In my state, it is not uncommon to see small, oval plaques on houses declaring that this house was built in 1790, or 1850, and that so-and-so lived here or did this then. As I pass these plaques, driving my automatic car with heat and light and listening to a podcast, I sometimes think about how someone once peered out those windows of wavy glass to see horses and dusty roads and flora and fauna long gone from this region, and about the fact that the future I live in now was completely unimaginable to them. I think of them as living so long ago, but it was really the blink of an eye. Because just as strange as a car would seem to someone from 1825, so my daily life now includes technology and people that I wouldn’t recognize as a teenager.
When you don’t know something exists, when you don’t know that the possibility of something exists, then it is unimaginable and unattainable. When you learn of the existence of a community that values you for you, you realize that nothing is impossible at all.
But for a long, long time – I didn’t know this.
When I was growing up, we had nearby neighbors who were roommates. At least, that’s what my parents told me. Rosemary and Linda were roommates, who lived together (presumably in separate bedrooms) and mowed the lawn and gave out Halloween candy and had a friendly, black-and-white dog named Lucy who often escaped to play with our dog as a puppy. At some point in my early twenties, however, it occurred to me that Rosemary and Linda weren’t roommates at all.
“They’re gay, aren’t they?” I asked my mother.
“Yes,” she said, but she couldn’t explain exactly why she and my father had decided to make up the roommate story. They just……thought it would make things…..easier. To not have to explain.
In middle school, I was introduced to Ms. Nurey, who was openly gay at a time – the mid nineteen-nineties – when that was slowly becoming socially acceptable. I remember looking at her and thinking that she didn’t teach any differently or look any differently from anybody else, and that confused me. I wasn’t exactly sure what ‘gay’ was, other than that you didn’t date men. Nobody explained to me that you could not only date women, you could fall in love with, have relationships and families, with other women.
It never came up. I didn’t ask. And since I didn’t ask, nobody answered.
I have a half-dozen cousins a decade or two older than I am. Between them and a few of my parents friends, I knew what a wedding was: a church hall or a country club, the bride in a white dress, the groom in a dark suit, myself in scratchy taffeta or lace, panicked and hungry and inevitably dissociating the night away. Nobody ever said to me, ‘you can live together without being married’ or ‘you can be married without having children’ or even, ‘you can marry someone non-white’ – because with one exception, (so remarkable to me as a teenager that I got in trouble for pointing it out) there wasn’t a single person of color at any of those weddings I went to. Nobody ever even said, ‘you don’t have to go to all these stupid weddings that you are incredibly miserable at’.*
Getting married to a white person of the opposite gender was right there in the solid line every single person in my world followed: college, career, a few relationships, a serious one, a wedding, kids. At some point, you move from the city to the suburbs and buy a house. These were not just goals; they were literally the only ideas about life that I was exposed to. Yes, I knew single women, my mother included, but the divorce inevitably happened only after all the aforementioned stuff.
I knew of gay adults, but I didn’t know any myself. In the same way, I knew of disabled people, I read books and watched television, but the only disabled person I knew was the kid with Down syndrome who I always envied for his ease with social pragmatics. I certainly didn’t know any disabled adults. I mean, they must have existed, but where did they live? In their own, special suburb, maybe?
I’ve been thinking about these things lately because of a picture I saw on facebook of someone I grew up with, at a wedding shower with six other girls I recognized from grade school. Although I’ve only snapshots to confirm it, most of them appear to have followed the path that our lily-white, wealthy suburban upbringing prepared us for. I recognize them because they look the same as they did in high school; their brightly-colored, seasonally-appropriate dresses fall at the same length, they are all thin, all wear just the right amount of makeup, no visible tattoos, heels, and stand straight to smile with good teeth at the camera. With few exceptions, I have rarely seen anyone I grew up with since graduation day. We spent 12 years together, but at the end of the 12 years, because of my faceblindness, I still didn’t know everyone’s names, in my class of under two hundred kids.
The people that I hang out with today don’t look anything like my high school classmates. I was at a party yesterday and people talked and ate and played games and told the children to please, don’t climb the bookcases, and within the ten or fourteen people there were at least three genders, multiple ethnicities and languages, skin from blue to black to actual-white-like-they-have-albinism-white, varying ways of being queer, varying sizes of service and seeing eye dogs, varying abilities to think and laugh and understand. Nobody asked for any accommodation because accommodating strangers is as easy as accommodating friends, which is, as natural as breathing. I admired someone’s full arm-length tattoo of sea creatures and listened to a mom describe why she and her wife chose a nature preschool for their daughter. I accepted that skin color of the kid had nothing to do with skin color of the parent.
