I Wish I Were a Morning Poem

That’s all, really. I wish I were a morning poem. Perhaps I am a morning poem.

“I Wish I Were Mexico,” by Beckian Fritz Goldberg

When my father came back from the dead he came back as a smell. He came back as a bus passing comes back as a cloud, fumy and genie-like granting three wishes. He came back as a seaside town. He came back as the great parlor of fragrance thrown open by coconut. Meanwhile the bus was winding past Taxco, the child hanging out the window on a mountain road wanting to throw up. And when the bus turned and held itself mid-air the child died and someone else got on with her life. That’s the one my father returns to because it’s so simple. You breathe. And the bloom of gin comes back like a tree.

Because, being a morning poem, I just am, as poems are. I move deeper than motherhood, beyond the public library circulation desk (new job). I forget to wrestle with whether or not we should put our child on drugs to ease his anxiety and stimulate his ability to comprehend and retain what he’s trying (so hard, he’s trying) to learn. I stop questioning the psychiatrist’s assertion that “I don’t see the autism diagnosis, at all.” I stop judging what I perceive as my husband’s failures. I hear the barge horn blast downriver, the train clacking loudly and quickly across the golf course that moves every day closer to wild. There’s Lucy, by the window, keeping track of me. She is a morning poem too.

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Blue Dog Gone

I’m not sure that I ever explained where the Blue Dog comes from.
I’m not certain I know precisely myself.

It has something to do with this very black dog.

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© Ze Bernardinello

Who, over time, became this quite old black dog, with beautiful white and silver streaks.

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It has something to with the blue carpet in the picture, at the bookstore where I worked for ten years.
Something to do with the light and the shadow in the photograph’s composition, which is a reflection of how I have come to see myself.

I started this blog shortly after we moved to Ohio. It was a hell of a move. Jonah had just had heart surgery. John had a new job. Gabriel was five months old. A month before the move I slipped and dislocated and broke my long finger toe (if you have seen my feet, that description makes perfect sense), next to my big toe. We moved into a house that was and is so beautiful and full of promise and character, a house that needed a great deal of work. We poured ourselves into all of it, with all of ourselves.

And then Jonah was diagnosed with autism.
And then I was diagnosed with PMDD.
And then I very nearly had a nervous breakdown.

So I wrote (and I started taking Prozac, and then something else, and then Zoloft), because I was losing it and because I have proven to be nearly incapable of making sense of my life if I don’t write it down. But it wasn’t enough to write it in a journal because I needed someone to read it. I needed someone to see my life, see me in whatever way they were able, through the light and the shadows I cast. Call it a testimony to my introversion.

And over time, the need to write remained, but I allowed the circumstances of my life to convince me that I didn’t have time to right (interesting mistake there; I think I’ll let it stand). And sometimes I didn’t have time, because I started edited books and I also needed sleep. But here I am again—with my need, knee-deep in loss, another big move ahead.

Sophie died a week ago.
We are moving to Alabama.

It’s good to be back.

 

 

Present

Finally, birds. Bird song, bird color.

Finally, crocus. Snowdrops. Glory of the Snow. The grass might even need to be cut soon.

glory of the snow

Chionodoxa (Glory of the Snow)

Peter Matthiessen died this past weekend. I’ve only read one of his books from beginning to end, The Snow Leopardwhich I recommend. A nonfiction account of traveling the Himalayans after the death of his wife, it’s lyrical and the kind of stark that strips you down to feel more free than bone-naked.

Matthiessen was a longtime practitioner of Zen; The Snow Leopard  is an amalgamation chronicling his physical journey (in glorious, stay-with-you detail), memories of his wife, and his search for the plainest of mystical experiences: the “wholehearted acceptance of what is” (The Snow Leopard, 242). As Jeff Himmelman in The New York Times Magazine puts it, “the various strands of Matthiessen’s journey cohere into a kind of fable, in which the potential for clarity and insight struggles to fly free of the past and the people that he (we) can’t ever really let go of.”

That combination of mountains, journey, grief and . . . how to say? . . . absolute presence is right up my sky-loving alley. And because life is great this way (or is it because my brain, as a matter of course, sees connections between seemingly disparate readings and/or realities?), I must reference here one of my new favorite voices, Emma, of Emma’s Hope Book. Emma painstakingly makes her words and sentences by either pointing to one letter at a time on a stencil template or tapping the same on a qwerty keyboard connected to an iPad. Here she is discussing how she thinks, in contrast with the way her parents think (with whom she is having the discussion). Her father asks her to describe her internal experience, particularly since she only uses internal dialogue when communicating with non-autistic people.

Emma responds: Know that I am almost always happy and take great pleasure in sounds, color, fabric. Everything in life is beautiful if you are able to be here.

Emma seems to be saying she very much lives inherently present to the moment—the way that Peter Matthiessen wanted to live and think, the reason he trained and practiced Zen meditation for so many years. In “The Tree Where Man Was Born” Matthiessen writes,

Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content. The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was. 

