* Why won't someone reimburse me for my book purchases? Sigh. I suppose I have to get a degree and a job, first.

Kalamazoo Round-up, Day 0!

See? I didn't forget.

Kalamazoo started (for me) on Tuesday night when I found myself rolling on the ground and laughing so hard I cried - at a discussion of grammatical gender. The inestimable Melissa was at my house with Brent and I, because it really is too much to take eaaarrly morning transit from Toronto to my place and then get in a car and drive for 6 or 7 hours. We were not sleepy, so we went down to the basement to talk without bothering people. Somehow* Brent brought up this crazy language that has 16 genders of nouns. Well, this concept was quite comical to me at the time, so I laughed "What, male, female, neuter, and chair?" Now, I will say this about Mel: she is golden when it comes to taking the Funny and running with it. "Chair with four legs. Chair with three legs. Wooden chair. Chair that's placed upside down on the table at the end of the day." All three of us could barely breathe, and that is what Kalamazoo is all about: good friends, geeky jokes, and staying up late laughing till you cry.

The following morning, we got out the door only 20 minutes late (yes, laugh away), and were doing pretty good with the breakfast-getting and on-the-roading, until I realised I'd left my cell at home, so back we went. THEN we got on the road, and Mel and I teased Brent about the Hamilton Escarpment (affectionately known to locals as "the Mountain"). We got to Sarnia at about noon, and I am really proud of myself - mapless, I found my way back to a restaurant called Stokes on the Bay, where we have stopped on the way to k'zoo the past two years. I've been there twice in the past two years, and I wasn't driving or navigating either time - and I found my way back. I was a bit disappointed at the lack of meatless menu items, but all of us wanted a lighter lunch anyway, so we had caesar salads and nachos. The nachos were good, but I forgot to ask for jalapeños. The salsa was also kind mild (Mel: "I actually thought it had a nice kick to it."), so I wanted to add a bit of hot sauce. I accidentally poured the entire neck of the bottle into my salsa - whoops - then shrugged and gave it a try. "Oh, it's kinda hot now." Ramona, I'm lookin' at you.

We had no trouble at the border, and the guard was quite pleasant. Brent drove that leg, and I tried to not fall asleep, since I was navigating. By the time we got to Kalamazoo, it had stopped raining and was quite warm. Standing around in the reception area, we ran into a friend from Waterloo, Sarah, who let us know that their crew was heading off to Bilbo's for dinner and we were welcome to tag along. So we dropped our bags in our rooms (after sorting out Mel's lost registration package), and off to Bilbo's we went. It was nice to see David again, and we had a great time catching up and drinking Bilbo-brewed ale (Warhammer, I think?). Then we went and found limes and overpriced tonic water, and went back to the dorms for some Latin Scrabble and other gaming. Much fun was had.

Eventually, we went to bed.

* We're all language geeks, so this was not really that unusual.

20 May, 2008

Parents Face Restraining Order for Austistic Son

This is just ludicrous. I hope the parents win. Jesus didn't say "Let the well-behaved little children come to me."

Apparently their son "fights when he's being restrained." Well, wouldn't you, if you were just going about your business and someone just threw you to the ground and held you there? Sometimes it's necessary when there's an imminent danger, but only a heartless jerk would expect him to be happy about being restrained. And the parents' response to the "sitting on him to keep him quiet" accusation is 100% normal for autistic kids. Some people just like the security of it. Just like I like my shoes tightly laced.

Why do I love l'Arche again? Oh yeah, that's why.

Good news, everybody!*

I promise I will put a Kalamazoo Roundup post up soon. I just got back to England yesterday, though, and I already had my first orientation shift at my new job and I have an advisor meeting tonight - cross your fingers and hope we can work things out, people! I really like it here and I don't want to either leave or give up on the dissertation I want to do.

But, on to the good news! I got back and in my mailbox was the results from the University of Toronto's PhD-level medieval Latin exam. And I passed!


And now, back to the Plan of Study, and I really will fill you all in on the exciting things happening in the world of Medieval Disability Studies soon.

* It's a funny title if you imagine it said with Professor Farnsworth's voice.

16 May, 2008

A new and emerging field!

While I have a TON of things to write, seeing as Kalamazoo and pre- and post-Kalamazoo have been just wild, I don't have time at the moment because I am still at home. Frankly, seeing my family, friends, and fiancé is far more important to me than the Internets.

However, I will use this opportunity to introduce you all to Greg, who is an excellent fellow I met at Kalamazoo. Greg is also studying medieval disability, and has just started a blog of his own. He's a cool guy, go check it out!