Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

In which the political is personal

The story of the friend

This is the story of a short term friend and my thoughts about our interpersonal drama, justice, pain and oppression. This friend could be triggered by almost anything related to intimacy and sexuality. The topic evoked memories of abuse and maybe boundaries got unglued, and there was fear and anxiety. The unexpected thing is when he got triggered, his response was to talk about the subject even more. He sent email on the subject, and took the initiative to change the topic to tell me all the bad stuff, but also asked me not to talk about it. When someone confides all that personal trauma to me, it makes me feel that I’m safe to them, and that I’m not a triggery person for them. I was not careful enough about those topic boundaries. One time, probably only our second meeting, I said what I thought was interesting about the kink scene (that power relationships are codified instead of coercive as with the culture at large) (not a good topic choice!) and he said he “would like to try that”. That surprised me to hear. I later learned the under stress he might say the opposite of what he believed, because he had been conditioned to never go against anyone. His response to a thing so terrifying was to put on the most convincing act to cover it up, sending the most intensely mixed messages I’ve ever experienced.

Our demons keep hurting us from the inside and they are attention seeking. When boundaries are broken, maybe we can’t tell if we’re looking at our demons in a mirror or if we’re seeing the outside world. It’s not like burning your hand and pulling it away; it’s more like burning your hand and leaving it there. The ongoing pain must have a source, and we’re always looking for it, and we see the demons in other people while feeling the pain.

Meanwhile I was fine with personal topics; it is easy for me to go there when someone feels safe to me, which he did. So we had a landmine of a friendship waiting for someone to set it off. Post-detonation, the narrative was that I was supposed to admit that I was wrong, wrong for doing something aggressive against him. The exact crime is a mystery but is possibly in the neighborhood of luring someone into a false friendship with bad intent, manipulating them to become vulnerable. (Now that I wrote that idea, it does seem likely that very thing happened to him in the past.)

Being elusive

I wonder about my role in relationship messes of course – sometimes it feels like I have no role, but nothing like this is manufactured entirely on one side. I was a simplistic and passive observer, didn’t take a stand, didn’t characterize our friendship any way, put no limits or expectations on it. If he said something I just took it at face value and didn’t consider much that he may have meant something else. I can’t usually see the build up of interpersonal problems, so unless you say otherwise, I assume that nothing is hidden and everything is fine. I didn’t have him in a “friendzone” or any other zone, just open. Some people hate about me that I can be so reflective and so much like an insubstantial breeze, not even quite there.

I’m the sort of person who tends to take the least comfortable chair in a room, because anyone else who comes in will automatically deserve the better chair. I have no business being pretty or having pretty things. I can’t possibly need anything special. “Don’t mind me.” It’s a struggle to believe I deserve the same as others or to put my needs or boundaries into language.

When there’s conflicts involving me, I usually don’t participate directly (I don’t even feel conflicts) but the person having the issue puts energy into pinning me down, labeling, characterizing me. It’s hard to strike at the breeze; the wind is like those inner demons, not really there; you can’t strike until you pin it down. My feelings are never a thing to talk about; I’m just the invisible force acting on their feelings.

Being superpowered

My triggers are hard to put into language, but there are many things that give me anxiety spikes and make me shut down and feel sick, and they shorten my life. So yes I have feelings. Some things that trigger me are being told who I am or what I am, being told I’m worthy or unworthy, being put on a pedestal, and judgments of my intent. It’s all about being defined and pinned down when I’m not that way. I get to define myself, or choose not to define myself (who needs an identity after all?). Other triggers are hearing about sexual promiscuity or seduction (power imbalance!), indirect small talk, empty social gestures, and being told I’m responsible for magical destruction. That last one is what I think of as being superpowered – by which I mean people overestimate my actual power; they project magic abilities on me. My aunt would treat me as if I could ruin something by looking at it and my touch would infect an object permanently. When something goes sour, it must have been my fault or I must be the ringleader. When someone superpowers me, it’s a big anxiety trigger even now.

Here’s how I think about the superpower: Let’s say there was an aggression – I might have tripped you or struck you or insulted you, but could I have hurted you? Saying it like makes “hurt” an action, as if it is a specific intentional thing distinct from other actions. But really, hurting is an effect of doing actual things, so saying that someone “hurted me” is superpowering the aggressor. A real action is something the aggressor could either continue doing or stop doing; they have the power. Realizing that a hurt is an effect and not an action empowers the person who is hurt: it isn’t just up to the aggressor whether hurt happens. We all participate in our own oppression.

