Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Day 436 +1 - afterthoughts

As you may have noticed, the countdown didn't work, and now we are post-countdown - hence the slightly odd title of this post. I would apologise for the lack of updates but, since my time was filled with making last minute preparations for what I'm about to tell you, I figure I may let myself off.

Yesterday I graduated from the University of Warwick with a First Class Honours degree in English and Theatre Studies which I walked several steps to collect. The phrasing of that feels a bit blunt, and doesn't make clear how surreal it was - I just had to write it out simply to remind myself that it did indeed happen.

I'm still rather overwhelmed, as you might be able to guess - and therefore, in order to prevent this becoming waffley, wishy-washy, and vague whilst I talk about the veritable roller coaster of emotions, I'm going to give myself a structure and go through the day, step by literal step, with photos interspersed. I'll also have video evidence at some point next week, thanks to my dear friend Jade, which means this won't quite be the final post.

So, here goes:

My grandparents have been visiting on their way back to Canada from South Africa, because they wanted to see me graduate. My godmother, Jenny, also came (separately) from SA, and of course Mama and JoJo wanted to be there. My poor Papa unfortunately fell over some speedy Labradors whilst out running on Friday, so he wasn't able to come up from Woking, but we still had a full house...and a small car. This meant that Gramma, Grandi, Mama and I drove up on Monday evening and stayed the night at a hotel in Kenilworth, and Jo and Jenny caught the train yesterday morning to meet us on campus. I say all of that because the other reason we went up beforehand was to allow me to have a sneak-peek at the decorated Butterworth Hall and gauge the lay of the land.

We got onto campus for about 8.45am yesterday, parked the car, and were ably assisted by Claire and Stuart, two of the organisers, in our investigation of the stage set. Upon discovering that there was a ramp across the front of the platform which everyone had to use, we agreed that I would drive up one side, shake the Vice-Chancellor's hand, and only then would I walk. (I'll save the description of how I did so for a bit.) Having established this, I went to get robed up, and found that the tailors had very kindly organised a shorter gown which wouldn't get caught in either wheels or feet.

Cue a photoshoot...

Two generations...

Liminal space...! make the most of the weather before we had to go inside. With the prospect of walking, my muscles were delighted by the heat.

Once inside the Butterworth (for real this time!) I saw that I was number nineteen, because English and Theatre was to be among the first of the cohorts to be awarded BAs, following the PhDs and a few MAs. This made me happy, because the nerves were intense. I glanced around and saw my friends, both those graduating alongside me and those in the Chamber Choir. Then I smiled as the latter lot began to sing, during the procession of the faculties. It was really happening.

They looked like something straight out of Hogwarts!

 The Vice-Chancellor gave his speech, and everyone who could stood. I found the fact that I had to stay seated somewhat ironic, given my plan. Then the ceremony was open, and the first round of candidates were 'admitted to their degrees'. Here began the lining up, and one of my tutors from last year received her PhD. The person conferring the certificates was our Head of Department, Catherine Bates. When I took my place in the queue, Mama and Jenny came with me, because they would soon have an integral role to play. We clapped and cheered for my dear friends, fellow 'Fam' members - and then it was my turn.

Now, I was completely unprepared for the reaction as my name was called. Before I had even driven onto the stage, people were roaring. It was truly magical to know my friends were rooting for me, and it spurred me on to make it happen. So I shook hands with Nigel Thrift...

...flanked by Mama and Jenny. Then it went quiet. The room was filled with an anticipatory hush. Mama and Jenny came in front of me to help me out of my chair and support me under the arms...

...and I stood up, took three steps, and collected my degree:

I was overwhelmed enough with joy as it was but, whilst this was taking place, the roar of support was amazing. I wasn't really aware of anything except the placement of my feet, and how to shake hands and take my degree at the same time with the same hand, but I discovered from photos afterwards that my dear, dear friends had led a standing ovation of all my fellow graduands. I felt (and feel) completely humbled. I just hope everyone could cope with the extremely long pause.

Everything after that is a bit of a blur, but I clapped and whooped for my friends, as they had for me, until I was hoarse. Then Sir Paul Nurse received an honorary degree and gave a lovely speech, after which the Medics got their degrees and recited the Declaration of Geneva. I was particularly happy to graduate with the Medics, because it meant that my Orthopaedic consultant, the man who gives me Botox, was on the platform. His injections are hugely responsible for what I was able to achieve.

