Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mind the Gap!

As is my wont, my mind has been a great whirlwind of thoughts, ideas, and emotions.  Let me give you an example of how the thought process of my mind works:

I'm almost finished another painting. Thank god!  Only three more left to do.... Three more paintings before Christmas?! Yikes! Am I NUTS taking on so much work? No, no, I love it - it makes me feel alive!  I also need to order more cards and calendars and jigsaw puzzles and giclees.  Then I have to take pictures of everything and put them all up on my website and the Etsy website, and advertise on Facebook and Twitter......

It's Christmas in two weeks.  How can that be?  I love Christmas.  I hate Christmas.  I love Christmas.  I hate Christmas. I love Christmas. Parties, getting together with close friends. Eating, drinking, laughing. I hate Christmas.  I love Christmas.  I hate Christmas.  Memories of being in debt, fear of sliding down that steep slope again. Living in poverty has made me cynical.  "Simpler Times" - were they ever real or just an illusion? I love Christmas.  I hate Christmas.   I love Christmas.  I hate Christmas.  Childhood memories make me smile and feel nostalgic.  Memories of Rob at Christmas make me smile and feel nostalgic.  They also make me weep and want to rip my heart out to escape the pain of missing him.

Yesterday, after dinner, I was thinking about everything I've said here and more.  And as I ran my tongue over the sensitive gap in my mouth where, until last Thursday, my decaying tooth had been, I thought to myself, This is it!  This will be what I'm going to write about in my next blog entry.  Not about my missing tooth exactly, although that was an experience in itself!  (Forty-five minutes of the dentist yanking and yanking at it, only to have him end up drilling into the bone and cutting my gum.  Like the rest of me, that tooth was one tough and resolute little bugger!)  I want to talk about change (sometimes difficult, sometimes not), and the slow, resigned way it is often accepted in our daily lives.

Apart from taking pain killers and penicillin, and reminding my employees to "mind the gap" when they help me brush my teeth, I've gotten used to the new way my mouth feels.

Loblaws has taken over Maple Leaf Gardens.  They had their grand opening on December 1st.  I've been there twice now, and both times I started crying because I knew Rob would have been so psyched to go inside and explore.  (The change over from abandoned sports arena to glorified grocery store has been in
the making for at least 8 years!  Both Rob and I would groan and exclaim, "When will it ever be finished?!") 

And finished it finally is; all bright, shiny,  and new.  And yet, for all the changes inside, I can still see and hear the crowds rushing past Rob and me in order to buy tickets and WWF (later WWE) merchandise, or to get to their seats.  Maple Leaf Gardens wasn't like SkyDome (the Rogers Centre now):  a person in a wheelchair could sit close to ringside and not be labeled a "fire hazard".  Sometimes Rob's cousin Shauna or nephew Corey would come with us, and we'd try to meet the WWF wrestlers before they went in to wrestle.  We met Hillbilly Jim, and I was amazed at how enormous he was.  I had drawn a picture of Hulk Hogan and Rob tried his damnedest to have me me meet that famous wrestler and give him the picture, but security was too tight and it  was just impossible to do.  It was the early days of our relationship, and Rob said, "I'd do anything for you, Sweety! You're the love of my life."

That's what Maple Leaf Gardens means to me. And now it's a fucking grocery store!

Such is life, though.  Nothing stays the same forever.  I'll get used to my tooth being gone and I'll soon stop crying when I shop at Maple Leaf Gardens.  I'll never get used to missing Rob, though.

We, as human beings, adapt to change and, for the most part, that's good.  However, there are things that we shouldn't just shrug our shoulders and accept.  Oil spills, global warming, nuclear power plant disasters to name only a few.

My friend Amy told me about an article she recently read about China and its Emperors.  Every time the country got a new ruler, its people were forced to abandon the old currency from the previous Dynasty and accept the new one.  As you can imagine, this system was troublesome, to say the least, especially if Emperors died or were killed off during a short space of time.  Its people rebelled in a creative way.  They refused to use the country's currency; instead, they traded with silver. The rulers knew they couldn't stop the people from doing this, so they made silver the official currency.

In this time of rebellion and upheaval, this aforementioned story gives pause for consideration.  People frustrated with the economy and finding a peaceful, creative way to make things happen.

Solidarity with all Occupiers and activists who seek to make positive changes to the world.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Time in Baltimore

As my dear friend Aaron would say, " I did it!" Yes, I went to Baltimore, Maryland, just as I had planned on, dreamed of, and dreaded doing for the past 6 months. It was probably the hardest and yet most beautiful experiences of my life.

Five of my closest friends came with me on this momentous journey. They were wonderfully supportive, knowing that I wanted a balance of honouring Rob and his idol Frank Zappa, and seeing some of the art galleries and museums in Baltimore.

We got up on the 17th and ran out to the Frank Zappa Day Festival.  Actually finding the library where the bust of Frank was was rather difficult.  Who knew there would be two Enoch Pratt Free Libraries in town?

I had been ok up until I saw that beautiful bust, and then I let loose and bawled. I wanted Rob to be there with me so badly and it didn't seem fair that he couldn't be.  Rob would have been so thrilled to be there.  He would have played Mr. Nonchalant, but I, who knew him better than anyone, would have seen the sparkle in his eyes and that spring in his step.  As I sprinkled a very, very light dusting of Rob's ashes around the base of the monument, I consoled myself with the idea that maybe Rob's spirit was there.  Hell, maybe Frank's spirit was there too.

