I Dreamed of a House

Autism, Identity, Neurodiversity, Writing

Dust particles catch the light, forming a glittering beam that looks solid, spearing the front door through its little square windows and ending in blocks of sun on the rug where we put our shoes. I turn to look outside and press my nose to the top middle pane of the window, touch my lips to the dark wooden sash. The wood always smells like rain and the rain always smells like this window. But it’s not raining now. It’s that time when the sun gets really yellow and loud, and you can’t watch TV because there’s too much glare even if you try to close the long green curtains.

I slide down into the couch and try to arrange myself so I’m sitting upside down, my legs up on the back of it, and my head hanging off the seat. When I’m sitting upside down I look at the ceiling and pretend it’s the floor. The living room ceiling has dark wooden beams across it, and I imagine hopping over them as I run across the room. After a while it starts to feel real, that I really live on the ceiling, and can walk from room to room on all the ceilings and see the whole house from there, looking down, or is it up, at all the furniture, and I start to wonder if I could ever invent suction boots that would let me walk up the walls and right over the ceilings for real. And then I am sad.

I once had a recurring dream about a house. It began in my teens and lasted through the next 20 years; every few months I’d have more or less this same dream: I am in a house, it’s my house but not like my house. I discover that there is space in this house that was always there but I never knew of it before. A secret wing, an attic, a basement – the space is vast, larger than seems possible for a room to be and still be part of my house. Finding this place is exciting and important, the key to everything. I wake feeling that a mystery has been revealed in my sleep, but forgotten as the dream fades.

Around the time I realized I was autistic, I stopped having that dream.

One question people ask when you identify as autistic in adulthood is, why find out now? What difference can it make at this point in your life? The answer is that it makes all the difference, for many reasons. For me it is hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to know themselves, but I know for some autistic adults this self discovery isn’t as important, and that’s fine for them.

But there’s also the reality that I can’t wear this old costume anymore. It’s coming apart at the seams and bits of the real me are sticking out here and there, anyway. Since my schoolgirl days people have always commented on my rigid posture, the way I pace when everyone is standing, the way I stand when everyone is sitting, the way when I finally sit down I sit at the edges of chairs, my hands tightly clasped or shoved under my thighs or balled into fists. “Hey, relax,” I’ve been told with a chuckle, too many times to count. “Sit down, you’re making me nervous.” I insist tersely, “I’m fine,” not even realizing. Every atom of my body holding tightly together to muscle my way through it all.

The easy part of it is surprisingly hard, and that’s finding out who I am now. What are my sensory processing differences? One would think that this would be obvious, but when you have lived a few decades not knowing that your perceptions of things are different from anyone else’s – assuming your reactions and responses to everything must simply be wrong – you end up having suppressed not only your reactions to stimuli but also your perceptions. Uncovering these is like unearthing a time capsule, from a time that never was – a time when I was truly myself, when I spoke, moved, felt, and thought with freedom.

Uncovering the natural movements of your own body is uncanny and startling. A lot of autistic people flap their hands when excited or agitated. I don’t flap. Until one day I read a disturbing news story, set down my phone and find myself flapping. And it feels familiar to do this. But where did this come from? It’s not as though I’ve gone looking for ways to act more autistic. By clearing away the dirt and detritus of a life lived trying to be someone else, by peeling away the layers of people that I tried to be, things emerge, unexpectedly.

I had a dream in my adolescence that I was a mummy. I walked down to the water near my house, trying to hide from passing cars in the night. I knelt at the water and tried to tear away the waxy bandages covering my body. But when I did, I found that my heart was exposed, red and beating in my chest. I was afraid. 

Image is a red brick wall with the text: First I must reassemble the foundational building blocks of my world. eisforerin

The hard part of this is disorienting and feels impossible at times: piecing it all together, trying to form a coherent life story for myself. Who I am now is just a moment. It seems important to reassemble the narrative, with this new information. The clues I have are few, because of the way the old stories I told myself distorted reality, and because of the way I’ve simply forgotten the rest, whether by will or by an inability to make sense of it – my brain refusing to allow long term storage to the incomprehensible – I cannot say. Sense memories are the memories that float up when I go dredging up the past, as if to reconstruct my very experience of the world. Feelings come to me – fear, anger, sadness, joy. I want anecdotes, but memory tells me – no. First you must reassemble the foundational building blocks of your world. This is what the sun felt like, this is how the water smelled, these are the sounds that filled the atmosphere.

