Yesterday I put my name down for the creative writing workshop. Isn’t that the sort of thing you do when you retire: try and make up for those years spent suppressing creative thoughts? The opportunity has come early for me: in fact, seventeen years earlier than planned – I still feel as if I should still be in the cut and thrust of modern life. My workplace had increasingly replaced creativity with commoditisation. It was no longer a place for ideas; at least, not my own ideas. It was a place for packaging and transferring knowledge. So, despite my sense of loss, I was more than ready to move on.
I’ve always been struck by this expression… ‘I’m a creative type’. In fact, the phrase has come to define a whole industry. You belong to the ‘creative’ industry. The label always seemed somewhat presumptuous and exclusive. After all, are we not all, at least potentially, creative types? Is creativity not simply seeking ‘self-actualisation’ – something for which we all strive? I guess I was always resentful about having to pursue an ‘un-creative’ career. But the suggestion always seems to be that us ‘left brainers’ could never belong to this select group of artistes? It’s as though it’s genetically determined: we’re either born to scale these rarefied heights or remain in a wilderness of mundane thought. I’m rather hoping that this is not the case.
I look at my young children standing in front of a painting easel. They set to work smudging, smearing, dabbing in a world free of ‘left brain interference’. Of course, daddy always has to ask ‘what are you painting?’ – what a ridiculous question! They’re not trying to painting anything. In fact, for them the outcome of the painting is incidental (but nevertheless fascinating). They are absorbed by the process, the cool and sloppy feeling of the paint; the curious way in which colours intermingle in unexpected ways. Everything is an experiment which results in glorious surprises.
So why am I going on this creative writing course? I’m going on a journey to unlearn. I’m trying to dismantle the tram lines of experience: experience being the mother of illusion. I want to develop the right brain, the world of spontaneity, immediacy, and sensation. I want to be free of the shackles of reflection and planning. For these two words substitute regret and fear of the future. Both of these have increasingly been the two pillars for my survival. They’ve given me the means for survival without the reason. Ultimately they are just ‘hygiene’ factors that enable me to remain physically but not spiritually intact.
But wait. I’m telling a lie. I’m not going on this creative workshop. How could I mislead you in this way? Something happened today –Friday 13th and Red Nose Day (a day of British jocosity in support of worthy charities). Let me tell you a little about this writing course: it is a workshop that runs on a weekday afternoon on the first floor of our local library in the town of Prestwich (part of a larger metropolis called Bury in the UK). The library has had a recent refurbishment. Well, being a left brainer – I had to reccy the venue some days before – just to accustom myself to the locale. Wheelchair users have to think ahead.
One unceremonious bump over the library’s threshold and I’m in. It’s recently become a self-service library. That means only incompetents like myself have to go to the service desk to make an enquiry. But on this occasion I just want to check the workshop venue – it’s part of Bury Adult Services.
Looking up at the desk I already feel like I’m breaking the rules. After all, I’ve been shown how to use the new blue neon kiosk before… what a wonder of science, allowing me to take out a book without any human interaction. I’m rather hoping that one day the kiosk will be able to suggest emerging authors and perhaps even give a warming smile.
I casually cast out my inquiry:
‘Do you know where the creative writing workshop will be next week?’
An officious well-dressed man takes control from behind the desk:
‘I’m not sure you will be able to go to the workshop which is being held upstairs. We have a lift but there are issues… fire safety issues’
He then proceeds to inquire about my power-chair predicament:
‘Are you able to walk at all?’
At this point I have to suppress my facetious nature. What I want to say is that my power chair is simply a fashion accessory or a ruse to allow me to claim benefits. Let’s be grown up about this:
‘No, I can’t walk a single step.’
With a troubled expression he replies:
‘I’m afraid the workshop venue will not be suitable for you. You see, although we have a lift, there are issues about fire evacuation on the first floor.’
He goes on to explain something about refuges and evacuation chairs and having a trained buddy. Apparently they have stopped the practice of ‘holding areas’. I’m feeling rather confused about this technical explanation. The rub of it seems to be that in the event of a fire they wouldn’t be able to get me out and they wouldn’t be able to leave me there safely.
‘Well I would be prepared to take the risk of a fire. After all, what’s the worst that could happen
(I’m pretty stuffed anyway – I didn’t say that of course, just thought it. In a sinister moment I felt like making a biblical reference to letting the ‘dead bury the dead’. I thought this also had a good local ring to it).
If it comes to that, you can leave me up there.’
Of course I knew what his response would be. And I couldn’t endanger the lives of people who inevitably would want to help me.
‘I would suggest that you look for similar workshops around the area. You won’t be able to attend this one unfortunately’
Similar workshops? Again, back to the world of commoditisation. It seems that everything is interchangeable: books, people, workshops – it’s all part of the wonderful world of choice. But I wanted this workshop, in my community with this particular teacher which was in range of my power chair.
I felt that there was no point in challenging this. I wasn’t going to be going to these workshops – that was the end of it. No need to endanger the lives of a buddy foolhardy enough to accompany me during our final moments in a funeral pyre of ashen books.
I turned my power-chair around and left with my tail between my back wheels. This world is not quite as inclusive as I thought. My mission to unlearn and liberate myself was derailed. I would have to learn to ‘bury’ my thoughts, my aspirations, my foolhardiness. That’s when my emotional incontinence triggered. Apparently it’s a symptom of my condition (MS). Otherwise known as Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) it causes uncontrollable crying: not very impressive for a middle-aged man perched in a public space. But I was discreet enough to keep it to myself.
So there we have it. Simply having a lift doesn’t make a building accessible. Even if the building is a public building designed to serve you and me. You won’t find me or people like me sitting beside you at the workshop. Much as I would like to be your buddy!
This is not meant to be an appeal for sympathy. Rather it is about my efforts to throw off the shackles of the mind and become an epicurean through unlearning and relearning (this all seems to be part of the territory of dealing with multiple sclerosis). But like many other individuals stranded within their own body, I am continually challenged by issues of building access. An economic climate of austerity has meant the closing of doors to disabled people. Adult learning environments that were once described as accessible, seem no longer so. Trained staff are not available, refuge areas are not defined and evacuation chairs are nowhere to be found. Are things starting to fray at the edge? If society must insist on these ‘life-saving’ measures then let’s make sure they are in place. Otherwise, let us take the risk because life’s too short.
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