I was recently invited to visit a friend who built a house, over the course of three decades, in Baxters Harbour, Nova Scotia.
“We are two old babes with a couple of equally old cats, living in a very remote but spectacularly beautiful edge of time,” she wrote to seduce my visit.
My friend is Catherine Frazee, a woman with a wikipedia page and an Order of Canada. She served as the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission from 1989 to 1992. She has all the kinds of accolades this #sexicon admires and adores. But those are things she is to the public. To me, more rare and infinitely precious, Catherine is my elder. I mean that as it’s purest honorific. She is not just older than me. She is also disabled, and has aged with her disability, achieved and taught, written and created and traveled and lived and loved with her disability. She has been part of the movements that have pushed the pioneering edge of disabled politics, culture, and rights to where it is now, and I got to sit at her dining room table and hear about her history, our history — my history.
This is remarkable because it is rare for me to meet disabled elders, let alone ones who have set an example I long to follow.
“I think you are knocking it out of the park,” Catherine said to me about my own work. I had gone to Nova Scotia to visit my best friend from highschool. A few days before visiting Catherine, my friend and I were trudging through her forest trails and talking about how a common trait among my closest friends is that they are not so easily impressed. Not necessarily about me specifically, but that part of their personality gives me a lot of freedom to do things without it all being immediately sentimentalized. There is room for me to decide for myself what it means, if it means anything at all. The downside to this is, well, what are we proud of and when does an accomplishment of mine deserve or rouse our praise? But when Catherine told me that she liked my work, and why she liked my work, I realized that my hesitancy to be impressed or proud has much to do with lacking an authority on what I was even trying to do. An authority outside of myself. An authority with the appropriate context.
I am still gathering my thoughts on what it means to have access to elders, in general, but especially in the disability community where we are often born to the abled, raised in a culture and communities designed by (and for) the abled, our lives and landscapes are strictly shaped by the limits and low expectations of the abled worldview and rarely do we meet our true peers, let alone our true elders, our exemplars, our inspired way-farers.
What Catherine and I have most in common, though, is not our disabled experience, but our sensual one. The purpose behind the accessibility features of her home and land were not just focused on brute access, but on the sensory quality as she accessed the environment. When I think of my movements in the wild, it’s not my body’s adaptations that I am motivated by, it’s rarely even a distinct location as a goal. I am driven by the urge to fill my senses with nature. Often, accessibility design, removes sensuality entirely. It’s institutional quality brought into the private and personal home. Only access is considered. Not pleasure. Not desire. Catherine desires. I desire. And our desire leads us intrepidly forward.
One innovation in particular that captures the spirit of the sensuous, is the microphone set up outside under the roof of her deck. It picks up the soundscape, the waves, the wind, the pheasants ruffling in the garden, the fat blue jays and chipmunks at the bird-feeder. There is a speaker in Catherine’s bedroom that plays the sounds so she can hear them from bed. Whenever it is not possible to go outside and be in nature, she draws nature in to be with her.
Catherine bought this property the year I was born. It has taken her my exact and entire lifespan of thirty-eight years to bring it to where it is today. But when she bought it, she didn’t love it for what she thought it could be — what it is now. She loved it for what it was: one tiny cabin without electricity or hot water, limited to tiny picture windows and no wheelchair access down to the water. She spent two weeks every year summering (escaping big city life) in her cabin. Which first was improved for the purposes of writing, by the addition of an extra door leading to a private deck.
I marveled at the railings at wheel-level instead in my line of sight, the cuts of trees that revealed the water in strategic locations, the pathways lined with eco-raster to keep the gravel from shifting so wheels don’t get stuck but the trails are still pretty. The trails that lead all the way to every lookout point. There is no place a person can easily go that a wheelchair can’t easily follow.
I marveled myself into an inarticulate awe. The astonishment and joy in my face a question I could not yet put into words. How do I do this, too?
Catherine understood me anyway.
“I just kept pushing closer to the edge,” she answered.