The Year of Eating Fire

“The only way to do it is to do it. … There is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.” ~ Tessa Fontaine, The Electric Woman

An inspired, fresh-start feeling comes to most people in January, filled with promise and hopeful resolution. By late March, many of us realize our goals feel far less attainable when not bathed in the glow of New Year motivation. By the end of the year, only the extraordinarily disciplined remain standing.
In my case, motivation came calling in springtime, in late March of last year. January and February had trudged by in a haze of inertia. My job had hit a dead end. Chances seemed slim for finding another. My lack of disability-related skills was weighing on me more heavily than ever, and my desire to hide from those who might look down on me left me frozen. Time had failed to pull me from my rut, and fear, not to mention despair, was taking over.
And then came CSUNATC—a tech accessibility conference in California that was, by the grace and generosity of a dear friend, within my reach. All I had to do was overcome my fear of mingling with the disability community, muzzle my travel anxiety, and say yes. Pretty simple, or so you’d think.
But saying yes to CSUNATC was, for many reasons, one of the scariest things I’d ever done. Crowds aren’t my thing. Travelling terrifies me, as do fellow disabled people. Just to add to the drama of it all, the friend who agreed to be my guide was someone I’d never met in person. It was as though some sinister committee had conspired to invent circumstances that would encapsulate my personal nightmares. All that was missing was a nest of angry insects.
As many of my readers know, I said yes anyway. Clarity pierced my fortress of quiet desperation, convincing me this would be good for me. Maybe it would open some doors, professional and social. At the very least, it might shake me from my funk, and deprive my anxiety of some of its power.
I attended the conference, faced a multitude of demons, and wrote a recap so emotionally vulnerable that total strangers reached out to thank me for my courage. Perhaps it was the sudden change of pace, the audacious decision to publish my failures, or the landslide of goodwill from a community I’d assumed would judge rather than embrace me, but I understood, all at once, that there are no shortcuts to true forward motion. No “one weird trick” or easy lifehack would help me conquer my fears. There was only the choice to say yes, grit my teeth, and do the scary thing. The only way to eat fire is to eat the damn fire, after all.
Buoyed by this revelation, I began eating fire every chance I got. My springtime resolution wasn’t an easy one to keep, but it stuck where dozens of others had failed. To this day, I don’t have a proper exercise routine, and I am incapable of keeping a regular journal. But touching my tongue to flame has become a valued part of my life, if not second nature.
A few months after returning from CSUNATC, I applied for an internship, even though the competition was fierce and I was certain I’d not measure up. (They hired me).
I tried my hand at speechwriting, which a university course had persuaded me I’d never master. (I’m now a full-time strategic writer, crafting speeches for people more important than I will ever be.)
I practiced being more assertive in everyday life, advocating more consistently and experimenting with “No” rather than letting courtesy outweigh common sense. (I’m now rather good at getting people to let go of me.)
I explored intermittent fasting, regardless of how drastic it seemed. Restricting food made my anxiety spike, but I persisted. (I’ve kept it up for months now, and it has transformed my relationship with food, all but eliminating disordered eating along the way.)
I ask for what I want, not because I am entitled to a thing but because if you don’t ask, you’ll surely never get. (I have taken on several side projects at work that would not have materialized if I hadn’t spoken up.)
The ultimate manifestation of my new resolve was a little like metaphorical flaming-sword-swallowing. I reached out to an orientation and mobility instructor who had recently begun working in my city, and asked her to make me into a respectable blind traveller. In just two lessons, I’ve corrected my cane technique—breaking a decades-long bad habit was no mean feat—and have begun to really understand how cities are put together. (I even let her blindfold me, without the debilitating panic I’ve come to expect from blindfold training.)
It sounds straightforward and unremarkable when I lay it out this way, rather like the automatic revolving door that gave me such grief a year ago. But in my world, these were huge steps forward, a series of daunting obstacles, and there was no shortcut to navigate any of them. There was only my choice to say yes, grit my chattering teeth, and plunge straight into the scary thing. Planning is important, and impulsiveness will never be my custom, but there’s a lot to be said for closing your eyes and swallowing that flame down—because while you’re standing still, waiting for the fear to ebb, time has a way of ticking along at an alarming speed.
The upside of regularly staring terror in the face and carrying on anyway is that if you’ve done it once, you can do it again. It may not go the way you hope, but you’ll always have the knowledge that you’re capable of working through fear, and nothing can take that away. My small but mighty triumphs at CSUNATC, and the subsequent support I continue to receive from many faithful cheerleaders, assure me that while I can’t guarantee good luck, I can be brave when it matters.
Skills are great. Experience is useful. A large network is handy.
Courage? Persistence? These are essential.
It may well be that at least one person reading these words is hesitating, waiting, praying for motivation. That person might be you—or if it isn’t you now, at some point it probably will be. More than likely, you’ll face a task so unpleasant, so uncertain, that you’ll retreat into your very own fortress, hoping motivation will spring from nowhere, or that inertia will outlast the fear.
There is nothing I can say to lessen that fear or quiet that anxiety. But I can tell you that I’ve sequestered myself in that safe space many times. While it has occasionally spared me the trouble of confronting that fire, I can promise you it’s never left me better off.
So go ahead: say yes, grit your teeth, and do the scary thing. Whether it turns out well or leaves you singed and disappointed, you’ll still have the knowledge that you can be brave when it matters.

