Spelling

My Autism bookmark folder contains about fifteen blogs I follow intermittently. I go through spells of reading and not reading. Spell as a verb—to signal or forbade. Spell as a noun meaning incantation, but also attraction or influence. And maybe especially spell that conveys a season or course—and more negatively, a fit or attack.

Autism advocates, and especially self-advocates, say autistic people shouldn’t be labeled as severe, moderate, and high-functioning because disability manifests itself in very different ways. Just because you can recognize a disability (inability to speak or write, mental retardation) doesn’t make it anymore real than a disability you don’t (social and communication impairment, anxiety, sensory over-stimulation). The latter can, in some ways, cause more stress to the particular individual struggling to carry on in the world. The presumption of “normalcy”—or relative normalcy in comparison to other autistic individuals—is meant as a compliment but can undermine a “high-functioning” autistic’s experience of the world. By undermine I mean delegitimize their difference.

Temple Grandin, a well known autistic, often quotes the mantra her mother repeated to teachers, friends and psychologists on Temple’s behalf: “Different, not less.” That’s what I want for Jonah. That’s what I want for myself, in terms of Jonah—to recognize his difference and not unconsciously treat him as if I could simply discipline the autism out of him. Because I can’t, and doing so will only wreck the both of us.

But I find myself doing it anyway. Which is why my Autism bookmark folder contains about fifteen blogs I follow intermittently. About half of them are written by parents of autistic children. I need to hear from them. About half are written by autistics themselves. The older J gets, the more I need to hear from them. One day he will need to find them for himself; until then, I will listen to them for the both of us.

We all struggle with the idea of normalcy. It’s one of those resistances you can’t help but bang your head against from time to time. That urge to purge ourselves of our difference so that we can fit in or simply have an easier time of it in the world. Which is an illusion of course. There is no easy time of it in the world. I discovered an album this week called Drylandby Chris Pureka. The chorus from one song plays back to me now:

Life is cruel and it’s clumsy
(but we never explain)
I wish I could say that it’s better than that
(why we treasure our secrets)
but this is our time
(how we’re in love with our sadness sometimes)
this is all that we have ’til we turn out the lights…

Cruel and Clumsy

I can, with some certainty, say that it is better than that. It’s not cruel and clumsy all of the time, though I’ve gone through seasons when it felt that way, when I was in love with my sadness sometimes. I am incredibly fortunate, of course, to have been given and to have felt deep love from family and friends, consistently, with force. That’s certainly not a given, and I know people suffer deeply for lack of it.

Sometimes Jonah will bang his head on a table, into a doorframe—or repeatedly smack his forehead hard with his hand. It’s just that life gets too hard. Maybe it feels a little cruel to him, how he can’t process it all, can’t make sense. It must feel like an assault. Is he trying to sub-consciously bang the difference out of himself?

To a much lesser degree, I recall the impulse to keep my difference hidden in middle school and high school. I would only show myself selectively, to the people I felt the safest with (thank God for band and youth group and family). I gradually became more whole, less hidden. Becoming takes a whole life. The novelist and poet Jim Harrison writes another version of Pureka’s “Cruel and Clumsy”:

…On a cool night there is
a break from the struggle of becoming. I suppose that’s why we
sleep. In a childhood story they spoke of the land of enchant-
ment…To the gods the moon is the entire moon
but to us it changes second by second because we are always fish
in the belly of the whale of earth. We are encased and can’t stray
from the house of our bodies. I could say that we are released,
but I don’t know, in our private night when our souls explode
into a billion fragments then calmly regather in a black pool in
the forest, far from the cage of flesh…Of late I see
waking as another chance at spring.

from “Spring”, in Songs of Unreason; © Copper Canyon Press

I wake every morning with another chance at becoming a better mother to Jonah. Someone who accepts and does not judge but does not relinquish her own work of becoming. And that is the best I can ever do for my children and myself. We spell out ourselves, we cast our spell on others. In fits and starts. Waking and sleeping when the struggle of it wears us out. Waking again.

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Angel socking

Would if I could have visited Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia. I’d like to meet her peacocks or sit on the porch and receive visitors in the afternoon. Of course, I’d probably never do it, shy as I am in that way, fearing social presumption as I do.

But I am thinking about Flannery today, as it is not only the Feast of the Annunciation but also her birthday—one of the happiest coincidences of the universe I know. Annunciation comes from the Latin annuntiare, from ad- “to” + nuntiare “declare, announce” (from nuntius “messenger”). O’Connor’s stories, novels, and especially letters are a terrific incorporation of slowness, courtesy, drollness, intensity, fierceness, honesty and devotion. Sally Fitzgerald writes in the Introduction to The Habit of Being: “There she [O’Connor] stands, a phoenix risen from her own words…honest in a way that restores honor to the word.”