Then we all processed out, and us English lot were treated to drinks and nibbles. Cue a 'Fam' photo (minus a few sadly missed absentees) and many joyful (and tearful!) goodbyes...

English and Theatre rules, okay?
...which brought our time at Warwick to a close.

What a day. What a journey. What dear friends I have. There are no more words, except an abundance of love and gratitude.

We did it! #Walkingby2013 #graduation

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Day 431 - 5 days

I had planned to upload a video tonight, but my iPad Mini won't let me, so you can have this instead:

You're welcome.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Day 429 - one week to go!

Warning: this entire post ought to be encapsulated in a bubble of tl;dr. It is very much too long, for which I apologise in advance. However, it would mean a huge amount to me if you were able to stick with it until the end so thanks in advance, too.

So. After more than a year of working and writing, I have come to the milestone along this road that tells me there is a week to go. This is rather too huge a reality for me to render coherently in words without the help of a metaphor, and the one I have chosen is somewhat topical - Wimbledon. Contrary to the predominant trend of press coverage, though, I wish to draw attention to elements of the women's final, as it was contested on Saturday 6th by Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki. The catchphrase of this match seemed to be 'mental', in the sense that the winner was decided more by the strength of the two competitors' mental attitudes than any particularly brilliant tennis. Bartoli, being interviewed before the match, stated that she is 'a tiger on the court' and then admitted that if she behaved the same way she does in her every day life whilst she was playing tennis, she wouldn't win anything, because she's too nice. Lisicki is also too nice, and vulnerable to nerves, which led her to be very close to tears at one point during play and become overwhelmed.

I think I might be closer to Lisicki, and be a little too ruled by my emotions. I've written before about how I let fear get in my way, but it's so fundamental that I think it bears repeating. I repeat it now because, building on my resolution of independence, I have resolved that I need to be more like Bartoli, at least in relation to my physical work. So, over this final week, that will entail being ruthless with my mind - barrelling through the wall of fear (fear of pain, especially) in order to do the exercises I need to if I even want to attempt this feat (feet!) next week. Although I do rather hope that I will be so taken up by the moment that I won't really be sure how I got across that stage - which brings me to why I still think Lisicki has what it takes to win. She beat Serena Williams, of course, but that's not all. Three years ago she injured herself so badly that she was completely unable to walk. On Saturday she became the runner-up (a word used in full cognisance of its significance) of what is arguably the premier tennis tournament in the world. If that's not a story to give one hope, I don't know what is.

The other major theme of the match seemed to be parental support - Lisicki's parents giving up everything so she could train, and Bartoli's reconciliation with her father, her longtime coach. My mother has been my coach, and I don't think I've quite given her her due. She has quite literally stood by me this whole way, without me even having to ask. So thanks, Mama, and sorry for the tired and crabby part of myself which emerges sometimes, for you and no-one else to see. You've put up with a heck of a lot, for which I'm so very grateful. Thanks for keeping me on the right mental track.

Because it's mentality that's saved me. I don't think I've ever been entirely sure how I'll do it (I'm still not now, with a week to go) but I've always known that I would somehow, however tough it got. Never give up, never surrender. My CP and my body might have had other ideas, but I've not let them stop me, and I won't.

Bring on week the final. Thank you and good night.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Day 424 - Independence Day

It would seem I've failed miserably at this blog-every-day thing. I thought I'd have considerably more time once I was home, but it appears that when you actively have to rearrange a fairly busy schedule to fit a job in (even if it's a welcome chore, like blogging) you're more likely to do so - a phenomenon for which I did not account, and for which I apologise. That's not to say I haven't been busy - quite the reverse, in fact. Over the weekend I had medical appointments, because home visits are easier and my osteopath and acupuncturist can't always fit these in during the week. On Friday someone came to fit new casters on my chair, which meant I had to be out of it for a while, if I didn't fancy being tipped on my side. (I realise those two sentences were out of chronological order - sorry.) On Monday I went with Eileen to visit our old secondary school, which was lovely. On Tuesday I had an interview and I got a place on a course, something on which I might elaborate at another point if it doesn't feel too boastful. Wednesday (yesterday) was spent catching up with Savannah, now both our lives have calmed down a little, and we could talk over hot chocolate and herbal tea instead of the screen of my laptop.