One of the arguments with my friend went something like this: “You hurt me / I didn’t mean to / It doesn’t matter what the intent was, only the fact that it happened matters.” Deconstruction: In law, intent does matter but also negligence without intent matters. If someone’s actions were legal and they had good intent and they were not responsible for others (such as a child), then any hurt that ensues is considered the victim’s own fault, for good reason. It’s the difference between blaming the victim and empowering the victim. Blaming the victim is when responsibility for an actual bad action is assigned to the victim, such as “if she wasn’t wearing ___, that wouldn’t have happened to her”. But if the action is magical (no crime was committed) then assigning responsibility to the victim is empowering. If I’m hurt by magic (by superpowering someone else), then I can say “If I can stop being triggered (or otherwise strengthen my thoughts), I will stop being hurt” and that gives me a way out that doesn’t rely on anyone else.

But in the interpersonal sphere, we can’t normally make the choice to stop being triggered (we can’t heal instantly) and so we rely on others to not only not hurt us, but to protect us. When we are vulnerable we give away that power.

Dominance and submission

When there is an interpersonal conflict, the dominant person’s feelings are at stake and the submissive person’s actions are at stake. The conversation between the mob boss and the underlings is about whether the underlings’ actions were in service of the boss’s feelings; no one expects the boss to do anything but sit there, and no one cares what the underling is feeling. Married people seem to get into this kind of debate – “you didn’t do the right thing to serve my feelings” and we forget that there’s my actions and your feelings too. To get back to my parenthetical remark about the kink scene, that’s exactly what they claim to do better: they make the dom/sub roles explicit and purposeful, while the rest of us pretend we’re being equal when we’re not.

I often feel I’m submissive, but at the same time I don’t like relationships with dominant people, so I also think of myself as thriving on equality. If I can’t have equality I go vacant. It is hard to take a different role. With my ex friend, he lost communication once while we were ordering food (he’s autistic too) and things were really lagging with the restaurant people until I finally came to terms with the fact that I had to decide for him what kind of salad to get, or else we weren’t going to get a salad. That’s terrifying for me to control people, even about a salad.

It’s also hard for me to find anger. My friend recounted my abuse of him as if some stranger had done that same thing to my child, thinking that might “bring it home” and make me feel the anger. But it felt like the same story since I have as much compassion for him as for my child. I get that he was terribly hurt, but I don’t link that to anger or the existence of an enemy.

Working for justice

I thought of our friendship as political, as if we were allies with each other in a larger struggle. I’ve never been part of a movement although I’ve spent decades wanting to be a person who heroically works for justice. In truth my life is utterly gray and has been filled with desperation. I have the disability without inspiring any of the pity, no one lowers the bar a little or accommodates. I’m neither pitiful enough nor radical enough. I’m not anything enough, not a cute kid or an amazing artist, so ignorable, so inherently noncompetitive.

I’ve always been in a valley between worlds of people who have coalesced into an oppressed-group identity on one side, and the elite of the dominant culture on the other side (my family). From the oppressed side, I don’t get to be included because I’m not perceived to be disadvantaged enough, but from the other side I don’t get many of the alleged privileges. I have some – for example, my father got me a summer job once just by talking to a business owner and appearing erudite and established and valid, in a way that likely would not have worked for a black family (for example); but I can’t do those things myself.

The quakers can get so self-aware about privilege that it spills into a learned helplessness, and people will overly defer to anyone who appears oppressed. I might have a lot to say about the economy, but if some brown woman named Estrella walks in the room, she’s automatically more qualified to speak, and I feel queasy because the quakers are still using we/they language and Estrella is never really seen as one of them, while Star is. I’m always jealous of those Estrellas – they have more oppression points. It’s the “weaker person is automatically right” syndrome.

I’m actually part of more than one oppressed group, but I don’t feel I have a lot of oppression points – ironically it is the act of buying in to ones own oppression that can make one feel unworthy of it. Remembering that the Christians colonized my Celtic ancestor’s land puts me in a better place to work for justice than if I think of my ancestors as those Christians who later colonized North America. Both stories are true but the first gives me more points and more energy. We get into our oppressed space to be powerful.

Despite being gray, marginal, submissive, and lacking in points, I can be threatening and destabilizing. Sometimes I can tell when I am doing something right because people start to get defensive, and they start counseling me to not do what I’m doing, or they start insulting me or using words like “prudent”. For example when I say I should be accepted as an equal or have an equal voice as others, and that angers them, then I know I’m out of line and I should keep going in that direction. If a vulnerable person gives protective power to a breeze like me, I might blow a door open somewhere.

Personal politics of oppression

I believe fighting from the base of solidarity against all oppression is the true way, but it’s easily twisted. I have more disability so I win. It makes it an incentive to be weak and say “look at all my oppression.” Anyone with a privilege is “blind” to everything. I think all the twisting is a side effect of trying to be genuine and overcome our oppressions, but we’re not always clear where the demons are. Then we’re back to the saying oppressors hurted us, they did something magical, and they have all the power.