I have my own bedroom at the back of the house, for a while anyway. The oak trees grow tall at this corner of the property and so it is always shady in the daytime and filled with the sounds of leaves rustling. In summer with the windows thrown open at night, fat junebugs hurl themselves at the screens while I try to fall asleep with a lamp left on, reading in bed. I have a pine wood desk with a tidy desk blotter that makes me feel like it is a real person’s desk where real work is done. I have stationery I use to write to my pen pals, eight pals at once at the peak of my correspondence – my online friends before there was an online. Later in that room I am a teenager and my parents have bought me a brand new oak wardrobe, a beautiful piece of furniture that makes me feel like a real person with a real place to keep my clothing. But one morning before school I have so much trouble trying to choose what to wear that day that I cry in a rage and slam all the doors open and closed and open until one of them cracks, badly, along one rail. I stop. I never tell anyone that I did this. I am ashamed.

Finding other people out there like you when you thought you were the only person like you is also strange, both unsettling and beautiful. When I was a child, I loved the story of the ugly duckling. The ugly duckling, of course, is not ugly at all, but is a cygnet born into the wrong world. Abused by the other animals in the barnyard for looking and behaving “wrong,” he flees the farm and seeks solace in other places, but is repeatedly repelled or put in danger from which he must again run away. He spends a season alone, and in his despair, he finally throws himself before a group of swans, expecting and even willing himself to be killed – but at the same moment, he glimpses for the first time his reflection in the water, and the swans accept him as one of them.

Since I realized I was autistic, I started to have a new recurring dream about a house.

I’m in a house, it’s not mine but it’s one that I have stayed in or am staying in and I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s unconventionally designed, rambling, even vast, with lots of surprising turns and hidden hallways. Each room is unique, quirky, with its own vibrant personality. Other people live here – some of them known to me, some not. They each have claimed their own space, but there are still rooms available. There are multiple kitchens and a huge backyard. Sometimes I am showing this house that I love to other people, showing off its charms. Sometimes I am exploring it alone. I think about moving in, but I hesitate. I love it, but can I live here?

And then I am walking through the house with my husband. We are planning out where the children could stay, how we could make this place safe for them. There is a realtor there, waiting for our decision. We tell him: we’ll take it.

And that’s the last time that I dreamed of a house.

On Conquering Creative Fear

Creativity, Writing

Erin5two

When I was a little kid, probably only five or six as I was just beginning to be ready to sleep over at a friend’s house (and for sure there were some midnight calls home to my parents to come get me), the prospect of a sleepover with my best friend and next door neighbor Bethany was pretty much the most exciting thing I could think of. Whenever Beth or I would come up with the plan to have another sleepover, the very idea of it was so thrilling it was almost too painfully awesome to contemplate (even though we spent almost every day together and lived about 40 yards away from each other).

But sometimes our parents said no, for reasons incomprehensible to our kindergarten minds. Then, the disappointment was too devastating to bear (even though we spent almost every day together etc). So I came up with a plan: we would always just assume the answer was going to be no and start feeling sad about it before we even asked our parents. That way if they said yes, we’d be super happy, and if they said no, we’d feel pretty much the same. I felt that this plan was BRILLIANT. It’s etched so vividly in my mind as a stroke of utter genius that I can even remember exactly where I was standing when I revealed my amazing idea to Bethany – right on the border between our yards, near the tree that was shaped like a W.

As a Sleepover Disappointment Coping Strategy, it was pretty decent, but as an approach to life in general, I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty lousy.

All too often in my life I have followed this protocol of protecting myself from disappointment, rejection, and failure by assuming things are not going to work out. I am probably in the running for an Olympic gold medal in Emotionally Dealing With Bad Things That Haven’t Even Happened Yet. Focus too much on what will go wrong, and eventually you don’t try so much. Don’t try so hard. Don’t dare.

