Here they come. Three vans full. I’m hot. I’m exhausted. And I’m nervous. Camp Jabberwocky shows up in my meadow every year for a lively session of the Chilmark Writing Workshop. And every year I half dread it and half can’t wait to hug and hear the stories of these Bodisatvas, these campers who have triumphed over extraordinary odds, who forget they are severely handicapped when they come to their oasis: Camp Jabberwocky.
I dread it because as they are unloading the wheelchairs and the campers are rolling up my driveway I can see my son, Dan, in his wheelchair and I get the sting of loss and then I allow myself a moment of big sorrow and then I run to greet my old friends.
Paul, Nancy, Faith and Peter have cerebral palsy. Paul writes with a pointer that fits like a headband that he aims at letters on a keyboard. Nancy, who can barely keep her head up, whose face almost touches the desk that is attached to her chair, taps whole words (and writes as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen), on a computer that then speaks her completed stories. Faith, with great wisdom and humor, can use her hands but needs a wheelchair to get around. And Peter, a smart, handsome guy is also able to use his hands. Stefanie, who has autism and didn’t speak until she was 10, always takes the seat next to me and chatters as if there hadn’t been trauma and horror the first several years of her life. She is pretty and tall and we’re Facebook friends, so I hear from her online from time to time. Kathy has severe rheumatoid arthritis so one of the counselors takes dictation and writes her story word for word.
I give this special group no special treatment. I do the exact same workshop I give to everyone. The only difference is maybe I gesture bigger, I speak slower and respond louder. I am hyperbolic anyway, so yeah, maybe I ratchet it up a notch for these guys. We sit in a circle, I tell a few stories, I cry (because I cry ) I laugh (because I laugh) and I tell them my only rule: when so and so finishes reading, tell them what you loved. Right. Everyone gets it. Everyone reads their stories aloud. And we clap and we hoot and we holler. The counselors are made of gold. They sit close to their charges, they hold their hands, they make sure the gang feels protected in every way.
The stories are moving and powerful. There is one theme that runs through their work every summer. They have not been seen. When able-bodied people cast an eye in their direction, sometimes folks look away, sometimes they try to be nice but they never actually know that in that special body is a very special being. My son Dan, when he was first confined to a wheelchair, used to say, “Mom how come people raise their voices when they bend down to talk to me? Do they think just because I can’t walk I also can’t hear?” And I remember telling him they are so uncomfortable, so nervous, so wanting to help in some way, but they just don’t know what to do. So they yell.
When I tell the campers this story, they nod vigorously in recognition. These guys are sensitive, bright, very funny and very wise kids. (I call them kids because somehow they have maintained their innocence in bodies that don’t always work, bodies that are 40, 50 and 60 years old.)
And they are generous in their comments to each other.
In the session this summer, the prompt was write about a time you weren’t invited. Each person reads and each person receives rousing applause.
And when we hug each other goodbye until next year, they mistakenly think that I was the teacher.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (Hyperion/Little Brown) and teaches the Chilmark Writing Workshop. She is a commentator for NPR.