When we make politics interpersonal, a fight between friends, I think it can really twist it more. We might try to classify some interpersonal hurt as an instance of a global oppression, then we’re building walls instead of alliances. When I say I thought of my friendship as political, I think maybe it went to the level of playing out a bigger battle between us. Because the politics of oppression is inherently about internal psychological growth, specifically overcoming false narratives, it’s more important that in these struggles we hit barriers and learn from friends, than it is that we win. Winning doesn’t necessarily free us from our existing narrative if that’s the narrative that oppresses us. Winning doesn’t keep friendships intact.

Going irl

I think it is easy to stay black and white and do your justice work on line and not get into trouble. By that I mean you can avoid growth. I worry that the whole realm of “active listening” and all sorts of community building and conflict resolution techniques that I’ve been exposed to a lot has been lost in today’s on line justice scene. When we talk to people off line, hurt happens but there is not a clear line between the good and bad people. I had this thought in relation to my friend who probably found it easier to fight in more clearly delineated camps on line, and maybe didn’t have much experience working through an actual conflict experience in person.

In person you can’t be perfect; you have much less control over how you appear and the energy you send out. You may think you’re being genuine on line but it’s too easy to craft an image. You can fabricate your membership in disadvantaged groups and award yourself all kinds of oppression points.

There’s an idea I keep seeing lately: We didn’t win rights in the past by being nice, so if someone tells me to “be nice”, that’s in itself an oppressive act. If being nice means being marginalized, then yes – telling people to be nice can be a way of ignoring their message. But there’s a related aspect that is critical to working together which is listening and working through conflict. Ultimately when we win the “fight” for universal justice, it won’t be a fight against anyone; everyone will have won.

I don’t expect to hear from my friend again but I’m pretty sure he will bounce back and do great things.

A random link

Today’s thoughts remind me of this stream of consciousness story I wrote 21 years ago, also about being triggered an about being “not there”.

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In which queer is clarified

After I posted some things about coming out, some people took that post as the Big Announcement, and thought that making that announcement is Doing Something Weird and OMG what will the children think and etcetera. Other people went into a “supportive” mode and I feel like they are a cheering audience and now I am supposed to perform a miraculous transition.

A few problems there.

First of all, one does not simply “step out of the closet”. Coming out is a long process of finding ways out, little by little; it is not like flipping a switch. Telling people about it is just one piece. I have the impression that most people are not fully aware of their surrounding walls, and don’t really know how in the closet they are. That’s how closets are, they mess with your mind, and you can’t find the way out. Since I still don’t know how to be myself in public or what kind of person I really am, it feels to me like I haven’t come out very much yet.

Second, coming out is the end of something, not the beginning of something. As it appears to some other people, I’m just going along normally tra la la, then one day I say I’m transgender and start dressing shockingly, so they think I started a new Thing which is totally out of character. The reality is that I was transgender all along but was putting a lot of energy into dressing and acting falsely. What I’m doing now is just not performing that act as much, so I’m not Doing Something new at all. I’m moving on to other things, it’s not a big deal any more. There are certain follow up tasks like getting clothes I like, but for the most part the show is over.

Third, the change is not as much in me as it is in those people who are surprised by it. Gender is at least two things: part of our inner identity and a projection we throw onto other people. Every time someone genders me and uses that to control or assume something, it’s a little assault. If they feel they have to change their projected gender of me in their mind, it could be a lot of reprogramming for them, and maybe they resist it or it feels like a big change and it feels like I’m requesting or forcing the change. But all their past gender assaulting wasn’t my fault and I’m not asking them to change any more than I asked to be judged in the first place; the reprogramming work is in their mind and is their problem. (The desire to control other people and make them fit your image comes from hatred, the seeds of violence. Let it go.)

And finally, just because someone is transgender does not mean they are doing a “transition”. I don’t like that word because it implies intentionality and depth, and a definite beginning and end, as if making a choice to switch sides whole-hog, leave one camp, traverse the desert and set up in the other camp. For me it is only changing the surface, and possibly manipulating other people into gendering me differently; it is superficial by definition. A person can be into female clothes for a while then be into male clothes later, and they aren’t going “backwards”. A person doesn’t have to do anything medical (for which the word “transition” makes more sense), or anything at all.

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In which queer

I had three periods of life that I was more out as a girl, while I spent the in between times hiding. The first of those out times was from birth through early elementary school. I could see gender in others but didn’t feel that any rules about it applied to me. I knew that girls were my people and boys were inexplicable. I didn’t know I was being dressed “as a boy” because I didn’t really notice clothing (except those godforsaken sailor suits which were just effervescing with boy and I still hate them). My parents made assumptions but didn’t force it too much (like, they didn’t make me live in a room with football wallpaper); generally I was allowed to be me.