It’s her humor I admire most. Here are just two short excerpts from her letters. Blessed Feast of the Annunciation. Happy Birthday Mary Flannery. And blessed name day Gabriel Keats (tomorrow is his name day).

I don’t want to be any angel but my relations with them have improved over a period of time. They weren’t alway even speakable. I went to the Sisters to school for the first 6 years or so…at their hands I developed something the Freudians have not named—anti-angel aggression, call it. From 8 to 10 years it was my habit to seclude myself in a locked room every so often and with a fierce (and evil) face, whirl around in a circle with my fists knotted, socking the angel. This was the guardian angel with which the Sisters assured us we were all equipped. He never left you. My dislike of him was poisonous. I’m sure I even kicked at him and landed on the floor. You couldn’t hurt an angel but I would have been happy to know I had dirtied his feathers—I conceived of him in feathers. Anyway, the Lord removed this fixation from me by His Merciful Kindness and I have not been troubled by it since.  —in a letter to “A.”

…I hate like sin to have my picture taken and most of them don’t look much like me, or maybe they’ll look like I’ll look after I’ve been dead a couple of days.  —in a letter to Janet McKane

It’s a very pompous phrase—the accurate naming of the things of God—I’ll grant you. Suitable for a Thomist with that ox-like look…I don’t mean it’s an accomplishment. It’s only trying to see straight and it’s the least you can set yourself to do, the least you can ask for. You ask God to let you see straight and write straight…This is something I don’t fail to practice, although not with the right motives.  —in a letter to “A.”

OConnor porchOConnor child reading flipOConnor communionOConnor yellow

If this were the 70s (John and I are watching The Bank Job and a favorite style blogger of mine—Amanda Brooks—is kind of obsessed with 70s style, so I suppose I am pining a little for the era I was born into and didn’t consciously get to inhabit), my CB handle would be Weathergirl. I write a lot about weather here, namely the greyness of Ohio, but I am struck every day by the earth’s atmospheric effect on me. Yesterday was all sunshine. The boys and I were out in it for several hours. I made sure to face the sun. All day I was playful, relaxed, unconcerned.

Today you can’t even tell there are clouds. The sky looks like it was created waxen, colorless. It’s impossible to name. If someone formulated a paint color to reproduce it, I’d name it Pallid, or Pasty. Maybe Wan. I am likeways situated. I feel lusterless, bleary-eyed. I look for color to rest my eyes from it.

Our church is bright—yellow walls, rich brocade-colored icons. The Mother of God looks kindly on me as I try not to lose it with my children. Her arms holding the baby Christ wrap around me, just as kind Lori manning the candle desk takes in Jonah toward the end of Liturgy because Gabriel is more than enough to handle. She gives him jobs to do and a pad of blank paper to draw on.

And then Gabriel, who has been all obstinance and mega-phone pronouncements, finally nestles into my lap and is still. The choir begins the communion hymn, and he (just as loudly) belts it out: “Receive the body of Christ / Taste the fountain of immortality.” The only word he has trouble with is immortality, but after a few repeats he’s got that too. And then the song is over and people are patting me on the back, congratulating me for having such a good little singer, such a good little boy. He, the holy terror of pew 9.

The boys drag me downstairs to see what treasures coffee hour has in store. I am sure they must have been reading over my shoulder last night:

Writers and other artists are sometimes prone to isolation, and in that isolation, we are likely to feel varying degrees of alienation from our communities—so much so, we may also feel justified in self-centeredness, even if it seems to us more like self-preservation or self-defense.

However it may feel or seem, and however we may justify it, this disconnect from those around us is not, in and of itself, a good thing—though it may, off and on, lead to a good thing…

I was nudged into seeing that my own habitual sense of isolation—duly considered—might take on a spiritual dimension; with the pairing of love and affliction. I was invited to think of my own discomfort as a discipline, even an ascetic discipline, and a means to an end—something, that is, that I might work through.   Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering

“My own discomfort” amply describes the way I feel as the boys drag me to the basement for coffee hour. I am so not a joiner. But thinking about this mild sort of social anxiety as a discipline, well, that makes sense. It feels like a discipline, and practicing it would probably have a more beneficent effect on my person than keeping the fast or saying my prayers without fail.

The boys, of course, are just in it for the food and are disappointed to see only a small bowl of pretzel sticks, some red punch (that Jonah can’t drink—we avoid artificial colors) and some rather discarded-looking Raisinets. But the youth are selling bagels as a fundraiser (which I find amusing—Mmmmm! Have a plain bagel! Treat yourself! Support our youth! And don’t forget a cup of hot brown (I think it’s coffee…) liquid to wash it down!), and our spirits are revived. Jonah decides to go sit by Mary, the priest’s daughter, as he gobbles his half down, and I am introduced to Matushka Elizabeth’s mother. We start talking about Missouri (where she’s from) and then Kansas (where she’s worked), and then she’s talking about St. George in Wichita (my home parish). She’s seen how beautiful it is, and it’s like the sun to hear her talk about the place and the people there.

