Staying Put

“What can be seen from my window, what can be reached on foot within a day’s walk of my house, may seem tame enough: no surf breaks on rocky shores, no mountains gleam with snow, no bears prowl. It is a settled region, marked everywhere by human presence. But for all our buildings and lights and roads, for all our signs and words, that human presence is only a thin film stretched over mystery. Let sunlight flame in a blade of grass, let night come on, let thunder roar and tornado whirl, let the earth quake, let muscles twitch, let mind curl about the least pebble or blossom or bird, and the true wildness of this place, of all places, reveals itself.”  —Scott Russell SandersStaying Put

Scott Russell Sanders will be presenting the inaugural reading for the William Stafford Lecture Series at Malone University in Canton, OH, October 9-10.

[For information email John Estes:]


Invisible Me

Jonah is a great catcher of dreams. Almost every morning, he asks first thing, “What were your dreams?” And he’s got some good ones himself.

When I relayed, with some excitement, my dream about John being Spiderman (though he didn’t have the suit) and him saving Jonah and me by tackling a Venom-like bloke (also without a suit), J just couldn’t get past the fact that the super suits were missing. We talked about it all the way to school. We talked about it after school. We talked about it that night in bed. “But where was his suit?” John demonstrated how you didn’t have to have a suit to have skills and proceeded to hang upside down from the ceiling by his hands and feet. Okay, so he was laying on the top bunk about 3 1/2 feet below the ceiling, and okay, J didn’t believe him in the least. But still.

When J couldn’t remember his dreams he used to insist he had no dreams at all. That’s been revised. The following conversation is a condensed version of several different conversations over the course of days. The opening phrase is something J’s taken to using all the time. Even when he’s just starting a story. It’s hilarious.

“Where was I?” asks J. “O yes! Sometimes my brain catches my dreams and watches them but my eyes don’t see them.”

“Is that why you can’t remember them?” I return.

“Yep yep!”

I notice a faint scratch on his cheek and ask him where it came from.

“I sended it from my invisible brain and it smoothed it down. It had claws inside the invisible brain that came down and scratched me.”

I should add here that J has a very interesting relationship with his brain. On a walk over the weekend he (Jonah, not his brain) plopped himself down in the middle of the sidewalk in a pensive mood. When I asked what he was doing, he replied:

“My braincilator is just thinking about doing a parachute or maybe just crawling like a baby or something.”

Yeah, you read me right. Braincilator. I love the machine quality of that. It really emphasizes the way it can work for you.

So fast forward to the invisible brain day. (Still following? I know. It’s quite a trip.) After school, J continued to wax eloquently along this vein:

“Mom, can I tell you something? So, as was I was saying, I have an Invisible Me. He tries to help me with his invisible brain. You know what he has in there? Invisible guts!”

Unfortunately, the conversation was interrupted by Gabriel’s sighting of a garbage truck and his subsequent petition— “Gaba dwive dat gaw-bage gwuck!” —repeated in an increasingly loud voice ad nauseam until I conceded, “Yes, you can drive that garbage truck.” By that time Jonah had entered goofy town and an intelligible conversation was pretty much impossible because it was all he could do to stay on the sidewalk. Much flailing of arms and shouting of “Whoa! Whoa!” followed by a slightly maniacal laugh.

Invasion of the Invisible Me?





You will live the difference

This morning Jonah told his dad, “You will live the difference.”

I don’t know the backstory. Odds are, there wasn’t much of one. I can’t tell you what he means, though I might later in the day, after it sits with me for awhile. That’s what happened Sunday sometime later after he said “I love you so much as cookies!” (That was what we wrote in a card to his grandparents.) It sounded like he was being goofy for no good reason except to be goofy because I asked him a question he really didn’t want to answer. He does that. Call it avoidance if you want. Sometimes I think it’s just his way of saying, Are you really serious?

In print, “I love you so much as cookies” is pretty straightforward. He loves cookies. And he loves his grandparents. Equating the two isn’t so strange to a boy of literal mind. At the time he said it, I didn’t understand. Probably because of the way I heard it, which was something like “I love you so much” with “as cookies” tagged on the end. It follows that what I consider unusual has just as much to do with me as it does Jonah.