Then, gradually any female expression was extinguished through a conspiracy of peers and adults. If you wear that again, you will be beaten up. If you walk like that, you will be beaten up. You can’t go there. And so on. So that’s how I learned how to carry books, to cut my nails short, to avoid drawing certain things, and all the hundreds of other ways that I was supposed to show gender. I did it to escape being beaten. It was only fear, and I hated doing it. The problem with that technique is that they extinguished most of me, not just a few isolated girlish traits. If I loved anyone, it was dangerous. Adults thought that my efforts to connect to other girls in first grade was prototype romantic behavior, and they teased me, so I learned to keep feelings hidden. It wasn’t just the other kids doing the damage.

The rest of my school years, I was a stiff person who hardly ever talked and couldn’t make friends. If I was asked what I was (like how when someone has a baby, they tragically ask what is it?) I would close up and not be able to talk at all and I’d eventually squeak out that I was a boy, hoping no one else would hear my lie, not knowing any other escape. I’d come home on hot days and run to change out of conformity clothing into something nice, sometimes dresses until that was teased out of me. The rigidity at school was so oppressive and I was lucky to be able to decompress at home.

Bathrooms. After an accident in first grade, they showed me the bathroom designated for me, which I had not known about before. I was actually observant but had probably dismissed bathroom related information because the teachers likely tied it up with gender which didn’t make sense to me. Then for the next nine years, I didn’t use a bathroom at school, not even once – too dangerous. I didn’t ride a bus or go on the playground after third grade, because I could be beaten and no one would see. I developed a radar for where safe adults were at all times, and what my escape routes were. This took up a big chunk of my mental energy all those years and I never relaxed. There were danger zones though, such as the first 30 feet out the back door of the middle school, which was unpatrolled, and I had to cross that to get to a street to the gas station where I parked my bike.

Although I got the occasional kick or punch, and was harassed a lot, I never was full-out beaten up, and I attribute this to my unerring vigilance, and also to some ironic privileges of being trans. Boys target other boys to establish rank, but I was spared that because – as I guess – that kind of bully tends to have a lot of social intuition and they never took me for a boy. Adolescent boys then start attacking girls for different reasons, but I wasn’t seen as a sex object so I escaped that too.

When it came to checkboxes and other gender binary features of adult life, I had been so crushed that I didn’t feel there was any way out. I didn’t know a single other lesbian, trans, or queer person; I had no words for any of it. So I’d check male and then I got put in an all male dorm at college. That was the closest I came to not surviving.

The thing about having a female kind of sexuality while looking like a boy… well, the result was no action on the dating front. My inclination in high school was to wait and hope someone would ask me out, but I had no clue about making myself pretty or locating anyone like me or being assertive. Everyone I wanted to be with was looking for a boyfriend, so all those attempts got nowhere. My only two relationships that worked didn’t happen until age 33.

The second period of being more out was around ages 20-24. I found places to live with all women and was a little less isolated, and even had friends sometimes and some almost-romantic relationships that failed before they really started. My attempt to be out was really pretty weak compared to the first time, but I got some clothes I liked and was optimistic about the idea of being free outside of institutions.

Then this period ended because people would throw bottles and things out of car windows at me, and yell threats, and I was unwelcome to wear certain clothes at Quaker meeting, and perhaps most importantly, money. Work places did not seem OK with people like me, so I felt I had to act like someone else to survive. So I spent 20 years doing that. The stress of it kept going up and my income kept going down as the economy changed and required more conformity. I only recently realized that the fear of losing income was overpowering everything else in life. People might say just be yourself, saying there are openly gay people who manage to keep jobs, but they account for 10% of the population and we aren’t even on the map.

The third period of being out is now. Being somewhat part of an autistic community has given me vocabulary and the opportunity to meet other queer and trans people. That gives me some basic psychic permission to be out. I’m feeling that showing some surface things outwards (like clothes) could get me over some barrier to also be out in spirit. Finding the way out is still a fight against all those hiding tricks that I adopted when I was little out of the fear of being beaten, and a fight against those who go ballistic about any trans person anywhere because it threatens their gender scheme. Even some autistic-run internet groups for women still don’t allow trans women, so getting support is not always so easy.

One main reason I can even think about this now is that I’m in a program for disabled people to work on contracts for state government, and I think they would not find me guilty of working while trans. Therefore for the first time I have a sense that I would not lose all income by coming out. I might lose some of the other clients though. Also there is a lot more acceptance now than when I was 20 and it has been a really long time to be in hiding.

All this has been just a plot line of what’s happened to me, but now I want to say more about what it means to be a gender.

People say “why do you want to change”, and the question shows a misunderstanding of what it really is. It is not about changing me. It is a change of how people see me. It is more a question of acceptance by others than a question self-acceptance.

