It has been nearly a year since I posted on my blog – for good reason! First of all, life jumped up and demanded a lot of attention in a big way. Second of all, I have been working on getting the book version of Loving the Tasmanian Devil published, and now it’s out!!
The fabulous sculpture on the cover is an interior view of Kerplunk! by artist Sher Fick. Love her to pieces!!
And now that summer is here, I am hoping I can get back to blogging.
I have met so many wonderful people as a result of this blog. It is nice to know that my random ramblings have been helpful to other spouses of Aspies. I have had the good fortune to chat with several of these people by e-mail in a more confidential setting. I thought it might be nice to have a protecteed chat space where we could “talk turkey” about day-to-day life in an NT-AS relationship. So I have added a page at right that is password protected and only for those married to an Aspergian. If you have already corresponded with me by e-mail, please e-mail me and I will send you the password. If you are a spouse and would like the password, please e-mail me for it at email@example.com.
I have a new colleague at work this year. We have lots in common: we are the same age, we both have three boys at home, we both teach these bizarre hybrid courses. But in many ways, we could not be more different. She is tall and blond; I am short and brown-haired with glasses. Her husband owns the country club; my husband owns a dairy farm. She is very organized; I am … not.
But here’s the most startling difference. The other day she referred to her husband as “the morning guy” in terms of kid duty. And then she described him: He goes to work out at the YMCA at 5:30 AM, comes home, makes coffee and brings my colleague a cup in bed, gets their kids up, makes them a big breakfast, gets them out the door, and then cleans up the dishes. My colleague has come downstairs by this point to join them for breakfast and say goodbye. Her husband leaves for work, my colleague takes a shower and heads to work herself. (NOTE: take her job and add to it five English classes, and that’s my job.) She is a gracious and lovely person and said she was so grateful that she could stay home and raise their kids and wait to find a job that she really loves.
For a typical day in MY life, please refer to Tuckered-Out Duck: A Day in My Life.
Now, let’s assume that F. Lee Bailey was speaking the truth and that Patty Hearst was brainwashed by her kidnappers into joining the Symbionese Liberation Army. And let’s also imagine that on April 15, 1974, she for some reason snapped out of it and found herself in the middle of the Hibernia Bank heist.
I imagine her suddenly looking around, looking down at herself holding an M-1 carbine, and saying “What the …”
That is exactly how I felt during this conversation, as if I suddenly snapped out of my 20-year relationship with My Favorite Aspie and found myself saying “Wait … THAT’S a normal marriage? What the heck is this that I’m doing?”
I am sure other people also wonder that as they look at my weird life. Every once in a while someone witnessing my husband and me together will give me pointed looks as if to say, “You don’t have to live like this. There are places you can go” or alternately “I don’t know how you put up with him.” I have actually had people say that exact sentence to me, and I have given them the innocent questioning face, as if to say, “What? All’s normal here.”
I had a similar “What the …” when I read Home Safe over the summer. WARNING: NT wives with AS husbands, do NOT read this book, especially if you are a wannabe writer. Read every other thing Elizabeth Berg has ever written but avoid this one at the risk of anaphylactic shock.
Now, I truly adore Elizabeth Berg. I eat her books like pancakes off a stack. And I have seen her in person: she is lovely and gracious and her books are all warm-hearted and magnanimous and read so smoothly it’s like drinking the best ever cup of cocoa in book form, but I just about threw Home Safe across the room in despair.
The basic plot is this: The protagonist is a successful writer who, for the twenty years of her marriage, has every day rolled out of bed and to her computer in her pajamas to write while her husband takes care of EVERYTHING ELSE. As the book starts, she has been a widow for almost a year (I truly was saddened by this) and she is trying to get herself restarted. She suddenly finds out that her husband has taken a big chunk of their investments and purchased a house in California, which he has had custom-redesigned and redecorated in order to create exactly what he knows is her dream house, right down to the bookshelves filled with all her favorite children’s books, a fieldstone fireplace, a pie safe, a six-burner stove, a bathroom with artisan tiles and a shower with its water falling over a rock ledge, French doors leading from bedroom to garden, a small wooden shed outside for writing, a treehouse shaped like a ship’s cabin.
I’ll stop there before I cry. First, I fully recognize how much I have personally given up to make the dream of the farm come true (giving up any of my writing ambitions in the process), so this protagonist’s pre-widowhood life is beyond my imagining. Second, it is astronomically far outside the realm of possibility for Andy to know and create my dream house. It’s not his fault; it’s the Asperger’s: limited Theory of Mind ability, limited empathic response, and whimsy regarded always as unnecessary and illogical not to mention inefficient.
In thinking about this recently, I know there are several very logical reasons why it took me so long to really realize that something was a bit amiss and that our marriage situation was somewhat askew.
REASON ONE: Kid Sister Complex
I am the youngest of my family, younger by five years than my sister and younger by seven years than my brother. I grew up as the little tag-along, always clueless, always mocked, always sure that EVERYONE knew more about how to act and what to do than I did.
