A Riddle-Song (Martha)

You think you’ll die without me
I’ve heard it a thousand times

You think you’ll die without me
I’ve heard it in a billion voices
In a thousand tongues

You think you’ll die without me
I’ve heard it for thousands of years

And no I’m not one of your gods
And no I’m not one of your demons
But I might as well be both
For the way you revere me
The way that you fear me
And the damage I do

You think you’ll die without me
I’ve heard it a thousand times

You think you’ll die without me
I’ve heard it in a billion voices
In a thousand tongues

You think you’ll die without me
I’ve heard it for thousands of years

But here’s the thing
Nobody wants you to know
And here’s the thing
You yourself don’t want to be shown
As long as I’m still around
As long as I thrive
You’ll never be fully alive

Dare I ask you, who am I?
Dare you answer, who am I?
Dare I ask you —
Dare you answer —
Who am I?

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High School English Teacher Meets Xanadu

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-some decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to msn
Down to a sunless sea (1)

I asked a high school teacher

If we would study this poem
Along with other poems by Coleridge

Immediately —
It’s an opium dream
It has no underlying meaning.”

And that was that
I was unprepared for his response
So I could neither process the language quickly
Nor come up with an original reply
With or without words

He thought the knowledge was so obvious
It needed no explaining
If it needed no explaining, then
Why do I remember the conversation
Twenty years later?
A memory of a school
I spent all of three months at
And remember little of the outer world
Only my inner experiences?
Why would my brain pick that
Out of the daily low level bullying by teachers
To remember?

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to the sunless sea (1)
I don’t have to go to Xanadu to find
Caverns measureless to man
I can find them in my mind
Those caverns hold sensory memories
That I have no conscious access to
But inform everything I do
I’m certain my father had the caverns too
But they were scattered on the winds when he died

I am no expert
In the interpretation of poetry
But there is an intense longing there
For a world that cannot be

And if I can wonder these things at thirteen
While a middle-aged teacher mocks me
For even having the thoughts
“It’s meaningless because I can’t
Personally find the meaning!”
Then what is the real problem here?

For I now have the longing
To explore the caverns in my father’s mind
As intense as any desire of a poet
To catch up with a beautiful dream left behind

If not more so
Because his caverns were imaginary
And my father’s unimaginably real
I know they’re real
I have them myself

The poem is about longing
For something gone that can
Never be replaced
And my father is dead and can never be replaced

Good enough,
Mr. Smart Ass English Teacher?
Oh well
My dad never got along
with English teachers either.
And even opium dreams
Can have meaning.

What’s that – you fear me
Because I’m from your future?

Because time ain’t supposed to
Work that way
And I’m fixin’ to tell you you’re wrong

What are all these books you teach

If not time travel portals into the eyes
Of future women, men, and other adults?
Boys, girls, and other children?
You think they wrote the book of Ecclesiastes
So only one generation of literate people
Could read it?
No, they wrote it for posterity

And it’s not the only one
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Pyramid Texts
The Book of Going Forth By Day
The Shewings of Julian of Norwich
The Dark Night of the Soul

The Poetic and Prose Eddas
These things all had meaning
That stood the test of time
So I am time-traveling as much as any poet
Back to you, Mr. English Teacher
(I have forgotten your name.)
To tell you
What you never bothered to figure out
Because you were too preoccupied
With your desire to be a coach
Rather than a teacher
(Why are there always those
Among English and math teachers,
Who wish, and act as if, they are
Coaching football or something?)
I know now why I had the attachment
To Kubla Khan
Because I could identify with the longing
I could identify with the caverns
And identifying with things
Is both the magic and the horror
Of adolescence
Sensitive teachers know that
You were as insensitive as a brick wall
And I know that there was another layer
To what you were telling me
I’d heard the rumors passed around
By students and teachers alike
That I was a drug user
(I wasn’t, not yet
I became one
Because of the rumors though.)
You were also saying
“You are a worthless drug user.”
You just said it less directly
Than the teachers who were willing
To say it outright
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice! (1)
What child with communication problems
Could not identify with these lines?
I had such a yearning
To tell people so many things
That were inside me
And no means to get more than
A tiny fraction
To come out in words
Usually, at that age, poetry
Many autistic children
Find their first true communication (2)
In writing lists of words
Or echoing music
Or writing poetry
And we identify with
The universal struggles of poets
To write about that
Which can’t be put into words
If you couldn’t imagine
That there were layers of meaning
In a poem by a famous poet
Of all things
Then you never deserved
A job teaching students about poetry

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Traditional Family Values

I believe in traditional family values

It is my obligation as a family member
To do everything in my power
To keep aging or disabled family members
From having to live or die in nursing homes

This was passed down to me
As a child
Through the example of my great-uncle Lindy
Who moved in with my great-grandma
To keep her out of a nursing home
As long as he could
Even as she broke her hips multiple times
And became frail and bedridden
She stayed at home as long as she could
Because of our family values

Because of our traditional family values
I was able to visit her every year
In her tiny little house
Smaller than some of my apartments
But filled with love and kindness
Because she was a hard-core Hufflepuff
And she and her house
Had a long time
To become part of each other

What, you were expecting something different?
Then either you’ve grown too used to hearing
Right-wing propaganda disguised as tradition
Or you don’t know how many valuable traditions
A family can have

I am very traditional in my own way
Even if you can’t see it
And it is traditions like this
That are at the core of my value system
Traditions that come from love
Not from unthinking obedience to hate

So next time you hear the words
Traditional family values
Think hard
About your family’s best traditions
The ones that come from love
You might not have any
But you might
And you might be surprised what they are

And if you can find any such traditions
Then do all you can to take back the meaning
Of traditional family values
To apply to the love your family has taught you
Passed down through the generations
That’s what tradition, in its best sense, means

My Last Refuge

Dedicated to Ernest, Blanca, Vanesa, and David.  I hope you all made it out of institutions one day, and that you’re alive, and maybe even happy.

I hid my awareness from you
Because I knew if I gave a response
You’d abuse me more.

I hid my awareness from you
Because I’d seen what happened
To those who came before

I hid my awareness from you
Because restraint is known to be the worst
Physical trauma for an autistic child

I hid my awareness from you
Because I feared looking into your eyes
Inches from my face, so I stared through you

I hid my awareness from you

Because my mind was the only refuge I had
That you had not yet stolen from me
By tackling me to the ground and sitting on me
For the sin of not moving when told
Yes, my mind was still my refuge
And whatever it took
Whatever it took
I was not about to let you in

So you put your eyes as close to my face as you could
And you tried to force me to look into them
I looked through them
I pretended you weren’t there
I pretended I existed in a different world
A better world

A world where children weren’t strapped down at night
So that the night nurse didn’t have to bother with them
A world where people who showed fluctuations in their abilities
Were not accused of manipulating staff
A world where people whose entire bodies resisted invasion
Were not invaded anyway and then blamed for the results
A world where a tiny little autistic boy didn’t run into my room
Every night, silently pleading me to make the staff go away
So he wouldn’t be tied down for the night
A world where I didn’t have to listen
To what staff really thought of us
Since they gossiped in detail about patients
Right next to the isolation rooms

You got right in my face
So close to my face that one adult doing it to another adult
Would be seen as an act of aggression, even assault
And you demanded that I join your world
Demanded that I at least acknowledge your world
I refused

And the more you tried to force me to join your world
The more determined I was to get away

You called this manipulative
I called it survival
The first of many definitions
We would never agree on