What does all of this have to do with creativity? Well, it all comes down to fear. Fear of failure is something that lots of people deal with, probably all people at some point in life. I think fear of risk is something slightly different, and it’s even worse. Fear of failure means being afraid of the moment you crash to the ground. Fear of risk means being afraid to even leap. It’s a fear of being vulnerable at all. An addiction to safety. Unfortunately for safety junkies like me, being creative is ALL ABOUT being vulnerable. It’s taking something that you made and putting out into the world – it’s inherently risky. Giving form to your ideas is like exposing parts of your innermost self. Even if no one ever sees the things that you create, I feel that there is a risk in just bringing them into being.

fearmeme

Today is the last day of my 12 week course on “creative recovery” with The Artist’s Way, and in a bit of synchronicity it will be the last of my posts on creativity for the month of March (though I’m sure it’s a topic I will return to now and again). When I started the process of reading the book and writing the journal, I was skeptical of the idea that I was a blocked artist. I thought, I am an artist, I just happen to be TOO BUSY right now to create the things I want to create. Uh huh.

Much of The Artist’s Way for me was about admitting to myself that I really am afraid to make the things I want to make. It’s much safer for me to keep them inside and just keep telling myself I don’t have time for them, yet. Sure I have time to write a couple of blogs and moderate a few Facebook pages and do commission work as an illustrator and raise and homeschool two kids and start a co-op, but write a memoir? Nawwww. Draw a comic book? If only!

Though I did, through the exercises in the book, trace some of my personal insecurities back to comments that influential people have made to me along the way, ultimately I know that the buck stops with me. My fear can’t be placed at anyone else’s feet. I know that it scares me to be vulnerable and I’ve always been that way. But I am beginning to let myself set fear aside long enough to taste that excitement of doing the things I really want to do, as thrilling as letting myself anticipate a sleepover with my best friend when I was five.

On Working Through Dry Spells

Creativity, Writing

Last month I got super excited about writing about creativity all through March, and sketched out a posting schedule and topics I wanted to write about, but then, life happens. My flow was interrupted by the anxiety of waiting for my grandmother’s passing, by making travel plans, by traveling and being with family and all of the swirling thoughts and feelings that that entails, and by the busy schedule that awaited me when I came home. (I’m not always so busy, but busyness happens from time to time.) Before all of that, I was talking on Facebook with various people, including my brother Ryan and cousin Tricia, about the creative process and how to tap into that flow of authenticity and what to do when you can’t. Tricia reminded me of the Pablo Picasso quote, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Ryan compared being an artist to being an athlete – you have to practice a lot and stay in shape.

There have been plenty of times when I’ve considered chucking this blog. It’s not REAL writing (whatever that is). I’ve worried that it’s distracted me from REAL writing (whatever that is). Or sometimes just having all of these thoughts of mine preserved in internet amber gives me the heebie jeebies and I want to somehow bury them and run away. But ultimately I think I keep blogging because this is my practice. This is how I stay fit and active, creatively. I just keep writing, and sometimes it’s just writing for the sake of writing and other times I get to tap into that Source and write something that feels real and whole. I try never to publish anything that feels totally wrong. But it doesn’t all have to be great, and having a low pressure outlet like this is an essential tool in my process. I have other outlets – I have been keeping a journal for a few months, hand written, where I write ANYTHING that comes to mind, good, bad, silly, anything. I’ve been dabbling in very loose memoir comics, keeping them super casual and just for fun. I think it’s also good to have outlets that are NOT directly related to your creative pursuits, though that’s something I’ve not been keeping up during the winter very well. Getting your body moving and/or doing physical work with your hands can get your creativity flowing in surprising ways. I enjoy doing yoga, tidying or reorganizing the house (spring cleaning is my JAM), taking walks with the kids when it’s nice out. I’m a pretty indoorsy and sedentary person but I do appreciate the way getting out of my head for a while can refresh and reset my mind.

