Dancing with Shadows

Do you know that I don't know
Anything beyond light and shadow
No ideas, no thoughts
Just reactions

I chase my shadow
I run from my shadow
I touch my shadow
I lean on my shadow
I tap on its fingers
I step on its feet

And we dance
And we prance
And we dance

I can't see you watching
If I did, I couldn't care
Light and dark are now
All that I perceive
Not just the colors
But the things we believe
Ideas don't exist
And neither do you
Unless you bring it
Bring your shadow into view
Then I can dance —
With your shadow, not with you

Black and white
Dark and light
Are all I comprehend
But it's not so bad
To dance with shadows
Round the bend

 

Bill’s Grandma And Me

A stream flowed around her
But never touched her feet
Birds perched on her head
Beaks sifting through her hair

Bill said not to talk to her
There’s nobody there, said his friend
Don’t waste your words
On the living dead

A bird flew out from her hair
He whispered in my ear
The secrets known only to birds
To old women taken for dead

With no motion at all
A smile played across her mind
She inclined her head
And invited me to dance

Did I agree —
Or did she just take my hand?
She whirled me through the air
Caught me, set me down

Yes, there were others there
But all save one of them
Couldn’t see the dance
Noticed not a thing —

Just a senile old lady
And an idiot child
Staring nowhere
Being nobody
Experiencing nothing

The Mind Bridge: A True Story

You saw me spinning outside
Along the edges of a dance
Asked questions
Were told I was crazy
The first thing you were told
Besides my name

We were so very different
And I had trouble communicating
But from the very first day we talked
You were making inroads nobody had ever made
Ever
Ever
Never in my life
Had someone peered into my mind
And seen me

We were only twelve years old
And you instinctively knew
That the way to communicate with me
Was to find books in common
And talk in metaphors
Gleaned from the pages
Of the books we had just read

It was A Wrinkle In Time, I recall
We classified people as
Meg-like or Charles-Wallace-like
Sandy-and-Dennys-like

For the first time ever I was able
To break out of non-communicative echolalia
By using echolalia from a book
I told you I was Mrs. Who
The character who could only communicate
By quoting the words of others

For a 12-year-old autistic kid
Who had never heard of autism or echolalia
I doubt anyone could have done better
Than we did that day
At building a bridge between our worlds

I didn’t recognize your significance
For a long time
In fact I ignored you
I was embarrassed sometimes
At your interest in me
I didn’t know what to make of it

You saved every telephone number
Of every mental institution
Every residential facility
I was committed to
Even for a day
So that we could keep in touch
No matter what

Nobody else did that
Not even the people
Who claimed later
To have been ‘so close to me’
None of them ever did that

But I’ve seen your daily planner
Full of crossed-out phone numbers
For mental institutions
That I have no memory
Of speaking to you in
Because I was too heavily drugged

When I became nonverbal on the phone
You were the one who devised
Impromptu communication systems
Cycling through the alphabet
Until I tapped out the letters
Not even my psychiatrist
Took me seriously enough
To do this for me
I cried

Then each of us tapped out
The rhythm of a prime number
You took two
I took three
You took five
I took seven
We would go as high as we could
My favorites were seven and eleven

You knew that the rhythm of numbers
Was one of my favorite things
So when I went nonverbal on the phone
You devised the prime number game
There were so many areas
Where we met in the middle
Despite our brains being quite different

I was a highly sensing and sensual person
And I brought to our friendship
A heightened appreciation for
Basic sensory experiences
That you had all but forgotten about
You even took up stimming
To understand the world
As I experienced it

You were undersensitive
And you lived in your mind
A mind full of mathematics
And ideas, and concepts
That were normally too high
For me to climb to
But you carried me up
Specially made ladders
To teach me graduate-level math
And make me think I could do it

You were so brilliant
That everyone knew it
Even in our gifted program
You were singled out
For special tracking
I’d never even heard of
The gifted of the gifted

No one was less surprised than me
When you won the International Science Fair
By discovering a new property of
The Fibonacci sequence
You weren’t just good at tests

I used to wonder what someone like you
Saw in someone like me
Who was already exgifted
By the time I began to know you well
I wondered how a mind like yours
Could see anything worthwhile
In a mind like mine

But the magic happened between us
When we each built a bridge
I built mine out of mud and sticks
And redwood cones
You built yours out of equations and proofs
And lots of geometry
And we were able to stand in the middle
Where the bridges met
Hold hands
And look out over the landscapes
Of our two minds

Nobody had ever built me such a bridge before
Nobody has ever built me such a bridge since
Until I saw the bridge
I had no idea how lucky I was

“I was content to be an object in your world”
You told me once
Commenting on the long time
When I couldn’t seem to understand
That you were offering friendship and love
When you weren’t sure
I noticed you were really there at all

How can an autistic child
Who has only known bullies
Masquerading as friends
Understand friendship and love?

One of my friends
When she was a teenager
Got so confused
By a genuine offer of friendship
That she painted a painting
Where the sky was the ground
And the ground was the sky
And all the colors were reversed
Then she broke down crying

Me, I just stayed wary, for years
When I was vulnerable around you, I waited
For the sucker-punch to the gut
That always came
When I was confused or overloaded
And the laughter that always followed

But the punch
And the laughter
And the ridicule
Never came

Instead of garbage
You handed me a flower
Instead of a locked door
You handed me a key

I unlocked the door
I stepped out into a world
Of living color
And I said goodbye
To the bully-friends
Forever

And I took your hand
And stepped onto the bridge
And we held hands
And looked at the sunset together
You standing on mud
Me standing on geometry
On a bridge
I have never seen the like of
Again

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

.

.

.

.

.

.

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

And I Will Dance

I am a focal point
For atoms and molecules and strings and things
I am the place that things connect
And I am not even aware of this
I am connected to the number zero
And zero contains everything

And yet I am flowing colors
And I am things no science or math can reach
I am the place things go
When they have no identity
And need no identity
The swirls of color
The textures that surround my fingers
The tones that drift past my ears
All of these are me as well
No number or formula can contain
The music of existence
The dance of reality
The texture of truth
The rhythm of depth

One part of me
Wants numbers
And formulae
And science
To explain truth

Another part of me
Wants to dive in
Headfirst
To sensory experience
And find the truth there
Unexplained, unexplainable

Both are right
Both are wrong
Both are me

And I will dance in the swirling colors
And I will dance in the numbers
And I will dance
And I will dance
And I will dance
And this is me