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Nancy Mairs Tackles Disability With Grace, If Not Ease.
By Mari Wadsworth

Waist-High in the World, by Nancy Mairs (Beacon Press).
Hardcover, $20.

BY THE TIME I was 30, I walked with a limp and used a cane. By 40, I wore a brace on my left leg and used a motorized scooter to cover all but short distances. Now, in my 50s, I divide my time between wheelchair and bed, my belly and feet are swollen from forced inactivity, my shoulders slump, and one of my arms is falling out of its socket." Meet Nancy's body, the subject, in part, of Waist-High in the World, a new collection of essays by the local poet, former UA creative writing prof, and self-described "cripple" in advancing stages of multiple sclerosis.

It's not an appealing image to the healthy reader. It's not an appealing image to anyone, least of all Mairs herself, who drove across the country, walked city streets, wrote with a pencil, made love to a variety of men, and was in the throes of marriage, career and raising two children before she was diagnosed, at age 29, with an incurable dysfunction surrounding her central nervous system. But the images don't have to be appealing, because the subject is irresistible.

The subject is, of course, Mairs. Personal reflection and exposition are what she does best, and she's done them to great acclaim in books like Ordinary Time, Carnal Acts and Plaintext: Deciphering a Woman's Life. Here, once again, she delves into the deeply personal--not just her own life, but that of her terminally ill husband, her adult children, her mother, sister, mother-in-law and a host of others--to exhume the unmentionable. In this case, her topic is the book's subtitle, "a life among the nondisabled." Oh my, not only a woman, but a cripple, talking about sexual desire, abortion and euthanasia, the decline of human bodies, the marginalization of individuals we deem, for whatever reason, unsightly, the graphic difficulties of using "handicapped accessible" public restrooms.

It's a risky undertaking, as she herself admits early on; but it's one that promises not only to enlighten those accustomed to viewing the world from above, within a zone of comfort catering to their every preference, but to recognize and perhaps inspire those for whom public life is more often an exercise in discomfiture and even despair.

"In a society that prates about, but seldom practices, communication, the craving to be listened to, heard, understood...is hard to assuage. And because a cripple, in order to earn a shot at social intercourse with 'normals,' must never even mention it, an other who treats disability as a safe topic of conversation offers immeasurable relief," she writes.

Squeamish readers may balk at Mairs' openness. At first glance her descriptions of her friends' half-full urine bags bobbing on the surface during an afternoon swim, of the operation on her husband's colon, seem indelicate at best, at worst insensitive. But this lack of censorship, self or otherwise, should be celebrated for the hard-won battle that it is. That she achieves this not only with intellectual insight, but also poetic grace, distinguishes her above others who've written extensively on the topic of disability. Just when you want to set her aside for awhile, she changes from pragmatist to poet, taking the "ugly" truth and rendering it beautiful:

"Here is my troubled body, dreaming myself into life: a guttering candle in a mound of melted wax, or a bruised pear, ripe beyond palatability, ready for the compost heap."

No one escapes untouched, and subsequently one of the book's abiding strengths is the varying audiences to which it speaks. Clearly, the book is meant for the bipedal and unencumbered, a group she pointedly reconstructs as "nondisabled," because "in relation to me, they are the deficient ones." But Mairs' ability to connect with the universal by sticking ruthlessly to the personal adds a scope and perspective that the title Waist-High in the World hardly begins to explain.

Those familiar with Mairs' other works will recognize elements of her narrative in the first half of the book, which deals with her private life. The effect, however, is not repetition but familiarity. The incapacitating migraines that isolated her in her room as an adolescent, for example, the writers' circle that met monthly at her beloved Aunt Jean's Boston home, her solitary move, mid-marriage, into her own cottage--a move which ended some months later with a bad fall and a few missing teeth: All of these and more make an appearance in Remembering the Bone House (which, along with Writing A Woman's Life, by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, should be required reading for all women navigating the straits of adulthood).

But here they have been newly reinterpreted with waist-high hindsight. Here they find their footing, so to speak, in the context of a world filled with obstacles to overcome: the social constructs that dictate, even demand, that disability confine itself behind a closed door; the practical hazards of ascending a narrow, icy flight of granite steps to visit a relative; the realization that the body is not going to get better, but worse...but that life, however tenuous, is not by association degenerative. "A life commonly held to be insufferable can be full and funny," she states. "I'm living the life."

By the time we get to the second half, which looks outward to the lives of other disabled women, discusses the ethics of choosing death, shares the rewards and pitfalls of travel, we've acclimated to our new vantage point--we've gotten to the middle of things, discovering it's quite a bit further from the bottom than previously thought.

Those learning to live with disability themselves, their families and friends, any who've suffered the pain or loss brought on by incurable, degenerative illness or clinical depression, any, in fact, who've been confronted at some point in life by a malady--mental or physical--that's set them apart from the comfort of feeling "normal," will find resonance, and hope, in the experiences of this ordinary woman who determined she'd have an extraordinary life.

This is not a "feel-good" book, however, as the author herself is quick to point out. She prefers the label "feel-real."

"I ask you to read this book, then, not to be uplifted, but to be lowered and steadied into what may be unfamiliar, but is not inhospitable, space," she writes.

Mairs succeeds where many others have failed by being not only an engaging writer, but an engaging thinker. She deftly juxtaposes the private and public, personal and socio-political, involving the reader in a dialogue that disallows one from being merely an audience for some other. She draws you in, thereby eliminating any chance of the distance, rest assured, you'll try at some level to create. All this, rendered with humor and style. "Will my spirits flag as my life goes steadily flatter, in every sense of the word?" she asks. "Perhaps. All I know is that I have already slid much further than I ever thought I could bear to do; and so far, so good."

Nancy Mairs will read from Waist-High in the World at 7 p.m. Sunday, February 16, at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. For information, call 792-3735. TW

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