Today, after many years of resisting, I finally caved and bought a walking stick with Personality. It’s kinda vintagey green-and-red paisley with a wooden handle, and collapsible, which was what I was really looking for.
Like most people with a walking stick, I really never wanted one. I just slowly acquired a chronic illness, fallen arches, two breakages and some tendon damage, until one summer’s day strolling round a theological museum with my friend, I collapsed onto all fours crying in pain and had to stay down there for several minutes. I’d lost use of my feet several times as a teenager, but now there were no parents to bring me food when I needed a few days sitting down, and there was no dignity for a twenty-something frozen in a farm-yard position in the cellar of a cathedral. It could never happen again. I needed a walking stick.
Like everyone else I know who uses a stick, my doctor played no part in its acquisition, except to nod in approval when he first saw it: I walked into one of those weird stores that seem to mainly do crockery but with a big sideline in light bulbs and fabrics and walking sticks, and I bought one for £17.99, a price which hurt my disabled-student heart. The things which qualified it in my eyes were its smooth handle, its appropriate height and its dour blackness – the sticks on display were mostly colourful and patterned. Something about that made me sad. Perhaps it was that the patterns were mostly suited to people 50 years older than me, and it drove home the loneliness of being a style-conscious young woman who needed a walking stick. Perhaps it was the subtle admission that these things had to be fun, because, hey, we’re going to be looking at them every day for the rest of our lives, right? I had no idea how long I would need it for and thus whether its presence in my life was going to be that of a plain, grey surgical crutch to be grudgingly borne until I could cast it away, or more like a pair of glasses that would become so much a part of my attire that I ought to get something “me”. But I got the black one, and gritted my teeth through all the new sensations it brought – the awkwardness it instils in strangers on the bus who sometimes do and sometimes don’t stand up for me; the sudden camaraderie that makes other people with sticks start conversations with me in the street; the squirming curiosity of some friends and bewildered laughter of others. No, it’s not because I fell over drunk, I have an illness that gives me tremendous pain all the time, thanks for asking. The little black stick was as discrete as a walking stick can possibly be, and that’s why I liked it.
The first time he saw it, my Dad sighed and said “I don’t know why you didn’t get a snazzy wooden one”. It stung. Apart from the fact that a wooden cane would only be “snazzy” if I were a man in 1910, it stung because even my disability could be incorporated into the way that a woman’s physical appearance and fashion choices are always up for debate and nearly always found wanting – just like the time my Dad stopped me going out in three-quarter-length leggings by body-shaming me, he now got to ruin my walking stick as well.
The thing that really gets me about this is that to most people, my walking stick is my disability. They don’t know or can’t remember that I have it unless I’m leaning on a little hollow metal pole. I don’t like that. I don’t want my walking aid to be a sad thing, any more than a person’s glasses are a sad thing, a bleating little reminder that they can’t see properly. And that’s why I’ve been loathe to get one that looks like it wants to be noticed. My friends all got ones made of coloured perspex, to blend in to outfits or assert their personality, and while I liked them, the whole concept of drawing attention to my own stick filled me with shame. It wasn’t that I was ashamed that I sometimes need a bit of help walking, it was some kind of weird meta-fear that I couldn’t bear other people to think that I was self-conscious about it. Surely a plain-black stick said “Oh what, that? Yeah’s just a long-term crutch dude, ignore it.”
The first thing that really happened was that I saw a hotel room going for £18 in London and thought “Huh, I can afford to go to London.” Slight problem in that on my last visit to London I completely lost the use of my legs on the second day and got stranded in a Starbucks for 4 hours unable to get up. Usually I don’t need the stick all day, every day, but then I’m not usually in London. My friend suggested a collapsible walking stick and recommended a company. All their sticks had patterns. I hmmed and hrrred my way through their website, then decided just to return to that store where I bought my first stick, two years ago. I think I reached up to my new cane on the rack firstly because it was collapsible, then considered the pattern. In a sort of a way, I hated it, but in that very special way that you hate your favourite tune when you first hear it. I balked at it being £23.99, but then, this isn’t like the decision to buy a nice shirt, if you don’t buy it, you’re going to be not walking until you do.
So now I have a red and green paisley collapsible stick. My usual shoes are red brogues, so I thought it would be a good choice. It will probably clash with a load of my outfits, but then I still have old blackie for those. I wonder if one day I’ll have a collection, like some girls have loads of purses.
To go with my it, I also bought a retro 80s graffiti type back-pack. I bought it from Accessorize, which is usually a little mainstream for my tastes (most of my recent purchases are from Etsy) but I’d been trundling through the city in a fibro-fog looking for a back-pack for two days when I found it, and bought the first one that wasn’t explicitly offensive to my taste. To be frank, I haven’t worn a back-pack since I was 11, and I really didn’t want this one, but I have reached the end of my tether with handbags, which slap on the side of my stick all the time, and weigh on my already very painful fibro-ey shoulders. It’s big enough to accommodate my collapsed stick and my notebook – and what else would I need?