We started looking around the grounds of the festival and found many wonderful and unique crafts. Some, to be sure, had a FZ theme, but a lot did not. I bought myself a large magnet that said: "Legalize Marijuana in Baltimore." My friends bought me a beautiful necklace and earring set. Somebody found a program of what was happening that day, and one of the things that piqued my interest was the fact that inside the library there was a poetry reading to raise money for the Poe House, a community space dedicated to local poets in the memory of Edgar Allen Poe, himself another wacky Baltimore native. Both Gail and Ahmet Zappa were to be reading at it. I love poetry and Poe is one of my favourite writers, but the icing on the cake was the chance to meet Gail and Ahmet!

My friends and I were escorted inside and I was told to go sit beside Ahmet, in the front row. Aaaaahhhhh, can you believe it?!  I was so close I could have reached out and touched him, but I exercised restraint.  Gail was sitting on his other side. Because of this situation, and because of the emotional turmoil I had just been in sprinkling some of Rob's ashes, I asked for a lorazepam.

The poetry was wonderful. Especially the first guy, who dressed and spoke theatrically and recited Poe's "The Raven."  The poem that Gail read was one of my favourites too.  "Evelyn the Modified Dog" was written and sung by Frank Zappa. Gail read it as a poem and it worked really well that way. She made the point that song lyrics really are poetry.

After the reading I saw Ahmet running off. That was disappointing because I had planned to buy his book and get him to sign it. I approached the table to buy a book anyway and ran into the aide to the mayor of Baltimore. At first she was trying to rush Gail off to the next event and then she realized who I was. "Oh Anne! You must be Anne! ... Gail, this is Anne, the woman I was telling you about!" And then the moment arrived ... I got to meet Gail Zappa. And what a meeting it was!

She was so gracious and kind and down-to-earth. And she got me. It's rare for strangers to immediately get me like that. When I started crying and told her that I wished Rob could have been there because he loved Frank so much, and that I missed Rob so much, she started crying too and told me how much she missed Frank. It was a really incredible moment to share. As it that weren't enough, she gave me five of Frank's CDs, including one that has yet to be released. What a wonderful person!

My friend Michelle pulled down a copy of the festival poster for me, and Gail kindly signed it for me.  I also gave Gail a postcard and notebook I had made with the painting of Frank I had done on them. She seemed thrilled with them!

After that, my friends and I went to see a documentary on the making of  "200 Motels"  -  a film Frank made in the 70's.  I had heard that Ahmet would be there, and I thought I could get him to sign my book, but he wasn't there.  Instead, Gail was! And after the film she did a Q&A where she proved to be just as thoughtful and grounded as she'd seemed when we first met, and sassy too!

The film had been shown at a gallery space called The Creative Alliance. On my way out of the film I ran into the Artistic Director of the gallery. She explained the exhibit on the main floor and asked if we wanted to see the upstairs exhibit. I told her that we didn't have time because we were going to dinner and that I was an artist myself. I gave her one of the Frank Zappa postcards I'd made. Then she encouraged me to become a member of the gallery and to submit a proposal for an exhibition of my work in the upstairs space!! She said that normally that space focuses on local artists, but that it was definitely worth applying. I came up with the brilliant idea of proposing an exhibit that centres around this trip to the Frank Zappa festival, showing the paintings I did and all the video I made in lead up and during. Maybe it could be on during next year's festival and I could get a free trip down!

On the 18th of September we went along the city's beautiful waterfront looking for good and cheap food to eat.  And then, we strolled over to the American Visionary Artists Museum, an art gallery dedicated to quirky and undercelebrated works by self taught artists. We almost didn't make it inside because the outside of the main building (there are three) was so beautiful - completely covered in glass and mirror mosaic and surrounded by glass and mirror mosaic-ed sculptures!

There were even more cool things inside, like a life-size sculpture of a naked caveman made entirely out of wire. There was also a spectacular rotating bejeweled sculpture of Icarus suspended in the centre of a spiral stairwell, flying into the sun, wearing nothing but his wings and a ruby red bejeweled thong! Downstairs we saw (and some of us sat on) a bench covered in whoopie cushions, followed by a series of small artworks all dedicated to flatulence.  I was surprised by one thing I saw at this particular exhibit:  A photo of Queen Victoria with her favourite "fart jar".  Apparently, she liked to put her farts in jars and keep them.  Because of this somewhat weird fact, jars became better and better designed.

That night, back in our hotel room, we ate take-out, listened to music and to some of Rob's podcasts. Not everyone stayed up until 3:30am like I did.  I stayed up for a very special reason. Exactly two years earlier, at 3:30am on September 19, 2009, Rob died and I couldn't be there with him. If spirits exist and the time of their death matters to them then maybe Rob knows I wanted to be there for him and that this year, in a way, I was. We toasted him and I hope he could feel all our love for him. I mean he sure would be silly not to know how we feel about him since we orchestrated this entire trip around a celebration of his life ... but, he was a pretty humble guy.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Countdown is on


Yes, the countdown is definitely on now! Five more days, and then I'm on the road to Baltimore to the Frank Zappa Festival, where I can honour both Frank and Rob.

The hotel and van are booked, and the travel insurance purchased.  Laura is looking after the cats while I'm away, and I've written out a list of all the things I need to be packed.  I like to be organized!  If I don't feel like I'm organized I become panicky. I even jolt awake in a cold sweat some nights, worrying about everything!

I got a phone call from the Mayor's office in Baltimore a few weeks back.  That was cool!  They had read the email I sent to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asking for advice on cheap/accessible hotels and other fun/accessible attractions to see besides the FZ Festival.  The Mayor's aid said she could get me into a fancy hotel for a reasonable price.  At first I was thrilled, but then I compared prices and the Best Western Hotel, which I had booked 3 weeks beforehand, had better rates than the one the Mayor's aid was suggesting.  So, I wrote back and said, thanks but Best Western is good enough for me.