Which seems to be a kind of holy Presence. Matthiessen calls it that himself, earlier in Himmelman’s story, when describing an experience he had at the end of a meditation session:

The silence swelled with the intake of my breath into a Presence of vast benevolence of which I was a part . . . I felt “good,” like a “good child,” entirely safe. Wounds, ragged edges, hollow places were all gone, all had been healed; my heart lay at the heart of all Creation. Then I let my breath go, and gave myself up to delighted immersion in this Presence, to a peaceful belonging so overwhelming that tears of relief poured from my eyes.

Grace is all I know to call it. And the reality that healing—real change—is possible.

 

the You beneath

I check in occasionally with the blog, Letters of Note, and today read a letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to his fourteen-year-old daughter recently enrolled in an English boarding school. He extols her to work hard and, most importantly, be herself no matter what people with their “curious little annoyances” may do or say. I can very well imagine writing something of the sort to both of my boys one day, and particularly, dear Jonah.

Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin—the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.  —W.E.B. Du Bois to his daughter, Yolande

The ability to do. The will to conquer. The determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world.

astro jonah

 

Supercharged

A pieced together description of The Intense World Theory of autism, gathered from an interview with its originators, Henry and Kamila Markram on the blog Wrong Planet:

The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain…

The brain is supercharged because the elementary functional units of the brain are supercharged. These units are called neural microcircuits. Neural microcircuits are the smallest ecosystem of neurons that can support each other to carry out functions. The brain is made up of millions of these units. These microcircuits are hyper-reactive and hyper-plastic. That means that they react and process information much faster and more intensely, they can learn much more and remember much longer, and they can remember things with much greater detail. The Intense World Theory proposes that having such powerful units makes orchestration difficult—like trying to play a piano with a million run-a-way keys…

What strikes me about this explanation is how exhausting it must be. To constantly be processing, in a more intense way. Such a busy mind must be distracting to the point of madness. One theorist described the workings of the autistic brain in terms of building a city without any highways, only side streets. You can get there, but it will take longer.

While earlier theories have characterized autism by a lack of empathy and social knowledge, the Intense World Theory maintains that “autists could actually be seeing much deeper into the minds, thoughts and emotions of themselves and others, which triggers active avoidance and lock down behaviors. It also requires the ability to simulate others as if you where them and to extrapolate to where their thoughts and behaviors are leading them. Seeing into the minds of others can be extremely disturbing.”

As Emily Willingham (a biologist, self-diagnosed Aspergian, and mother of an autistic child) puts it, “The overwhelmingness of understanding how people feel can lead to either what is perceived as inappropriate emotional response, or to what is perceived as shutting down, which people see as lack of empathy.” It’s not that autistic people are being unemotional, but rather that they are “taking it all in like a tsunami of emotion that they feel on behalf of others. Going internal is protective.”

This makes sense to me, though I’m not autistic. But Jonah is. (Every so often I need to see the obvious in print. I need to tell myself Jonah is autistic because sometimes I try to talk myself out of his autism. J doesn’t fit into the parameters others—myself included—have set up to typify autism.)

So though we knew he was a quirky, non-typical person from the get-go, he didn’t fit the brand of autism everyone was selling at the time so we resisted having him evaluated. Jonah has always been keyed into others. He may not have communicated verbally until he was 3 1/2, but he communicated what he needed, usually with sign language. He is sharp and can be incredibly attentive (to what he wants to be attentive to). He is warm and loving. Sure, he’s physically and emotionally intense (our priest’s wife gave him the superhero name, Dr. Kinesis) and a little bit clumsy, but he also has crazy-good agility skills (tree climbing, acrobatic swinging, bicycle riding). I can see his brain working working working, never stopping…

The Intense World Theory is the only unifying theory of autism out there today, and it makes sense of what we have come to know as the autistic spectrum. Just as there are varying degrees of impairment and disability, there are as many different kinds of autistic people as there are non-autistic people in the world. As the Markram’s put it: “The diversity comes from the fact that we are normally diverse and if you add hyperfunctional circuits to that then naturally each autistic child will be even more different from each other. It is like taking all our normal differences to an extreme.”

The powerful combination of hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity (stronger, more intense connections in the brain) results in the hyper-functionality previously mentioned, the consequences of which are hyper-perception, hyper-attention, hyper-memory and hyper-emotionality. These traits express themselves in behaviors such as sociability, attention, multi-tasking and repetitive behaviors—all things autistic children and adults struggle with on a daily basis. All things our Jonah struggles with to a moderately (shall we use the word again?) intense degree.

The research supporting the Intense World Theory also supports the paradoxical autistic trait involving under-reaction to pain. Jonah has an incredibly high pain tolerance. He is indifferent to cold; he can fall down a set of concrete steps on his head, producing a knot the size of a small egg, and be back at play within minutes. But a relational misunderstanding can result in a meltdown of epic proportions. His emotional pain is palpable, and it’s hard to know how to help. He gets stuck, not unlike the image of the serpent feeding on its own tail.