Yes, yes, we take the sun where we can get it. Trusting that it will appear is the work of it. “We may not choose our afflictions,” Cairns writes, “but we do choose what to make of them.” He gets more specific about “the dark heart of our trouble—namely, what keeps us separate, severed, and self-absorbed is a habitual disinclination to take seriously the suffering of others.”

…we seldom partake in the failing and suffering of our various members, and we therefore fail to realize the fullness, the reality, the appalling mystery of life as One Body. Simply put, I am now supposing that until we come to recognize everyone’s failure as a personal failure, we are unlikely to ever succeed as we must.  Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering

There’s a thought to put a damper on my sweet little judgmental heart. But there’s comfort there too. As I wrestled my children through church—pinching them a little too hard to sit still, setting my stubborn will in combat against theirs (I’m looking at you G), practically storming out with both of them in tow so that I could get hold of my temper as much as let them free from that jail of a pew—my personal failure (I hope I hope) was taken on by this community I’ve set myself within. Lori saw. She gave Jonah a job to do. Lovely Emil behind me didn’t just pat me on the shoulder because Gabriel knew the words to that hymn. He was also saying, “See, he’ll be okay.”

crazy boys one       crazy boys two

Spring bizarre

It’s officially Spring. Not that you can tell if you’re in Ohio, unless you look down. Snow drops, crocuses, and daffodils have pushed up through all manner of frozen earth, sidewalks and manmade plastic-tarped rock covered patios. The sun shone a good thirty minutes this morning before the sky covered itself as with a blanket. And yes, it was a grey blanket.

One day last week Jonah and I discovered and rediscovered respectively the meaning of bizarre and the ways Spring wears that word like a bright yellow raincoat.

The radar was clear. We put on our coats and headed to school, only to discover the sky was spitting icy rain at us. It was hard to tell if it was actually ice coming down from the sky or if the rain was just that blasted cold. The deck was slippery with it either way. We decided to brave the walk with our umbrellas as shields against the pelting drizzle. Ice falling out of the sky (not as snow) was something of a new concept to Jonah. I thought he used the word “bizarre”—which he didn’t—but my mishearing led to a discussion of the meaning of the word (from the Italian bizzarro, angry). The rain certainly felt angry, or at least aggressively indifferent to our tribulation.

I though J might catch hold of the word, but somehow he translated bizarre into awkward, as in “This weather is so awkward! I can’t believe how awkward it is!” I corrected him once, then thought better of it. Jonah has an innate sense of language that has held him relatively steady in the course of his seven years. His first word was “twah.” He used it whenever he threw something (which was often). John did his magical word origin research and discovered that an early Indo-European root of “throw” was, in fact, “twa”. When I later looked up “awkward” I read: late Middle English, in the sense of “the wrong way around, upside down”. A fair description of the some times mercurial inconstancy Spring stirs up.

We rounded a corner and found the street littered with nearly frozen worm bodies. Hundreds of them. I don’t recall there being a heavy rain the night before; but there they were, having squirmed their way to higher land—an instinctual search for safety (or at least not-drowning). We tried to dodge them as we continued to hold up our umbrellas as shields.

As we turned the next corner we were overcome by the stench of skunk (comprised of a chemical I have since learned is traditionally called mercaptans). It was strong enough that I worried we’d carry it all the way to school with us. On we trudged on, giddy with our travails. “Spring!” we laughed. “It’s so completely awkward!”

At least today the sun met us first thing. The wind was strong, blowing mini-snow-flurry squalls in and out throughout the day. Grey sky, blue sky, grey sky. Sun on black coat warm enough to make you bring your zipper down. Wind that leaves your ears red and burning ten minutes after you’ve been inside.

But yesterday the sun was a titanic fluorescent tube hung above the clouds. The sky glowed lemon-lime; I could feel it buzz, even if the frequency was too high to hear. The strangeness was communal, all of us wondering a little just what it is we’re meant to be.

j snow rung snow

 

Art and Prudence

Take these passages as a kind of counterpoise (love that word) to the seeming harsh and unforgiving nature of Lent and the Fast. And please forgive me if I offend. Eric Gill can be controversial and is certainly not for everyone.

Gill was a deeply religious man— “largely following the Roman Catholic faith,” as Wikipedia puts it—though many of his beliefs and practices were far from orthodox. I will say outright that certain of his acts were downright perverse. I cannot judge the acts of men, but I can recognize truth where I am given to receive it. Gill gives me much to consider, especially in terms of the artist and the prudent man, and the gulf between the two.

