Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Stranger in a Strange Land

One of my first friends was a small Pinus strobus that stood at the edge of our garden, a White Pine tree.  I remember perfectly the smell, the bark, the smooth patch on the trunk where I used to lay my cheek and the coolness of it in winter, the soft, brushy roughness of the needles in my hands, the dappling of the sunlight underneath in summer.  Most of my early memories are sensory, and therefore accurate, even decades later.  I won't say too much about them, because if I convert them to verbal memory, the file becomes too easily corruptible and the pathways to the originals might be lost to me forever.  They are too precious. 
 
When I started kindergarten I found out I was different.  The other children all knew what to do, and would move from one activity to another like a school of fish.  I tried so hard to figure out how they knew.  I was the only one who didn't know the secret, in a class of about 30.  Somewhere I heard the word "retarded", and I knew what it meant. 
 
I remember the day I made the decision to join the world that other people lived in.  I was five years old. I sat under my pine tree and debated with myself.  I knew that most people didn't live in the world around them, they live in the world of other people.  Sometimes, in places that were not too noisy or fast-moving, I could take part in that world.  People saw and heard each other and understood what they were doing together and could share ideas, but they didn't really see or hear the world around them, not as it really was.  I imagined it sort of faded into the background for them, like the way people faded into the background for me when I was in the real world.  By the time I was five, I had figured out how to make the real world fade into the background for a while, but it was hard.  It was so hard. 
 
The day I made the decision, I somehow felt that I had come to a crossroads: I could stay in my world where sunlight and wind and trees and tiny things are real and could be friends, or I could join the world of people, and stay there.  It had to be one or the other.  I couldn't keep switching back and forth, but I don't know how I knew that.  I loved my world.  I didn't want to leave it.  The world of people was so hard and so exhausting.  I sat and stroked my tree and felt that I could never leave the world as I knew it to be.  I watched some bigger boys horsing around on the side of the road, heading down the street to the park.  What if I had something to say one day, something really important?  I thought of what happened so often when I tried to join in with other children, to tell them something, and how they would act like I was invisible. (This wasn't an act or something that was deliberate, I have watched my own child encounter the same reaction, and only by seeing it from the outside, as an adult, realised that there were so many essential skills I had been missing, like knowing to be close to someone and facing them and how to get their attention before speaking.)  And I knew the word "retarded".  And another, scarier word: "crazy".  I knew that's what they would say, and I knew they wouldn't listen.  I couldn't live in my world and one day decide I wanted to tell people something.  I knew as clearly as if I had asked a question and had it answered.  It had to be one or the other.  So I chose the hard way.  Because one day, I might have something important to say, and I would need to be a person with other people if I wanted to have a chance of being heard. 
 
So that day, I said goodbye to my friend.  My friend who was only a tree.  "Only" a tree.  I left behind so much beauty I could have known.  But only I would have known it. I would not have been able to share it.  I chose instead to live in this hard, loud, confusing place where I don't know the rules, and never go back.  Maybe not quite never, but that day i didn't know that.  I only knew that I would still have the knowledge of the other place, that the real world was still there, underneath, in all its beauty, even if I couldn't be a part of it, and that had to be enough.
 
As it turned out, it took me a long time to leave that world behind, even after I had made that irrevocable decision. (Why irrevocable?  Why did it have to be one or the other?  I don't know at all.  I only know that I was and am certain that it was and is so.) But it was like having started down a path from a definite fork in the road.  I had to keep trying.  I still found refuge in watching the dance of sparkles in sunbeams.  I could still shut out the noise and frantic busyness and lie on the grass and feel the sunshine warm through my clothes and feel the thrum of the earth beneath me, but I couldn't stay there.  I had to keep coming back, and keep trying. 
 
As I got older I knew with the same certainty that drove that initial decision that to be an adult I had to be able to stay in what other people called "the real world" all the time.  I do that now, and I find that I can. But I still know that other world is there waiting all around me.  It will still be there one day when I am old and can drop the responsibility like a winter coat in spring.  I have to hope that I can still find my way, then.

As an aside, I did also, in school, learn to enter a third world, the world of imagination.  It was very definitely different to my earlier world, which was really only a deeper way of being a part of my surroundings.  Imagination was never real, and I always knew that, in spite of the concern of adults over my daydreaming.  I had a good laugh the day when, as an adult working with children, I was taught about daydreaming as a "maladaptive" strategy, something to watch out for in our young charges.  I found it very adaptive.  It was a much more pleasant way to pass the hours of tedium imposed on us by school.  It also was like exercising a muscle, so that by my mid-teens I could solve problems or learn new skills, all while apparently sitting at my desk "daydreaming"; a very useful skill indeed.  But very definitely not the same as the depth of awareness of small pieces of physical reality, without interference of time, that I knew as a small child. That was more akin to what I have heard people describe as a state sought after in meditation. I do think that 'normal' people sometimes work very hard to teach themselves to enter, for a few minutes, the world that perhaps very, very small children and perhaps autistics already inhabit effortlessly.       

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