This is one of my favorite spots in Groton, Massachusetts. Whenever the sky is unusual, there are beautiful views from every angle, and when it is windy and bitterly cold, as it was last night, you can take great photos without even getting out of the car. This full moon is purported to be the brightest of the year, but I don’t understand how they can know that, unless it’s just because it is so cold in January that the atmosphere is extra clear.
I can’t really explain why I like this photograph except to say that there is so much going on with color and line and shape and content. There’s just a lot of information there set against a spectacular blue dusk. Taken in the rural community of Pepperell, Massachusetts, White Hen stores remind me of the city, and I was drawn to an urban image in a country setting. But horse crossing and hand-written schnauzer pup signs to tip you off that this is not Boston, after all.
Inside the heart of every autistic boy floats the Island of Sodor. I read once that the only universal characteristic of autism is a love of trains; this theory may have changed but I certainly have found it to be true, and Thomas the Tank Engine, in particular, with its distinct expressions, concrete plot lines and happy endings, seems to capture and hold the hearts of these kids. It is in this context that I had the following conversation this morning:
Our boy brings me the iPod and puts it up to my ear – the music is Hark the Herald Angels Sing from A Charlie Brown Christmas. He is grinning.
“This makes my heart happy,” he says.
“That’s church music,” I note.
”I know,” he says, “Sir Topham Hat and the Engines like it.”
”What do they do at church?” I ask.
“ They pray.”
“ Jesus. They pray over the dead people.”
”They get married.”
”Does praying make their hearts happy?”
”Yep, and their boilers, too!”
I laugh. He becomes very earnest.
”The boilers are their hearts, Mom. The engines have boilers for hearts.”
As we write this, a ship carrying 2,000 U.S. Marines is on it way to Haiti to assist vicitms of the earthquake. America may be mired in conflicts that some deem questionable, but there is no mistaking that when disaster strikes, the world expects us to help, and we always do. The freedom to do the right thing is worth preserving, even if it’s not always clear how.
Photo taken at the Fort Devens, Devens, Massachusetts. Although most of the base has been converted to civilian use, it is still serves the Army and Marine Corps reserves.
Both of our windshields are cracked. Each car dinged on separate journeys, the line making its way across in the cold and dark, a silver thread delineating a muted mountain scape, meandering across just below the line of sight we use when we drive.
My ding happened the night before I visited Melmark that November, and my companion looked at it and said you’d better get that fixed, it will spider and spread. Noting the other ding on my side of the glass, I said, I am not in a big hurry – that one has been there since June 2005. But exposure to the cold and snow of a night outside the garage in the snows of Vermont took the November crack and stretched it across the glass, to the point that I spent the hours travelling south to Rutland waiting for it to split wide open. I trained my eye on the spot where it stopped, waiting for it to continue to the edge where I imagined a snap and a rupture on Route 107. My eyes darted back and forth, eye in the crack on the left and following the churning white river on the right. It is an interesting river, rocky and changeable, winding its way through the muted colors of the sloping green mountains, now more gray and black than green. Aside from the occasional red barn, the whole world seems is in shades of gray, the mountaintops getting a sprinkling of sugar snow that we see as rain. With each swipe of the wipers I wince, waiting for the silver line to extend and breach.
I annoyed myself by giving into the metaphor created by the fissure. They tension, the duality, the precarious holding together of everything and still all of it as invisible, as transparent as glass. Do I only imagine that a break is imminent or is it simply a part of life occasionally in need of attention and repair. The tiny leak in the front living room window, the dead car battery, the dual cracked glass, do they are they cries for help or simply a life in need of routine maintenance.
He is treating me delicately; careful not to snap or blame, qualifying each observed problem with a judicious remark that it is no one’s fault, and I wonder if he observes the fault lines in me and knows that my internal plates shift easily now. I am as tentative with myself as he is; confidence is fleeting, patience is hard won, joy almost non-existent, tears the most accessible. All of the ingredients of happiness are there but they are frozen and refuse to mix and become the whole person for more than a moment or two.