Five more days..... Am I happy? Am I excited about it all?  Yeah... sort of.   I'm sure I'll have some fun. And, of course, I'm taking cool, great, fantastic, brilliant people with me!  People I love.

And yet, I can not seem to get over this overwhelming sadness within myself.  Rob should be here to share in the whole experience - from start to finish - the planning, the arrangements, the trip itself, and the actual FZ Festival.   I can see him now, trying to be nonchalant and yet secretly overjoyed. That was Rob's style/ He would also try to look on the pessimistic side of things in order to brace himself for disappointment. That was Rob's style too.

I miss Rob so much!  There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about him and wish that he was still here. 

Nine more days until the second anniversary of his death.  Two years - how can it be?

"Love of my Life"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bound for Baltimore

"Love of My Life"

Last year, on September 19th, 2010, I found out that this date was the very first Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore.  Sadly, this date also commemorated the first year anniversary of my husband Rob's death.  Because Rob had always idolized Frank Zappa and his creative genius, it seemed like a huge sign that I should make a journey this year, in honour of Rob and in honour of Frank, and go to the second annual Frank Zappa Day.

I want more than anything in the world for this to happen! A couple of years before Rob's death, he would tell me every time when Zappa Plays Zappa came into Ontario how much he wanted to go see them play, and I would tell him that it all depended on our finances. Being on the pittance that ODSP gave us and drowning in debt, it, unfortunately, just never happened.  For Rob to see Dweezil Zappa and some of Frank's old band mates perform his favourite songs live - that would have made him deliriously happy!

The music of Frank Zappa was always in our lives, right from the beginning.  When Rob and I first started dating, he gave me a cassette tape of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and asked me to choose my favourite  songs from it.  I chose "'The Closer You Are", "You Are What You Is",  "Bobby Brown" and "Sharleena." Rob and I decided "Love of my Life" should be our song, for obvious reasons. When I was pregnant, we were going to name our daughter Sharleena. Rob wanted to name our son "Greggery Peccary," but I drew the line!

So, on September 17th, a group of friends and I are driving down to Baltimore and staying until September 19th. It's going to be cool, great, fantastic, brilliant!!! We're going to have a ball! I want to play Zappa music all the way there and back, and I'm going to film the whole experience so I never forget it! Actually, I've been making a few short films to get ready. Here's where you can see what I've done so far:

I know I've said it's going to be fun and brilliant, sure, but it's also going to be damned hard. It'll be the two year anniversary of Rob's death - how can that be? Well two years or twenty, Sweety, you'll always be the love of my life.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Speeches, speeches, speeches!

What have I been doing lately?  Writing speeches, speeches, and more speeches!  I wrote three in March and one in April, all on vastly different subjects.

The first one was for the AFAC (Art for All Canada) conference at Metro Hall.

Here is that speech:

Whenever people ask me how long I’ve been painting, I always smile and reply, “Ever since I could breathe.” My name is Anne Abbott, and I create my artwork by painting with my right index finger. To my knowledge, I am the only artist who strictly uses this method and no other. Because I have Cerebral Palsy, a condition that affects a person's motor skills, this is the only way I am able to paint.
I've always had a profound love for art, ever since I was a small child. As a toddler, my mother would sit me in my highchair and give me a pad of paper and a paint set, and just let me go to it! She thought it would be a good diversion for me while she was doing the housework, but it would become one of the greatest passions of my life.

My family and friends encouraged me to keep going, to develop my art. My parents especially gave me guidance, praising me, of course, and giving me ideas of what things to paint. They also gave me constructive criticism and helpful hints on how to improve my craft. It also inspired me to know that both my grandmother and great-uncle had been artists. I felt as if I was following in their footsteps.

In public school, there was a weekly art class, and that piqued my interest even further. Eagerly, I absorbed all of the different types of techniques taught to me. I was even introduced to clay, kilns, paper mache, and making collages, but although these things were fun and inspired creativity, they just didn't hold my interest as much as painting did. I suppose one reason for this would be the fact that, except for having assistance in setting up the canvases and paints, I am able to do all the work on my own, and thus, lose myself within the process of making art.

There was about an 8 year gap in receiving any kind of instruction in art. This was both liberating and restrictive. Yes, I enjoyed experimenting with colours, shading, and different styles, and I was confident in the progress of my work. And yet, I felt that I could benefit from some guidance so that I could improve my craft even more.

When I was 18, I heard about Arts Carousel, a non-profit organization whose focus was on giving people with disabilities a chance to realize their creative potential. One of the instructors offered to come to my home and give me 10 free art lessons. His name was Michael Seary, and he was good to his word about giving me the free lessons. In fact, he ended up tutoring me for ten years!

Having an instructor who was an artist himself and being able to give me so much of his time, was a real bonus! I learned a lot more about art than I ever had before. I began experimenting with oils, water colour, acrylics, different grades of paper, and found out, by trial and error, which worked best for me.