People also say “why do you want to be a woman”, and the short answer is that I didn’t sign up for either side; it is not about my preferences. The identification with gender is part of a psychic structure formed early, that probably has a nature side and a nurture side, and may be affected by the rigidity of the society that one is in, but it isn’t a choice. The main choice is whether and how to come out or suppress it. Not coming out would be an option too, but regardless of what choice is made on the surface, the inner me is still the same.

I have some traits that are traditionally masculine (like an engineering way of thinking, and liking wood tools), and some that are feminine (homemaking type things); and most people have some duality at that level, which is not the significant thing. It is about a deeper level of identity. For example, in my college house, having a man visiting was very different than a woman visiting; our private space would recede so he could be in the house but not in our psychic space, whereas a woman would be more admitted into the fold. There’s a deep way that females and males set up opposite camps and have certain barriers and openings to each other, and that’s the level that I’m talking about. Another way to look at it is on the level of the dream life and developmental stages.

I also have a point to make about intersectionality (the phenomenon of being part of multiple minority groups). I’m autistic, trans, and lesbian. The autistic interaction here is very interesting, because it makes it appear that I don’t fit the more usual trans pattern. Some transwomen seem to get more into the makeup and other feminine trappings than most women do. Some might even believe that gender duality is real in a scientific sense and that they are changing themselves by changing their appearance. As autistic people can more easily avoid that kind of fallacy, I don’t really believe that gender exists in that way, and therefore when I say I’m female, I’m mainly saying I fit certain archetypes, not that I’m a thing that actually exists or that the whole topic is black and white. Since I don’t really care about clothes and make up that much (an autism-related trait, at least for me), being trans doesn’t make me pretend to care about it more. I could never project much of any intentional appearance about anything; projecting in general just isn’t one of my skills (a lot of people totally misinterpret me as conservative or some other kind of enemy of progress because of that). Therefore it could happen that I will never figure out how to reliably project. But I don’t owe anyone that in the first place. Like I said, it isn’t about change.

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On awareness, support, memory failure, and going back in the closet

awareness

In Flowers for Algernon, Charly is not very aware of the world around, and an experimental drug makes him more aware, and smarter. He gets more attractive to others and more successful; life flows more for him. I’ve also been getting more aware gradually, but with different results. I see other auties at a different stage of life than me, and I think “I used to be like that” (in relation to them not being aware of social facts or conventions). But my awareness hasn’t made me any more desirable or fun. I just cower under the weight of knowing the kind of appropriateness-crap that matters to people, when I didn’t know before. The more I solve old stress issues, I become aware of more things to stress about, so the cycle never ends and I never settle into a nice pattern of ignorance. I feel more disabled, the more I find out. My friend said she would twirl and dance in the aisles at the store, until one day she realized people were watching and judging; then she stopped. Awareness is crushing that way. I used to work in the garden and paint in any clothes I was wearing, so I always wore ragged clothes. Now I wear “nicer” clothes and now I try not to get dirty; I’m so careful that I’m no fun. This business of acting like an adult is a lot like going back into the closet and hiding.

Awareness of convention is not necessarily an improvement, and may take away from awareness of self.

coming out

So I desperately want to come out of the closet. I feel like I have so much potential and I can’t wait to find out who I am. I have only the slightest inkling of what I could be. It feels possible that I’d be nurturing, maybe even fun or generous. I wonder if I’d be desirable to be around, and wonder if no one including me has ever known who I am, and maybe that’s why bonds between me and the other humans are so fleeting and tenuous.

On the day I discovered autism, I went out to the patio and walking, almost floating in spirals of thought I said to myself: I have autism… no, I am autism!… no, I am someone! The shame had been so deep that I didn’t consider myself to be anything much prior to then, and the experience of finding out there were other people like me gave me permission to be something more definite.

support

In autism circles there is talk of “support” all the time. Sometimes it means having an assistant for a certain task and other other times it means having a more general kind of encouragement that one is OK. I know in theory that a supportive environment heals and strengthens a person gradually. For example, one of my high schools was more supportive than the other. In one I went down hill and became a scared depressed empty person, and in the other I regained part of the loss. But what would support look like now? I think with support I’d be able to come out of the closet, and I wouldn’t sacrifice awareness of myself.

I can more easily say what anti-support looks like: when I get othered. For example if I do something in the autism “community”, and I’m the token disabled person, there’s a subtle assumption that I’m automatically wrong. That experience eats away at me and makes me weak.

memory

I have a memory problem that is related to awareness and support. I can often remember to pay attention to other people, or to drink water, or to expose myself to new ideas, or to set my boundaries and remember that I can have my own preferences. But I cannot remember all of those things at the same time. If I start to keep one aspect of life close by, the others slide away. If I remember to feel, I forget to give, and so on; thus I’m always at the threshold of existence, never finding my way out of the closet. The memory issue gets worse with greater awareness of convention and with trying to be something. As I learn and expand in social awareness, I seem to forget more easily who people are. For example there are four sisters who I have known since I was little, but when I saw them last summer, there was only a vague recognition, and the stress of not being able to tell them apart from each other was very stressful. Earlier in life when I wasn’t as aware, I would have not known or cared about that problem, but also I used to be able to tell them apart without as much effort.