Andy is seven years older than I am. When I met him, I was going through a Linda Ronstandt phase, of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra “What’s New” album era, and I was constantly crooning “I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood, I know I could, always be good, to one who’ll watch over me.” Yep, looking for a father/big brother figure. I confess it. And so I always assumed Andy knew better. He was much older. He was an A-Dult and I was a kid. I followed his lead. Easier and cheaper to paint every single interior wall off-white? I guess so. Every once in a while I would cock an eyebrow and question something, but rarely. I figured, Older is Wiser.
I also grew up in a dysfunctional family, loving but influenced heavily by alcoholism. I knew my family was not normal. I avoided bringing people to my house. I did not talk about what was happening at home. And I therefore saw all other families as infinitely more normal than my own. My in-laws, therefore, seemed paragons of normal. After all, they were both medical professionals, had a nice house and a vacation home, recreated with other adults, cooked gourmet meals. My family did none of these things. I assumed I was marrying into an incredibly normal WASP family and would be immersed into normal by means of their eldest progeny. Any choice of Andy’s I assumed to be normal with a capital N.
We knew, walking into the agricultural world, that nothing in our lives would be quite like other college graduates’ lives. Also, Andy was the Ag major. I was English/Art. I knew nothing about farming (besides what I had gleaned from the Little House books) and that meant that whatever I was told about anything related to the farm I took at face value. Also, we did nothing but work and worry for fifteen years. Work and worry, worry and work. Our situation economically and ergonomically was so outside the norm that all other components of it – including our marriage relationship – were assumed part of the lifestyle marginality. Work from 3:30 AM until 9 PM seven days a week? Normal, considering the circumstances. Constantly do things for the farm, never the house? Normal. Every cow problem a fatal catastrophe? Must be. Him’s the Ag major.
We are isolated here. I mean isolated. The long days, the far-away family, the lack of time for friends, the ten-mile drive to town, the five-mile neighbors. We had no real reflection of our lives in the eyes of friends or family, no one to pull me aside later and say, “Uh, Mo? Is everything alright?” Our families did this sporadically (Andy’s mother even said to me once “I do NOT like the way Andrew speaks to you”), but much of the odd behavior I was able to explain away by the omnipresent stress of starting the farm.
This one’s a stretch, but worth examining. According to the net’ s most reliable source of information, Wikipedia, Stockholm Syndrome explains an abductee’s or hostage’s love and loyalty toward his or her captor. The psychological explanation is that people will not allow themselves to remain unhappy for long because it causes cognitive dissonance. To resolve the dissonance, the person psychologically manipulates herself into being happy in the situation in which she finds herself, i.e. “I LOVE my captor. I CHOOSE to be under his control.” The other explanation likens the psychological strategy as akin to newborn attachment phenomenon. It is wise to attach to the nearest source of food and warmth since survival depends on it. And so, I was grateful for any let up in the endless grind. “My husband let me sleep in until 5 this morning! Isn’t he kind!”
But, there’s hope. I did find out about Asperger’s and can now differentiate between AS behavior and normal behavior. All this reading and breaking out of the NT-AS thang has liberated me from my blinders. Yeah, I’ve ruffled some Aspie feathers, but there’s a lot at stake here, especially my sanity.
Here’s Patty Hearst after her release from the Symbionese Liberation Army, with her former body guard, then fiance. Look how stinkin’ happy she looks! And look at that man – Is he going to ask her to lift a finger? No way. It’s going to be all about Patty. You go, girl! If you’re going to have a man with a gun glued to your side, make him not a captor but a bodyguard. And remember, you might have to be the one explaining to him which one to be.
My oldest son created this one day when he was bored. I think it’s brilliant. He made it about four years ago, thus the spelling errors.
It’s even funnier to those of us who live here because we can name most of the people in the vehicles that go by. In the white station wagon is the wife of the guy who fixes our cars. She is on her way into Norwich to buy car parts for her husband. They live in a strange enclave in the woods, built into a hill so that half is underground. We call it The Bunker. For the first many years we dealt with him, we were instructed to leave our car up on the road with the keys in it – not to drive down into the property. For a long time we suspected he was in the witness protection program, but now we just suspect they are older hippies. We also suspect they might be practicing nudists because sometimes we’ll stop at the house to pay our bill, and they have obviously just thrown on robes. Great mechanic. Cheap prices. Life in backwoods New York.
The truck that pulls in the driveway is our trucker Sue who takes our old cows to auction when they need to go. Sad but true. By some fluke of the camera, the film slows her down and then speeds her up. I laugh every time I watch it.
The other smaller car that pulls in is the artificial insemination guy. If you don’t know what that is, I’ll leave you to figure it out.
There is a surprising amount going on if you know what you’re looking for!
The Perpetual Male Adolescence Festival (aka Shotgun Season) is in full swing here in Central New York. Mighty Hawkeye has already gotten four does with his bow and one monster buck (update : two monster bucks) with his shotgun (update: and one doe with his muzzle-loader). At the risk of offending anyone, I feel I must rant.
I spent too many years teaching Lord of the Flies to sophomores. I love Lord of the Flies, can practically recite enormous portions by memory; it was the sophomores that got taxing. It’s been eleven years since I cracked the cover, but one scene always jumps to mind when hunting season rolls around again, and so I cracked.
