A Natural History: Laurie Clements Lambeth23/12/2009
A Natural History of My Canes
By Laurie Clements Lambeth
When does it start, exactly, the crook and derby, the carved handles, the ash, chestnut and hazel wood? The horn, the bone, the scrimshaw? The lucite and carbon fiber?
It has been put forth that the true origin of my canes occurred here, in Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic sequence of a nude woman’s gait. A representative of spastic (choreic) symptoms of multiple sclerosis—then called cerebro-spinal sclerosis—she walks with a tightness, there in her ankle. (Figure 1). Note the height of her foot in frame 8, the tight flex, as though she is marching or stepping upon an unseen pedal. Note the turn inward of the right foot, as seen directly below frame 8. There she drags her toes.
The model’s left arm is supported by a figure in a long, dark dress. Taller than the model, the figure braces both the back of the upper arm and wrist, tight. A very literal prop: a tall, living cane to support her and display her body against its ample skirt.
“Come along, dear,” the cane might say. The skirted cane casts its gaze downward, but it is impossible to know why.
I have dragged my toes, my left foot turned outward. I have leaned, wavered, flexed tight at the ankle. The feeling is heavy, like thick skirts wrapped round, bewildering in their unseen layers.
The man lecturing in Figure 2 is Jean-Martin Charcot. The woman, swooning in a voluminous skirt and blouse slipping off her shoulder, is supported from behind by a bending bearded figure in a suit. This collapse is a sign of her condition, which Charcot defined as hysteria. The medical students watch attentively. The bearded cane holds her steadily. A number of years before, Charcot discovered upon autopsy some grey plaques scattered through the brains and spinal cords of patients with partial paralysis, spasticity, or tremor. He had discovered multiple sclerosis.
Some cases of MS were misidentified as hysteria.
My First Cane
A red plastic tube with large, hollow plastic disks at either end: giant tinker-toy. Mrs. Beaumont kept them in a yard behind our first grade classroom. Ideally, we would build with them. I danced with mine, held it across my body, back and forth, a child’s soft shoe. My audience? A boy, a crush. Class had been called in, but we were late.
“Robbie, lookit. Look at me: Tea for two, and two for tea . . .” My ankles crossed, tap here, tap there. “Me for you, and you for me . . .” My voice grew faint, wavered. I stood the cane upright, leaned my right hand upon it, slowly twirled around it.
He’d disappeared when I stepped back around. Heat flooded my cheeks. I put the cane down.
Boy Scout Cane
A strong arm is preparation enough, he seemed to say. He was never in the Boy Scouts.
When my stride matched the length of my legs, when I could still run if the weather was right, my boy scout cane suitably held my hand or put his arm around my waist. I was half his size. He was not a cane yet, just my boyfriend, so hand holding was expected. We were living in a two-story house when my legs stopped cooperating for the first time. MS had been part of my life for eight years by then, but hadn’t affected my walking much.
It was in this house, called, in the South, a “carriage house,” that he held my body as it shook and jolted one night. I lay awake on my side but could not control the flailings. With one hand he pressed my leg down. With the other, he held my arm and back. He stilled me. This was practice.
Left leg weak and numb, I gripped the banister and pulled myself up the staircase past our novena candles. I took my time going down, weak leg first. At the university where we studied and taught he helped me down stairs by carrying—hitching—my elbow with his one hand, while holding my wrist aloft with the other. My limp hand swung with his stride. I had become an old lady in my twenties, the boy scout helping me across the street. I pulled loose, reached for his hand. I didn’t want to recognize that he had become a cane.
That summer I would learn that my childhood crush, my audience when I danced the soft shoe with my first cane, perished in a car wreck.
If I had been asked, as a child, to draw a cane, I would draw the iconic one with a crook handle. Wouldn’t we all? This cane (Figure 3) was discarded by an old woman. She had graduated to a walker with tennis ball casters.
I wanted to paint a design on the cane, but instead wore some paint off with my grip. Once I got my stride back I neglected it. Because I used to row myself along as fast as I could, the crook cane produced calluses. In its retirement this cane enjoys gardening, like its former owner.
Wild anise stalks lined a trail I rode often when I was a teenager. My horse chomped their five-foot high tips, uprooting the hollow stalks—canes—and dragging their length along the ground. Strong scent of licorice. Feathery leaves caught in his bridle. I’d lean forward to reach his cheek with my hand, pull the rest of the now-frothy plant from his mouth and hang on to it above his flank, like I would a crop. With each stride of the horse I punched the ground with the anise cane, occasionally offering bites along the way, until it was too short, until it was nearly gone. Licorice foam flew from his mouth, dotting his neck, my knee.