I was recently reminded that I haven’t had the giggles in years and had forgotten all about laughing. So I added laughing to my list – the list I’ve been accumulating of things to remember. When I add things to the list, the mental sequence is like this: “Oh right, exploring! I used to explore, but I forgot all about it. I better add that to the list.” The things on that list are general things like exploring, feeling, meditating, following inspiration, making my environment pretty, and taking control.

As Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.” The forgetting comes from trying – trying to be something (awareness) and maybe this leads to my consciousness not even inhabiting my psychic circle – I’m somewhere else.

compassion

Sometimes I see someone and I think “she’s one of me”. I’ve come to see that the concept of “other people” really doesn’t exist – if there is to be no othering, there are no “others”. People say someone is “one of my people” or “in my tribe” – but I suppose I don’t say that because I don’t mean to say there is some division between my people and other people. So I say “one of me” to mean that with that person, I can feel the oneness and the accepting of each other without reservation.

I find the kind of compassion I know about mentally is hard to manifest outside the rare people who I can feel are one of me. My dream of being supported is having a continuous link to enough allies so that I’m not going through life in protection mode, and I’d be outwardly compassionate.

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Micro-interactions

Micro-interactions are just interactions, looked at in small scale. A main interaction might be that we are eating dinner. A mciro-interaction might be that I reach for a napkin and you move the ketchup out of the way, while you continue to talk. That might seem too little to bother talking about – people might say it is random or trivial. But I want to talk about it anyway because this level of interaction feels really important to me lately. It highlights our neurological connections and differences, more than when you look at it on a larger scale. Sometimes the micro-interactions are very supportive and sometimes they are repressive. If you moved the ketchup, it means you cared and noticed what I was doing.

Micro-interaction experiences

The most recent example that brings this to life is: I had a friend from Autreat visit last week and she brought her partner, and the three of us went out to eat. After that we wandered on the college campus, only because we didn’t know what else to do and it was very windy. We explored art exhibits and theaters in the fine arts complex. When something caught the attention of one of us, we’d stop and allow the thing to make an impression on the others. As we got to a door or intersection, or some other choice in where to go, there was no effort to control the other two people; we were all attentive to the others and would stop and wait for the direction to become a three-way decision. We stood there until the direction took shape, without looking at each other or even always explicitly saying “let’s go this way.” I saw much more in the signs and murals and other objects than I would have without my friend. Little things became bigger.

On another day I was with my wife and noticed that walking in the snow on a hill would send little snowballs down the hill, for a long way. Sometimes they went 200 feet before stopping, and they formed wheels that made different tracks – dotted lines or wavy lines. If you went out to make snowball tracks on purpose, you would probably find it was impossible because the conditions have to be very precise for that to happen. But we weren’t looking for that; we were just open to anything. I remarked that this kind of stopping to notice small things rarely happens with more than two people. Most social conditions are loaded with power differences that make me shut down and incapable of noticing these small things. But it does happen with intimate partners.

A few years ago I was putting a set of board games into a big canvas bag and my autistic friend helped. She alternated with me, putting the next box that would fit properly, all without words. We were equal agents in a larger goal of cleaning up, and seeing this happen was a surge of happiness. Others might use the games-in-a-bag situation to try to win, force me to do it a different way, try to get ego points for “helping”, or some other competitive reason. We just flowed, so flowingly that no words or eye contact was needed, no putting oneself out there, no propping oneself up, no polite gesturing, so much that someone watching might think we weren’t interacting at all. If they thought that, they would be missing the micro-interaction. We were under the radar.

At another time I was at a table with an autistic person and a neurotypical one. The NT was trying to get us to be “social” and was failing. Her questions were dull to me. When she had to leave she apologized and said something revealing that she thought she was the necessary link that made it possible for us two autistics to talk. But in reality she had been the barrier. As soon as she left, the two of us moved closer and looked very intently into each other and quietly shared much more important things than the NT was trying to pry out. This intimacy was there; it is always there and is similar to kind of intimacy you build in a partner relationship, but it wasn’t that; we weren’t even really friends and didn’t touch. All the professionals don’t seem to know about this; why can’t they see it?

At a dinner table with six autistic people another year, it was so memorable because the silences were so supportive of the real. One person would share a feeling, another would share a mental puzzle, another would share her vision of sacredness. It was unbounded by anything, as if no ego was present, and so intimate.

