issue #13



I have had moments of self-recognition prompted by the sharing of someone else’s experience, just like Katherine May, the author of The Electricity of Every Living Thing. While hers came as she listened to an interview on the radio, mine came when reading an autobiography – Someone Somewhere, I think (by Donna Williams). But the recognition was the same, in that that we both identified with another who described their life and personhood as an autistic.

Even so, I am reluctant to self-identify as autistic because just like Donna Williams I feel deeply that I have outgrown so many of my neurological differences.1 I have had several experiences of coming out of the dark, into the light, in retrospect and in real time. It was this aspect of Somebody Somewhere – the attainment of self – that especially resonated. I cried in waves while reading it; it was cathartic to acknowledge, name the pain and especially to see it as past, to let it go. This reading was not the only discovery of my emergence, there have been many more. Awarenesses surface periodically, like epiphanies: I am not lonely anymore, I can enjoy a party, I can genuinely like other people, anxiety is mostly absent. In fact, I feel so normal now that my preferred self label is the Meyer-Briggs Indicator INTJ, which I find more resonant and satisfying in its holism. But Katherine May reminds me that I still function/run/operate in a different place – a different space-time if you will. Which overlaps and intersects and resonates with the neurotypical world in many ways, increasingly. But not 100%, not congruently, not yet.

The title of May’s book drew me to it. It was included in an article she wrote for Aeon (more about that later), offered by my RSS feed. I was curious and compelled by the title’s words – electricity of every living thing – because I too sense a great electricity, an energy from every aspect of the natural world. It turns out her experience of living-being electricity is different and more negative, but for me I cannot be in nature without resonating in its thrum.

I rarely resonate with people though, alive as they may be. May relates this common fact of us plainly and openly, describing the excruciating unease/discomfort/boredom/irritation/frustration she feels in the company of her child, whom she loves beyond words. Omg, yes … the last place I ever want to be is in a child’s world.

May wrote her book because she felt that autistics were misrepresented in general culture, especially in print – like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which she takes special issue with – because we autistics are being written about by others. Neurotypical others. Who get it wrong, because they are outside looking in. She feels one result is that autism (and Asperger syndrome) is now a meme, a trivializing go-to explanation for every and any social difference neurotypicals encounter. Her book is another attempt to tell our stories, in all their individuality, from the inside out. As is this issue of MUSE.

I found The Curious Incident more satisfying and truthful and helpful than May did, if only for the reason that it is a bridge between the typical and atypical worlds. I feel it fosters acceptance. And I found many of Christopher’s traits and experiences familiar. I could relate, not only from my personhood, but from that of the person closest to me, my husband Bruce.

Bruce is neurologically atypical too, a fact I first became conscious of while watching an episode of the television show Ally McBeal. In this episode a very, very capable attorney is denied partnership because he shuns the social situations and protocols expected of corporate leaders – schmoozing, glad-handing, ranking on others, assertive (aggressive?) self- and company promotion etc. His worth to the firm as a scholar and researcher and expert legal reasoner is recognized, but the office culture just can’t get over itself enough to appropriately value and validate him. I always felt Bruce was professionally under-appreciated, but I only made the autism connection as I recognized a tic common to him and the character – thigh-patting. My heart nearly broke on Bruce’s account as I felt the lawyer’s isolation, loneliness, and invisibility. We talked about the episode a bit, and there was a new awareness and comfort between us, but no real insight about ourselves, or each other. That only happened after I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

I had found the book in Hamburg, Germany in the most unlikely of places – among a pile of architecture books in a condemned building squat – and I picked it up to read because there was just nothing else around that offered me a temporary mental break or escape from the immersive live-in community design workshop I was attending. While the other participants were out clubbing and socializing, I turned to the book. Within the first few pages I was in tears, pulsing with every thing Christopher experienced and felt, on Bruce’s behalf and my own. Later that summer, at home, we read it aloud to each other one night in bed, taking turns and exclaiming “omg that’s you omg that’s YOU omg that’s me.”

Omg. It is the two of us.

And it’s OK. We found each other, and have made a place in the world where we are happy and comfortable in ourselves.

We hope you can be, too.


