I am excited to introduce Trish Harris’ wonderful new memoir The Walking Stick Tree. Let me share with all of you first an introduction to her by the wonderful folks at Escalator Press, then (from back-to-front) Trish’s Afterword, and finally her chapter three — to give you a glimpse of the child Trish. In a couple more weeks I will share more from this book, including one of the four remarkable essays interspersed with the story. The Walking Stick Tree is available only in electronic version in the United States.
Did I mention that Trish has joined with writer Rosalie Sugrue, also from Aotearoa/New Zealand to write a chapter in my forthcoming Pilgrim Press book, “A Child Laughs, Prayers of Hope and Justice?”
The Walking Stick Tree by Wellington author Trish Harris tells the story of growing up and living with acute arthritis. Threaded through this core story is Trish’s Catholic upbringing and the need in her adult years to find a spirituality that helped her connect with her body in a life-giving way. She doesn’t water down the experience of acute childhood arthritis, or how this plays out as an adult. Instead she delves deeper, using it as a lens to explore four vital areas of her life. This culminates in a fascinating essay entitled ‘Body and soul’ that not only contains her own insights around disability and spirituality, but those of writers who have sustained and challenged her.
Trish was a co-founder of the disabled women’s writers’ group called Tigers and Tulips who ran writing workshops in Wellington for many years, culminating in a sell-out performance at the Wellington Fringe Festival in 2007. She will be on a panel of disabled women writers at Wellington’s Lit Crawl weekend from 11-13 November, 2017.
Trish is an active member of the New Zealand Disability, Spirituality and Faith Network. She was programme chairperson for their international conference in Wellington in 2003 and recently helped represent them at a conference in Melbourne. She has written widely, including in the area spirituality. She was actively involved in the Creating Welcoming Churches book published in 2014. As well as being a writer, in recent years Trish trained as a spiritual director.
Writing this book has made me realise that memoir-writing is the place where memory and story-telling meet. It’s the dance floor where those two elements jostle and jive in an attempt to capture the truth.
The process involves lots of questions: What story to tell? What details and experiences will bring it to life? How to write it authentically and still allow aspects to be private? How to write an individual story so that it fits into a larger story?
Throughout my life, writing has been much more than a tool that helps me earn my living. It’s been about the pleasure of words and where they’ve taken me. It’s been about gratitude for all the times others have written what I couldn’t speak. It’s been about having a voice myself.
In recent years many disabled writers have spoken against a narrow way of writing about disabled lives. As they’ve said, views that represent our experience as one of succeeding against great odds—being the conquering hero—ignore vast tracts of the real experience.
Our stories, with their particular flavours yet universal themes need to exist fully in all the places stories are told: in novels, in movies, in non-fiction, on TV, in advertising and on the news.
As well as entertaining us, stories help us practise who we are and who we might become. They open a door for others to understand our lives. They change perceptions, and perceptions impact on policies—policies that lead to decisions that not only reflect our world, but create a better one. That’s the power of story.
I was six years old in this time of transition. One day I was well, running up the hill like the other kids. Then a few days later it would change, with my father carrying me up the hill, his strong arms lifting my sore body. Then back again: I was running around as fast as the other kids at the playground. And the reverse: I was unwell, at home wrapped in my dressing gown, exhausted from the pain.
This was the disease’s confusing Jekyll and Hyde routine. Health and illness, mobility and immobility—flipping from one to another. There was the plummeting into a deep, deep circle. There was being captured and clasped by pain. Then there was being pain-free. Free as the wind blows. Free as the grass grows.
The diagnosis, this name we’d been given, didn’t stop the disease. People looked at me sadly when my parents told them what was wrong and I didn’t like that. Arthritis. It was as if the word itself carried bad things. Sometimes I’d say it round and round in my head, ‘Arthurritis, Arthurr-itis.’ I discovered there was another word inside it—Arthur. Mr Arthur Itis. It was a funny man’s name, that’s all. No need to feel sad.
The full medical name at the time, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, didn’t fit into a game and probably didn’t fit into my head. Not in those early years. I imagine I only played with the shortened version when arthritis felt like a distant thing; when the fever and rash and pain had slid underground or, we hoped, disappeared for good.
But then, over the months, things moved again. My hands became painful and then my knees began to heat and flare too. Instead of regaining full movement when the pain receded, the damage remained. Movement became a graunch—even in the good times. On a good day I could walk, but there was no more running.