Ralph and Simon have been valiantly attempting to build huts on the beach while Piggy allegedly watches the Littl’uns and avoids asthma. Jack is rapidly devolving into primitive hunting mode, and is intently thinking like a pig, plotting his kill:
“Ralph gazed bewildered at [Jack’s] rapt face.
‘-they get up high. High up and in the shade, resting during the heat, like cows at home-‘
‘I thought you saw a ship!’
‘We could steal up on one – paint our faces so they wouldn’t see – perhaps surround them and then-‘
Indignation took away Ralph’s control.
‘I was talking about smoke! Don’t you want to be rescued? All you can talk about is pig, pig, pig!’
‘But we want meat!’
‘And I work all day with nothing but Simon and you come back and don’t even notice the huts!’
‘I was working too-‘
‘But you like it!’ shouted Ralph. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘
They faced each other on the bright beach, astonished at the rub of feeling.”
“Mo gazed bewildered at Husband’s rapt face.
‘-they get really careless when they’re in rut. If you sit really still in one place-‘
‘I thought we were talking about Eldest!’
‘You have to be downwind, and brush your teeth with baking soda, and wear Scent-lock … ‘
Indignation took away Mo’s control.
‘I was talking about the kids! Don’t you care about their future? All you can talk about is deer, deer, deer!’
‘But we need meat!’
‘And I work all day downtown, which you would hate, and you come back and don’t even notice the 20-year-old bathroom!’
‘I was working too-‘
‘But you like it!’ shouted Mo. ‘You want to hunt! While I-‘
They faced each other in the kitchen, astonished at the rub of feeling.”
And so it goes.
I did make it to 50,000 words and got a big “You win!” graphic from the National Novel-Writing Month team (me and over 32,000 other people). Ironically enough, my novel is set in a future year when the people of Central New York are literally fighting for survival, and a good hunter is worth his weight in lost college-planning conversations.
And really, I must admit that I love venison, Husband is a fabulous cook, he is an extraordinarily skilled hunter, he is working on the bathroom, and if I were able to live a turn-of-the-last-century life and stay home cooking and baking, I would feel very different about the whole thing.
And much as I revere William Golding and his brilliant analysis of human nature, according to his biographer John Carey, he was “a reclusive depressive who considered himself a ‘monster’, a victim of fears and phobias who battled against alcoholism, and a writer who trusted the imagination above all things.”
There are dangers in trusting the imagination above all things, as Husband is quick to tell me. Imagination alone might lead to a Nobel prize, but it doesn’t fill the freezer or keep the house warm. So, I tell myself, Back off, English geek! Once you publish a book and make some money at your hobby, you can sneer at your husband’s hobby, which does at least feed the family.
Meanwhile, me and my main man Ralph are going to shut up and keep working on the huts and keeping track of the Littl’uns.
In the past two weeks the New York Times has featured at least two different articles about the just-released film “Adam” starring Hugh Dancy, billed as an Aspie-NT love story. I gave it the old “askance glance” at first, having been irritated by certain other media portrayals of Aspergians.
I got hooked on Boston Legal through Netflix because I knew that in later seasons they introduced an Aspergian lawyer. I was not impressed when Jerry Espenson finally appeared. Perhaps he also has Tourette’s, but any Aspergian who has become a lawyer would have learned over the years to control odd hand and voice behaviors.
Same with Dr. Virginia Dixon, the heart specialist on Grey’s Anatomy. Any Aspie who could get through med school and land that job would have figured out how to accept a hug and not completely freak out. Asperger’s is not Kanner’s (I hope I did not just completely display my ignorance about Kanner’s since I don’t live with it.)
I DO live with Asperger’s, though, and neither of these characters seems anything like the Aspies I know and love.
However, the trailer for Adam seems a little truer, and (blushing boastfully) I gotta say my own personal Aspergian husband does have all the charm and good looks of Hugh Dancy.
So I have high hopes for “Adam.” It was an independent film, bought by Fox Searchlight for distribution nationwide, so that speaks well of its intent: not mass market. It won the Alfred P. Sloan Award at Sundance for its portrayal of science and scientists. And I liked Hugh Dancy in “The Jane Austen Book Club” as well as what I heard about his research for developing this character.
“Adam” has already opened in New York City. I will luckily get to see it in San Diego later this month. And it will finally arrive here Under the Rock of the more rural areas of the country on August 28.
If you see it, please comment!
I am still basking in the afterglow of the Colgate Writers’ Conference, which I attended this past week. I had the great privilege of being in a novel workshop led by Brian Hall, whose intelligence, generosity, humor, insight, and talent cannot be exaggerated. I read his novel The Saskiad last month, and his novels Fall of Frost and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company are now on the top of my teetering pile of summer reading. I will also be adding his book Madeleine’s World: A Biography of a Three-Year-Old to my Education Professions curriculum next year.