Another year a dinner table of all autistics and one NT really burned into my memory because the two levels of communication were so blatantly separated from each other. The NT carried forth as if she felt no one else was doing anything. She may have felt she had to make the conversation go on all by herself, so it felt like she was all the traffic going over a bridge – loud and visible. Yet the rest of us with higher perceptive sensitivity could interject lots of other things at the same time and carry on another level under the bridge. It was as if we were kids secretly kissing under the table while the adults provided a cover of noise above.

Another time I picked up an autistic person from her house, neither one of us having seen the other before. She skipped everything that would normally be called “social” and said “which one is your car?” It took us about three seconds to get beyond what most people need 15 minutes to do, and it was a relief. A minute later we were talking about childhood memories.

I met another friend last summer, which went so deep so fast, without many words. I wrote about that already.

More!

All of these experiences among autistic people share some features: They are intense, empathic, non-verbal, and under the radar. There is no agenda or ego. There is tremendous space and openness. There is intense reciprocity – watching each other and being responsive. According to theory, we do not do these things. And we don’t normally do them when being watched by people who make these theories. Sometimes we do them in plain sight and are still not noticed, but normally we cower and just wait until no one is watching to be that way.

I experience this a tiny fraction of my life. Is this available to all autistics? To everyone? Do others experience this a lot more often than me? I don’t know.

I want to set up environments where this happens more. In the retreat center (that I’m planning) I hope that there will be enough autistic leadership that even though non-autistic people may be frequently in the majority, we will be able to keep this going without cowering. Maybe we can be open enough that other people will notice; maybe they will open up to it at times.

I want to capture it on video too. It isn’t one of those paranormal things that defies being recorded. But it may be hard to capture because it is fleeting. I want to capture all kinds of micro-interactions, not only these energizing ones that I describe here, but also any interaction – painful, neutral, or otherwise – that reveals neurological affinity and style. I think that having people know about this in general would be a great thing.

NT’s seem to connect power with language. Is all symbolic communication a power game? It all seems intentional and premeditated, and that is a form of wielding power. But at the emotional level, there is no hiding and no winning and that’s what feels so great about it.

Theory?

Perhaps our best communication is less based in language, more sub-linguistic, somehow under the radar of the NT’s understanding. I’m not making a distinction between verbal and non-verbal, but more of a distinction between symbolic and emotional. Typical communication is said to be mostly non-verbal, but the non-verbal parts are still symbolic and intentional. Autistics tend to be better at catching the verbal than the non-verbal, but at the same time we seem to be better at the emotional than the symbolic.

I had started this line of thought with the idea that spoken words were somehow the highest or most evolved form of communication, but now I’m seeing it more like this diagram. Like any diagram, it isn’t true; it is forcing a mental concept onto reality. It puts the spoken language in the middle and suggests that the NTs shift towards the upper levels which are power-wielding, while autists (when in the flow?) tend to focus more at the lower levels which are more equalizing and direct.

microinteractions

I’m not sure any interaction is “macro”, except a belief that the little interactions add up to more than the sum of the parts. When I fall for that belief, it tends to be more scripted and I don’t feel I’m participating in any interaction at all. Somehow when the interaction is tiny, it feels more authentic and I’m part of it. Has this happened to you? Why do you think it is related? Maybe the more direct interactions are just faster because words and power plays don’t slow them down.

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Precious and Happy

On my autreat trip, I met a friend. We had been pen pals and this was the first meeting in 3D. She had no experience hanging out with friends in real life, so she was worried about doing something wrong. I thought a lot about this. I just wasn’t concerned with right and wrong. I wanted to make it about precious and happy instead. Sure we did some things that were wrong in our two hours together. For example, people don’t wear jackets in summer, so that was a “mistake” when you need to look presentable. Also, you are not supposed to approach someone you’ve never seen before really really slowly, then look down at the floor for a while, listen to each other’s breathing, then suddenly hug them! One’s first words on meeting someone should probably be “hello, I’m so and so, how are you?”, not “Let’s go inside because I have to pee”. Furthermore, it is wrong to eat ice cream for breakfast or let the conversation go silent for long periods. So pretty much we did everything wrong, and I’m so happy about it! If we had been trying for right, we would not have experienced precious.

So many of us seem to have post-traumatic stress. I don’t know if it is “real” PTSD like the veteran I met whose flashbacks of killing a child were triggered by everything and as a result he could never be sober, but still it’s the kind of stress that defines our lives. Some were traumatized by past relationships, past ABA therapy, institutions, or other ways of being powerless. We’re triggered by things that are common – like certain kinds of noises, male people, overly chipper people, or dogs, to name a few. Constantly being alert eats away at us. Traumas that are frequently re-ignited do not recede into the past on their own. Despite the saying, time does not heal all wounds. However, I think these kinds of wounds can be healed in safe spaces where there aren’t as many triggers.