I see the same suspended animation in him, too, (his glass cracked last week and he has driven to work today with his own silver fissure just below his eyes on the glass). We do not discuss it but only hint at the cautious relief that the boy appears moderately stable on this Christmas vacation. We watch him as a sailor watches a changeable sea, wondering how long the calm will last, knowing that the waters ahead are unlike any we have sailed before. How to plan for the unplannable, how to respond to the lightning fissures of the autistic mind, how to stay poised for those and still respond to the vagaries of adolescence and anxiety that still form the other two. Sometimes it feels like we are fighting a war on three fronts and can barely resist the urge to run up the white flag – but then what? There is no surrender beyond sleep and so we take that and hope that when we wake there will be a smile to greet us.
Continuing in a mid-winter escapist mode, this is another photo from the 1992 trip to Italy (thanks to my beloved sister and her family). I took one roll of black and white film on that trip, and this shot uses that medium better than most – the neon elephant juxtaposed with the walking woman is what I was going for at the time but there is so much more to it now that its been digitized and the details are clearer.
Florence, Italy, February 1992
I went through the photos from this trip with fresh eyes this morning – the stark winter light and sharp shadows of the architecture seem both vintage and timely somehow. It was easier then to take photographs of strangers without seeming intrusive; whether it is me or the times that have changed I don’t know.
There used to be a Saturday morning news break for kids hosted by Walter Cronkite called In the News, and it gave a summary of the weeks events with extra background material for kids – it was probably more in-depth than anything we see on Headline News today. But there was Uncle Walter up on the screen so there was no mistaking that whatever he told you about what was really happening.
Fast forward to 2010, when W. comes in and tells me he’s “worried about 2100.” “You mean that stupid movie about 2012?”, I ask. “No, 2100, – look, it’s on YouTube.” He pulls out the iPod and does a search, his fingers moving like lighting across the tiny keyboard. He hands it to me and I watch, mouth agape, a commercial for a “documentary” about all the disasters that await the world in 2100 – New York City under water, forests aflame, an apocalypse via CGI. And in the corner of the screen there is an icon: ABC News. The news division is now in the prophecy business, reporting science fiction as hard news. Never mind that 2100 is farther away than W. thinks it is, his iPod is telling him he should be concerned about it and has stunning visuals to reinforce this myth of fiction presented as fact.
My memories of the nightly news from toddlerhood identify me as a media hound from way back, and I learned early to question the source of any story, but it’s becoming so clear to me that the sheer number of sources and the advances in visual technology make it so much harder for kids to decide whether what they are hearing and seeing is worthy of their attention. When A. did a research paper recently on health care, it was astounding how difficult it was to find hard information that was not subject to spin or propaganda – and the crazier the rhetoric, the sexier the site was. Those graphically austere government sites with all the real documents on them are not nearly as fun to peruse as the Daily Kos and the Drudge Report. And even some of the sites with more sober graphics were selling an angle. It was hard for both of us to determine whether a source was reputable.
But even though I am complaining I am grateful that there are so many sources of information, from caller ID to Facebook, because if we take the time to identify good sources, we can access them at any time and we can teach our children about critical thinking in a concrete, hands-on way. The hardest part is knowing when to turn it off. When my cousin D. was dying of cancer, she quit her lucrative job, got rid of her TV, cancelled her newspapers, and devoted her time to painting, sewing, and helping local seniors with their finances and taxes. I did not know her well earlier in her life, but those last few years I did know her to be one of the most joyful, peaceful people I have ever met. I don’t have the fortitude – or the desire – to unplug completely like she did, but I use her example as a constant reminder that we need to work hard keep our eyes and minds firmly on this side of the looking glass.
Many nights after we read together, my youngest child will say sleepily, “Tell me a story about when you were a little girl – one that you have never told me before.” Sometimes I am hard pressed to come up with a new one, but most times I amazed at how many events I can conjure up – many of them laughably short (“One time my father’s friend George helped us plant corn in our backyard – it grew but the ears were not big enough to eat. The end.”) but still enough to satisfy him. I know that this is a ploy to keep me in his room long enough for him to fall asleep, and so I talk. . .