In addition to the intensive workshop, I also attended the Craft Talks by other incredibly talented and generous writers: Jennifer Brice, Jennifer Vanderbes (my workshop instructor two years ago – You must read her novel Easter Island), Peter Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, and Patrick O’Keeffe. Their craft talks will be available on the Colgate Writers’ Conference website this summer. Past years’ talks by many of these same writers are already there and are a rare and invigorating treat.
My fellow workshop attendees were also a treat and shared their incredible talents as we workshopped their novels- and memoirs-in-progress. Two of our original group of five were unable to attend, and so we had Thursday and Friday mornings to do with as we chose. On Thursday we did an exercise, which I will describe in a moment, and on Friday two of us workshopped other chunks of manuscripts-in-progress.
As always when talking or hearing about the writing process, I was struck several times by the idea of writing as metaphor for life. Perhaps everything is metaphor for life, or perhaps, as the Kabbalists believe, all physical phenomena are essentially divine energy diffused into an infinite myriad of manifestations. Or maybe, as I am starting to believe, everything is a fractal, everything, if looked at in closer and closer magnification, is seen to be made up of smaller and smaller versions of itself.
One writing technique that was discussed in particular gave me plenty to think about in terms of both writing and life as I know it. This was the idea of the Limiting Exercise.
I encountered this idea during college in another wonderful Nathan Margalit class called Methods and Materials. One assignment we were given was to take a famous painting and spend … a week? two weeks? (I don’t remember) doing nothing but art based on that work. I chose Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and created 15 variations, each more surprising to me than the last.
Later, in my teaching life, I was attempting to have my tenth-graders write poetry, and realized that given no parameters, the choices were too endless and my non-poet students were, for the most part, writing schlock. Remembering my Art background, I pulled out my prints of Monet’s haystack series and explained to my students that I was going to give them a similar limitation to force their creativity.
I assigned a sestina, a very restrictive seven-stanza poetic form, invented in the 12th century and still used today by poets. I discovered this form in college when I read The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whose Sestina is one of the most-often anthologized examples of the form. The summer after my friends and I finished college, we all spent the summer writing these while house-sitting in the Montague hills (ah, English majors).
This form restricts the poet to only six end words, rearranged over the course of seven stanzas in a very specific order. As soon as I restricted my students in this way, they began writing much more powerful and beautiful stuff. My sister ended up doing dissertation research for her PhD in Cognitive Psychology on using examples to teach writing by “teaching” the sestina in my tenth-grade classes.
As we discussed in our Colgate workshop, it is common practice for writers to set themselves certain restrictions any time they write: point of view, for example. Do I choose first person or third person? If third person, then omniscient or limited or polyvalent? (a new word to me this week) Once the choice is made, that to a large extent imposes restrictions on the text.
However, for the exercise we did, Brian imposed a VERY limiting rule, so limiting that all of us in the workshop were paralyzed for a few moments, and as we worked you could hear grunts and growls of exasperation as we found ourselves roadblocked every other word: we were to write about a funeral without using the letter “e.” Here is what I came up with – without the help of a thesaurus!
On my way down stairs grimy with dirt, I stop and try my ducts for salt, for liquid, for signs that what awaits within will call from my past’s dim rooms any salt or sting. Finding only “dry” and “blank” in locations from which any squall or storm might tug, I walk toward a door I would turn from if I could, but approach anyway, finding it pulls my body through.
Within, a hush of lights and aromas surround that I most avoid. Aunts and trailing husbands, boys and girls, dumb with discomfort, old grandma sitting on a dais at a lost captain’s prow, surround a box I avoid at all costs.
I hug my mom, my dad. I slowly wind a circuitous path through bumbling cousins who touch or murmur what might sound sad but actually roars, low and ominous.
Shalimar and Coty’s L’aimant swirl in battling soft clouds. Mascara, lipstick, suits long hung in musty bags, skirts and shirts in vibrant colors stab at trying on “valor” or “joy” or any mood that adds a coat of familial gloss to what lurks in sharp looks or harsh coughs or pointing hands that sign out a grim truth.
I finally draw up to that obligatory black coffin and scan that craggy chin and high brow, cold now to my touch as always it was in mood glaring my way.
When I read it back, I realized that most of what I wrote I would NEVER have normally written. My ideas had to come out through some others space, like Play-Doh coming out the sides when the sliding shape-maker of the Fun Factory is plugged up.
On Friday morning, J. Robert Lennon shared in his public Craft Talk a number of limiting exercises as well as examples of what he had written when he had given himself these exercises. Check these out on his website: The Cat Text had me crying with laughter as did his New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters as did his disquisition on the website I Can Has Cheezburger? which is a big favorite in our household. The image to the left was my son’s desktop picture for months. The writing parallel comes from being forced to use kitten grammar, ala lolcats speech.
In our workshop right afterward, we workshopped my essay Ah-Ha! Moment: The “Diagnosis”. In addition to some very helpful writing feedback, I also got, as I often do in regard to living with Asperger’s, “How do you do it?” “How can you live with this?” and “Doesn’t this sometimes just drive you crazy?” On a bad day, my answers to these questions would be “Not with much grace” and “Some days it’s really hard” and “Yes.”