Besides teaching me techniques about how to improve my craft, my art instructor arranged for me to show my paintings, first, in a group art show at the CN Tower, and then at several other venues. He also very kindly found someone at U of T who designed a special easel which made painting a great deal easier for me, because it allowed me to be able to turn the picture around and thereby reach all of the areas of the canvas. 
Over the years, I have absorbed teachings and knowledge from many different people and many different books. However, a lot of my learning came from within myself. Because of my wild, uneven movements, painting always presented a particular challenge for me. Throughout the years, figuring out the puzzle of how to do my art became like an obsession with me. I knew I couldn’t exactly paint like other artists, and yet, I also realized that if I persisted in developing my own technique I could produce truly original and unique bodies of work. 
Up until this point, I had used a brush to do my art. However, by the time I was eighteen, because I began experiencing severe pain in my hand and arm from gripping the paintbrush so tightly, I decided to throw down my paintbrush one day and simply use my index finger to paint instead. From then on, because I was far more comfortable than I had ever been, my art started to gradually evolve. I learned that it had a certain power to it and that I could use it as a voice, to reveal the passions and frustrations I felt deep within me. 
There are times when I paint just for the joy of it, there are times when I paint because I have to pay the bills, and then there are those times when I paint because I need to put a message out to the world. 

As many of you may understand, Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo were particularly influential and inspirational to me. Both of these famous and brilliant artists provided a window into which it was possible to glimpse snippets of their personal lives. Look deeper still, you can see the workings of their minds, their feelings, their very psyches. If you look at Van Gogh's “The Bedroom at Arles” and “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear”, his loneliness and mental health troubles become apparent at once. “Henry Ford Hospital” and “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair” are two of Frida Kahlo's masterpieces, and they're both full of raw emotion: loss, anger, and resignation.

I feel that it is very brave for artists to expose such intimate details of their lives within their art. This is something I greatly admire and strive to emulate with my own work.

Recently, I myself, have put my own personal experiences into my art. Eighteen months ago, my husband Rob passed away suddenly, and to deal with my grief, I painted what I felt. Some artist friends of mine told me that they were unable to produce any work after a traumatic event happened to them. I, on the other hand, felt an overwhelming need to paint my terrible pain and sorrow. Some people say, “Oh, this must be very therapeutic for you!” and, certainly, it is. 
However, it also goes back to the very core of my philosophy regarding my life and my art: It is important for me to expose my feeling, experiences, and ideals to the public. Certainly, other artists must feel this way, but, for me, because of my disability, I feel this far more passionately. I need people to see the person I am, the type of life I lead, and the hardships I go through on a daily basis. People like me, our lives are not represented as equally as other members of society.

In most of my self portraits, I am completely naked. To some, this might seem shocking, but it is my intent to: 1) reveal the reality of my life: (It is the norm rather than the exception to have people see me naked on a daily basis). 2) demonstrate to women in our society (either able-bodied or with disabilities) that they should not feel shame or regret when they think about their bodies, but should instead rejoice in their differences. And, 3) to make people understand that just because people have disabilities doesn’t mean that we don’t have the same feelings of sexuality as anyone else.

Having faced terrible prejudice and injustice throughout my life, I have grown sensitive to the plight of other marginalized people. Through my art, I attempt to reveal the continuous battle that people face against societal boundaries just to be able to be themselves and to be able to live the way they want.

Thank you.

It would be my great pleasure now to demonstrate to you how I paint.

And that's what I did.  I painted a picture in a white dress, and it, too, became like a canvas, a beautiful painting.

The next speech was for Trampoline Hall.  The subject was on Victorian poet Elizabeth Barret Browning.

My name is Anne Abbott, and I'm here to talk about Victorian poet Elizabeth Barret Browning.

It truly amazed me, as I mentally prepared to write about this famous poet, that no one I mentioned her name to knew who she was. I was met with a lot of quizzical looks accompanied by: “Who?” You know,” I'd say, “the woman who wrote 'How do I love thee, Let me count the ways...'” “Oh her,” they'd say, “Yeah, Elizabeth Barret Brown!” “I-N-G,” I corrected. “ Elizabeth Barret Brown-ing.”

Admittedly, I was kind of a bit smug about my knowledge of who Elizabeth Barret Browning was. I mean, I wasn't an expert or anything, but I had some basic facts on her and her life. She was a famous poet with a physical disability and an overbearing, over-protective father. As a young woman, she met another poet of notable fame. His name was Robert Browning. Even though they both knew that Elizabeth's father strongly disapproved of their relationship, they couldn't help but fall madly in love. Because her father did object so completely and utterly to their devotion, Elizabeth and Robert eloped one day, and, basically, lived “happily ever after”. Elizabeth was so happy and in love during the first few years of marriage that she wrote a book about her love for her new husband, entitled “Sonnets of the Portuguese”, in which “How Do I Love Thee” appears.

These were the things that were told to me by my teachers and family. Seeing the play “The Barrets of Wimpole St.” confirmed what I'd already learned. The play was about Elizabeth and her eleven brothers and sisters and their over-protective father who didn't want any of them to get married, especially not Elizabeth.

This play affected me a great deal. Here I was, a teenager with a disability, and it was becoming more and more apparent that our society frowns on people with disabilities and able-bodied people having romantic/intimate relationships with each other. Even my own mother suggested that I narrow my scope because, in her opinion, able-bodied men wouldn't want to “take care” of a woman with a disability! This seemed extremely unfair to me! Except for a few physical limitations, there were many things I could offer a potential mate. There's nothing wrong with people with disabilities dating other people with disabilities, but that choice should be left up to us, not to the pressures of society. And so, whenever I felt depressed over the unfairness of it all, in my mind I would hold up the story of Elizabeth and Robert as a symbol of hope..

Really good friends of mine who were able-bodied would set my other disabled friends up on dates who didn't have as involved disabilities as me and that really hurt. I didn't say anything because I knew this was just the way people thought.

