Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

disability

From the Archives: Old Poem, “You Get Proud By Practicing”

In honor of LGBT Pride Month — and to honor and encourage all kinds of people embracing the risks of visibility and pride — I decided to re-post a very old poem of mine. It remains a favorite of mine, and of lots of other people. It’s been reprinted in a number of places, most recently in an anthology called Fire in the Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights. It speaks of the right to feel proud, and offers some exercises for achieving pride.

YOU GET PROUD BY PRACTICING

Copyright 1991 by Laura Hershey

If you are not proud
for who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
if every time you stop
to think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
with golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can
get proud.

You do not need
a better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
to be proud.
You do not need
a lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
to be able to walk, or see, or hear,
or use big, complicated words,
or do any of the things that you just can’t do
to be proud. A caseworker
cannot make you proud,
or a doctor.
You only need
more practice.
You get proud
by practicing.

There are many many ways to get proud.
You can try riding a horse, or skiing on one leg,
or playing guitar,
and do well or not so well,
and be glad you tried
either way.
You can show
something you’ve made
to someone you respect
and be happy with it no matter
what they say.
You can say
what you think, though you know
other people do not think the same way, and you can
keep saying it, even if they tell you
you are crazy.
You can add your voice
all night to the voices
of a hundred and fifty others
in a circle
around a jailhouse
where your brothers and sisters are being held
for blocking buses with no lift,
or you can be one of the ones
inside the jailhouse,
knowing of the circle outside.
You can speak your love
to a friend
without fear.
You can find someone
who will listen to you
without judging you or doubting you or being
afraid of you
and let you hear yourself perhaps
for the first time.
These are all ways
of getting proud.
None of them
are easy, but all of them
are possible. You can do all of these things,
or just one of them again and again.
You get proud
by practicing.

Power makes you proud, and power
comes in many fine forms
supple and rich as butterfly wings.
It is music
when you practice opening your mouth
and liking what you hear
because it is the sound of your own
true voice.
It is sunlight
when you practice seeing
strength and beauty in everyone
including yourself.
It is dance
when you practice knowing
that what you do
and the way you do it
is the right way for you
and can’t be called wrong.
All these hold
more power than weapons or money
or lies.
All these practices bring power, and power
makes you proud.
You get proud
by practicing.

Remember, you weren’t the one
who made you ashamed,
but you are the one
who can make you proud.
Just practice,
practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
keep practicing so you won’t forget.
You get proud
by practicing.

By the way, if you would like to order a poetry chapbooks, audiotapes, or poster featuring this poem, “You Get Proud By Practicing,” you can email Laura at laura@laurahershey.com or send a check for $10 per item to:
Laura Hershey
P.O. Box 11215
Englewood, Colorado 80151

The Halloween Costume Dilemma

When I was a kid, I coveted the presents that came on Christmas and birthdays, and I stuffed myself on Thanksgiving. I felt like a real sleuth searching for Easter eggs. I took a pyromaniac joy in the Fourth of July festivities.

But of all the holidays traditionally celebrated by American Protestants, my favorite was Halloween.

That’s a little surprising to me now, because when I try to come up with costumes to wear to Halloween parties, or just to answer the door to trick-or-treaters, I usually come up empty. I don’t have a lot of self-adornment skills or creativity. I also puzzle over how any given costume idea might interact with my various highly visible disability accouterments. During this campaign season, I have thought of trying to be a scary Sarah Palin, or a Democratic donkey, or a persistent pollster. But any such persona/anima would, I fear, clash with my wheelchair, ventilator, and other devices.

Of course, I could try to blend my equipment into a more technologically-themed costume. I could be Star Trek: Voyager‘s Seven of Nine (minus the spectacular physique), or Darth Vader (without the light saber — but my nephews would never let me get away with that).

I could emulate the appearance of a famous disabled person; I’m just not sure I have the panache to pull off Franklin D. Roosevelt. I know I don’t have the dashing masculine charm of Christopher Reeve. (Celebrity women in wheelchairs seem to be few and far between. Annette Funicello, Barbara Jordan, and most others departed the public eye after becoming disabled, so they lack the easy recognizability of a good costume.)

Things were much simpler when I was young. As a child, I never (that I can remember) worried about my disability’s effect on my costume. That’s probably because my Mom didn’t worry about it. She had a creative imagination, and the craft and sewing skills to carry out her ideas.

One Halloween I was Snoopy, with beagle ears and a black button nose. With a few pieces of painted cardboard, my wheelchair became a rough approximation of a dog house.

Another year I was a football player, with big shoulder pads, and a Denver Broncos helmet and jersey. I guess people just drew their own conclusions about how the wheelchair fit in with that.

My favorite, most memorable costume was part of a family ensemble: Playing on our last name, my mother used brown and white felt to transform my brother into a walking Hershey chocolate bar. And around my wheelchair, she sculpted chickenwire and a large quantity of tinfoil into a Hershey kiss costume.

Parents convey their attitudes toward their children through simple acts like these. (Okay, my mother would probably take issue with the term “simple” here. Some of those costumes probably took hours, and several false starts, to achieve the desired effect.) The point is, I had the same Halloween expectations as every other kid in my neighborhood: to dress up, to take on a new identity, and to present myself at each door demanding candy.

Now I’m on the other side of that transaction, getting ready to answer my own door to trick-or-treaters. I’m still not sure what I’ll be wearing when I do that.

I wonder if we have any foil around here?

Disability and Poetry

I had a lucky opportunity on July 18 to read about 30 minutes’ worth of my poetry to around 1000 members of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). As the keynote speaker at the annual AHEAD conference in Reno, Nevada, I could have lectured these college and university service providers about advocacy methods, or the equation of access with inclusiveness, or the importance of empowering our nation’s younger disabled generation — all subjects about which I care passionately. Instead, I chose to share my poems — a few old ones, mostly new ones. The response from the audience was gratifying. Poetry, I think, can reach past practice, through theory, beyond belief; poetry can touch a deeper place in people’s consciousness, resonating with the felt truth of detail, the tasty messy stuff of lived experience. It’s sensual, not conceptual.

Some of my poetry addresses themes related to disability. In a rather stimulating twist of irony, on the evening before my reading, I joined other AHEAD conference attendees in an outing to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. We saw an outstanding production of Richard III, featuring one of the great disabled villains of all time.

Voicing the words Shakespeare put in his mouth, the character of Richard attributes his evil nature largely to his congenital physical impairment, which he describes as follows:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them…

I love the Bard of Avon, but I have a much different take on the disabled body. During my presentation, I read a poem I wrote several years ago, called “Monster Body.” The poem begins with an acknowledgment of the cultural perceptions of disability, spanning the centuries from Shakespeare’s Richard III to Shelley’s Frankenstein:

I mock the human form
My back, shell-sharp curve, my thin wrist bone
Limbs that do not twitch beyond the digits
Illustrate terror, the randomness of damage

But by the end of the poem, the experience of living inside disability has been reclaimed and celebrated:

I take this shape, my body
Monster body mine
By my body I journey,
I learn, I love.
It is my lens, my light.

(A few samples of my poetry are online at http://www.cripcommentary.com/poetry.html .)