Later in the day these two things overlapped in my head and I thought to myself, Marriage to an Aspergian: The Ultimate Limiting Exercise, which of course could also be the subtitle for Life as a Dairy Farmer.
Sure, Asperger’s imposes certain limitations, but doesn’t every marriage? Marry a PhD in History and you are probably fated to moving from university to university waiting for tenure. Marry a lumberjack and you will be living near forests. Marry someone with diabetes and you will be monitoring blood sugar.
Look what often happens when people HAVE no limitations: celebrity athletes worth millions go broke or commit crimes, kids who inherit enormous trust funds become alcoholics or addicts, Brad runs off with Angelina when obviously Jennifer was his soul mate (please don’t think that last was anything but ironic). Limitless money, limitless fawning men or women: people usually do not handle that situation well.
Benedictines often talk about the value of their vow of stability. Thomas Merton flopped around like a crazed dilettante until he committed himself to the most restrictive monastic order there is: the Cistercians. They do not leave the monastery and they do not speak. But look at what came out of him then. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s lupus forced her creative hand. Dorothy Day chose poverty, and her very life became her creation.
The Taoists have a saying that I frequently fall back on: One disease, long life. No disease, short life.
Having some sort of restriction forces us to act wisely within that restriction’s confines and to care for ourselves or our marriage or our art in purposeful, thoughtful ways. No restrictions allows us to live in perhaps too daring a way, putting ourselves in dangerous situations. Think of children: in the absence of restrictions they will touch hot stoves, jump into deep water, wander into traffic. Our son, as he has gotten older and we have allowed him a longer leash, has often run gratefully back into the fold when we have snagged him from some dangerous social precipice, at least until he hankers for another foray toward adulthood.
My theory on this from a scientific standpoint is that our genetic code is hardwired for limitations because that is one of the natural laws: an ecosystem will expand and diversify until some limiting factor stops it at the system’s carrying capacity. There is only so much available to the system. As Jane Jacobs so brilliantly pointed out in her book The Nature of Economies, our human economies MUST function under the same laws because they ARE regulated by the same laws. Our economy is a fractal made up of the ecologies on which it is based.
All living beings are forced to survive in conditions of scarcity. Plants and animals do this by instinct or by trial-and-error or stimulus-response: Fly south — NOW. No food here → migrate. Not enough nitrogen → stop growing vegetatively.
We humans employ rational choice in a condition of scarcity. There is NOT an infinite amount of money or time or physical resources. You assess what you have, weigh the costs and benefits of each option, and choose accordingly. In the same way, we weigh potential spouses, look at the costs and benefits of each potential mate, and make our choice. (Can you tell the Asperger’s has rubbed off on me a bit? Read John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye for an Aspergian take on mate selection.)
Because we are rational, speaking beings, we have developed rituals that make public some of these rational choices. Marriage is one of the most significant limiting exercises we perform. That’s what the vows are all about: “forsaking all others, cleave thee only unto him as long as you both shall live.” That is a pretty serious limiting exercise right there, like writing using ONLY the vowel “e.”
Sure, Asperger’s imposes more restrictions than the normal marriage, and so does dairy farming. Wendell Berry talks about this in his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood.” As he helps a cow give birth, he thinks of Thoreau’s farmer-bashing words from Walden (which raise my hackles, too) and says that we all commit to something, even if it is to the idea of having NO commitments. Wendell Berry chose farm animals.
I chose Andy, and Asperger’s came with the package. I could get all frustrated and kick and scream or leave, or I can accept the limitation and use it as an exercise in marital creativity.
If you are an artist or a writer, when you impose a restriction on yourself, the creativity gets squeezed out in other unexpected ways. Brian encouraged us to “look for unpredictable elegant opportunities” that happen in writing when we don’t dictatorially impose our own will on the text, that these often lead the text in a new direction that is BETTER than the original plan.
I choose to see my marriage that way. The Asperger’s has been a “restriction” that forced the writing of my own life into a very different direction. Perhaps the creativity this requires of me will make of my life something more creative, and maybe more beautiful, than what it might have been without that restriction.
This is what I love about reading good literary fiction: you can tell when the writers have allowed the texts to force their hand in a way, and have followed and shaped those sometimes unplanned restrictions into art. For my own tastes, I love when a writer or artist has made beauty out of real and sometimes difficult limitations. This is art that, because it is true, always rings true.
Please share your thoughts …..
I just finished my annual re-read of Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. I first encountered this book when my sister was in college and I was still in high school, and the first time I read it I was working at a camp in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains. The copy I own is the 1977 edition; I bought it from Amazon Used to make sure I got the edition that I originally read.
Anyone who knows me well would be very surprised to hear how much I love this book and that I have probably read it at least 20 times.My love for this book is surprising even to me because I often do not like “Christian fiction”: I finally broke down and bought The Shack in the name of cultural literacy and had to force myself through it. Actually, I skimmed most of the second half, muttering “Yeah, yeah, yeah” as I flipped through the last fifty pages.
I know that my literary tastes expose me as a bit of a Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View. As Lucy explains after he walks out on Freddy singing: “It’s ugly things that upset him. He’s not uncivil to people.” Her mother replies, “Is it a thing or a person when Freddy sings?” I find myself in this bind when reacting to some spiritual novels, and I don’t like myself very much. I am sure all of these writers are much better people than I am, and I admire that. I just don’t like the writing. Much of it feels like eating a Twinkie when what I want is wheat bread.
And Hinds’ Feet on High Places is wheat bread for me, and I read it every June as I get ready for summer vacation. It is a completely unapologetic allegory, in the tradition of Everyman. Each character is named after a trait: Much Afraid, Craven Fear, Resentment, Suffering, and therefore the book is more like an icon than like a badly written novel sneaking spirituality in the back door. It reminds me of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This is a painting I heard of in another of my re-reads: In the Spirit of Happiness by the Monks of New Skete, a Russian Orthodox Monastery near Albany. They are the same monks who raise German Shepherds and write the dog obedience books. The icon shows a group of monks ascending toward Christ while devils shoot arrows at them on the right and a group of angels cheers them on at left.
Hinds’ Feet on High Places is similarly and unapologetically allegorical. The premise of the book is that Much Afraid, a young crippled shepherdess in the employ of the Shepherd, asks to be taken to the High Places away from her Fearing relatives, where “perfect love casteth out all fear.” The Shepherd is overjoyed to grant this request, has been waiting for Much Afraid to ask, and gives her as her companions on the journey Sorrow and Suffering to help her up the mountain.
Here I stop and say “Thank you, sir. May I have another” because I need this God Smack. Asking to walk a spiritually evolutionary pathway is not buying an airline ticket to Jamaica. It is taking off your shoes and heading over the hot coals. We are “too, too solid flesh” and the only way to get it in shape is through training, which is another reason I love this book: it reminds me of the summer of 1988 when I backpacked through Europe alone. I lived on $20 a day, filling my pockets with bread and cheese at the Youth Hostels and hiking everywhere. My trip included a week in a tiny hostel in the Austrian Alps, far enough up that I could hike up to the snowline. By the end of the summer, I was a Lean Mean Hiking Machine and also quite able to handle myself in just about any strange circumstance.
The allegory is both so true and so overt that it allows complete entrance of the individual reader into the tale. Nothing blocks the reader from inserting the self: no silly plot devices or clever new metaphors that distract. Just a nearly skeletal rendering of the indeed harsh reality of the spiritual journey. Very few butterflies and rainbows but plenty of drear landscapes and difficult delays.
As Much Afraid makes her journey, here are the places she must traverse:
Detour Through the Desert, symbolizing long and difficult periods of bleakness and hardening to difficulty
On the Shores of Loneliness, symbolizing long periods of aloneless and solitude
Great Precipice Injury, symbolizing the truly treacherous task of attempting holiness
The Forests of Danger and Tribulation, symbolizing the hardships that will intensify once you get closer
The Mist, symbolizing periods of confusion and tedium
The Valley of Loss, symbolizing the seeming destruction of all that has been gained
The Place of Anointing, symbolizing the times of peace allowing preparation for great tragedy
Grave on the Mountains, symbolizing the requirement to give up all you had hoped for
Healing Streams, symbolizing the grace that comes after complete surrender of personal will
High Places, symbolizing the freedom and clarity of spiritual life beyond personal dreams
This book knocks me flat every time I read it. It is the astringent reminder of just how difficult a task it is to set oneself on the spiritual path. Along the way, Much Afraid’s enemies attack her repeatedly: Self-Pity, Resentment, Bitterness, they all make an appearance and try to divert Much Afraid from her goal. I have been there, and these vile enemies, which of course come from within, do try their darnedest to halt my progress.
I re-read this book every year as an assessment: Which of these places have I recently traversed? How did I handle it? Where am I on this journey? Which of these enemies am I listening to?
This year, with all the knowledge about Asperger’s I have gained in the past twelve months, one scene jumped out at me in starker contrast than in my previous readings. Much Afraid is told she is very close to her goal and is directed to go alone to a rocky crag where a silent preist stands at a grim altar. The Shepherd tells her, “Take the natural longing for human love which you found already growing in your heart when I planted my own love there and go up into the mountains to the place that I shall show you. Offer it there as a Burnt Offering unto me.”
Much Afraid, knowing that she hears aright, proceeds. She accepts that 1) she may have been deceived by the Shepherd all along 2) she is giving up her heart’s desire 3) her enemies might be right that she will be abandoned on “some cross” 4) she will do it anyway because she wants the Shepherd more than the promises. Fearing she cannot do it, she asks the preist there to do it for her and also asks him to bind her in case she struggles to prevent it.
When Part One ends, she has suffered her all, given her all, and accepts that “It is finished.” This part is so important and struck me so this time through. I can trace my own path through every one of those parts of the journey: suffering, loneliness, injury, confusion, danger. But I am not sure that I have made this final sacrifice.
Many of the Asperger’s books say that the hardest part for a spouse is to accept that you might never get the kind of love and empathy one would wish from a partner. Many women cannot accept this and leave to find it elsewhere. Other women take the gifts that are offered and find that empathy elsewhere, in friends or family.
