Of John and Others

 

He [the disabled man] has practically to construct anew a world of his own, and explain a great many things to himself that the ordinary person never dreams of finding unintelligible at all. He will be filled with a profound sympathy for all who are despised and ignored in the world.

Randolph Bourne
"The Handicapped" (1911)

 

I have been told I have a significant yet macabre gift; I am good at crafting and delivering memorial tributes. It's not a talent I usually speak of, nor even one I am comfortable with. Something inside me rebels at a eulogy that is too much a work of art. Stumbling, painful, inarticulate grief seems more authentic somehow, less of a performance.

Yet a eulogy is really just the flip side of autobiographical writing. Both forms try to sum up lives, recount stimulating details, and ideally draw meaningful lessons from the life being explored.

Just three weeks ago, the playwright John Belluso died in New York City, where he was preparing for a reading of his newest play. The reading, which had been scheduled for February 27, was transformed into a memorial and celebration of all John's work. Lazy obituaries have referred to him as a "disabled playwright." More thoughtful people have spoken of him as a talented and creative writer who often used disability as both a lens and a canvas.

I respected and admired John's talent enormously. He was trying to create a tapestry of previously overlooked life experience, something epic, but with a didactic edge that never stopped trying to educate and enlighten his audience. Whether he wanted to be or not, I think John was a Breakthrough Guy; for such artists, the audience may not be the smaller Us, but instead the larger Everyone Else. John carried his messages into the greater world, and they got through. That's how you end up with commissioned plays, multiple productions and awards, and Tony Kushner speaking at your memorial service.

I can only hope that John was not unique, but the first of many. There are many stories left to tell, many messages to be imparted, to audiences both eagerly willing and seemingly hostile. People with disabilities are neither flukes nor fads, and should not be treated as such. We exist not just as another marginalized group, but as a living reproach, a reminder of what our society would too often prefer to trivialize or ignore; as John reminded the world, disability cuts across all lines and boundaries that separate groups and individuals from one another. It is the one marker of minority status that can insert itself anywhere, and transform lives in an instant without notice or warning. That makes it scary as hell for much of the world to comprehend, but also a rich and vibrant source of creativity and inspiration.

One of John's plays brought the early-twentieth-century American intellectual Randolph Bourne onto the stage and claimed him as an ancestor, both as a thinker and as a man who may have been the first to write about disabled people as a distinct social group. His essay, written in 1911 when he was twenty-five and only a few years away from an infuriatingly early death, was reprinted in "Ragged Edge Online" when John's Bourne play was being staged in Los Angeles.

To remember John, keep an eye out, and go see one of his plays if you get a chance. And read Randolph Bourne, another Breakthrough Guy with a critical voice whom the world lost too soon during a time of war. I'd like to think that he and John are now three weeks into their Eternal Conversation. How I wish we could eavesdrop on them regularly.

©2006 Danny Kodmur

 

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Danny Kodmur lives, writes, and tries to figure his life out in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work is featured in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" (Haworth Press), a 2004 Lambda Literary Award winner. Write to him with comments and questions at profxavier@comcast.net.

 

More by Danny Kodmur

A Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
How Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability ~11/00
On Being (Un)Representative ~1/02
Testing My Faith in Romance ~3/02
No Need to Kick My Tires ~5/02
Balcony Scenes with a Twist ~7/02
Productive Confusion ~7/02
The Music and the Mirror ~9/02
The Music and the Mirror:II ~11/02
Life Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets ~5/03
So How Old Are You, Anyway? ~7/03
Socializing and Sobriety ~9/03
Walking in L.A. ~11/03
Wedding Bell Blues ~3/04
Fortress of Solitude ~7/04
Sound Bodies ~9/04
Fear, Fat, and Fabulousness ~5/05
Hermit Emerging, Gradually ~7/05
Picture That: On Seeing and Not Seeing Myself ~9/05
My Secret [Hetero] History ~1/06

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2006