When I was small, probably four or five, I moved from the nursery next to my parent’s bedroom on the second floor of our house up to the third floor where the rest of my sisters slept. Mom turned the nursery into her office, where I spent just as much time playing under her desk as I had playing there when it was my room. They’d converted the third floor from an attic to bedrooms for their growing family. There was one small bedroom with a door – a nod to my eldest sister, by then off at college – a larger dormitory room with four beds and then a third bedroom with a double bed through an archway opening off of that. By the time I moved upstairs, people had shuffled around a bit and the large dormitory room was left to me and my sister B. It was a sizable linoleum tiled room with a bank of floor to ceiling windows dormered out of the roof. The windows looked out of the rear of the house and over the rest of the block and the neighborhood down the 11th Street hill. From it I could see the roof of the little white house next door and the house beyond it, a fabulous, magical Victorian on the corner belonging to the W’s. Painted a deep gray blue with white trim, I would sit for hours trying to imagine what was behind those gingerbread trimmed windows. The W. children were all older than me, so my siblings had all been in the house, but by the time I was intereted, all of them had moved on and there was no reason to visit anymore.
The third floor windows opened on long, grooved wooden tracks, which created lovely breezes in summer but also made them rattle in the winter wind. The train whistles that wafted through them in the night echoed loneliness and adventure, depending on my mood, but the bottom line was that those windows, so full of possibilities in daylight, scared me to death at night. I felt exposed and far removed from all that was safe. I wanted to leave the stairwell light on, which drove my sister crazy. She couldn’t sleep with it; I couldn’t sleep without it.
“You’re such a baby,” she said. She was right about that. I alternately relished and detested my place as the youngest in the family. Though there is no question that there are many perks to being the last of many children, the cumulative weight of the experiences of the ten who came before me is not a simple burden to bear. Being spoiled is not the same as being included, and being allowed to play does not teach you to play well or fairly. Still, all of it was tempered in some way by love and attention, and I am still learning the value of those details as I try to look back and look forward at the same time.
And so, ‘fraidy cat that I was, on many nights I would wait until my sister fell asleep – or until I thought she was asleep – and tiptoe down the squeakish linoleum steps across the soft carpet of the second floor hall in to my parents room at the opposite corner of the house. There in the king-sized bed my parents would be sleeping with their backs to each other, and I would scramble up from the foot of the bed, across the white coverlet that smelled of bleach to nestle in the valley between them. I never recall them waking up and shooing me back upstairs, though I am sure there were times that they did, but I do remember bemused conversations in the morning about how I appeared there.
Some mornings I would lay in their bed and watch my father as he shaved in the bathroom while the morning news was on the television. There was a local voiceover guy on KWWL who bellowed “Good morning everybody!” It made a good day a forgone conclusion. And then came Captain Kangaroo, and Dad, in boxers and shaving cream, would come out and dance next to the television with dancing bear. It was a magic moment. Then he would come over and kiss me and I would swoon to the sharp soapy smell of shaving cream. Some times he would take the blade out of the razor and let me imitate him by putting shaving cream on my own face and swiping it off.
On other nights, it was not so much a desire to snuggle that sent me downstairs as abject terror. I had – and still have – a recurring nightmare that was so real to me that it migrated into my awakened state. There is a black rock, large and glistening, moving slowly and inexorably toward me. Everything depends on my keeping that monolith from moving another inch, and yet, no matter how hard I try, it progresses, threatening to crush me in its path. I remember scurrying to my mom’s side of the bed and shaking her shoulder, telling her in desperate whispers that I needed her help to stop the big, dark rock. I was tiny enough that, standing up, my face was even with hers on her pillow and I had to reach up to rouse her; she was understandably groggy and confused, but would cup her smooth dry palm around my check and chin and tell me to climb in and say my prayers and that my guardian angel would come and help me. I didn’t want my guardian angel; I wanted her, my mother, the person who knew everything and could do anything.
I never turned to Dad at such moments, though I counted on him for other things. I knew he would love me no matter what; I knew he would never ask more of me than I could give, I knew that the worlds we lived in were somehow different and the same. I surmise now that he was ruled by a strange mix of fear and obliviousness and that my own greatest fear is sharing his oblivion, of not knowing and conquering my own demons. My demons are his; my weapons for fighting them are hers, and so there is a battle royal in my head most every day. And when I lay next to my boy and share my stories, I know that I do have a guardian angel and that she is winning.