These aren't excuses, though - merely explanations. I say that for two reasons. Firstly, since I've become a graduand, and received the results I did, I've realised that I no longer have to justify myself -  and that includes making excuses. Having grown up in a world where I've always felt I had something to prove because of my disability, that's been a pretty damn refreshing epiphany. Secondly, the long list of things I had to fill my time with provides an example of my topic - independence.

The impetus for this post is simple - today, July 4th, is American Independence Day. Now, as a Brit, I might be expected to know that this part of the history of the United States does not reflect too favourably on my own cultural past - and I do know it. I also know that we Brits had an empire which was questionable and so have no right to judge those who had (quite rightly) had enough. Furthermore, with my heritage, I owe allegiance to Canada and South Africa as much as I do to the UK...and, well, it was a helpful metaphor for this post, all right!?

So. Yeah. Independence. It has long been known that I make my resolutions in the summer, at camp, because that's when the year begins and ends for me. But this year, as I was pondering the empty gulf which faces me when I finish with this blog, I decided to make them slightly early. They are simple and few, and mainly focused around finishing what I've started here. Walking to get my degree felt like the epitome of independence a year ago, and on one level it still does, but along the way I've come to understand that it's not so much an act which constitutes independence, but a way of life, and (most importantly in my book) a mindset. It is this mindset I intend to carry forward into 2014. Happy new year ;)!

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Day 417 - BOtox ;)

For all the sadness of leaving Warwick on Wednesday, I was also very excited to get home - to see my family, my best London school-friend, Eileen...and to go to what was only my third live gig ever. I've said for a while now that I'd dedicate a few of these posts to some of my non-medical methods for stress-relief, relaxation and muscle spasm control, and music (either my own or others) offers all of these benefits, as well as providing a soundtrack for my physio sessions. I have quite eclectic tastes, ranging from Queen and The White Stripes to Handel and Mozart, as can be seen from this playlist I posted some months ago - but it takes a lot for me find current artists who I absolutely love. Bo Bruce is among this select few and, because her EP and album have carried me through the ups and downs of the road towards this crazy goal, I thought that now (following her gig at Bush Hall on Wednesday) was the right time to say thank you.

Hence the terrible pun in the title. You see, the impact of Bo's music on my physical progress began all the way back on 5th May 2012, when I had my first round of botox injections. As I was coming round from my anaesthetic, I had the first two lines of the chorus from one of the songs off her EP, Search the Night, in my head. The song was called 'Behind the Gates', and the couplet went as follows: 'Lead us back to the light/I can't see you in the dark night'. The aptness of the lyrics to my situation was uncanny, if a tad literal, so it seemed to me that I couldn't let this coincidence pass by - and I have since listened to that EP for motivation in the vast majority of my physio sessions, because it's been with me from the beginning.

Furthermore, unlike most of my exercise soundtrack, Search the Night managed to spill over into the realms of my general musical appreciation - because it has helped me through the bad times as well as the good. Whereas Katrina and The Waves' 'Walking on Sunshine' can seem mocking if it catches me on a spasmy day, Bo's 'Fighting Arizona' somehow acknowledges how difficult it is to be stuck in a hole, whilst simultaneously affirming that there is a way out. The same can be said of the tracks on her new album, Before I Sleep - perhaps even more so because, for the last couple of months (as I waited for my latest round of botox injections which would get me back on my feet), listening to them was the only way I could relax my legs enough to allow myself to sleep comfortably, or to write my last few essays and my dissertation. It helped me to 'turn the ruins into something beautiful' ('Speed the Fire'), to transform the spasms into a productive impetus for creative (and eventually physical) triumph - and, on a non-academic level, it brought me to the realisation that 'I miss you' is a perfectly reasonable thing to say to the friends who are no longer with me ('How We're Made').

All in all, her first tour was not one I was going to miss - and this leads me to another reason to be grateful. Very few intimate music venues have good accessibility, if it's possible to get in at all, so I've not been to many concerts. The Bush Hall exceeded all my expectations - we had a little section at the side of the stage, and a great view, even though everyone else was standing up. I felt very privileged to be so close, and as though the staff had really thought about what I would need.