Curiouser and Curiouser

Curiouser and Curiouser

I am like Christopher (the main character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) in these ways:

I like puzzles. I am always looking for things to do that have (or can have) a puzzle to solve. Designing a garden or a building or furnishing rooms is puzzle-solving. So is writing a story. And figuring out a TV reality show winner before the finale.
I like murder mysteries, because they are puzzles.
I like math. I do math problems to relax or to fall asleep, because math problems are puzzles and interesting and have straightforward answers. Sometimes I make them up.
I count things to make my mind stop racing. For example I play a game I made up to find the numerological values people’s names add to.
I like science and knowing science facts and relationships and things.
I am writing a book (but it is not a murder mystery).
Sometimes I am bewildered by too much information, like in a supermarket. This is why I like to shop at Aldi, the choices are fewer and every store is the same. I like Goodwill too because the clothes are arranged by type, and then by color. I do not like Macy’s, where everything is jumbled together.
I am not afraid of extinction, or outer space.
I have a very good memory. I especially remember inconsistencies, for as long as I need to, until I work out how they fit.
I can draw.
Things in a nice order make me feel comfortable and safe. I make systems and patterns out of everything. For example, when I do laundry and hang clothes up to dry I am particular about which article goes on which colored plastic hanger. I never put black clothes on the green hangers. and whether black goes on the yellow or red hangers depends on the next load. I arrange all the hanging clothes on the rod to avoid clashing and to maximize pleasing patterns of color pattern and texture.
I wanted to be an astronaut.
I don’t understand most ways people are competitive.
I have marked Good Days and Bad Days by random happenings, and used these demarcations to determine what I will do. Sometimes. Less so now that I am grown up.
I don’t believe in God or heaven or religion. But I know why people do, and I don’t mind.
I think in plan easily, and I like maps of all kinds.
I make schedules and lists, to relax and cope with unpredictability.
I don’t like being with a lot of other people, especially when I can’t escape. Like at a party or in a meeting or on a boat or in a seminar-type class. I always sit in quiet cars on trains. In Germany, all train cars are quiet; people there are very polite.
I hate using public bathrooms, especially bathrooms on trains and airplanes.
I like dogs. But not rats and mice.
I like thinking and seeing at the Large Scale.
I don’t make assumptions about aliens, or about what animals think and how they see the world.
I notice things. I am very observant. I see everything and this can be overwhelming.
My memory is like a film. I found this out at thirty-eight when the wife of a colleague recommended a book of exercises that was written to help artists. One action was to write down everything you thought upon awakening, first thing in the morning, before you even got out of bed. I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t keep up and then I realized it was because I thought in moving pictures, and they changed before I could even try to describe the one before. It was stupid so I threw the book away. Temple Grandin’s mind runs film too. I guess most neurotypical people think in words.
I like the idea of floating in space for a long time. Or beneath the ocean.
I don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe there are lots of things unexplained by science.Yet.
I am comfortable with randomness in nature. But not people.
I like natural cycles and processes.
I like trains and timetables and many train stations, but subways are gross.
I’m not really interested in very many people.
I like a starry night, and I know that constellations are just projections onto an imagined flattened sky and don’t mean anything.
I can reduce a lot of situations to mathematical relations.
I can find my way to unknown places, even without a map. The night before I was supposed to take the SAT exam my household erupted in a family brouhaha and everyone hid. The next morning when no one was up I took my brother’s banana bike and rode to the test site, at a high school different from mine in a town miles away, without directions. So that my family sickness would not ruin my life.
I wish for a world in which everyone else was not typical too.

I am not like Christopher in these ways:

I like jokes (but only very clever ones, and especially those that play on words).
I am not exhausted by multiple meanings. On the contrary I revel in puzzles that are multidimensional – I mean that spatially and temporally, as well as in terms of variables and aspects. This is why I like Geology. It is a mystery and a story and a spatial puzzle that happens through time.
I am not often confused by people, unless they are lying. If they are lying or dissembling in any way I can be so distracted by inconsistencies I can’t respond. I lose the thread of the conversation, because I am trying to figure out why they are telling me nonsense.
I like metaphors a lot. But I do need most things to be concrete rather than abstract; otherwise what are senses for?
I liked to be hugged, by friends and family. But touching is only for people very very close to me. Children are always ok. Massage is out of the question.
I do not blackout from rage or fear.
I don’t like computers.
I can draw people.
Different foods can touch on my plate.
Yellow and brown are acceptable colors.
I am not nearly as literal: I understand rhetorical questions.
I am okay with change, as a principle of the universe, and in the everyday. I don’t like stasis.
I like machines, but not as companions. I do like cool crisp clean lines in design.
I am an artist.
I can imagine things besides what’s happening, or what happened, or what will happen according to a plan.
I understand emotions, in other people and myself.


Color Studies I

Color Studies I

These color studies were first exhibited at City Wide Open Studios in New Haven CT, 2002.

netting, art papers on cardboard, 4″x4″


netting, art papers on cardboard, 4″x4″


netting, art papers on cardboard, 4″x4″


Emily and Me

Emily and Me

For Mondays this October (those past and a few more to come) I am traveling to Washington, Connecticut with Bruce to attend a lecture series about Emily Dickinson. Washington is in Litchfield County, a rural and beautiful part of the state of Connecticut. We leave our city full of commotion, noise and rush, and slowly, gradually become of a piece with another place and time: northward and sensate, set apart and reposed. The drive is our portal. At this time of year the leaves are changing. Week to week the landscape is newly beautiful, and yet again known, old. Occasional rain and fog and mist seep in and steady us, or the morning sun casts long, low shadows to sharpen our minds. When we arrive at Gunn Memorial Library we are transported to a Camelotian fortress, of rock and will and vision and strange, not unlike the one Emily Dickinson built for herself in Amherst.