Every time I’m with these people, I fall in love, over and over again. Not with the individuals but with the collective whole, the people who gather around and debate the merits of the special Olympics and German pronouns. I have a slightly different set of friends who, though lacking the outward diversity of the first set, are people I feel that I grew to be an adult with, people who I celebrate holidays with, whose kids climb on my lap unasked and uninvited and whisper in my ear, “unicorns and dragons”. (I threw this kid a baby shower, how is she able to read?) Both groups – though there is definitely overlap between the two – know to ask before hugging or touching someone, know to label allergens, to wait for me as I stutter through sentences when words aren’t coming out. They get the hilarity and the heartbreak of my daily struggles, and even as they commiserate with me over my latest doctor visit, they laugh with me when I grasp for a metaphor and come up with “the worth of your body!”
I don’t know if this community existed when I graduated from high school. I do know that had I known it existed, it would have given me a hell of a lot more hope, because even then I knew that I didn’t fit the mold, that I wouldn’t ever be walking down an aisle in a long white dress. I hated the prom but wasn’t smart enough to fit in with the true geeks and nerds in their AP classes. In a place where raw intelligence was valued very highly, my learning disabilities were never mentioned in the context of adulthood. I guess I thought that they would disappear with my (terrible, awful, seriously bad) IEP.
I remember in college being exposed to my first adults with disabilities, and the revelation I felt when I realized, “These are my people.” Over and over, at community events, non-profit meetings, holiday parties, the adult disability world welcomed me and each time I felt awe as they drew me in. It was the same way when I found Unitarian Univeralism. Here were people who didn’t fit the mold: here were people like me.
“I have found my people!” I remember writing somewhere. My people, as it turned out, didn’t look like my high school classmates. My people were fat and bone-thin, used wheelchairs, crutches, Braille and seeing eye dogs. My people were patient beyond belief, had a dark sense of humor, dated half a dozen people at a time, one person at a time, nobody and were content. My people had biological and adopted and foster kids and cats that got more attention than any and all of the human kids combined. My people are almost universally liberal, are often atheists, and nearly all of them enjoy a good chocolate cake that I’m more than happy to provide. My people, in short, are amazing. And being with them, just by extension, makes me feel amazing too.
A few years ago, I was not invited to my ten-year high school reunion, despite being not that hard to find. I realized later that because of its location, at a crowded, noisy bar, I wouldn’t have been able to go, anyway. And besides, what was the point? What do I have to show for my years since high school? A few useless degrees, a lot of diagnoses, a body that is much bigger, a sense of humor that is darker? I don’t have a real job, a real career, a real anything. Those kids, whose middle-school clique I would have killed to be in, probably barely remember me, anyway.
Here’s the thing, though. I have an autistic memory. And due to that memory, I can remember every slight, every hurt feeling, every class I failed. The people I grew up with? They can’t do that. They can’t look back at the years and rewind the videotape. They have sepia-toned glass plates of memory, if they remember me at all. And just as I am sure they see me in sepia, so I see them now. They must all have their share of troubles and trials and challenges, but they don’t show up on facebook. I must remember to have compassion for the people they have grown into now, if I expect anyone to have equal compassion for me.
I just wish……….I just wish that somewhere, somewhere along the road somebody took me aside and said, “you know what? You don’t have to………….” Which brings me to this essay. Which brings me to now.
The whole ‘it gets better’ trope seems a bit odd to me, because I think that the idea of what ‘better’ is seems to be a narrowly defined concept. I’m actually much worse off, medically, than I was just a few years ago. I don’t know if my teenage self would have defined my life now as ‘better’ because I don’t meet any of her defined parameters of success. Also, I’m still disabled – I never overcame it like they did in all the books – and I’m pretty sure 18 year old me would see that as failure.
So maybe what I’d like to tell my younger self is that life may not get better, but it does get different. And there are so many, many, many ways to live life that you cannot imagine because you have never been exposed to anything because you’re in high school! Sure, books taught me the best way to Narnia, but the best way to find a home was never mentioned. And anyway, life isn’t about places, life isn’t about circumstances, life is about people. It’s about different people living different lives in different ways. It’s about jumping and trusting these people will catch you. It’s about going to the edge, peering over, and seeing someone in the dark abyss handing you a flashlight.
I don’t know anything. I don’t know if the world will end tomorrow in nuclear war, if healthcare will be gutted and my friends will die, if the seas will rise and drown the sidewalks I slowly, slowly amble down. I only know that there is more than one road, more than two roads. There are endless numbers of different roads, and I will choose the one where my people wait. They are using their forearm crutches decorated in rainbow flags, they are wearing dresses with skulls printed on them, they have beards the color of their cute skirts, they are like nobody I ever imagined growing up.
And best of all? They are mine.
*for the record, I still hate weddings. They are too loud, too crowded, and too confusing. I spend the entire time hungry because of my food aversions and the cake is inevitably too sweet, over-dry, and much worse than something I could bake myself