Secret Worlds Part 2: One Reason to Worship Dickens

Books don’t make me cry the way sad movies and humane society commercials can, but the well-written word has impressive staying power, forming snapshots in my brain that I will never be able to forget, for better or for worse.

There’s a suicide, for example, in Martin Amis’s novel Night Train, that will never get out of my head, no matter how much I yell at it to leave. Same thing with one of the holocaust stories in Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.

But here’s one of the beautiful ones: a passage from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities that is so evocative and profound, it can stay in my head for as long as it wants. It’s what inspired my last post, and my next one (stay tuned).

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city at night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”

city at night

“Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this….My friend is dead, my neighbor is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?”

(Image from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay)

My Sister’s Secret World

On Friday, I rediscovered a secret world.

The world of the disabled.

I used to visit this world as a child. I am not disabled but my older sister, Lynley, was. With her as my guide, growing up by her side, we traveled back and forth between the abled and disabled worlds together, and I learned the differences, not only between the two places, but between Lynley and I.

In my world, when I walked through a mall, other people’s interest in me ranged from polite smiles, to casual glances, to disinterest.

In my sister’s world, the mall was not a place to walk and shop, it was a circus and she was the freak show. In the spotlight as soon as she stepped inside, she was subject to every single person’s stare. Men, women, children – they all stared. They stared long and hard. Far longer than they should. They followed us with their eyes, weighed us down with their scrutiny, and turned us into glass, transparent and ready to break.

Everywhere we went, I saw two worlds: hers and mine. Naturally, I thought everyone could see it – the dichotomy, the different experiences, the difficulties of the disenfranchised.

But not everyone has access to these secret worlds. Even I was only a visitor.

When Lynley died, she took that world with her. Like the lost city of Atlantis, it sank down into my past and I let it lie under the deep sea of my grief.

Now, many, many years later, I’ve written a book, Grace and the Guardian, with a disabled protagonist. It’s not a book about a disabled person, it’s a story whose heroine just happens to be disabled. I make the distinction because that’s how I always saw my sister – as a person, first; her disability always came second. I could never understand why others couldn’t see her that way, too.

But Grace and the Guardian is also about secret worlds – the world of the abled and disabled, the living and the dead, the evil and the good – and what happens when these volatile worlds combine.

On Friday, I sat in Starbucks and no one stared at me. I never thought I’d forget what it was like to walk with a disabled person – not even in her shoes, just walking beside her – but I did forget. It’s one thing to think about and even sympathize about. It’s an entirely different thing to experience.

I wrote about Lynley’s world to try and introduce others to it, and perhaps to remind myself of it,  but mostly I wrote about it because I miss my sister’s world, and I miss Lynley most of all.