Though it may look like a horn, this cane’s flat derby handle is wood. Flora dressed up as fauna. I have hung it on tables and leaned it on walls and chairs; it has fallen and chipped: all wood. The handle felt right in the hand until the slow eruption of splinters. I return it to its source (Figure 4). Note the chipped handle. Even now it is knocking to get in.
You wanted a glass cane after you saw one in a movie. What you found was a clear lucite one with a handle that looked like a wing, molded to fit the right hand (Figure 6). You learned that when you need a cane to walk, unless you cannot use the hand opposite the affected leg, you should lead each step with the cane in one hand, then step with the leg on the other side. In the movie with the glass cane the actor holds the cane on the affected side. You were once warned this could cause falls (Figure 5). Things fall no matter what you do, though.
Remember dropping your clear cane in the airport when you realized you had lost your passport? With what fury you had hurtled (pitching, rowing, the cane delivering you) from one terminal and through another to find the gate for your transatlantic flight, so certain the passport was in your bag. You gathered the air and the ground with the cane in your right hand and dragged your bum leg and body through the space the cane had made.
And then what? At what precise moment did you understand the passport was truly lost and you were stuck in a strange city? It was after you were turned away from the security queue, unable to produce the proper paperwork for your next flight. You found an open space of floor and sank down to sit there, frantic, determined to search through your bags yet again. Your right hand’s fingers shook open and let the cane fall. The snap of impact—like a bone breaking—silenced you as it hit the gold-flecked tiles. A crystal fracture rose up through the sculpted handle and branched off, lightning. It held the light and reflected your tears, or that’s how you remember it.
Cracked, the cane served you well for years after, didn’t it, the crack branching further and occasionally pinching the flap of skin between thumb and forefinger. The day the handle finally broke from the shaft, mid-step: admit it, that was kind of funny. The handle stayed in your tight grip, your arm still cycling forward in its repeated motion, while the shaft fell out, as in a cartoon: the underweight hero swings and swings his fists at air, never reaching his target, while the huge villain holds the little guy’s head at arm’s length.
Indestructible Fabric Cane
When the first clear cane’s handle separated from its base, my poetry student Joel offered to make me one from carbon fiber. There was a lot of carbon fabric scrap lying around his work shop, and he wanted to make something different than brackets and motorcycle parts. The cane’s tube and especially the seamless molded handle offered a challenge. He took the old handle and lucite shaft to guide his measurements, trying to get the ergonomic wing of the handle just right.
“It amazes me that this stuff can be cut with scissors, yet it will end up lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel,” he told me.
Soaked with epoxy the carbon grows stronger and is cured.
He tells me he fashioned the handle with a modeling clay mold of the old handle filled with epoxy, then he fed it small snippets of carbon fabric “until the mold is overflowing with carbon splinters and hot epoxy.” Splinters of a different kind, cured and smoothed. I can tell the handle is composed of small shards: observe the gray lines and swirls (Figure 7).
The clear cane contains light. The carbon one enacts lightness.
I carry a pink foam noodle when I teach my body to walk again in the physical therapy pool. It floats along the surface and I hold it horizontally as I did the giant tinker-toy, like a dancer would, but with less grace and more pressure from my hands when I lose balance. Later I use the noodle as though I’m walking a tightrope. Cue circus music.
Canes with Carved Heads
What must it be like to confront a wooden, perpetually fierce representative of one’s own species? The cane in Figure 8 bares its teeth and stares down a living dog. The first time the dog saw that cane she balked. Now she approaches with caution. Although they share the same curl of nostril, the dog’s nose is moist and more textured, her eyes able to shut at will.
To feel the carved solid form cupped in my palm, to rest my fingers upon its smooth glass eyes, its teeth under my thumb or its jagged mane jutting into the center of my hand, to know the texture of those lines scratched into the surface by heart, is to have held the form in one’s hand so many times that a transference has taken place. Notice, in Figure 9, the trace of color—a deeper chestnut—by the horse’s glass eye or above the nostril. This cane was much darker in its youth; as I propelled myself with the cane, palm sweating, shoulder aching, the stain absorbed through my skin. It still pulses throughout my body.
What is a cane with a head if not an imitation of the brain atop the spine? Cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, then the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions of spine (Figure 10). This is your cane, all your life. How will it carry you?
Laurie Clements Lambeth lives with her husband Ian and their animals in Houston, where she took many of these photos, but not the 19th century images.
“A Natural History of My Canes” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>
Laurie Clements Lambeth is the author of Veil and Burn, selected by Maxine Kumin for the National Poetry Series and published by University of Illinois Press. She is the Reviews Editor for Disability Studies Quarterly and a contributor to Stephen Kuusisto’s blog, www.planet-of-the-blind.com. This fall she is writer-in-residence at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland.