Lock and Key

If I could hand you just one thing
It would be a Mason jar
Filled with mud
Collected at twilight
On a rainy day
From the ground
Underneath a nurse log
In a redwood forest
In San Mateo County

If I possessed this Mason jar
It would be my most prized possession
I would sleep curled around it
Every night, all night long
I would keep it always
Closed up tight as it could close

And I would hand it to you
So that you could see all my secrets

Because only a trustworthy person
Would be able to find my deepest
And most beautiful secrets
In an old Mason jar full of mud

Anyone not fit to find them
Would never see them in the first place

Mud is the perfect lock and key to my soul

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Inside the Pauses of Ordinary Conversations

When ordinary people talk
We talk in poetry
With long pauses between the lines

Long pauses
Pauses long, and longer
So that all the other information
Has a chance to sink in

When ordinary people talk
We talk in stories
Not in academic analysis

“This is what happened the other day
To my wife’s sister Molly
At the Walmart —
You know Molly
She can’t do the sound of the cash register
.
.
And every register going off at once!
And she was plugging her ears
And crouching low to the ground
And people were staring
You know how it goes”

And another long pause
.
.
.
.
.
Filled by rolled eyes
And barely controlled anger

But mostly
Just a pause
.
.
.
.
Where everybody speaks their piece
Without saying a word

And only after that long pause
This long pause
Here
.
.
.
Only then can the conversation move on

Most of the conversation takes place
Inside the pauses
Where people have time
To think and feel

It’s not a wall of words
Nobody has to say out loud
What we know everyone is thinking

Nobody has to explain
How mortified Molly was
To have a meltdown in the Walmart

Nobody has to analyze
The ableism in people’s stares

Nobody has to explain
Why they are so angry
That this one part of the world
Has to be so hard

“Molly went home and
She couldn’t stop throwing up
She stayed in her room all day
And came out pale, sweaty, and shaking.
At least she had her cat
That cat never left her side.”

Another long pause:
Nods of sympathy
Head shakes of disgust
Eyes rolling at the world at large
Grunts like “uh-huuuuuh”
More tone than verbalization

Like Molly, I am autistic
I have learned the rules of conversation
Only with the greatest effort
That people don’t always like when you
Act like a bulldozer full of words

But it has been worth the learning
Because the bulldozer full of words
Split my brain at the seams
And wore me out before it wore anyone else out

The pauses give my brain room to breathe
Being quiet lets me listen
To the music of their speech
The pauses let me watch
The dance of their bodies
Not one by one
But as a group
Each movement
Reflecting off the movements of another

The music and dance
Are my private view on the world
They let me see things
Others don’t see
Understand things
I could never explain
But the music in their speech
And the dance that hangs in the air
Between their bodies
Tell me everything I need to know
And more

So I have learned that
When ordinary people talk
They talk in poetry and stories
And their hands and eyes dance
To a song of emotion that can only be heard
In the pauses

I may be autistic
I may hear the pauses differently
But I still hear the music
I still see the dance
Even if it’s not quite the same
Music and dance
Everyone else sees

Either way, I know
The rhythms and the tones
The movements and the stillness
That only show up in the silence
I may miss the words entirely
But I don’t miss the music or the dance

And those silent pauses
.
.
Filled with music filled with dance
.
.
.
Are the most important
.
.
.
.
.
Part

.

.

.

.

.

.

Photosynthesis

Sometimes I have climbed a tree
All the way to the top
And pressed my body into the trunk
Until I didn’t know where I ended
And the tree began

I’ve never liked the feel of sun on my skin
But on top of the tree it’s different
Because on the tree my skin gives way to leaves
And the sun means food to them

It’s a popular thing to say these days
That if a person is different enough from you
You’ll never understand them from the inside

But photosynthesis has taught me that’s wrong
Because I feel what it’s like
To get food from the sun
And to follow that sunlight the whole day long

My skin becomes bark
My bones become wood
My hair becomes leaves
My feet become roots
And rather than hating the sun on my skin
It sings me a food song
A life song
A love song
A light song

And if I can resonate with a tree
To photosynthesize as if I have leaves
Then surely I can resonate with
A member of my species
Who’s different from me
Even if they tell me
It can’t be done

Exile’s Lullaby

I can feel the ground wet, soft, and squishy
With a rotting log beneath my head
Where the mushrooms and mycelium
Trace lines on the ancient bark
Young trees far older than I am
Grow straight from the rotting log
And I sink in deep in the blue twilight
And I rest my weary bones

And how weary human bones can get
When we move them all the time
They ache as deep as an ache can go
Till there’s no climbing, not another step

And that’s when I sink into the soil
As the nurse log cradles my head
And I will myself to become the dirt
So I can feel the redwood sorrel
Pushing one by one, towards the sun
In groups too big to count
There’s no ache so deep it can’t be helped
By becoming the dirt for awhile

I’d never have chosen exile
If there’d been another way
I’d never have chosen exile
If there’d been a way to stay

But if I close my eyes
And curl on my side
I could almost swear I’m there
And that has to be enough for a lullaby

Twilight blue is always how I see the sky
With an amethyst glow around the redwood bark
And owls you hear but never see
And mushrooms and slime molds that live inside
Logs so big you can stand up inside them and
Redwood needles and cones carpeting the ground

And that’s where I want to lie down
And that’s where I want to blend into the ground
And it’s where I want to feel every plant
Growing inside me and seeking the sun
And the rain and the mist creeping into the leaves
And mold and slugs, things that live in the damp
And all the things that say life goes on
No matter how much is lost
These things make me who I am

And maybe they’ll make me sleep tonight
Despite the ache in my bones
And the ache of exile
Maybe it’s enough of a lullaby for one night

The Sun Touches Us All

And if I seem to have wisdom
That you can’t understand
It’s because the Sun has touched me deep inside

But don’t adore me on that account
Because the Sun has touched you too
The Sun has touched all of us
Down in the deep, dark places of our souls
Where we fear to tread
Where we fear to look
In case our fragile ego
Should take a fatal blow

But it’s there
It’s all there
It’s in me
It’s in you

Don’t let anyone tell you different
Don’t let anyone tell you that
The Sun has not touched you with
Wisdom and light and understanding
Because that’s where the Sun touches all

Just remember it doesn’t belong to you
And remember it doesn’t belong to me
They say pride comes before a fall
And maybe spiritual pride most of all

So watch your step on your way down to wisdom
Watch your step on your way back up
To the rest of us
Watch your step
Watch your step
But never deny
That it’s a part of you
A part of me
A part of all of us

Away (with credit to George MacDonald)

Away
That’s the only word for where I’m going
Away

And I can’t show you the light
And I can’t show you the love

All I can do is become like glass
And hope that through me you’ll see both

I hope through me you’ll see both love and light
I hope through me you’ll see what I see
When I look beyond death
At the back of the North Wind

Don’t be afraid
There’s nothing to fear
Only love
Only light
Only dissolving

Can you imagine what it’s like
To become the greatest love you’ve ever touched
Can you imagine what it’s like
To be everything good in the world

The North Wind told me it would be this way
The North Wind told me not to be afraid
She told me others would fear Her
But I should not
She said my time would come
Like everyone else
And She would be there waiting for me

When She waits for you
The whole room fills with light and silence
She sits by your bedside
Her light chases away
Even the thought of fear
Let alone fear itself:

You can’t be afraid in Her presence
You can’t even remember what fear was
Until She is long gone

Many a time have I woken up in a hospital
To see my whole room filled with light
And the North Wind sitting at my bedside
Patient, impassive, and loving, all at once
She has all the time in the world
And all the place to be there

She told me stories without words
She took me on journeys without moving
She gave me a red scarf to keep my heart warm
In the desperate winter of delirium
She tethered me to reality
When nothing else would

I knew who She was
You couldn’t lie in a hospital bed
With Her sitting in a chair nearby
Exuding light and truth and love
And not figure out who She was

And if you want to keep on living
You have to resist the urge
To stand up and take Her hand
And walk into the light

But when it’s time
And only when it’s time — you will know —
She will help you
And She will love you
And you will become part of Her love
And you will see the land
At the back of the North Wind

If you ask, She will take away your fear
And it will be the most beauty you have ever seen
And it will be the most love you have ever seen
And you will walk into the beauty
And you will walk into the love
And you will walk into the light
And you will become the light
And you will become the beauty
And you will become the love

And when I look for you
I need only look for Love
And that’s where I will find you
Always

Where Winter Goes

I am at the tip of the icicle
Melting away
I am at the bank of a snow burst
Blinding you in the sun

And the sun it says wait for me
Meet me at summer

I laugh in its face
And I run far away, off to cry

Because summer is
Where winter goes to die

And I am the winter’s ice crystals
And I am the spirit of snow
Anything winter, this part of the world
That’s where I’m bound to go

And summer is
Where winter goes to die
I have to laugh at your invitation
Or surely I could only cry

I’m the frost on the grass
But there’s less of me now
The twigs are starting to bloom
There’s hail in the sky
Oh I’ve dwindled, not died
But the birds they are coming back soon
And the ice crystals form a halo
Around the moon

Eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death
Is a year you hear a lot about
Around these parts
But it hasn’t happened since
And in my heart of hearts
I know I can’t hope
For a year-long winter

It’s been two hundred years
May be two hundred longer still
Meanwhile I can only
Hold on to the remnants of my chill

And my frost is melting, my love
My frost is melting
There’s nothing we can do
The frost is gone
And that separates me from you

For My Nonverbal Verbal Friend

[I have a friend who is partially verbal.  She can speak at certain times, on certain occasions, on certain topics, to certain people.  The rest of the time she types, or does other things.  But she is so much like me, and her speech strikes me as so disconnected from who she is, that her voice startles me every time I hear it.  I wrote this poem about my confusion, about how my instincts tell me she’s fully nonverbal and my brain goes WTF if I hear her voice.  As with other poems, even if it’s about one person, I’m sure there’s lots of others who can relate to it.]

When I hear your voice
It startles me
It’s a voice coming out of someone
Who was never meant
To communicate by speech

It’s a voice that sounds so distant
That I know you are at the back
Of a long tunnel

The machine that makes your words
Doesn’t always bother
To connect them to your thoughts

And I hear the distance
I hear the echoes made by the cave walls
At the end of the tunnel
I hear the echoes in your mind
I hear the echoes of books
The echoes of people
The echoes of echoes of echoes
That have formed the falsehood
That is your speech

Your speech is an elaborate lie
It’s a con job your brain pulled on you
When you were too young to resist
Your speech tells others,
“I am one of the worthy ones.”
Your speech rips your brain apart
But nobody notices but me

Mary Margaret would call you
One of the silent ones, now given a voice
And you are one of the silent ones, like me
It’s just nobody can see it
Because nobody understands what it means
When they hear words come out
Of a mouth that should never have been used

But I know what it means
Oh I know what it means
And my heart aches

I know it means endless hours of repetition
I know it means chewing up books
And vomiting them up
While nobody realizes
You’re not talking, you’re being sick!
The bile hurts your throat
But you do it anyway
You have no choice

I know it means a feeling in your brain
As if your brain is about to shatter
I know it means losing everything meaningful
About the way you perceive the world
As every ounce of energy
Is diverted to making mouth sounds

I know it means terrible pain
And never enough payback
To make it worth your while

I know it means fear — sometimes terror
Of what would happen to you
If you stopped talking
The way your brain aches to do
Every time you open your mouth

I know it means that you don’t type
As often as you should
For fear of social consequences
For fear of being accused of faking
For fear of being taken advantage of
For fear of getting hurt in a million ways

When I talk to you
We communicate as naturally as we can
As much like we were born to

We type, but we use the words
Like a carrier wave for something deeper
We never speak except to make emotion sounds
Our fingers flicker at each other
In our own private language
That our bodies made up between each other
On the spot
Every time

I sometimes get inside your head
See the world through your eyes
As you look out at me
And I see myself through your eyes
Looking back at me
With your eyes behind mine
And my eyes behind yours
That is how intimate we are

You can’t be verbal
It doesn’t make sense
Even when you speak
You don’t sound verbal

And you know all the secrets
That nonverbal people learn
To communicate
When we can’t speak

There’s more than one way
To be nonverbal

You strike me as nonverbal
Because your problems with speech
Prevented you from communicating well
Even when you can talk

And to me, what matters is not
What sounds you can make
Coming out of your mouth
Like a dog-and-pony show
For everyone to see

What matters is:
Can you communicate your thoughts?
Can you do so with any consistency?
Can you communicate about things
Beyond superficial descriptions of events?

If you can’t do those things
I have a hard time calling you verbal
I know I’m supposed to
I know it’s supposed to just be a word count
But a word count is just quantity
Whether you’re verbal or not
That’s quality

And
Your
Speech
Lacks
Quality

In too many ways to count:

Your voice is so distant
It sounds like you’re in a cave
Your words only attach to your thoughts
By random chance
And by three decades of nonstop effort
To mold your brain into shapes
It was never meant to take
One minor setback
Can make the whole thing collapse

And people would be so surprised
Because they don’t see
That you were never meant to be verbal
Which means they are surprised
When you don’t speak
And I am surprised — so surprised! —
When you do

You have pieces of fabric
That have been stitched together
The wrong way around
And people only see
That the fabric exists
They don’t see it going
Against the grain

But you know the things
That only nonverbal people know
You know how to communicate
Without the use of words or gestures
You know how to tell
When someone else is doing the same
Your tongue may sometimes be verbal
But your brain is not

So every time you utter words from your mouth
I am shocked and surprised
Every time
Without fail

Because everything else about you
Says this shouldn’t be possible
Everything else about you
Says your speech is a mirage
Water painted on the road
That disappears
When you get close
Or try to touch it

But you can communicate
From the depths of your soul
Without making a sound
And that is where
The real water
Can be found
Clear and deep

So I will stare into the depths
Of that clear and deep water
And I will refuse to countenance
Any mirages that come by
Claiming you are verbal —
I know you better than that

For my friend, who is upset, and half a world away.

If I visited you right now
I would not say a word

I would confuse the TSA agents
By filling my suitcase
With soil and dead redwood needles
And chunks of granite

And when we met
I would hand you
A sturdy piece of granite
Straight from the Sierras

But I would not talk
I would not type
I would not say a word

I would find a place
By the side of the road
Full of rocks and debris

I would sit with my legs
Splayed apart like a W
And arrange the rocks
On the sides of my knees
And stack them
In the perfect order

And then I would arrange more rocks
In front of me
And you would be there
And we would start handing rocks
Back and forth to each other
Trusting each other
To put them in the right arrangement

And if any cats came by
We might photograph them
Or sniff their noses
(If they allowed us the courtesy)
And always respect
Their fundamental catness

I would have bought you
A bag of blue marbles
Somewhere along the way
And I would hand you the bag
And look away
As the sky turned to twilight
And perfectly matched
The blue of the marbles

And I would never speak
And I would never type
And I would never say a word

You speak my language
Do you know how rare that is?

For anyone who speaks my language
And does it so well
I would travel to the ends of the earth
With a suitcase full of soil and granite
And spend the whole day
And never have to type
Not a single word

I would stand outside your borders
With rocks in my hands
And you would stand outside my borders
With rocks in your hands

And somehow
The rocks would exchange hands

And somehow
We would build
A sculpture of rocks
In between us
That said everything
That no word
Ever could

If you wanted
I would cover you in rocks
As you lay in the dirt
So that you could feel
The rocks weighting you down
Tying you back to the earth
Under its protection
Away from the things
That are hurting you

But only if you wanted

These are the languages
I know how to speak best:

I speak Rock
I speak Tree
I speak Redwood Sorrel
I speak Soil
I speak Lichen
I speak Moss
I speak Dirt
I speak Mud
I speak Water-and-Earth
I speak Creek
I speak Fire
I speak Autistic (some dialects)

I will speak any of these languages
And more that I have not named
If any of them
Will make you feel better

I may not always be a good friend
I may not always remember you exist
I may go months forgetting about you

But when I remember
I will do anything
If it will make you feel better
What I lack in memory
I make up for in loyalty and love

I can’t guarantee that I will always be there
But I can guarantee that when I am there
I will be there — all the way there
And I will be there for you
To the best of my ability
Because that is what being a friend is about

And I will not speak
I will not type
I will not utter a single word
Through a keyboard
Or a PECS symbol
Or anything else

You don’t need more words right now
You need experiences
You need ties to the sensory world
You need rocks, lots of rocks
You need friends who don’t condescend
You need to see cats
You need people who speak your language

We can hand each other rocks
I can help you arrange them
In a style that blends both of ours
And shows
To anyone with eyes to see
(Which is almost nobody, mind you)
That we are friends
That we have collaborated
That the work is a blend of both of us

And that is our language
For any bystanders
Who may be confused
Reading a poem
About the language of rocks
As spoken by
Two autistic people

Each rock that we arrange
Has a place, and a meaning
We know these rocks inside out
We know where the rocks want to be
And we put them there

It becomes a collaboration
Between you
Between me
Between the rocks
Between the ground
And in the end
It is more than it was
In the beginning

After we are gone from that place
Some people will see a bunch of rocks
Some people will see art
Some people will see sculpture
A very few people will see
Two friends
Collaborating with rocks and the earth
To show all the connections
We can’t show to others
If they don’t speak Rock

And I would not speak
And I would not type
And I would not use picture symbols
And I would not use sign language
And I would not use words
And I would not use ideas

But exchanging rocks
And making rock piles
Would tell us each
More about the other
Than any words

But I can’t fly
And I don’t have enough granite
For my suitcase
And all of this
Is just a dream
Of what I would do for you
If I could

So I have to type
I have to paint a picture
Using words
To show you what I would do
If I only could
To show you that I care
About your happiness
To show you that
I can speak Autispeak
When I need to

And most of all
To give you a break
From all that is harming you
So that when you face it again
You will face it with renewed energy
Renewed resolve
To face it in whatever way you want to
Not just the way they corral you in

I would give you lapis lazuli
And tiger’s eye
And black tourmaline
And moss agate
And amber
And granite

Rocks in your pocket
And rocks in your hand
Will tell you more about
Your place in the world
Than any group of people
Will ever be able to tell you

Rocks in your pocket
And rocks in your hand
Will dance with you
And sing to you
In words only you can hear
They will give you strength
That only rocks can give

Remember to listen
Hear them singing
To the rocks in the ground
And the sand that once was rocks
They sing of things
That only rocks know

And when you face the people
Who condescend to you
Even about the rocks
Who see you as an adult-size child
The rocks in the pocket
Will weigh you down
So the people can’t push you up
Into the air
Without your permission

I can’t give you rocks
I can’t make rock sculptures with you
I can’t sit in the dirt by the side of the road
And find rocks everyone has forgotten
And stack them in towers on my knees
These are things I can’t do with you

But I want to
And that should count for something
I hope it’s enough
Even if just barely enough
For you to know
I want to do these things
I want to speak our mutual autistic languages
I want to leave words behind
Just for a time
I want to show you
What can be possible

And that is what I would do
If I could do it
But maybe just writing about it
Will have to be enough

And most of all
I want to create a sanctuary
Where you don’t have to talk
Unless you want
And you don’t have to let anyone in
Unless you want

And you can take the love of our friendship
Back out into the world
With the rocks in your pockets
And the rocks in your hands
And know that the rocks
Will love you
And protect you
In the way only rocks know how

When I Say Love

When I say love
I mean the way the granite feels
When caressed by the sun
On a hot summer day

When I say love
I mean the way redwoods feel
When they drink in mist
Through their leaves

When I say love
I mean how the redwoods
Iterate an entire forest
In one tree

When I say love
I mean the way the redwood sorrel
Always finds its way up
To carpet the forest floor

When I say love
I mean the way roots find water
And help the plant grow straight
While the leaves search for light

When I say love
I mean how the leaves feel
When they turn sunlight
Into food

When I say love
I mean the way one old redwood
In a forest of newer growth
Holds up the entire ecosystem

When I say love
I mean lichen and moss
And salamanders
Who never leave the treetops

When I say love
I mean soil on the ground and in the trees
That allows death, decay, and rebirth
And endlessly creates life

When I say love
My body may be in bed
But I have slipped off to the forest
Through an impossibly deep blue twilight sky
To curl up at the foot of the Mother Tree
And bask in Her amethyst glow
And maybe, maybe
Be brought into the soil
To decay, to grow, to live
To soak up some of Her love