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If A Blind Person Could Do It…

“If a blind person could do it, what’s your excuse?”
Here we go again.
Here is yet another nondisabled person using blindness, that infamous limiter, to boost motivation levels while simultaneously shaming any sighted person who has accomplished less than any given blind person.
My strong distaste for this specific motivational quote has long baffled me. I see ridiculous inspiration porn plastered all over the internet every day, and I don’t even have to look for it. Why, then, does the “what’s your excuse” line crawl so persistently under my skin? What is it about the “if a blind person could do it” reasoning that makes me feel both belittled and misrepresented? Why do I care what strangers use to get them out of bed in the morning?
Unpacking inspiration porn, as many in the disability community call it, is never enjoyable and often controversial. However well-reasoned your conclusions, someone is always going to chime in with a plea to stop all the negativity. Why begrudge someone the right to feel inspired and uplifted by you? It doesn’t cost you a thing.
Or does it?
Let’s begin with “if a blind person could do it” rhetoric, shall we? My interpretation of this statement is that anything a blind person does must be relatively easy, because we are so much more limited and incapable by default. For example, if a blind person can learn to ski, or play the piano, or cook a five-course meal, anyone can. According to the typical inspirational framework, the “if a blind person could do it” narrative depends upon disabled people being less-than: less capable, less talented, less accomplished. It also depends on us being more-than in one way: determined. Supposedly, our innate resilience is such that, despite our nearly-insurmountable challenges, we manage to get out of bed, go to the gym, hold down jobs, and raise families. Were it not for our remarkable courage and superhuman desire to succeed, we’d be sitting inconspicuously in a lonely corner weaving baskets and smiling vacantly at the wall.
It gets worse: This specious line assumes that any skills and talents developed and honed by disabled people are immaterial. If a blind person could do it, it’s possible for everyone, right? I spent four years in university learning how to communicate professionally and edit meticulously, but if I can do these things well, anyone can. If my blind friend spends years practicing her jewelry design craft, making use of existing talent and working hard to improve, none of those efforts matter because if she can design beautiful jewelry, anyone can. After my high school valedictorian speech, a sighted stranger turned to their companion and whispered “If she can learn to speak like that and accomplish so much…what’s my excuse? Why haven’t I achieved those things?” Hollow admiration when you deconstruct it, since the reason I had already accomplished as much as I had by high school graduation was a combination of gifts I was born with and hard work I’d put in to get where I was. The glaring flaw in this backhanded compliment leaves a very bitter taste behind. (Side note: I wasn’t a particularly outstanding student, but as we all know by now, expectations are lower when you’re me.)
Let us move along to the “so what’s your excuse” portion. The logic of this idea states that sighted people should use us as a way to stem the tide of excuses that frees them from everyday tasks like cleaning, cooking, and working out. If a blind person gets up every morning and gets these done, that must mean sighted people have no excuse at all, despite any challenges they might be facing. Maybe the nondisabled person struggling to motivate themselves has had less sleep than the blind person they’re using for emotional fuel. Perhaps that blind person is an early riser by nature. Could they be healthier? Could it be that they enjoy cooking and cleaning and exercise? Myriad explanations come to mind, and they all lead me to the same destination: tasks don’t diminish in meaning just because a blind person can do them and a sighted person can’t.
I’m reminded of some of my more brilliant blind friends—the ones who laughed at the words “can’t” and “never” and achieved things any sighted person would be immensely proud to accomplish. One of my friends has more or less mastered physiotherapy, cat breeding, and cooking. She has starred in a documentary, travelled Europe on her own, and is currently teaching herself to sew. At thirty, she has achieved more than most sighted seniors I know, and I don’t think anyone can honestly say that all of the skills she’s acquired are less impressive simply because she happens to be blind.
Other blind friends are published authors, admired public speakers, skilled carers, talented designers, and exemplary instructors. They attain great things because they have the necessary passion, desire, and talent, not because great things aren’t really as difficult as they seem. I would never allow anyone to cheapen the hard work and exceptional talents of my disabled friends on the basis that anything a disabled person does mustn’t be all that hard.
What is your excuse, nondisabled person? I certainly hope it’s something reasonable like being too tired, or too busy, or too preoccupied with living your life.
I hope you motivate yourself by being authentically and respectfully inspired by those around you, for the right reasons. I hope you motivate yourself with passion, desire, hard work, and discipline. I hope you chase your dreams because you desperately want to, and not because some blind person did it first and inadvertently shamed you into it. I hope you recognize the accomplishments of disabled people as important and impressive because they are, and not because disabled people don’t normally succeed. Most of all, I hope you admire disabled people not for getting out of bed, or cooking a basic meal, or doing what all grown-ups are expected to do. I hope you admire us for our unique, personal, hard-won achievements, and nothing less.