The Last Thing I Said To My Father (RIP Ronald Baggs, 1941-2014)

last thing said aloud
to my father was a purr
he knew what I meant

I purred again and again
wished the last purr never came

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The best type of friend

I love you because
I can walk into your room
Talk to you for hours
And you don’t even notice
That I haven’t said a word
And that I left my talking computer
At home again
By accident

Words Are Just A Carrier Wave

All you have to do is think of me
And all my love is there
All you have to do is look at my face
And all the unspoken things
I want to tell you before you die
Pour out of me and into your mind

All I have to do is think of you
And I see so much of you I’ve never seen before
All I have to do is look at your face
And all the things you can’t remember
All the things your brain won’t let you say
Are written there as if in ink

Everything we are is written on each other
Everything we need to know is there
There’s nothing more we have to say, in a way
Because everything is written on our souls

I can see you right now
Three thousand miles away
I see the light that shines inside you
I see the love that holds your body together
Even as it’s failing

That love will hold us up as you die
That love won’t disappear
No matter how bad it gets
That love is turning you into light
Even now I can see it
Turning you into light
Three thousand miles away
The love you have taken on
Is slowly turning you into light

You told me not to grieve too hard
Which is a tall order
When losing a father for the first time
But when I close my eyes to look at you
Every day I see the light shine through
Even more than it had before then
Even more than it had before

You’re becoming translucent
Your skin is just a place
For the light to shine through
For the love that has carried us this far
To shine through you and around you
I see it more every day
And there’s not a lot I can say
Because it’s already been said
And we can read it
In the love
On our bodies

“Words are just a carrier wave”
That’s what my friend Anne would say
When faced with situations like this one
But I have some memories
I want to share before you go
And maybe words will serve their purpose

I remember sitting with you
And listening for owls in the redwoods
On our back porch

I remember granite mountainsides
Heated so much by the sun
That you could smell the rock itself

I remember picking up and counting
Every salamander
On a hike from the skyline to the sea

I remember hollow logs so big that
Even adults could stand inside them
And marvel at the fungal growth

I remember picking wild blueberries
While you made pancakes out of them
Then let me ride on your shoulders

I remember playing with your beard
When I was too young to understand
Just about anything

I remember catching more fish
Than any of the rest of you
Because I liked the repetition

I remember feeling proud
When you taught me how to gut a fish
Like I learned something truly useful

I remember the glee I felt
Sorting your tangled pile of resistors
Thinking it was a game, not a chore

I remember the fresh smell of your sweat
After you came inside
From splitting wood

I remember how proud I felt
When you taught me to split wood
All by myself

I remember when I talked like you
You’d smile and call me
“My lil’ Suthun gal”

(Whenever I could be like you
My heart would burst with pride)

I remember when you took me on creek walks
With our shoes and pants on
And the water splashing us all around

I remember when you showed me
An entire wall full of electronics
And then told me, “I made this.”

I remember going to work with you
Getting to meet all the other technicians
Was better than meeting the famous physicists

I remember always stopping during a hike
At one particular spring
To make lemonade

I remember all your sayings like
“Bear food runs from bears” and
“I’m just as fine as frog fur.”

Thank you
For getting so depressed when you were drafted
That you ate too much and accidentally got too fat for the Service
(Or I might not exist.)

Thank you
For not using protection
In the woods in Henry Coe
(Or I wouldn’t exist.)

Thank you
For getting out of that snowstorm
When you hallucinated me saying I needed you
(I did. I do still. I will always.)

Thank you
For living in Redwood Terrace
When I was born
(Or I’d be a completely different person)

Thank you
For letting me hit you in the back
So I wouldn’t hit the ER nurse who had his hand up my butt
(That’s a true father)

Thank you
For forgiving me
For everything I put you through
(I can’t imagine raising me)

Thank you
For learning anger management
And then passing on the knowledge to me
(Because we both sure needed it)

Your love brought me life
Your love holds me up
Your love is everything to me
And now that you’re leaving
Love will cover us all
And love is all you will be

I will watch for your love in the stars
I will watch for your love in the sea
I will watch for your love
In the soil and the rocks
And in the sun’s light
That shines over me

But right now all I have to do
Is look at your face
To see the light shining through
And right now all you need to see
Is the love in my face
Shining right back at you

Pale-skinned person with lots of very dark hair, glasses, a unibrow, and slight facial hair.

Picture of me with my hair down and glasses slightly crooked.

It’s not bad, down here where I live.

I spend all day every day
Climbing up to your level
That’s what I do every time
I use a word
Or even communicate directly
Instead of indirectly

Sometimes I want you to
Come down here to my level
It’s not a bad place to be
It’s not full of emptiness
Sometimes it’s so full of light
That I can barely stand it

I want you to sit next to me
Not facing me

I want to pass intricate glass beads
Back and forth
Side to side
As if our hands just happened to be there
To drop the bead
To catch the bead
But never to touch, one hand to the other

I want us to feel the beads with our fingers
And rub them on our faces
And tap them to hear the sounds they make
And hold them up to the light
To see it glitter and flash inside them

Because, you see, I spend all day, every day
Climbing up to meet you where you’re at
But you never climb down to my level

I live down here
It’s not bad down here
It’s actually quite beautiful down here
And if you are at all able
One day, just for an hour
I want to show you where I live

[Inspired partly by the late Mayer Shevin’s description of his interaction with a client with the pseudonym Jonathan.  I identified with the situation so strongly that a poem just appeared out of nowhere.]

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 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

The Unnnoticed Communication of a Group of Cats

There are six cats in this room
None of them looking directly at each other
But with the twitch of a whisker
The flap of a tail
They let each other know
What’s happening around them

I have sat in rooms full of the ‘low functioning’
(including, of course, myself, not that I agree with such terms)
Where the staff were very perplexed by us
We were not communicating with each other
They swore this up and down
There was no communication between us
Because LFAs don’t communicate
Especially not with each other
This is a Known Fact

So the staff were always perplexed
When knowledge from one of us spread to us all
When we sensed the mood of a newcomer
And the new mood spread like wildfire
This shouldn’t be happening, they thought
So they filed it away under impossibilities

Then they went through their days
Trying to teach us to communicate
On the most boring levels possible
While we flicked our ears in disdain
And lashed our tails in anger

And all they saw was
Six auties in a room
None of us looking directly at each other
No communication taking place

(Because resonance is meaningless to them.)

Welcome to the world
Where no matter what you sense, think, or communicate
Someone will always be there
To tell you it’s less than nothing

Welcome to the world
Because I will be here
Always
To tell you
That even what seem like a void
Even what seems like a non-existence
Even what seems like a life lived underground
Is full of beauty
Is full of insight
Is full of you

And there will always be people
Who love you for that