Ultimately it’s about maintaining forward momentum when you hit a dry spell in your work. Don’t get paralyzed. Believe that you’ll hit your stride again and until then you have to just keep going in whatever clunky way you can manage.

A Month on Creativity

Creativity, Identity, Writing

Erin5four

Drawings I made at age five.

I believe that all people are creative. I know many disagree with that – often it’s the people who think they themselves are not creative. But creating simply means bringing something into the world that was not there before – it might be a drawing or a song, or a mathematical proof, or the execution of a football play, or just a solution to a problem.  Creativity is part of being human. The idea that we are “not very creative” is a story we tell ourselves, and it is false.

I do believe that everyone possesses this well of creative energy. It doesn’t mean that everyone is a genius or a master of something. It doesn’t even mean that everyone has to “do what they love” as a job. It just means that everyone is born with the ability to make something out of nothing. People themselves are works of creation, of course – a baby is a new person who never existed before.

I’ve always taken a special interest in children’s drawings – not just my own or my children’s. Nearly all children begin to draw at some point in their development; it’s a preliterate form of expression that has been with our species since before we invented an alphabet. Before adults begin to interfere with the process, all children – not just the “artists” among them – have a natural sense of composition and form. Ironically, it’s when formal instruction is introduced that children tend to lose that innate sensibility, and trying to get their drawings “right” is something that cuts them off from their own creative powers.

Erin5one

Another of my drawings from when I was five years old.

Last month I was at the local art museum with Mike and the kids and we went to visit the water fountain at the same time that a school group was there drawing the fountain – I would guess they were about second or third graders. I was surreptitiously watching them draw for a few minutes, though it seemed most of them had finished their pictures by the time we arrived. The students whose drawings I loved the most had a kind of confidence and immediacy to them – some done quickly, some undertaken with more care and time, but the best ones to me all possess a sense of freedom and uninhibitedness that can’t be faked.

I saw one girl, on the other hand, who had drawn a few timid lines, looked around at her neighbors, caught me watching her, and began to furiously erase her work until she literally ripped a role in the paper. Past a certain age – maybe kindergarten age? – I think there are always a few of these types of kids in any group. Sometimes they are in fact the Artists of the group who have been singled out by parents or teachers as being “good at drawing,” but sometimes they are at the other end of the ability scale, the ones who have noticed or had pointed out that their drawings don’t look as good as the other kids’.

Later that day when we were in the kids’ art space at the museum, I gestured to the wall of children’s drawings, things that had been done there in the museum and pinned up, and asked Mike to guess which one I liked the best. It wasn’t the most realistic, the painstakingly “shaded” close up of a flower, the most technically advanced, the one that probably 9 out of 10 kids or adults walking by would instantly pick out as best. It was a delightful still life, done in a simple line drawing style, terrifically out of proportion, the perspective nothing close to reality, but it was alive, and made perfect sense in its own little world on the page.

That drawing had the sort of energy that most adult artists try to tap back into for the rest of their lives. When I was a freshman at RISD, my first semester drawing teacher had us sit and scribble in large newsprint pads for the first 20 minutes of every class. We were not to draw anything representational or try to make it look “good,” whatever that might mean. When I was 18, frankly, that exercise was baffling and frustrating to me – I was there to make “good” drawings, why was I scribbling? – but now I totally understand it. To make something good, it must be real, and to make it real, you must let go of making it good. It’s at the heart of why early childhood drawings are so fantastic. They are not focused on making Art, they are purely making.

I’ve decided to write on the theme of creativity in this blog for the month of March. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. Right now I am still reading and doing the 12 week course for The Artist’s Way and at the same time have also been reading Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. There is considerable overlap between the two books so it’s been fascinating to read them simultaneously. At the heart of them is the idea that tapping into your passion – whatever form your personal expression of creativity takes – is to tap into your authentic self.