This is where I need to remind myself that the Intense World Theory is a theory, and a very early, working one at that. It’s not without gaps either. What do we make of “sensory seeking” (a craving for intense sensory stimulation) autistics (such as Jonah)? I might hypothesize that such people are seeking a way to match the intensity of what’s going on in their brain with a similarly intense experience in their bodies. Jonah seems to have been doing this from the day he was born. He screamed a full hour upon entering the world before exhausting himself and passing out. But I’m no scientist, and my hypothesis might be better categorized as an instinct.

Still, I can’t help but be encouraged and affirmed by the theory and how it aligns with both my understanding and misunderstanding of J. I am also reminded to appreciate his wonderful difference. I especially love his use of language and his palpably tender heart. He is the sweetest soul I know, and certainly his brain has something to do that.

I’ve read several accounts of autistics describing the way they experience people. Kai Markram (son of aforementioned Henry Markram) says “feel them different.” Emma, of Emma’s Hope Book, has told her mother she can “hear” people. Her mother, Ariane Zurcher, writes that “when I asked her what she meant by that, she wrote that she could sense people’s emotions and inner turmoil.  She could hear their moods.” Tangentially, Emma also says that “music is stars for your ears.

Jonah hasn’t expressed himself in this way concerning other people, but when he talks about the woods he uses a similarly deep vernacular: “You know what the woods are? When there’s lots of trees crowding the people so that the sun doesn’t cover their eyes.”

scavenger jonah

 Resources for this post:

The Intense World Theory: A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2010.00224/full

The boy whose brain could unlock autism:  https://medium.com/matter/70c3d64ff221

Emma’s Hope Book:  http://emmashopebook.com

Intense world theory raises intense worries:
http://sfari.org/news-and-opinion/viewpoint/2014/intense-world-theory-raises-intense-worries

Zoloft and gin

Note to self: Zoloft and gin cocktail, bad mix. Looking back over a course of weeks, I have distinguished a pattern. The days following my consumption of more than one glass of wine (etc.) it is as though I hadn’t taken the medication at all. A sort of cancellation comes into play, and I have deduced (just now) that the pleasure of that extra drink (or two) is nullified by my inability to be a loving human being the next day. As if being a loving human being isn’t hard enough.

I’ve written before about why I’m on medication for PMDD. I become deeply melancholic. Then I become reactive and mean. I isolate myself; I push people away with my words. Subsequently, I am filled with regret for what I’ve done, and I cry myself out. Not a regenerative experience.

Yesterday being Christmas, I imbibed freely, prompting my most recent episode and the subsequent revelation that my meds don’t work when I do. As I entered into the stomping off/slamming doors/isolating myself phase of things, Jonah came into my twisted, dark world.

“Mom, can I help you?”

No response.

“Mom, I love you.”

I walked into the bathroom and slammed the door. (It pains me to say I really did that.) When I emerged, Jonah—who had been waiting in his room—came right back, being the persistent kind of miracle that he is. He stood in the doorway and watched me cry.

“Why are you sad?”

“Because I was mean,” I half whispered, half squeaked.

“Yes. You were.”

That’s all he said; then he very intently rolled off a square of toilet paper.

“One of your tears fell on the floor. I am wiping it up.”

He watched me cry awhile longer.

“Can I help you?” he asked again.

I took him by the shoulder and walked to my room. I curled up on the bed. He lay down next to me, took one of my arms and  wrapped it around himself. From time to time he would ask,

“Can I wipe that spot off your face?”

Gabriel eventually wandered in playing his favorite Snail Bob game on the iPad and situated himself on the bed too. We three lay there for at least ten minutes. I still felt sad, but also blessed and cared for.

I told Jonah he would make a good boyfriend when he grew up.

“Yes. I will do that,” he returned.

When I recounted these events to John, he answered, “It is impossible to be mad at Jonah. He is good.” Which is true. There is a goodness in him that approaches transcendence. An earnest love, free of guile.

Which is why I take the medication, so I don’t screw him up with my neurosis. Which is why I’m back to a small glass of a little something instead of my fill—which, in my very particular chemical equation, surpasses excess.

By the way, “my Jonah” (as G would say) is autistic. And ain’t nobody gonna tell me he is lacking in the least. Empathetically or otherwise.

goofy car grin

 

 

“I’m just waiting. Every minute I’m getting stronger.”  Jonah Caedmon Estesjonah on beam
The things that come offhandedly down the chute from Jonah’s brain and out his mouth can be words to live by. The phrase above was uttered after he had shimmied up the side of the swing set in the hope of getting “up high” so that he could scoot over to the deck that houses the slide. It turned out to be a little higher than he thought and a little farther to go with no branches to catch-stop a fall.

I’ve had a similar (enforced) experience this past weekend. After a draining work week (yard work, book work, cook work, boy work), my body said no more and laid me nearly flat for two days. I have the capacity to physically push myself with a singleminded determination when a task before me need be done. Make that tasks. A simple stop—a series of simple stops—along the way may have prevented my physical demise, but I’m grateful for it all the same. I seem to work in a cycle of resets, and I don’t mind so much. Doesn’t mean I don’t need to break more often for a certain enforced leisure (which quickly shifts to real leisure), but accepting the way I move through the world seems the best first step to take.
pod racer cool down
(Pod racer after his bath time cool down.)