The set was fab - both Bo and her support Boxes came out and gave it their all. I cried silently during 'Lightkeeper' and 'How We're Made', my two favourites, and found a new joy in Boxes' 'Can't Imagine'. It was magical - and that would've been enough. When we went out to buy a t-shirt and a copy of Boxes' EP, though, the magic went through the roof. Bo came over, said she had seen me from the side of the stage and wanted to talk. So I got to say thank you in person, and to tell her about my blog. I only hope she realises how much I meant it.

Thank you.

Still grinning!


Day 416 - Alas, poor Warwick!

Preface: I know this is three days late, for which I beg pardon, but time has been running away from me, what with packing up, the long car journey and evenings where I wasn't at my computer at all. In my defence, the events of the last few days merit posts all to themselves, so you're getting four updates today as compensation for my having skipped three.

Where do I even begin with a post like this, in which I attempt to encapsulate the nuances, idiosyncrasies and had-to-be-there moments of the last three years? Well, methinks I actually ought to commence this semblance of a narrative some six years ago, when I was still at my first secondary school. I haven't gone into my experiences at this school in too much detail before now because, aside from the friends I made, I didn't have the best time, as you will read in the story below...

In my final year at the school (Year 10) I had the honour of being chosen as Head Girl, one of two representatives for the student body, and knowing that my fellow pupils trusted me to be the voice of their concerns. Along with regular meetings with the Headteacher, the primary extracurricular aspect of the role required that both I and the Head Boy, Chris, attend any official events on behalf of the 130 or so other students. Since our school, Treloar's, was founded by its namesake, Lord Mayor Treloar, in 1908, the chief of these events has been the annual visit of whoever is the current Lord Mayor. Now, whatever issues I may have with the politics behind the position of Lord Mayor, I was very excited by the prospect of this visit, not least because I hoped it would provide me with the opportunity to smash some of the stereotypes surrounding the education of young people with disabilities. I was in the middle of my first year of GCSEs, and looking forward to discussing my aspirations with some of the members of this rather stuffy party. Over the dinner we shared I did just that, finding them to be surprisingly human, and engaging in a philosophical debate with a particularly lovely lady, whose name I now can't recall. Imagine my dismay, then, when, during post-dinner discussion, that same woman asked my fellow tour-guide, Ms. Huddart, 'whether someone like Jessi could go to university'. The question was fair enough, and it showed her interest in my scholarly future, so I didn't mind her asking. What bothered me was Ms. Huddart's response - 'Well, perhaps not at 18, but maybe at 25.'

This lengthy preamble will hopefully serve to illustrate my feeling of elation when I received my (overwhelming) results on Tuesday - because they are evidence that I not only went to university and got a degree, but that I did so by the age of 21. I feel I no longer have anything to prove, and that's amazing. The fact that this degree occurred in the company of many wonderful groups of people, doing many wonderful things, is something for which I will be forever grateful. From being in the chorus of, and assistant directing, operas, through shenanigans with Shakespeare and being lucky enough to call myself a member of 'The Fam' (possibly the best course cohort ever to grace Warwick University campus), it's impossible to distil the wonder that has been the last three years into a single ramble. Hence the title of this post - because, whilst I am a very happy bunny to be home and to have permission to relax, I can't quite fathom that it's over and I won't be going back in October.

So, in true literary (and academic) spirit, I'm going to filch someone else's (namely Charles Dickens') words to fashion a fitting epitaph for my degree:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. (A Tale of Two Cities, Vol. I,  ch. i)
 I hope my dear Warwicensis will accept this - at any rate, it's been grand, and I love you for it.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Day 415 - a day of firsts

I had hoped to write a coherent, readable post about this, and about the three years which have now come to the most amazing of ends. I want to do justice to the experiences I've shared with friends, and to express how lucky I feel to have been part of the wonderful 'Fam' that is and was the Warwick English and Theatre Studies Class of 2013. Tonight, however, it seems I am a) too hyper and b) too emotional to do so, and I shall therefore save any attempts until tomorrow morning, the dawn of my final day (ever!) in the dear old 'Bubble'.

In the meantime, I offer the picture below as evidence of my joy, and the t-shirt as an emblem of the essential circularity of things - because, in all sincerity, I wouldn't be here without Pride and Prejudice:

Yay for degrees and yay for Darcys!
I shall write more on the morrow; for now let me end with the hope that this picture will soon rest adjacently to one in which I am not only smiling but standing. Three weeks today - though I am already walking on sunshine!