The Rough Places Plain: On Handel’s Messiah, Total Knee Replacement, and the Affordable Care Act

Today is Christmas Eve, 2015. Last week I spent an evening poured through by the holiness of George Frederick Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah, gift of a mature composer, of musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, Chorus, and the soloists, of the gathered listening, an audience intensifying the experience, and of my father’s gone baritone, setting this oratorio ever alive in me. The announcement with which the oratorio begins is from Isaiah 40, which is among my most favorite of biblical passages:
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people… The voice of one cries in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way…, make straight in the desert a highway…
“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.”
This lyric holds a phrase that long has rankled me in my queer-embodied life and social-critiquing commitments, yet this year I hear it so differently. “The crooked made straight” has become not a quelling of a humanity and world wildly diverse but the gift that lives in my body and enables me to walk again and for the years to come.
I have a new knee.
I also love how Handel, as he does throughout this oratorio, makes audible the vivid images, textures and brings them fully alive. Images are no longer metaphors but voiced, toned, harmonized into a common experience, hugely resonant. The melody of this first Air begins with a valley, very low pitched and suddenly exalted, leaping high. The mountains, risen clean and majestic, then slope down in pitch. In my imagination I watch the greening of the world. What was distant is come close. And then that melody, sung by a tenor with the energetic, staccato-bowing string sections, becomes all crooked and jagged, until finally it shakes itself into a smooth, long-held note, “plain,” sung and shared by the whole orchestra.
The knee is a gift of the taxpayers.  After decades of often severe pain and increasing deformity, falling again and again, my leg would no longer hold me. The surgery would have been impossible without my Obamacare/Covered California health insurance. The Affordable Care Act* is aptly named. It is a tangible way we care for each other, and I have experienced the magnitude of that care. This public care is come close, into my own body, not as a metaphor but in my actual and most intimate motion. The knee and my newly straightened and strengthening limb is also a gift of Dr. David Seidman’s exactitude, of Kaiser nurses, anesthesiologists, PAs and PTs, and of loved ones who have fed, accompanied, soothed, advocated, and cared for me exquisitely in the bodily vulnerable year I have lived.
“The rough places plain.” This gift lives in my body. I walk and am brought to tears with the ceaseless joy of it.
Thank you, President Obama. Thank you, all of you.
*Prior to the ACA, I carried a minimal insurance plan, with low total cap on coverage and an immense deductible, which, as a low-income, non-benefited professor in higher education, nonetheless took one third of my income. The ACA also allowed me to disclose to healthcare providers an obviously preexisting condition, my increasing limitation and never-absent pain , without being refused coverage. Out of a constant fear of losing all access, instead of asking for healthcare, I had worked to hide my need. The ACA’s other prong legislates as illegal the refusal to insure, due to any preexisting condition, anyone in the U.S.
 This isn’t an x-ray of my knee, but mine looks like this!


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