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Life in the Meanwhile

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I encountered a beautiful idea recently – the meanwhile place. It’s the idea of using temporary spaces for all sorts of things while they are waiting to be redeveloped, or sold, or for the local council to decide what to do with them. There’s even a foundation devoted to promoting the idea – The Meanwhile Foundation. It wasn’t just that the idea of making use of unused spaces while they are in limbo felt eminently sensible, but there was something instantly appealing about the idea of letting go of the need to have permanence, certainty, ownership. That a group of people might take on a space, do something with it, in the meanwhile feels almost spiritual. To let go of the idea of permanence like that is something I aspire to in my own life. That idea of the meanwhile seems to me a much more powerful way of thinking about ‘the now’, holding us as it does not in some impossible to achieve life without future (or past) but rather in balance with it. It allows for the future to be part of the now without dominating it.

Like many of us I’ve been taken with the idea that to live in the now is a good thing. Yet for all my efforts I fail more often than not. The now is very hard place to be, the future casts a long shadow. Staying in the now requires such effort, and feels so odd and artificial. Truth be told it’s a place I visit rather than truly inhabit. There are good reasons for that of course.  Growing up we are constantly asked to consider our future. But that future is a very specific kind of future. It’s where we imagine ourselves to be something, to achieve something. Thinking of it we learn to worry that we might not make it to ‘being something’ and in that worry is born a number of the things that will haunt us the rest of our lives – a sense of inadequacy, the need to strive, the confusion of self with status or place in the world. Our neuroticism is born in that compulsion to live in the future. Even when life casts the future into the seas of ‘not knowing’ (as MS did me) its Siren call not only persists, but increases. Now we have so many futures to fret about – the one in the wheelchair, the one with the breathing apparatus, the one cut short. The now becomes more and more elusive.

But the meanwhile, the meanwhile feels so much more comfortable. I am here in the meanwhile, as we all are. While I am here I might as well… I might as well try this, I might as well try that. Freed from the effort of resisting the Siren calls of Past and Future that the idea of the Now imposes, life becomes lighter, freer. After all isn’t now really just the time in limbo between past and future? Isn’t life just a series of flashes of impermanence? Aren’t we really just like children grasping at dandelion seeds or bubbles? Kids don’t worry about the bubbles they missed – they laugh and embrace the fleetingness of it all. It doesn’t matter that we miss so many in the meanwhile, because we catch some and there will be more. In the meanwhile we can enjoy what have managed to grasp without mourning what was, or worrying about what will be, missed. In the meanwhile the Sirens are heard, but need not obeyed.

Life in the meanwhile… Now that seems achievable.

The Service Lift

She dances on the edge, the lost me. The unreconciled me. Fearless. As I was once. She lives behind the curtain, in life’s backstages, waiting for me…

The service lift. The place where illusions are swiftly dispatched. Out front the hotel is buzzing with guests suspended momentarily in the uniformity of ‘global upscale hotel chain’ style. Daily lives put aside as the fantasy world encourages entertainment of fantasy lives. Like lingering in an airport and imagining all the more glamorous locations we might be going to, hotels encourage us to imagine versions of ourselves more exciting and interesting than the one we carry through most days. But illusions recede with brutish speed as my guide and I wind our way past artifice to artless utility, my guide embarrassed and a little annoyed, unsure of the rules of service when inaccessible spaces force a guest backstage.

It started hopefully. Arriving for an event the thought that there will be no straightforward access route for someone with a disability is just a tiny worry scratching at my carefully constructed illusion of normality. But a few moments of heart sinking search, and the look in the receptionist’s eye as I approach hopefully asking where the lift to conference room X is, shatters all illusions of normality. I know immediately where this will end.

We enter corridors designed not to soothe occupants into a vague sense of being valued (as they truly are, as long as they can pay) but into efficient action. Designed not for lingering but for speed. Staff rushing behind the scenes to ensure the apparently effortless ‘service’ can be provided out front look a little askance as they realise ‘a guest’ is amongst them. Decor stripped of all but the most functional features. A shabby, unloved, space reminding the staff who must use it of who’s who and what’s what. My guide apologises profusely, but there is no sincerity behind the words. Rather there’s a thinly veiled implication that it is me that has created this awkward situation.

Unless you have worked in a hotel, it’s a unknown world to those caught in the chimera of stylish calm out front that most ‘upscale’ hotels strive to create. A guest’s wallet and online hotel review being soothed into compliance by the pampering. Sometimes I make myself better by musing that it’s not just the disabled but VIPs who experience this. Whereas out front I might entertain a little fantasy of being some glamorous globetrotting writer as I linger in reception, on these journeys backstage I sometimes fantasise that I’m a President being hurried along these corridors by my security detail. It helps pass the time till we meet, she and I, in the service lift.

The service lift. Those grotty, often smelly, transports designed for dirty laundry and dishes and and into which the disabled must be herded when access has been forgotten. Inside she gets straight to work. “Forgotten, unconsidered, worthless. Yes that’s it, worthless. Other. Not part of. This is what you deserve, you cripple.” She has not acquired the veneer of civilisation, the politically correct filter, the lost me. She knows where the vulnerable points are and wastes no time going for them. “You don’t belong out there, you belong here with the grime and the smells and the bleak ugliness of it.”

Like so much ‘designed’ for the disabled this access route is stripped of any aesthetic sensibility. Why go to that effort for the worthless? Surely they are grateful for any accommodation, no matter how mean? “Look how kind they are allowing you to come back here. Guiding you. Be grateful, you shouldn’t even be here.” she taunts, revelling in the chance to let rip again with all the disgust and rage she can muster.

By the time I am disgorged into another maze of backstage corridors my sense of a professional, worthwhile, self has been shattered. When we finally reach my destination I look immediately for the toilet. Experience has taught me that I need a few moments alone to compose myself, to recover enough sense of self to re-enter the world of “I’m okay really.” But there’s salt yet for these psychic wounds. There is no toilet on this level, I must either clamber up and back down the dreaded stairs, or reenter the lift.  I decide to spare myself that till biology needs it. I’ve had enough experience now to know that I’ll be able to swallow down this taste, hold the sting of tears in my eyes at bay, recover ‘myself’ enough to get through the event.

Being denied access as a disabled person –  to spaces, to jobs, to experiences, to participation, to pleasure, to beauty, to fun – is not just about equality of opportunity. Lack of access denies self-determination, destroys confidence, comfort and a sense of belonging. It upends all the hard work that disabled people must do if they are to keep engaging with a world that, despite the advances that may have been made (depending on where you live),  still routinely forgets us. The inaccessible meeting venue, the bus driver that can’t be bothered to wait till we sit, the buffet lunch, the standing or walking meeting, the inaccessible website, the open plan office. A world of situations designed for the many that could so easily be made better for all by considering the few. But aren’t.

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