St. Augustine said: “Love God and do what you will.”
         Dilige Deum et fac quod vis.
The artist says: “Love and make what you like.”
         This is the highest prudence.
         But the prudent man thinks them dangerous sayings: for though most men know what they like doing
         or making, few men know certainly that they love God…

There is some ill-feeling between the prudent man and the artist.
         The lovers’ quarrel between art and prudence has become an unloving “scrap.”
         The opposition has become a conflict.
The man of prudence is shocked by the artist’s inclination to value things as ends in themselves—
         Worth making for their own sakes—
         Loved for their beauty.
         He sees idolatry at the end of that road.
He is also shocked by the artist’s acceptance of all things of sense as beautiful and therefore pleasing in themselves—
         Worth having for their own sakes—
         Loved for their pleasantness.
         He sees sensuality at the end of that road.
Upon the other hand, the artist is shocked by the prudent man’s inclination to see things merely as means to ends—
         Not worth anything for their own sakes—
         Their beauty neither seen nor loved.
He is also shocked by the prudent man’s inclination to see in the pleasures of sense mere filthiness.
         To him that is  kind of blasphemy.
The prudent man accuses the artist of sin.
The artist cries “blasphemer” in reply.
         They see no good in one another…

As artists it is for us to see all things as ends in themselves—
         To see all things in God and God is the end—
         To see all things as beautiful in themselves.
         “The beauty of God,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Denis, “is the cause of the being of all that is.”
It is for us to see things as worth making for their own sakes, and not merely as means to ends.
         We are not “welfare workers.”
         We do not even seek “to leave the world better than we found it.”
         We are as children making toys for men and God to play with, and “playing before him at all times”…

These quarrels can never be settled until most men of prudence are also artists and most artists have
         become men of prudence.
This pleasing state of affairs will not come about until the present civilisation has passed away.

         [passages taken from Eric Gill’s Beauty Looks After Herself]

Gill closes the book with the (extended) conclusion that “We make what we believe to be good—in accordance with our beliefs so we make.” It is our work (I say “our” because, like Gill, I believe all men are artists) to Look after goodness and truth, and beauty will take care of herself.

Madonna and Child 1925 by Eric Gill 1882-1940

© Eric Gill, “Madonna and Child” (1925), The Tate/London

Cravings

It’s the first day of Lent Proper—Pure Monday as it’s liturgically called—and I’ve had a pretty typical start to the season of repentance.

I lost it with my kids over the most minor of transgressions. Was it necessary to scream at Gabriel for dumping a box of magnetic letters on the floor? He’s three. He dumps. It’s developmental, not to mention genetic.

Because we don’t eat dairy products (as well as all animal products), I ate, let me see, four bowls of yogurt with muesli over the course of the day (yogurt being necessary for personal health reasons). Dark chocolate is “legal,” so while telling myself I’d only eat one square, I ended up eating half the bar. So much for self-control.

I spoke a short prayer Saturday night as I attempted to turn my attention toward the season of Lent. Watch out when you ask God to show you your sin. Thankfully, the Orthodox Church offers numerous opportunities to participate communally in the work of repentance. The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is a beautiful example. Several phrases stick in my mind from the service last night:

“I have darkened the beauty of my soul with passionate pleasures, and my whole mind I have reduced wholly to mud.”

Mud pretty much sums it up. Mindless internet surfing, addictive “story” watching (Dowton Abbey, Cadfael, Nashville), eating jars of Nutella one spoon at a time—none of these are cardinal sins, mind you, but they are definitely symptoms of a mind concerned more with entertainment and escape than simplicity and humility. If anything, these indulgence express an utter lack of concern for the state of my soul.

“The end is drawing near, my soul, is drawing near! But you neither are nor prepare. The time is growing short. Rise! The Judge is near at the very doors. Like a dream, like a flower, the time of this life passes. Why do we bustle about in vain?”

I’m not going all despondent on you here. Just attempting to take stock. The good thing about the fast and long services of prayer is the stillness that accompanies them. The emptying nature of Lent makes room. It is necessarily an empty room at first. It’s not easy to sit with yourself, to get a good look. But the same prayers that empty also can fill, because that’s what love does. As St. Isaac of Syria puts is:

“The love of God proceeds from our conversing with Him; this conversation of prayer comes about through stillness, and stillness arrives with the stripping away of self.”
from The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life

And also this:

“Blessed is the person who knows his own weakness, because awareness of this becomes for him the foundation and the beginning of all that is good and beautiful.”  Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria

Having written all that, and recognizing the life-giving truth in it, know what I want to do? Turn on some music. Make plans. Get myself busy. Finish the movie John and I started last Friday. In short, I want to Run. Thankfully, G needs me to help him get on the toilet. I need to eat breakfast. Laundry needs folding. That “stripping away of self” doesn’t have to be self-inflicting. The circumstances of my life, engaged with my whole self, are opportunity enough.