What do I see when I walk into an Upstream Arts class?
ready, open, willing, brave, cautious, shy, bold, honest
able, unable, focused, unfocused, confined, unhindered, awkward, easy
engaged, inattentive, creative, imitative,
silent, loud, fast, slow
young, old, black, white, Eastern, Western, big, small
collaborative, stubborn
movement, stillness
connection, disconnect
surprise, delight, pride, shame
all of us
I see

Why do I love Upstream?

Every time I walk into a room, I feel glad to be there, glad to be alive.

One might think the reason I say this is because seeing someone else’s disability illuminates what I have to be thankful for: my ability. But that’s not it. Not it at all. It’s that there is no difference.

I mean, there’s always difference, in that we’re all different. But, that’s just it. We’re all different. All unique. Human beings are a vast spectrum: not a linear spectrum, but a three-dimensional spectrum, and by my account a more multi-dimensional spectrum than that. We are all over the map, politically, physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually, cognitively, socially, ethnically, economically, relationally, artistically; in age, attitude, health, talent, taste, interest. We are as unique in our metaphysical persons as our DNA is physically.

And each of us, every DNA on this earth, falls somewhere within a spectrum of ability, too. We all have abilities, and we all have disabilities. Some are visible, diagnosable by a doctor. Some are undiagnosable. Some are only diagnosable by ourselves. Some are diagnosable by a psychologist or counselor. Some are diagnosable by a teacher or a friend or a boss or our neighbors, or by the general public. And we are always diagnosing each other; we are always forming judgements, conscious or unconscious, about each other – about where each other is in this spectrum of humanity.

We like to see things as linear: black and white, either-or, right or wrong, able-bodied or disabled, you or me. We like to define ourselves by our differences. And we often forget, or ignore, our vast similarities because they make us too hard to define when examined against the world around us.

Children, I have heard somewhere, start out very early believing they are one with everything around them. They then reach a stage when they come to understand they are separate, they have their own identity. At this point, they assume they are the center of the universe – the thing around which everything which is suddenly “else” revolves. Only later, they – we – come to realize we are NOT the center, but simply one part of a larger picture with many, many other parts.

If we as children never said, “I am me, and that is NOT me,” the development process would be interrupted. Identifying the world around us as separate from ourselves is one of the earliest stages of maturation as a young being. So, it is no surprise to me that we as adults would continue to instinctively embark on our understanding of the world around us based on how that is “not us,” and we are “not that,” identifying not by common traits, but by what is dissimilar.

For me, this seems one of the greatest tragedies of our human race – because in segragating ourselves from the world around us, defining ourselves and others by our differences, we isolate ourselves, we shrink our scope of understanding, we decrease our community and our connectedness.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve walked out of an Upstream class and thought, “Why am I teaching this class? I should be TAKING this class.” I’ve looked at a list of descriptors defining a particular disability and thought, “That sounds like me.” I’m not the only one.

Even as I write this, I cringe in anticipation of controversy; I hear and recognize the necessity of drawing lines in the sand, for the ease of societal functioning. I know the argument for two political parties because without some sort of mass alignment, government would be mired in talk and positions would be chaos to define; and how on earth would we run our schools if all children were met where they are on their learning curve instead of lumped in with the nearest age group or ability level? And for heaven’s sake, if sexuality is a spectrum, how could we possibly decide who’s allowed to marry and who’s not? King Arthur failed – that round table thing? It’s been tried. We need sides. Divisions.

Upstream Arts connects. Increases community. Broadens understanding. Illuminates the vastness of the human spectrum and how we are all the same. I know this because this is what Upstream has done for me. Are descriptors important? Certainly. Do I understand that we are all different, and broadly categorizable? Of course. And, since I know full well that babies will continue to learn they are not one with the dog or their mother, I have no practical illusions that humanity will ever truly join hands and sing “We Are the World” outside a recording studio. But if each of us, each different and unique DNA, would take a risk and pay a little bit more attention to how “they” are like “me,” and maybe “I” am even like “them,” I think our toolbox for communication would get a little deeper. Perhaps we would even discover more respect for others, and for ourselves.

I’ve been inspired recently to explore the idea of ability spectrum in some sort of performance setting. I’m not sure yet what it will look like, or sound like, or feel like. I’m not sure how to even do it. Already, both I and others I’ve mentioned this to have felt twinges of wariness about navigating the subject: a yellow flag which, I suspect, comes from that very segregated mindset I mentioned. I must tread cautiously, remembering that disability is not really mine to talk about. It is not my category, my title, my circumstance. But, why NOT me? Why should I not be able to explore it, talk about it, even own it? If I truly believe we are all just WE, and I do, then I am unable, and I am able; I have abilities and disabilities, just like you, just like him, just like her, just like all of us. Mine may not be visible or doctor-diagnosed, but they still impair me in their own unique ways, and perhaps ways which have been as limiting metaphysically as someone else’s have been physically. I certainly see, every time I teach an Upstream Arts class, many people who are more able than I in one area or another. Maybe braver. Maybe kinder. Maybe more transparent. Maybe more tenacious. What are your disabilities? What are your abilities?

Instead of being afraid to speak because it’s not my place, because I’m not in “that” category, I am compelled to advocate that we shift our paradigm and realize we are ALL in “this” category – the category of endless spectrum, the category of universal uniqueness.

We are all just… WE.

Post by Norah Long, Upstream Arts Teaching Artist