Greetings! This week was a bit different for me and so it will be a bit different for the newsletter as well. By the generosity of a very kind individual, I was given access to a cottage on the North Shore of Lake Superior for the week. Somehow, at 43, my very first writing retreat. Although I did write one poem, my main focus was completing a first draft of my forthcoming book of non-fiction, May Tomorrow Be Awake: On Poetry, Autism, and Our Neurodiverse Future, which will be published by HarperOne in 2021.
This week you’ll get a sneak peak, an excerpt featuring Sid Ghosh, who you met a couple months back. I’d also like to announce that come September I’ll be turning on subscriptions. Since my primary focus is advocacy and activism, I will not be restricting any access to the material on this newsletter, but I want to give readers a chance to support not only my work, but more importantly the work of the neurodivergent writers that I bring to you each week. In a traditional newsletter, today’s content would be the stuff you pay extra for, but not here. This is The Listening World and we want all the ears we can get. I will make another announcement when the subscription option is ready, but wanted to give everyone a little heads-up.
Sid, short for Siddhartha, was quick to warm up to me. One of his favorite words is kindred and he signed off at the end of our first session by spelling, “Thank you, Brother Chris.” In just a short time it became abundantly clear to me that Brother Sid was a POET, writ large. He might have more sensorimotor difficulty than any of my others students, but his relatively minimalist poems come out chiseled. And lest you think minimalism begets simplicity, Sid employs a wicked trickster wit to challenge his readers the way a Zen monk might, with lyrical koans of the highest and most mystifying variety. Sid is very aware of the way others might underestimate him. Like Imane, he is only thirteen-years-old and has nonspeaking autism. But he also has Down syndrome and is sensitive to the way that further inflects the preconceptions of others.
Vaish, Sid’s mother and communication partner, holds a laminated board vertically in front of him, often resetting the backward-facing pencil in his hand so he can successfully touch its eraser to the letter he wants. Sometimes, despite Sid’s best efforts, the eraser comes down between two letters. Then Vaish pulls out a thicker plastic board with the letters cut out, so Sid can slip the eraser end fully through the letter and confirm his choice. This process is slow and can be interrupted at any moment by an unexpected sound, or an object that catches Sid’s attention, or a moment of inattention that causes Sid’s frame to slump down on the desk. Make no mistake, these sessions are of the highest priority to Sid, and he is harnessing a nearly incalculable effort just to get a handful of words on the page, Vaish valiantly helping him achieve his goals. Sometimes, and this is actually rather lovely, Sid gets so excited about a particular word that he just falls apart with laughter.
You might imagine, given the enormous challenge spelling even a simple sentence presents, that Sid would use his time to succinctly convey his most pressing needs. Instead, Sid uses his time to blow your mind. And who’s to say that blowing the minds of other people isn’t the most pressing need of a poet? Here’s an example:
Tuning Goes Frig
I am going
a tuning fork.
go to other
zeniths. My life
is in poetic
Let’s pause in our exploration of Sid’s work to revisit Temple Grandin. Remember her first time in the squeeze chute? When she stepped out, she felt like an entirely new person, finally comfortable in her own skin. In other words, she felt attuned. And for the rest of her life, whenever her tuning went frig, she knew she could return to her hugging machine and restore that attunement. Beyond poetry, Sid isn’t holding out much hope for attunement. Perhaps that will change as he ages, but for now Sid has accepted what he sees as his particular fate, to live in poetic pause. Instead of keeping up with a bustling world frequented by neurotypical beings, Sid has decided to embrace the interstices, the under-regarded between where life quietly blossoms in slower and more whimsical forms. I want to avoid easy stereotypes, but it is hard for me not to picture Sid like a monk meditating at the zenith of a misty mountain, his mineral mind apprising everything that the “real world” leaves behind in its rush toward arbitrary deadlines and material success.
But the truth is Sid eschews stillness, or is eschewed by its possibility. With his roving hands, restless tongue, and constantly shifting posture, Sid does not in any way resemble the monk in his perfect lotus position. In order to meditate, Sid must not renounce movement but seize it. You see, I lied earlier when I said that Sid only has poetry to bring him attunement. He also has spinning. And Sid identifies with the ancient Sufi dervishes who found attunement with the divine, with other zeniths, by navigating in circles with one hand held out like a sail or rudder. When Sid is having a particularly difficult day on the letter board, Vaish puts on a song and leads Sid to the open space in their living room behind his desk. This space is kept open so that Sid can do what he loves. The song begins and Sid, who has been struggling mightily to touch his eraser to the letters he desperately desires, extends his right hand and begins spinning clockwise with impressive speed, transforming himself into a lithe, smiling cyclone.
When the song is over, Sid returns to our writing. Momentarily attuned, a delicious grin on his face, Sid’s spinning grace imprints itself on the page:
Spinning I harness
poetry of the Earth.
The Sufi dances
in me to dare me
to scare your loud
soul to ensnare
my fearful mind to
bare some misery
to bear some truth.
With this whirling set of words, Brother Sid, once again, blows my frigging mind. With the hand of rhyme extended (dare / scare / ensnare / bare / bear) and the Earth of form to support him, Sid is able to spin his way through difficulty toward truth. Poetry dares Sid to embrace his Sufi soul, which, in the midst of joyful meditation, can face the blaring neurotypical world. The spinning ensnares Sid’s restless and wandering mind, allowing it to hold truth and reveal emotion. To ask Sid what is autism is to act as a stingy host, proffering only paltry space for the dance he needs to answer. To ask Sid how is autism is to extend a generous hospitality, an acknowledgment that the spinning itself, and the space it requires, is part of the answer.
I think this is one reason why Sid’s trickster proclivities tend to arise when I ask him to title a poem. And it is kind of absurd, isn’t it? You write this amazing poem and then someone asks you to label it. Sid loves his kindred autistic and Down folk, but he has little patience for labels. So, when I ask him what this poem is called, he lets out a chortle and painstakingly spells “Rotary Club.” Of course, now it’s my turn to laugh, and I know this authentic laughter on my part is an important part of the exchange for Sid. Poetry, like autism, can be more than just one thing; it can even contradict itself completely. Sid’s poetry can be heartrendingly serious and uproarishly funny. Sid has sensorimotor challenges that are unimaginable to most people and he dances in circles with ecstatic grace. Sid is nonspeaking and he writes poems that mystify and delight even the most well-read college professors.
When Matthew Cooperman, a poet and professor of English and Creative Writing at Colorado State University (where Temple Grandin also teaches!), read Sid’s poems for the first time he wrote, “These poems are so fresh.” While fresh might seem like tepid enthusiasm, I assure you it is the opposite. When you’ve read thousands of poems a year for more years than you can count on your fingers and toes, stumbling upon fresh verse can sometimes feel like discovering a natural spring on a desert island surrounded by undrinkable ocean.