Yesterday morning I heard that David Bowie had died of cancer, aged 69. Yesterday afternoon I spent a grateful and contented hour walking and talking with my darling Dad. He is convalescing from an operation to remove a cancerous tumour, he is 69, thankfully he’s going to be OK.
We also lost my husband’s father to cancer at 69 a number of years ago. As a teenager, 69 sounds like a fairly ripe old age. Now in my forties, it seems less so.
Thinking about Bowie’s life and death felt poignant in more than one way.
It interrupted my concentration on a hefty blog post that I’m struggling to write. In brief, the post is about difference (particularly disability) and prejudice; not just overt dismissal and discrimination but also about ingrained “positive prejudices” e.g the “wow you are such an inspiration!” (because you are in a wheelchair and you have a boyfriend) stuff of which a lot of us are guilty.
Bowie’s artistic expression, androgyny, sexuality, individuality and regular reinvention made him an icon to me as a youth; he made me think and question, even before I heard his music. As a teenager, I remember watching the film Breakfast Club. So HOT. So COOL. So ANGST. So FUCK YOU. Bowie’s lyrics at the beginning:
“And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds; are immune to your consultations, they are quite aware of what they are going through.”
David Bowie, Changes, 1971
Man, I hear you.
As I hit middle age, I am starting to have those fleeting moments of “but I still FEEL young” bewilderment (read: twenty-something lads, flirty joke-making and coquettish hair-flick, thunderous awkward silence) and I know from my Dad and others that the almost out-of-body experience of one’s slow physical decline contrasted with one’s ageless sense of “me” becomes more and more preoccupying and fascinating, even distressing… slowly, I am starting to ‘get it’.
It is so easy to understand and respect things of which you have direct experience. Those retired ‘old farts’ who try to strike up a conversation in Waitrose don’t seem so faded and irrelevant to me as perhaps they once did.
Bowie’s lyrics resonate with many who feel like outsiders, but he was a white man who grew up in South London and its suburbs and probably never experienced true discrimination. He was beautiful different, exotic, not ugly-maybe-a-burden imperfect different. Society prefers that. Enchanting rather than challenging.
It is so easy to dismiss and dehumanise those who are different, of whom you have no direct experience, especially those who superficially seem to lack merit, vibrancy or potential. It is an exceptional person who always takes the time and care to stop and see the individual, to share a moment, to listen without prejudice and genuinely feel enriched by the encounter.
My Dad is one of those people and I aspire to be like him every day. To see beyond the skin colour or the wheelchair, the stutter, the cataract-dulled eyes or the insecurities of a missed education. To see and celebrate the “me”. He is a proper human being in the truest keenest sense.
Like most people I have been “touched by cancer” but I don’t find myself getting caught up in the angry rhetoric and #fuckyoucancer hashtags. Sometimes, in secret, I get
pissed off wistful about the whole huge us-against-cancer charity and fundraising phenomenon.
I have also been “touched by autism” and choose to campaign and raise money for the National Autistic Society, so for me cancer can feel like the enemy in a competitive sense too. As someone trying to raise the bar on how we treat all our fellow human beings, of course I still wish cancer defeated but not above everything.
I am not expecting or asking anyone to stop championing the end of cancer or anything else but I am asking them, us all, to consider that equality and discrimination are just not the same sort of thing as cancer.
How can equality – the most fundamental human right – be so mistakenly put in the same pot? Why I am even having to make a choice between spending my limited time and resources campaigning for autistic rights or cancer cures?
Leaving aside a bigger debate over the need for charities to support us at all, I wish that the monies raised from our pink-wearing night-walking parachute-jumping beard-growing head-shaving cake-baking passions were somehow more proportionately distributed.
I wish that as many people could turn that anger, determination, achievement and commitment towards ending discrimination. I wish they didn’t have to.
To think that people are beginning to tentatively say that “we can put an end to [something as complex as] cancer in our lifetimes” and yet, I still see ageism, misogyny, racism let alone homophobia, transphobia and ableism all around me every day…
We cannot cure cancer by changing our attitudes alone but discriminative behaviours would take no money to cure if we all just committed to do it. Now. Always.
Some may find me naive (as ever). I can hear some of the arguments already “but to create a built environment that allows for equal access to all costs more money…”, “to design an education system that provides for equal access to all is logistically and financially nonviable…” or the like.
If you have moved on to truly non-discriminatory thinking, if you inherently accept equality as the norm then there is only one way forward, one cost, one logistical approach, the inclusive one IS the norm, the one for all of the flavours of “me”.
The other ageist, sexist, racist, ableist, etc possibilities don’t make it to the table, they simply don’t exist.
I am saddened that David Bowie died, I was choked when I heard the news. He will be as missed by his family as any husband and father. He will be mourned by so many more people who felt some kind of kinship as his fans, or felt represented and understood by his lyrics. But although I now feel that 69 is young to die, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t had a good innings and an amazing life.
He was fortunate to have the opportunity to use his mind and body to its full capacity and achieve a significant proportion of his full potential, to be his own “me”.
I hope that one day that will be true for all of us.
“I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture I was living in.”
David Bowie, GQ, 2002