In my twenties, I began to feel frustrated. I was a virgin. And I didn't want to be a virgin forever. Nobody seemed to understand what I was feeling, which made it even more frustrating. I mean, sex isn't just two bodies going at it, its two people connecting on many levels, and I wanted to be part of that.

My sister-in-law took me to see male strippers and that was fun but none of them wanted to have sex with me. At 29, 1987, I got on the computer and started chatting with people. I had a lot of guys come onto me and that was good! I didn't tell anyone I had a disability for fear of being rejected. But this one guy named Rob was very persistent and kept wanting to meet me so I had to tell him I had Cerebral Palsy. To my delight and surprise, it didn't matter to him because he had gotten to know the person I was. We met and fell in love and eventually got married. We were together for 22 wonderful years. We tried to have a baby and a lot of people, including my parents, were against the idea. Unfortunately I had a miscarriage.

Well, anyway, back to Elizabeth and the romance between her and Robert. From the dim recesses of my mind, I remember hearing that someone had discovered that Elizabeth's condition had been Spina Bifida, a congenital malformation in the vertebral column. I've known many people with this condition and have seen how it can affect different people in different ways, and it sounded quite plausible that Elizabeth might have had it as well, perhaps as a milder form.

I then came across this quote, and others with a similar theme that brought new information to light for me: “Although frail, she apparently had no health problems until 1821, when Dr. Coker prescribed opium for a nervous disorder.” This “nervous disorder” wasn't yet recognized by the medical science of the time, so we don't know its name. But it's quite apparent that she was in a great deal of pain. That's why she was prescribed a lot of morphine. Many years after being with Robert, bearing a son, (after having several miscarriages) and writing volumes of published poetry, one of her peers accused her of losing her edge because of her addiction, to which Elizabeth replied scathingly, “Viva opium! And may you and I live by its means!”

At the end of her life, Elizabeth was diagnosed with having an abscess on one of her lungs and her doctor increased her dose of morphine. On June 29th, 1861, Elizabeth died in Robert's arms, probably from paralysis of the breathing caused by the excessive morphine.

So, I guess I got a few things wrong about Elizabeth Barret Browning. Oh well... But I did learn some pretty interesting and cool things about her as well.

For one thing, she opposed slavery and published two poems that highlighted the barbarity of the slave trade and her support for the abolitionist cause. This is very significant because both sides of her family made their fortunes in the slave trade. Elizabeth also sought to improve other areas of social injustice: the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the labor of children in the mines and the mills of England, and the restrictions placed upon women

Elizabeth's book, simply named “Poems” made her one of the most popular writers in the at the time and, indeed, inspired Robert Browning to write to her, telling her how much he loved her poems. Interestingly enough, Elizabeth had produced a large amount of work and had been writing long before her future husband, Robert Browning, had set pen to paper.

I'm still not 100% sure what condition Elizabeth had, and really, does it matter? She was more than just a frail, ill woman who was rescued from her tyrannical father by this, famous poet who (literally!) swept her off her feet. She was a human being, like the rest of us, with strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows.

Honestly, I think I like and respect this Elizabeth Barret Browning more than the one dimensional character that people conjured up for me when I was a teenager. I can understand and empathize with Elizabeth. Our lives seem weirdly parallel. We both have conditions that limit our mobility and give us pain, our parents were over protective and couldn't see marriages in our futures, and even more weirdly, men named Robert fell madly in love with us. Sadly too, we both had miscarriages. Even though we both faced hardships, we both strive to make positive change in the world.

Doctors gave Elizabeth opiates when she was young and doctors gave me Valium when I was young. We both became addicted to our drugs but I was lucky enough to realize it and wean myself off. I always try hard to never ride that merry-go-round again but its hard when I get in so much pain. Pot, Percocet, Codeine: I do them all, but I try my best to juggle them and not get too dependent. Yes, I do this for my health, but just as in Elizabeth's time, there's this taboo of being addicted to drugs. You're viewed as bad and weak if you succumb to the evils of drugs.

I had a friend named Aaron who went into rehab for alcohol addiction and it was really warped how some of the other patients treated him. They implied that his situation was worse than theirs because he had a disability. Its wrong and humiliating to tell someone their life is worse than anybody else's. They also implied that it was good that he had assistants to help with his daily life because, they said, Aaron could simply tell his people to stop giving him drinks. This suggestion is shocking to me because this action would ultimately take away Aaron's freedom of choice! And, I can't see that anybody else within that group would be willing to have such restrictions put upon them!

It is my belief our society would be a whole lot better if people were less judgmental and open to idea that everybody has something to contribute to the world, even love.

Thank you.

Ottawa was where I gave my next speech  Lenny, Aleisha, and I rode on Via Rail, First Class, and enjoyed all of the perks: free food and as much booze as you want.  If this sounds like gluttony as its worst, then let me just say that I feel justified in taking full advantage of Via's generosity, because they have only one wheelchair seating area on the whole train, and the bathroom is not accessible.

The actual conference I  was speaking at was on police brutality. It was, to say the very least, eye-opening and disturbing. On the first day, there was a panel of four people who all talked about how cops had killed members of their families, and had got away with it by covering it up.

Here's my speech:

On July 21, 2010, my friend and employee Lenny used a megaphone to read the speech I had written out of the office window of the Liberal Party Headquarters. Our peers down below, from both OCAP and DAMN 2025, cheered as we denounced the McGuinty government for cutting the Special Diet and the hypocrisy of the government's recent ridiculous spending spree. Nine other people were with us in that tiny office space, and one person hung a banner out the window. Nothing else was either touched or moved.