Perhaps this is Summer 2009’s leg of the journey. I know I am not leaving, and I know I am currently seeking empathy and love in other places such as friends. But I also know that I have not yet really made that sacrifice and it lies before me.
For all she knows, Much Afraid has accepted her own death on that altar. And yet when she awakes after three days, she bathes in Healing Streams, is healed of all deformity and disfigurement, and is finally able to leap like a deer. She is turned into Grace and Glory, and her companions Sorrow and Suffering become Joy and Peace. These are the promises of the High Places, and yet here’s the rub: they lie the other side of that grim grave.
I know I’m not there yet. I know I’m closer to it. I know I fear it. Tough as I appear, I don’t like pain. I know that this event will be unseen, unknown, because it will happen inside.
The other annual event linked with this book is my climbing Bald Peak, which is in the Berkshires, an hour’s hike from the Bartlett Camp. I go there to steel myself and to physicalize the truths of this book and of every great spiritual tradition I have ever encountered. I also steel myself by listening to this beautiful album: Doug Howell’s settings of the poems from the book, which are all from The Song of Solomon.
Maybe this is the summer I finally get beyond the reach of Resentment and Bitterness and Self-Pity by ripping that human-love plant out, but maybe it’s not yet ready to be uprooted. In the meantime I will at least once again set my foot on the path, because the invitation is always there.
I was reminded that this Tuesday just past was our anniversary at 6 PM that night when I got a beautiful e-mail from my sister. I chuckled a bit when Andy came in at 6:30 PM, and I said to him, “Hey, it’s our anniversary.” He chuckled, too, and said, “Oh, yeah. It is, isn’t it.”
Part of the reason we are both kind of blasé about June 30 as any kind of significant date is because we had already bought the farm and been living on it for six months by the time we wed. In our own minds, we had already been married half a year.
Also, of all the moments that seem important in our marriage, that particular hour on that particular day in 1990 seems like a live coal in the sea. That was the easy part. It’s the 6,935 days since then that have been the “marriage.”
However, we also decided, Andy and I, that our cavalier attitude about our wedding day is perhaps not quite healthy. We probably should at least REMEMBER the day we wed.
Part of what makes me uneasy about celebrating THAT DAY as so important is that it somehow trivializes all the others since, like saying, “Gosh, THAT day of fun and ceremony and family and laughter, THAT day was awesome, and everything since doesn’t really measure up.”
Latin geek that I am, I just love teaching the Latin root “ann/enn” to my students – so many cool words come from it: millennium, annuity, biennial, bicentennial, superannuated, and of course anniversary, literally “the turning of the year.” It is how I keep straight annual flowers from perennials. Annuals last for “one year” while perennials (adding the prefix “per,” meaning “through”) last “through the years.”
Perhaps this is why I dislike the word “anniversary.” As I am likely to mutter sarcastically in the greeting card aisle, “Whew! Just barely made it ONE MORE YEAR so we can remember that joyous wedding day again!” At this point the owner of the store calls security and says “Would you get that damn Latin major OUT of here!”
So, for all you Latin lovers out there, may I suggest a new name for anniversary? How about perenniaversary, to celebrate making it “through” one more year and still going?
This is most likely just a pet peeve particular to my unique and annoying mix of etymology addiction and Asperger’s survival. So take it as such. If you like it, feel free to adopt it.
Meanwhile, at least my beloved sister gets it and sends appropriate sentiments. She said:
Turn the page.
Write your names together once more.
Dance a bit on the porch.
Smell the dark sweet night air.
Sleep beside one another.
It is enough.
She also sent this poem, which is lovely:
by Fred Andrele
Did I meet you in that little shop
where the book of love is kept behind the counter?
Impossible, except our names are there
in golden script upon the luminary page.
Who would have thought the string bean boy,
the girl who squats and hops like garden toads
would find each other in the deep immensity
but there you are, my fingers trace your name.
I see mine linked with yours by radiant hearts
the shop’s proprietor, his quiet smile,
before the book is closed, takes up the feather pen
turns the page, and writes our names again.
I was so tired when I got home from school. I had been working all day with students, finally kicking the last two out of my classroom at 5 PM and driving one home. I hadn’t eaten lunch, so I grabbed three pizza crusts and some ice cream, read a little Laurie Colwin, and curled up for a short snooze.
At 6 PM, Andy screamed up to me, “MO! Is something wrong with you?!”
“I’m just taking a short snooze.”
“Well, get up! We need to think about dinner and figure out calves!!”
I’m tired, I thought angrily, swinging my legs out of bed and pulling on a pair of jeans.
“I just don’t get why you would want to take a nap at 6 PM! We’re going to bed in two hours. Why don’t we just get done what we need to and then go to sleep?!”
Because I am tired NOW. I want to sleep NOW.
It’s pointless to say this, especially now that I know where this is coming from, Andy’s pea-sized amygdala. No conception that I worked a day. No conception that anyone but a farmer could be exhausted. No Theory of Mind. He simply CANNOT imagine why I could be tired, and his need for completion and efficient timing requires that all my work must be done before HE can relax. Argh!!!
