Monday, March 07, 2005

THE DWARF IN THE WHEELCHAIR

Let's imagine, just for imagination's sake, that you don't get what you want. Your dreams die a long and lingering, sad and lonely death. You do not become rich, famous, or even self-sufficient. Your name does not appear in lights, even Christmas ones. You will always be in debt. You will die unloved. Hungry. Alone.

Does it matter?

I ask because I went for a run last night along the river, and I ran into a little lady that I hadn't seen in a long, long time, because I usually run in the mornings, when she's not there.

When I say 'little lady', I mean that, um, literally. She's a dwarf, little person, midget. (Not sure which is currently the proper term.) She is in a wheelchair, and she has no legs.

I may have even written about her before on this blog; I can't remember. She seems to me to be this weird kind of Cambodian omen (or prophet) that pops up in my life from time to time to remind me of...

Well, I'm not sure.

Is it condescending to pity another person like this? I suppose it is; she doesn't ask for pity. She just wants what we all want -- something to eat, a person to talk to.

I ran over and told her that I had no money, and she smiled, and I shook her hand, and oh aren't I in touch with the wretchedly poor of Cambodia. I go back to my nice apartment; she stays down by the river, wheeling her wheelchair, asking for money.

Most poor people in Phnom Penh are left behind and out of the loop, but to be a dwarf with no legs in modern day Cambodia -- karmically, is there anything lower than that?

Oh, but who says it's 'low'? This is my western-bred mind speaking, the one that says you have to be all that you can be, utilize all of your abilities, strive for the unreacheable or die trying. This is the mentality that says good enough is not enough, that you have to be the best, the one, the man. You have to succeed where others fail. You have to have the house and the car and the wife and the lifetime membership to a golf course whose name you always forget but whose valet service parking is very, very cool.

But what if you can't? What if you've been behind the eight ball since you were a fetus? What if you're a homeless, friendless, legless dwarf in Cambodia?

Is it bourgeoise to even ask these questions? Maybe so, but I have to ask them, knowing that there is no answer, knowing that having even the time and luxury to ask, to consider, to ponder these ideas is, in itself, a luxury that most of the world can't partake of, or even understand. I have to try to believe that her life has a meaning, that existence her in and of itself is enough. She will live and breathe and die alone, crippled, and there is no justice, no fairness, no redemption in that situation, no, but there is humanity, and that has to be enough. It must be, or else what we consider human has to be redefined.

I think that our lives must be made to have meanings and purposes, regardless of our lots. (A view I've picked up on from Viktor Frankl, and his wonderful notions of man's search for meaning.) That woman by the river -- this is the only life she's got, and this is how she's spending it. It's not fair, and it's easy, but it is what it is. She does not worry about its meaning; she is what she is, and she is trying to live, and that is that is that is that. End of story.

Is it a sign, a signal from up above that, every so often, our paths intersect? (A silly, naive notion, true, but I worry that if I don't make sense of her, or at the very least attempt to, then something valuable will have been knowingly, eagerly cast aside or lost, something intangible inside of me, some barometer of morality that will be cracked forever, to the extent that thirty, forty years from now, I will at some point look back on my time here, in this godforsaken place, and it will all be a hazy, heat-stricken fugue, a memory of a memory, and what I learned, or sought to learn, will have been neglected, forgotten, eagerly disregarded without a second thought, in favor of well-cut lawns and soft-touch carpets and flat-screen TVs, flawless to a fault.)

We may not get what we want. Life may (or may already) have socked us in the gut like that kid in Montreal did to Houdini all those years ago, an unexpected sucker punch that stole what little time he had left. We may end up sick and alone an deceprit, and she reminds me of this fact, and I have to make sense of that. I don't know why, but I just do. We look to art, to movies, to books, for our queries and consolations, but rarely to life itself, and maybe that is what I'm doing, allowing life in.

Maybe, just maybe, she's been placed in my life to remind me to chill out, lay off the ambitions, stop worrying about next year, and the year after next. She worries about today, and the day after next. She goes to whatever she calls home and somehow makes it from her wheelchair to her bad.

Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe I've been placed in her life for some unknown reason that will remain unknown to me (at least in this life). Maybe me meeting her and her meeting me is supposed to teach both of us a lesson. (Although I believe, deep down, it's up to me and me alone to make sense of it all; no answers will drop from the sky and no evangelical
e-mails will arrive in my inbox, explanations attached.)

I'm not sure what she's learning from me, if anything.

But I'm learning from her.

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