The action should have only taken 15 minutes, maybe 20 at the most, and then we were supposed to just leave. Unfortunately, as Lenny neared the end of my speech, a bunch of cops burst into the room and dragged Lenny into the hall. Soon, all 11 people, including myself, were unceremoniously corralled into the outer room.

Most people were cuffed and reprimanded by police, although they didn't inform people until much later with what they were being charged. They did try to tell us that people from the Liberal Headquarters had told us to leave, but I sure never heard them. In fact, they had been very helpful to get us inside.

I was told to go sit by a wall. Two people from my group were in front of me, and everyone else was behind me. As if I were invisible or inconsequential, the cops ignored me, and questioned and yelled at everyone else in the room. Eventually, one cop came over asked me if he could look in the bag on the back of my chair for identification, and I shook my head and pointed to my money pouch around my waist. Fortunately, he understood, but I was anxious to get Lenny back with me so that I could communicate more freely and precisely. My two friends in front of me helped me convey this to the cop. I could hear Lenny behind me telling some other cops that it was against Human Rights to keep my communication assistant away from me. I also told them that I needed Lenny with me for other kinds of assistance that day, because I had no one else scheduled to come to my apartment that evening. At that point, the cop actually said to me, "No problem, we'll call an ambulance for you and send you to the hospital." I almost exploded in fury and indignation! I rapidly spelled out on my communication board: "No no no no no! I'm fine! I'm not sick!" I wished I could have conveyed to him exactly how triggering the mere mention of a trip to the hospital was for me! Hospitals are not safe places for people with disabilities. Like prison, you're treated as if you have no rights and no brains with which to think.

Forty-five minutes had passed by this time. I could hear one cop yelling at Lenny and saying it was disgusting how I had been coerced into participating in the action. Lenny defended himself by saying that he had only been doing what I asked him to do, but the cop wouldn't listen. Finally, Lenny was by my side, and I spoke up and said that I had written that speech and asked Lenny to read it. I added proudly, "I am not a pawn!" Why was it so beyond belief for the cops that I might have self-determination and want to stand up for my rights, especially since I would, in all probability, be losing a huge chunk of my monthly income?

It was then that I was charged with trespassing, as was Lenny. We were the only two who didn't also get charged with mischief and have to do a night in jail. I guess because it was too much work for them to find us an accessible paddy wagon and cell. Oddly, sometimes our ableist society sometimes to work in our favour.

As I say, my speech was about the right to keep the much needed Special Diet money that was about to be cut from ODSP and OW recipients. During the G20, I marched with my peers in solidarity for this right and many more, so that we can live life with dignity and freedom.

The cops took no notice of the honour of our stance. No, instead they saw it as a chance to display their grotesque brute strength over the people they're supposed to “serve and protect”.

I realize that police violence is the norm, unfortunately; rather than the exception, especially when it comes to the poor, the marginalized, and the disabled. It's just that, during the G20, this fact became startlingly, unnervingly, obvious. With millions of dollars in government funding and support, cops felt like they could do anything with the power they'd been given. They've always had power over the public, and have, too often, abused that privilege, but, during this time this fact seemed to be magnified 100 times.

With my own eyes, I saw one cop pull a deaf man from the crowd for no apparent reason and detain him, keeping him from his ASL interpreter for hours. Everyone has heard the horrific stories of the G20, where police terrorized the public in their quest to find the “bad activists”, but also targeting the most vulnerable people. Tearing off a prosthetic leg from a prone man and then dragging him across concrete – disgusting! But the brutality continued even after the G20 had ended. In BC, a young woman with CP simply brushed by 2 cops as she walked down the street. They tackled her to the ground, thus breaking her wrist.

Cops are trained to harass and perpetrate violence against people who look or act different from the “norm”. Certainly, poor, marginalized people, and people with disabilities fit this description.

On a larger scale, our immigration system is an excellent example of this type of negative profiling. Poor and disabled people from other countries are seen as a drain on resources, with no kind of discernible worth at all. It is because of this shameful attitude that it is so easy for our government to refuse these people entry into the country, or send them back to horrific conditions, and sometimes even death. This practice must be stopped! No one is valueless, no one is illegal, and everyone deserves a shot at a better life!

To end, I will tell you that Lenny and I are still waiting for the trespassing case against us to finally go to court; it keeps getting pushed back. Now they say it will take place in the summer. I am sure this delaying tactic is designed to wear us down by postponing it over and over again, but it only makes me more resolute to fight and to show how rampant ableism is within the police and judicial system.

It's so utterly disgusting to me how cops view people with disabilities. We are either seen as being extremely guileless and helpless, or as being an easy target for harassment and persecution.. Unless we put a stop to this, the police will always target poor and disabled people. We must work together to stop police violence! We must work together to stop the further funneling of funds to the police force. There are a billion better ways to use that money!

Thank you.

My last speech was at the "Raise the Rates" demonstration on April 1st. We read some of our speeches outside of the Sheraton Hotel, where Dwight Duncan and his cronies were inside having a big expensive banquet to celebrate all the money they were saving by cutting poor people off the special diet.  We then marched up University to Bay Street and stood in front of the Department of Social Services, where we read more speeches.
Here's my speech from that day:

The provincial budget, which was delivered by Dwight Duncan on March 29, 2011, did absolutely nothing for poor people in Ontario who rely upon the already ridiculously meager amounts from ODSP and OW.
Food prices are skyrocketing, and energy and transportation costs keep rising. The budget’s 1% increase to OW and ODSP is both insulting and demeaning! We need more to live, thrive, and feed our families on than a mere one percent! What a slap in the face!
But there is another injustice I want to talk about today, and that is the cutting of the Special Diet money. Back in December, 2010, just before Christmas, the government magnanimously announced that it would “save” the Special Diet. Yeah, right! What they meant was they'd cut the much needed program and have everybody on ODSP and OW re-apply. The cunning bastards knew what they were doing! They knew that this would cause major difficulties for people, which would, inevitably, slow down the system while weeding out some of the applicants – applicants who still need and deserve that money in order to survive! The list of qualifications was also shortened, another measure to ensure that only a very few could receive the Special Diet again. Not only do they want us to wade through miles of red tape, the government wants to take our right to privacy away by saying that ODSP and OW can look into our medical records if they want.
Dwight Duncan and our government as a whole, do not respect the poor people of this country. They treat us as if we are scum that they scrape off from the bottom of their shoes. But we are people, just like anyone else in this country, and, as such, we deserve to have the same rights. The right to have enough money so that we don't have to be forced to choose between paying rent and eating. The right to have enough money to buy nutritious food so that we can remain healthy and thrive. Most important, we deserve the right to receive enough respect from our government to be assured that the money, which is vital to our very existence, will never be suddenly cut.
Thank you.

Have I finally finished all of my speaking engagements? For now yes, but in May I'll be giving a talk to medical students.  As Rob used to say, "For someone who's non-verbal, you sure do talk a lot!"

Friday, February 18, 2011

Frustration and the Never-ending Spiral of Segregaton

See this picture?  I came upon it the other day when I was sorting through and editing my digital photos. It was taken on New Year's Eve.  I have no recollection of why I was angry and looking so ferocious!

This photo does seem to mirror the feelings I had last week: blood boiling fury and head banging against the wall, screaming into my pillow frustration!

It all started on Monday, February 7th, when I checked my mail and opened a letter from ODSP.  I was shocked and horrified to learn that they had put my file on hold, effectively as of February 1st.  (The letter was dated February 1st, so there was no warning at all that they were going to pull the rug from under me!) The reason for this drastic action was that I had not sent in my CPP information nor my business details.

Not letting the grass grow under my feet, I printed out all my business details for 2010 and also wrote this letter:

February 7, 2011

To whom it may concern,

My name is Anne Abbott and I am requesting an internal review. I received your letter on February 7th, 2011 stating that my ODSP file is now on hold. I do not understand why this is so. In your letter you said I did not provide you with the CPP/QPP – Other and Business Income information, please clarify for me what the CPP/QPP is. My worker only told me to provide my income and expenses every year, and I have not been called in yet to give that information. It is no trouble to provide this information at all, as long as I am informed first. I was not informed! I need my ODSP money, I only make $100 a month from my business, if that. Please take my file off the hold.

Thank you,

Anne Abbott

I took this letter with me to the ODSP office the very next day. I asked to see my worker and they said no problem. Within 15 minutes I was in a cubicle facing my worker. There were 2 things I noticed right away. One, was that this woman was not my usual person; and two, she was talking about me in the third person to Lenny. I exploded!

I told the worker to talk directly to me: I was right in front of her and understood everything she was saying! (I just don't understand - they must deal with other non-verbal people all the time! Do they talk about all of them as if they weren't there? And I've been there so many times over the years, you'd think they would know me!) Still fired up, I told her that I thought it was terrible that they had given me no warning at all about cutting me off. Do you know how scared and intimidated I felt? To think that this agency has so much power over my life, and that they didn't think of the consequences of how this might impact my world!

To my amazement, my worker actually apologized and said she would take this matter up with her manager.  Then she left the office and came back with some forms for me to fill out.  One was the application for the CPP (I don't know why she wanted me to apply for a pension when I'm not even 65, it even says on the form that you have to be 65!)

When she handed me the other application, her tone became accusatory, saying I hadn't applied for the Death Benefit within a year. That was really the crux of the matter for ODSP. I defended myself by saying I don't know why I have to apply for the benefit when it will just be taken out of my next month's cheque. She said that was just how things worked.  I groaned inwardly, but said to her yes, sure, I would fill out the application if that would get me my pension back.

What these bureaucrat bastards don't seem to understand is that filling out the form for the Death Benefit opens up old wounds.  I mean, sure, I know that Rob is gone, but I've learned to put that away in a secret little compartment in the back of my mind. They made me revisit that most horrible time in my life, and then they put a cherry on the top of this whole mess by telling me that I can't even keep the money for myself.  How degrading!

And  then, last Thursday, I went to a demonstration at City Hall with DAMN, OCAP, No One is Illegal, and AIDS Action Now, among many other coalition parties.  We did not "storm" into City Hall as some people in the media were claiming.  No, we went in quietly and stood there, listening and absorbing all the information about the budget and cuts.

After awhile we heard the marching band approaching from outside the doors of the committee room.  And then, somebody gave the signal to start yelling things like: "Stop the war on the poor! Make the rich pay!" Ford's slashing of 2000 beds at homeless shelters and much needed late night bus routes being canceled, were also hot topics to be vented.

Ire rose on both sides.  Most of  the councilors had been escorted by security guards back to their offices, but at one point Doug Ford yelled at a member of OCAP to "get a job"  (a fact that he later denied, even though he was caught on tape saying it!) I actually know this person; she works for and gets paid by OCAP, so Doug Ford's comment seems doubly ridiculous!

There were speeches read with great passion by many people. I was one of those people.  Here is my speech:

We are here today to voice our outrage and disgust at the cuts that are being proposed. Slashing the number of beds at at homeless shelters and cutting $100 000 from tenant representation isn't the type of city I want to live in.
Instead of these inhumane cuts, why can't Ford and the city of Toronto do some things that are progressive and uplifting. Instead of tearing down people's hopes and dreams for the future, why not try to help them build them up right from the start.