Saturday afternoon, I woke up from a nap (legitimate because it was mid-day and we had both worked in the garden all morning and we were both napping) and looked over at Andy’s head on the pillow beside me and felt like I had accidentally married a lobster, like a man-sized crustacean was lying on the pillow next to me with its juvenile brain stem and little pincers flailing in the air. If I tried to talk to the lobster, it would scuttle slightly and wave its little tentacle eyes and think its primordial lobster thoughts.
When I realize that Andy cannot instinctively understand another’s experience or not feel bombarded during even the most routine of days, I realize just how different we are, almost like different species. I see in my mind the “primitive nervous system” in my high school biology textbook and the diagrams of the “Asperger brain” from the internet and I become nauseous. How can I remain married to a being that is practically another genus?
But then I imagine Andy’s other traits, his childlike wonder, his extraordinary ability to comprehend and synthesize complex systems, how overwhelmed he must be sometimes. And the lobster on the pillow anthropomorphizes and is suddenly standing at its dressing table, like that whimsical engraving from Alice in Wonderland. It has a heart-breaking look on its face as it preens and prepares for the Lobster Quadrille.
So sad, the heart of a lobster, as he “Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.” I see Andy as a child, protecting his shirt tag from excision by the neighborhood bully. I see him in his sixth-grade class photo hunched in the back row, with his cavernous eyes so scared and alone. I see him in college, charged with political fervor, striding across campus in his black overcoat and keffiyeh, his long Roger Daltry curls bouncing down his back. I see him at the Szykowski farm, running a tractor for the first time, so glad to be out under the hot Holyoke sun.And I see that the lobster I have wed is a Lewis Carroll lobster with personality and an Englishman’s brain, with sophisticated emotions inside its crustacean body. And I have sympathy for and understanding of the very real emotions of this creature:
When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the shark;
But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.
We’re all like that, aren’t we? We all talk a good show when the things we fear are far, but when faced with anxiety, our souls become timid and tremulous, or worse, we betray our Julia with the rat an inch from our face. The only difference is that the lobsters can’t hide it as well. When they are afraid, we know they are afraid, they act afraid, that emotion is worn on the sleeve. We non-crustaceans have those fear reflexes as well, the stimulus does effect the response, it’s just that we can process it in the frontal lobes, understand that it is not life-threatening, and keep it hidden.
Perhaps the lobsters in our midst simply remind us too clearly of those core emotions we have learned to hide socially, can actually hide as a reflex, our great big amygdalas allowing us to do the socially advantageous thing and bury those feelings far beneath the surface. The problem is that for us, those neural impulses just go somewhere else, into a headache, into misdirected anger at a goose, into an hour of web-surfing old boyfriends at the end of the day, into resenting the lobster on the pillow next door.
Perhaps we’d do well to allow a little of the lobster in ourselves, to go somewhere alone and beat a pillow or address the pine tree with our boss’ face and tell it exactly how we feel about it, or actually confront the obnoxious colleague who deserves to be put in his place. Should we, then, join the Lobster Quadrille?
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—will you come and join the dance?
You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!
He waits for me, wistful lobster, on the shingle. All the turtles and lobsters are eagerly arriving, there, under the moonlight. They smile and chat, the slow and odd, the misunderstood, the savants, they are together and accepted here, they know the measures and etiquette of this minuet. Here, they are the norm and I am in the minority.
I give my analytical eyebrows a knit and linger on the edge of the beach near a rock. I am too controlled to join this group. Besides, I realize as the dance begins, that if I join I will be thrown far to sea and I resist.
But the snail replied, ‘Too far, too far!’ and gave a look askance—
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
“What matters it how far we go?” his scaly friend replied.
“There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France—
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
And it is true that life with an Aspergian has taken me to some far-off shores, many of them exotic and magical. I now see every wild animal in the landscape no matter how small or far. I understand economics and agriculture in their intricate and dazzling patterns. I can mow a ten-acre hayfield and not miss a blade or waste a drop of diesel. I can cry at the birth of a calf or feel the beating heart of a kitten beneath its endearing fur. I can restrict my anxiety and write exactly what needs to be written in a letter to my supervisor. I can sit in the woods still enough to have chipmunks run across my foot.
I have tasted meals from Andy’s hands that would rival those created by a four-star chef. I have tasted fresh lettuce and ripe strawberries that he has called forth from the earth. I have splashed into a glorious pool from a beautiful deck that was already manifest in his mind months before shovel touched earth. I have smelled fuchsias and lilies and lilacs that have flowered under his touch. I have seen a run-down farm flourish into a profitable Dairy of Distinction. I have felt the tender touch of a man instinctively expert at animal responses. I have read love poems from him that come from a sense of wonder deeper and more pure than I know. I have stripped off some of the endless layers of social veneer that protects me from intense experiences. I have been to the far shore, seen the wonders of France, drifted there under a moonlit sky with a water-wise lobster at my side, my hand safe in his pincer.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?
Yes, I think I will. Lead on, my lobster love.