Friday, May 31, 2013


photo of St. Joseph's Oratory
Photo by Laslovarga via Wikimedia Commons
I'm planning a day trip to Montreal, Quebec tomorrow, and I'll probably visit St. Joseph's Oratory.

St. Joseph's Oratory is a massive domed basilica, built near the top of Mount Royal, smack in the middle of the Island of Montreal. The dome dominates the Montreal Skyline, so much so that when I was a kid, my parents used to offer a quarter to the first person to spot it on the horizon whenever we drove up to Montreal. I'll check for sure tomorrow, but I'd guess that the dome is first visible from about 15 miles away. Wikipedia tells me that St. Joseph's was built between 1904 and 1967, so it was already retro from the day the first brick was laid.

St. Joseph's has always been a pilgrimage site, where according to legend, people with disabilities are healed after climbing … or crawling … up the basilica's long approaching steps. Inside, there is a wall covered with a display of hundreds of crutches supposedly left by pilgrims after their miracle cures. It's kind of a garish, ridiculous-seeming idea, I suspect even for many Catholics (which I am not). But the story's cheese factor is lessened by the basilica's outside grandeur, and most of all by its interior, which is quiet, austere, and haunting … the very opposite of garish. It is the only place of worship that I have ever been in that has come close to spiritualizing my skeptical, materialist heart.

I will NOT be attempting an actual pilgrimage up those steps. If there's some sort of rack inside that would straighten my back and make me taller, I'll give it some thought.

That Uncomfortable Pause

Sometimes Ableism has a logical, if not admirable explanation. But sometimes it starts with surprise and distraction.

I don't think I look especially shocking. I'm short, like "little person" short, and my spine is severely curved. I've got big years, too … Barack Obama big … though it's hard to say how much of a factor they are. I'm funny-looking, but not extremely so. Most of the time when I meet someone, they don't skip a beat. Once in awhile, I meet someone for the first time and I can just tell that my appearance has thrown them. They meet me, and internally they're saying, "Whoa, what?" Most people kind of blink, maybe stutter a moment, and move on. Just a little brain fart.

A few people really get stuck. Maybe they have questions about what they are seeing and they just can't let go. Maybe they're afraid they'll say something insensitive. They might be thinking a little too intensely about whether the tone of their voice or their handshake is appropriate ... or wondering what IS appropriate for someone like me. For me, the biggest "tell" is a slight physical reserve,  a withdrawing into their own space, combined with a distracted, choppy, or stunted flow of conversation. It's really noticeable when I've heard the person speak very fluently, professionally, or charmingly to others, and with me they blather, hesitate, or freeze for just a few more seconds than is comfortable for either of us. I almost never see hostility. They smile and say the correct things, but either they are trying to limit the interaction, or they are only devoting half of their mind to the conversation. The other half is thinking "What's the deal with him?", and "I hope he doesn't notice how nervous I am." The phrase "deer in the headlights" might have been invented from this experience.

Like I said, it doesn't happen often. But when it does happen, it's the closest thing to pure "ableism" I experience. I can't say I'm exactly hurt by it, but it is a reminder. "Oh yeah, I'm different. I almost forgot!" It reminds me that there are probably a lot of times when I think an interaction is about one thing, when for the other person, it's about that thing AND it's about meeting a weird person they can't help looking at and wondering about ... and feeling uncomfortable about looking at and wondering about.

Ableism is a distraction for both sides, I guess.