Begin with the educational system. Stop the segregation of disabled children from other children! Segregation breeds ableism, labeling the disabled child as “different”, and making the impression that they are not really a part of society, or at least not an important part.

This type of societal attitude will follow a disabled child throughout their lifetime. As years go by, instead of being hidden away in “special” school, a person will be hidden away from society in different ways. It will be an extreme rarity for them to appear in television, movies, or other media because their appearance is considered to be “undesirable”. And, what happens in their daily lives will be kept secret: the abuse, degradation, and poverty. A disabled adult will face other types of segregation: institutions, hospitals, and jail. Even with on-site attendant care projects, a disabled person using these services is locked into a world of abuse and frustration with little hope of escape the warped internal politics of each of these projects is infuriatingly similar.

And the feeling of being thought as a lower member of society will also continue throughout a person's lifetime as they fight to secure their basic rights only to be met with sneers or stony silence from government officials who promise to make the environment accessible and to make poverty go away, but don't follow through.

Instead of making cuts which will hurt more people than help them, why don't YOU Rob Ford, follow through and make the necessary changes that were promised to us: accessible and reliable transit, barrier free buildings, and an end to poverty! Do something humane for the City of Toronto for a change, Rob Ford!

Stop the school segregation of disabled children! End the ableism before it begins!

People may say that this strong stance against segregation of disabled children is too much. They need special care, don't they?  They need to be treated a bit more gently because they're "special".

Let me tell you about my experience with segregated schools.  When I was 5 years old this big blue bus picked me up, along with several disabled children, every day through the week days and brought us to the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre.

After everyone got off the bus, we were all taken to the physio therapy room where we were exercised for two hours or more. Sometimes physio therapist students would come in, and we were told to perform for them and show them what we had learned.

After physio therapy, speech therapy, and maybe an hour of schooling, we had lunch.  Lunch on Fridays was particularly frightening for me because the person who usually (and very oddly, come to think of it!) served me was my speech therapist, and she, quite cruelly, force-fed me fish, something I had repeatedly told her that I despised.

 I also despised my speech therapist. One day, when I was in her office, with no parent present for emotional support, she told me that unless I put everything aside (school, friends, even daily exercises), I'd never be able to talk.  I was only 6 years old, and what she said crushed me!  I had wanted to be able to talk so badly, and she wiped out any hope of me eventually being able to do that.  Even back then, I was a well-rounded, socialized person, and that choice of giving else up that I loved was no choice for me at all.  Instead, I developed my own mode of communication.

After lunch-time came nap-time. Half a dozen blue exercise mats were laid out on the floor, and we kids were placed upon them, three to a mat.  If we chatted amongst ourselves or even (how dare we!) giggled, we were either yelled at or carried by one arm and one leg to another mat.

When I reached the age of 7, the Centre told my parents that I seemed listless and depressed, and they figured that the reason for this was that my young mind wasn't being challenged enough.

So, I was transferred to a school called Sunny View.  And,  admittedly, Sunny View was way better than the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre.  Learning was top priority, doing exercises came second.

I do have one bad memory from being at Sunny View.  I was 10 years old, and it was suddenly decided by the matrons that the kids were too heavy for them to transfer on and off the toilets and that the male janitors should be doing the lifting.  Admittedly, it was an era before mechanical ceiling lifts, but surely the matrons could have worked together and done two-person lifts.  The janitors were large and sweaty, and stank of stale beer.  They assisted me only once with the washroom - and then never again!  For six more years, I simply refused to use the washroom while at school.

(I should mention that around this time, when I was 9, I went to Blue Mountain Camp, a camp for children with disabilities. It was there that a male councilor peeled my wet bathing suit. He complained to his peers around him that this wasn't his job, and I thought to myself, how can you complain when I'm lying before you, totally naked and feeling utterly humiliated and vulnerable?)

When I was 16, a bunch of us got transferred to a regular high school.  I liked the English and Art classes, and although I didn't feel I was a genius in History, my teacher insisted that I was his best pupil.  I made friends, too, cool friends who respected the person I was and offered every day to help me eat my lunch. I couldn't help but think why couldn't school be like right from the beginning?  Kids helping other kids and learning from each other!

I had to quit high school.  There was just one bus that took all of the disabled kids from and to their homes, and because everyone lived in different parts of the city it took me up to three hours to get home.  I was too exhausted to do my homework.

The Board of  Education provided me with a home tutor. I really liked Carol - she was cool, and understood that I was a real person with brains and ambitions. My mom would provide tea and cookies during our lessons, and Carol would occasionally bring along her three little children.  It was a wonderful atmosphere, and I got my grade 12 in English and my grade 11 in History.

Am I saying all disabled children and teens should be home tutored? Hell no! What I am saying is, right from the start disabled children should be integrated with other children so that there's understanding and empathy on both sides. I will say it again: segregation breeds prejudice, which spirals downwards to poverty, abuse, and "differentness". Surely it wouldn't be difficult to make all schools accessible! Didn't the OAA state that by 2025 everything would be accessible? Shouldn't that include schools, too? Not that I'm saying that we should wait until 2025. And didn't McGuinty say he wanted to stop poverty? When I was 18, I was put on Family Benefits, which morphed into ODSP. No one suggested that I should get a job, or even more education; it was just assumed that this was the end of the road for me, and financially and in some ways socially, yes, it was.

Fortunately, I empowered myself by creating my art, and writing about my life. It is my fervent hope that by these means society will wake up and see the injustices that disabled people experience on a daily basis.