When I hear “You will live the difference,” when I see pictures like this:

I want to believe Jonah. I want to live the difference like he does—unaffected, uninhibited, and unencumbered. Pretty darn close to pure joy, which doesn’t mean not sad sometimes, or angry, or tired. But out there. Doing it.

[Editor’s note: I found out later that Jonah was responding to John saying how tired he was. John added that Jonah spoke quite sympathetically, trying to encourage him, but that he also wanted him to get his butt downstairs for breakfast.]

Talking Polish

That’s polish, as in nail polish. Or polish a silver teapot. Or speak in a polished manner.

It’s been a buzzy morning already. Upon waking, Jonah often operates on a level akin to someone who’s had four shots of espresso. In a row. Within five minutes. He may still be coming down from the party high of last night. We hosted a department picnic. He acted as greeter, tree climber, and creative hamburger maker. We even went on a walk after the bash to moderate the rush. After that, some time with Busytown (J wants to drive Lowly Worm’s apple car. I’m partial to Pig Will and Pig Won’t’s Sausage-moblile) was in order. He even watched a little Doc Martin with John and I.

So after a little time with the iPad after waking (around 6:30 a.m.), it was time to get outside again. Some sun and some sky and a swing from the Three Sisters (our backyard tree) was in order. Barefoot of course. Interesting conversation ensued, as it often does when J finds a soothing way of moving.

“What’s polish?” he asks.

I talk about rubbing something until it shines. I say something about clean and beautiful.

“What’s talking polish?” he returns.

(How great is that? He conceives it in terms of speaking a language.)

“Speaking in a polished way,” I answer, “means that you choose your words carefully. That you speak in an eloquent manner.”

He swings awhile, shoving off from one trunk of the tree and making a wide arc to push off from from the smaller trunk two feet over. This, in itself, is a feat John and I marvel at almost daily. The way he uses his legs as a rudder—how he hardly ever slams his body into the trunks, managing to spin precisely (in what appears to be an indiscriminate way) so that he can push off with his feet. For a kid with “poor motor planning” he’s rather advanced in this arena. Almost genius.

“Teach me how to talk polish,” he commands, as if it’s French or pig-Latin.

“You have to practice,” John replies. “It’s not like an app you download. It takes time and years. You need to read lots of Shakespeare.”  He walks by Jonah on his way to the garage, on his way to the gym.

“How do you say ‘Hi’ in polish?”

“How now, father?” John answers.

Later, at the gate, as John is backing out of the driveway:

“How do you say goodbye in polish?”

“Fare thee well,” he pronounces, pulling away.

The way he moves

There have been studies done (of course there have been) on “abnormal” gait and arm posturing in children with Asperger’s and/or high functioning autism (which are the exact parameters of Jonah’s diagnosis—along with sensory processing dysfunction). Doctors and psychologists use the abnormal gait criteria, to some extent, in diagnosis.

According to the clinical psychologist Nicole Rinehart, autistic persons “have a much more variable bouncy gait.” Check. The right arm often swings across the body, rather than back and forward. (This was a marked trait in the toddler Jonah, along with his strange—though highly amusing—staging of tricycle accidents.) The pelvis shifts differently (the article uses “oddly,” which I think carries a negative connotation). Check.

So I mention this study mostly because I find the analysis interesting. I don’t know what it means in terms of helping autistic people except that in some situations, maybe it can prompt earlier diagnosis. For my purposes, it’s just background. I find the way Jonah moves to be certainly intriguing, often entertaining, but most essentially, beautiful. He can be such a whir of motion that it’s hard to pick up on at times. You just see that the way he moves is all his own. I have become accustomed to his difference because it’s not actually different. It’s Jonah.

A photograph will pick it up though. The capture reveals the beauty in J’s loping frame. Here are a few illustrations, for beauty’s sake.

Making earth

For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm. A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside. For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: It is making earth. The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings or perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognize there an artistry and a farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human. I have seen the same process at work on the tops of boulders in a forest, and it has been at work immemorially over most of the land surface of the world. All creatures die into it, and they live by it.

Wendell Berry, from the essay “The Work of Local Culture,” found in his book What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth

[For a great short essay on Berry by food writer/critic Mark Bittman, click on the photo (that’s Wendell Berry with his arm around a statue of his great grandfather in the Port Royal Cemetery) or go HERE.]