The mesmerizing lecture series is given by Mark Scarbrough, who has many professional credits, from academia to the Today show. Mark is adroitly re-creating the context of Emily’s world, and situating a carefully curated selection of poems within it. Along with us, his audience. Mark is not an overly polished speaker; his is not a PowerPoint presentation. Rather, he satisfies with passion and marvel, brilliance and scholarship. Through gossipy asides, expert insight, and readings of her poems, he determines to convince us of Emily Dickinson’s existential oddity.

Last week’s lecture did just that, for me, in a particularly resonant way. Let me say first, that I don’t agree with all of Mark’s readings, or the meanings he derives from them. Nor does Bruce, who sees things differently again from me. But the picture of Emily herself that Mark reveals through her poetry, discovers within it, I recognize. Deeply. I want to take you on my path there.

I have been living and breathing Mark’s initial take-away idea since. Here it is: “The Romantic Movement was an attempt to heal temporal dislocation (that occurs) in a spatial setting.” He gave a contemporary example: Generations older than millennials feel displaced in time at family reunions and holidays (or in coffee shops), where everyone younger is on social media like Instagram and Twitter, and we/they aren’t. Or if we are, we are there differently. To mean, we have a moment that feels like we live in the past, that the present is not our time anymore – not the time anymore. In the Romantic era, people were dislocated by industrialization and other social upheavals – at a remove from Nature’s time. Writers, poets, painters, and philosophers attempted to reconcile the divide with concepts like transcendentalism. The sublime – an experience of great natural beauty while fearful or in pain – is another dislocation, similarly engendered. (From this derives the nontrivial meaning of awe.) It is crucial to both experiences of discordance that a setting, a physical situation, is the prompt.

I know what this means very personally. I have confronted Time as a geologist, and, as a matter of practice, reconciled scale in landscape and urban design. For the first part, I am not displaced anymore, no matter the setting, having come to terms with my (and my species) chrono-centrism long ago in the field.1 Four billion years of Earth’s history is insensible to most, but I am comfortable with it, unfazed, undismayed, unalarmed, undiminished. Endless time is my friend now, in the Buddhist sense: if nothing matters, everything does. Its long reach is always with me, even as I seemingly disavow it (rather, a pledge!) with the minutiae of a human-scaled life.

For the second, modeling any architectural design requires constant jumping in scale, which habituates you to it in nature too. The maxim of landscape design is to always look one scale up (region) and one down (architecture) when designing, to identify constraints and opportunities. In a sense, a design is a reconciliation, in that every good one works at all scales, including and especially Nature’s time. Design as a Romantic gesture?

So for reasons of both space and time I no longer have truly sublime experiences either. Instead I feel accepting awareness in places where I am naturally insignificant, like on a glacier, or while dogsledding in a never-inhabited landscape, watching an eclipse, or marking the tides of a vast ocean in winter. My experience is mostly observational, an aestheticized appreciation of process. I am un-Romantic, I guess.

Mark puts Emily outside the Romantic movement too. Her poems are not reconciliations of time and space, the grand and small, the natural and the spiritual. She has no need to do so – I daresay she is not dislocated, in time or otherwise. This defines her oddity, and mine. But Emily is even more strange, for while my comfort and presentness have been earned by relentless curiosity and learning, she comes to hers originally, and preserves it resolutely in her ivory tower. Whereas I traverse (apparently) conflicting worlds fluidly, she is holistic, simultaneous, integrated, omniscient. Mark thinks she jumps scale in her poems – “Pow! and then she blows it all up” but I disagree. I think it is we readers who notice, are startled by the juxtapositions. For Emily they are one and the same, wryly noted.

Here are two poems that revealed Emily to me.

i Of Bronze – and Blaze –
The North – tonight –
So adequate – it forms –
So preconcerted with itself –
So distant – to alarms –
An Unconcern so sovreign
To Universe, or me –
Infects my simple spirit
With Taints of Majesty –
Till I take vaster attitudes –
And Strut opon my stem –
Disdaining Men, and Oxygen,
For Arrogance of them –

My Splendors, are Menageries –
But their Competeless Show
Will entertain the Centuries
When I, am long ago,
An Island in dishonored Grass –
Whom none but Daisies, know –

ii There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

It all makes me wonder, was she on the spectrum? Such good company, if so.


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