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No single, linear arc is even possible, Mairs suggests, given the unpredictable course of MS as it intersects with the "oxymoron"–"incongruous beyond reconciliation"–of Catholic/feminist (2). A commitment to deliberate inquiry is more Mairs's defining ethos than anything like the confession of spiritual waywardness (though her writerly persona, here and in each of her collections, certainly trades on a frank transgression of what she has referred to as public decorum). It is more that Mairs maximizes the faceted nature of a book of essays–the formal equivalent of adjusting to change, of practicing renewal–to instantiate her belief that identity is only ever partial, always in the process of emerging. This emphasis on resisting "tidy" endings (100) correlates with Mairs's insistence that Ordinary Time not be construed as a "prescription for carrying out the 'righteous life'" (7). From its opening pages, the book takes "I don't know" as its signature precept, and its inquiry into the presence of God in one woman's life begins not from "some loftier plain" but rather with the adamantly corporeal "exigencies of my husband's chemotherapy" (6). Not knowing is central to the approach Mairs takes toward the kinds of ideological absolutes that frame cultural attitudes toward the big questions–the body, gender relations, religious experience, and so on. Not knowing means having to plunge into what cannot be immediately or even fully understood, into territory that may be addressed by but never fully transparent in a sacred text, described but never truly objectively by a medical journal. Anomalous embodiment, by definition, challenges social pressure to abide by, to buy into, neat and fixed meanings; an unruly body defies pretensions of control over the flesh, or notions of selfhood as separable from the messiness of physicality.

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It is possible, then, to narrate the conjunction of faith and disability in ways that avoid–or even directly challenge–attitudes toward physical impairment as symbolic evidence of divine wrath or favor, attitudes that perpetuate the cultural marginalization of disability. Eiesland writes that "[e]mancipatory transformation must be enacted not only in history, but also in imagination and language. Liberatory theology of disability is the work of the bodily figuration of knowledge" (90). In the work of Mairs and Kuusisto, disability and faith are unmoored from their conventional symbolic association and brought together in unfamiliar, imaginatively radical juxtapositions that tell new stories of what it means to believe, to be disabled, to be a self.

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Ultimately, it is the corporeal intake of the Eucharist that begins Kuusisto's reclamation of himself–his embodied and disabled life. Importantly, he signifies this journey back into living through a food which is also a body. "Jesus' richest gift" (62), in Kuusisto's words, the Mass represents the very simultaneity of spirit and body that the narrative seeks to claim for the disabled self. On the planet of the blind (a significantly terrestrial, rather than celestial, metaphor) "no one needs to be cured," "people talk about what they do not see," and "God is edible" (148). With that latter claim, rather like Mairs offering "half [her] sandwich," Kuusisto implicitly but provocatively inverts the structure of delivery of the Mass to locate agency in the mouths of believers. It is not just that Christ nourishes through the wafer, but also that the faithful, already depicted as residents of an alternative world, actively eat; God is an object as much as a source. The journey that begins in the Hades of Grand Central–figuring out "where [he] should be in the world" (14) and feeling lost because he persists in trying to pass as sighted–culminates here, a paradoxically hallowed planet where faith is articulated not as a compensation for impairment but rather as bodily sustenance.

A Short Story — The Broken Promise


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In contrast to these tales of spiritual compensation, Mairs and Kuusisto explore the intersection of faith and disability in ways that do not coincide with problematic binaries of spirit and matter. These writers narrate identity in terms of, rather than in spite of, their physical conditions, and faith is not invoked as the solution to personal tragedy (or, conversely, eschewed as irreconcilable with the putative injustice of physical dysfunction), but as inextricably bound up with an ever-changing and adamantly corporeal disabled identity. Mairs's Ordinary Time (1993) and Kuusisto's Planet of the Blind (1998) thus follow desultory paths that mimic the material conditions of multiple sclerosis and blindness, respectively. Because neither writer hopes for grace nor holds to the promise of an afterlife to make amends for the travails of disability, their texts do not follow linear trajectories organized around epiphanical moments. Inflected by poststructuralist theories about both the instability of identity and the social, discursive origins of disability, each text is open-ended, lacking resolution, but each also returns to the grounding effects of faith in something that the authors look to as a source of love and human connection. Faith becomes not the end-point of a uniformly structured narrative but an intermittently recurring emphasis that serves to remind readers of the inextricable link between body and spirit. The vicissitudes of disability, rather than the stable constant of any God, are the fulcrum around which Mairs and Kuusisto organize both faith and text; disability commands the shape and the rituals of faith and text alike.

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Ruth Cameron Webb's Journey into Personhood (1994) provides a final example of narratives in which a disabled identity can be claimed only in the context of a sense of divine election. As Webb's title implies, disability (Webb has cerebral palsy) collapses not just a sense of legitimate or dignified identity but "personhood" itself. Struggling to make sense of her disability, Webb searches for causal explanations, explicitly wondering if she has been abandoned by God, if her condition is a sign of God's disfavor: "Why was my birth prolonged? Was it because the doctor was late in arriving or was it God's will?" (179). Such a query might seem natural or inevitable, given the author's beliefs, but Webb (unlike Mairs, as I explain below) does not eschew the cosmic explanation–indeed, she ultimately embraces the idea that the difficulty of disability must be assuaged by some spiritually compensatory reward. Similarly, she construes her emotional response to being rejected by peers as a personal failure, chiding herself for feelings of intense sadness and "uncontrolled anger" (179), rather than viewing these as a reasonable–even galvanizing–reaction to discriminatory social attitudes and policies.