What Are You Reading? Offbeat Memoirs Edition

Books

Sometimes themes crop up in my reading list without being consciously planted there – I suppose I get on a jag of being into a thing for a while and sometimes don’t even realize I’m doing it. This bunch of book reviews are creative nonfiction works I read in the last couple of months (there were some novels too, but I’ll save those for another post), all a little different from your straight up memoir. I am sure that these found their way to me because I have been thinking a lot about how I would write my own memoir or autobiographical… something.

(This post contains affiliate links, which is to say, if you want to buy any of these books, click over to Amazon and I’ll get a few cents or whatever.)

* Brown Girl Dreaming (Newbery Honor Book)by Jacqueline Woodson. A memoir written in free verse poetry about growing up African American in South Carolina and New York City in the 60s and 70s; somehow I missed that this was a book of poems when I was reading about it. I tend to read fast and it was uncomfortable at first for me to slow down enough to appreciate the free verse form and the lyricism of Woodson’s writing, but like a long and beautiful ballad it slowly moved me. This is a masterful interweaving of the personal and the cultural, stories across generations and geography; even if you never read poetry (as I never do), you should give it a try.

* The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Storiesby Marina Keegan. The story behind this book is that Marina Keegan was a Yale college student who wrote for the Yale Daily News, had a job lined up at the New Yorker, and graduated Yale magna cum laude. Five days later she died in a car accident. The titular essay was written for the Yale paper and ironically speaks of how Keegan is ready to begin the adventure of rest of her life. I was worried that the circumstances of her death and almost too exquisite poignancy of her final essay would spoil my appreciation for her work, specifically that I would find it was only published because of the tragedy. But there’s no doubt that her talent shines through the backstory here – the mix of creative non fiction and fiction in this collection is vibrantly alive, pulsing with the intense feeling of late adolescence in a way that is beguiling and wistfully nostalgic (for an old fart like me).

* Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate: A User Guide to an Asperger Lifeby Cynthia Kim. I have enjoyed Kim’s blog Musings of an Aspie for a few months now, so I picked up this memoir of her life as an autistic person who went undiagnosed until she was 42 years old – and, as it says on the tin, this is also something of an instruction manual for people seeking to understand autism better. Though it is undoubtedly useful as a “user manual,” I think it’s also an excellent resource for non-autistic people to learn about and better understand the autistic experience. With somewhere around 2% of the general population being autistic, that’s probably useful information for just about anybody – you could have an autistic family member, friend, or coworker and not even realize it. Kim has a way of explaining autism with clarity and simplicity without grossly oversimplifying things that I think is quite well done.

* Blanketsby Craig Thompson. I don’t even know where to begin with Blankets. If I could translate incoherent fangirl squealing into text, that is what I would put down as my book review. This is a graphic memoir, hundreds of pages thick but since it is image heavy it’s a quick read, about a boy who grows up in an emotionally barren family, falls in love at church camp with another lonely and romantic teenager, loses his religion, and – well, there’s no way to sum up the story that does any justice to the delicate beauty of this book. It’s heartbreaking and wonderful and I almost couldn’t stand it because I loved it so much I wished I’d written it.

* Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professorby Lynda Barry. Not exactly a memoir but certainly offbeat, this is a kind of published diary from a college professor who teaches creativity classes. Printed in the form of an embellished Composition Notebook (which her students use for their own journals), it includes her own doodles, some drawings from her students, copies of the various exercises and assigned readings, and is a kind of weird, semi-private musing slash course in how to draw and how to think and how to observe and remember. In a nice bit of serendipity in my life, she specifically recommends one of the short stories in…

* The Boys of My Youthby Jo Ann Beard. Yes, Lynda Barry recommended “The Fourth State of Matter” from this Beard book of stories that I was actually reading at the same time. Highly recommended (and also lent to me) by my friend KristineThe Boys of My Youth is series of short creative non fiction pieces. Her writing is a bit hard to describe, but there is a review blurb on the back that says something like ‘now when people ask what creative non fiction is, I can show them this book,’ which I think is the perfect description! Like the poetry form of Woodson’s novel, Beard’s work grew on me slowly until eventually it took me over. Carefully crafted, often languorous and almost dreamlike, somehow she conveys the immediacy of experience, the richness of emotion, and the fog of memory all at once.