Being guarded like this can build an armor against relationships. Two people approach, and one is set off by the other, and protection wins. I’m set off by males, and I’m sorry for all the male people who tried to connect and I couldn’t. But sometimes a person feels safe enough and we find a way through. Occasionally a person feels extremely safe and it is like the other person is inside my world with no distance. When I was eating ice cream (for breakfast) with my friend, it was like this. We looked up and saw that the place had filled with people over a period of time in which we had been in our shell, but we didn’t see them come in. These connections can be fleeting or partial, but what connects is always the reality of me, not the skills I learned. These connections are not helped by applying social skills, and they can even be prevented by doing the “right” things in fear. I suspect that these bonds are often unobservable by other people. They don’t see anything happening because it is happening in a zero-distance way and often silently.

If it is supposedly impossible for autists to connect this way – which is the only way I can connect, then according to our “teachers” we must stop doing it and be taught the “right” way. When autistic people repeatedly ask me “how are you?” I get so sad. Someone taught you that technique, I think to myself, but now what? Suppose you get through 3 or 4 lines of boring-ass conversation like that, then what’s the plan? Some of us have been taught so well to do just the introductory bit, that we just keep repeating it. It brings to mind all the painful times when I’ve attempted to present myself according to what I thought were the rules.

Autreat’s autistic space helps me a lot. First I learned that it doesn’t matter if they find out that I’m as dull as nails. They did find out, but they didn’t care. You get no mileage in autistic space from fake show-and-tell behavior. It felt like I was officially released from having to show someone off, which I was never good at anyway. Then I learned I had boundaries. I get to decide my space for me – what a revelation; I’m not obligated to let them invade and spike my anxiety. I don’t have to worry about attraction and rejection; somehow those concepts stopped being interesting. I am allowed to try things that work for other people and see if they work for me – like ways to keep out the noise and other stressors. When the people around me don’t care about constructed identities, it gets really easy to shed them. The more I shed, the more fleeting precious I notice happening.

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Theater of the Oppressed

When I’m near people who are inspired and compassionate, I become more inspired and compassionate. Loose ends get completed; I see beyond immediate setbacks and tend towards health. But when I’m near people who are vain and wandering at a great distance from their souls, I become vain and wander too. This leads me to believe that we are not made to ground ourselves to withstand this world of vanity, and that we need each other to have the strength to do it.

The winds of vanity have carried the autism world (the industry, that is) to such remote realms that I can’t find common vocabulary to even discuss it. When I’m in a classroom, and asked what we should do with an autistic child who is having a tantrum, I’m at a loss for words; I’ve lost my ground. Somewhere inside, I know that I know a good answer, but it is blocked. I suggest consoling him or giving him time alone (or whatever trite thing that comes to mind), but what I really mean is the situation is absurd: why is controlling this child so urgent in the first place? I find myself so unglued from home, and so lonely when I’m surrounded by people churning up this hurricane of “help”. I’m pretty sure that it is the energy of vanity that drives the idea that We Must Do Something. Yet I’m caught like Dorothy and as I said in a poem once, my guideposts have all blown over in a storm. When I have no ally in the sea of vanity, I make no sense; I am ineffective, disabled.

I always liked theater – the unbounded space for creativity, the games, and the way it creates equality. So I’m naturally attracted to the idea of autism theater, which is a Big New Thing (try a web search if you like). However, I was immediately lost in it, just like in the classrooms – both in reading about it and in participating in a some programs. I couldn’t identify the inspiration, direction or reason for it, other than as a form of Behavior Therapy, may god save us from that. Then I read from Augusto Boal (author of Theater of the Oppressed), how theater is the grounding for turning awareness of ones own oppression into action. In his work, theater is the initiating action that leads to action outside the theater.

The games that Boal explains (he has hundreds of them) have seeped into many other people’s repertoire of games, but they can be twisted to suit any other agenda. In the extreme, a game whose original reason for being was to connect people together to empower them to take autonomous control of their lives could be twisted into a game of controlling the behavior of a disabled class! The irony of that had been festering without my conscious awareness. Now I at least have Boal as an inspirational ally, to help me find vocabulary when I’m swept into those distant realms.

Interestingly, the person who lent me the book volunteered that he could find no connection between the concepts of Theater of the Oppressed and working with autistic actors! Privilege dulls our minds.

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My life in the city

I’ve often had to ask myself, What is the path from here to there? Particularly about the question of how do I turn my shallow modern lifestyle around and live a life of depth in natural harmony. I’ve tried getting involved in politics, getting married, starting a new career, and gardening, and none of these really changed anything because they are all Things in the way of the spirit, and not ways of the spirit. As a natural planner/engineer, I divided up “the problem” of community into steps. Some of the completely logical steps that I have taken were to buy a set of apartments, form a cohousing group, work from home, join a home schooling group… all steps towards that elusive “sense of community” that people love to talk about. Again, all Things, and burdensome ones. None of them worked.

When events of my custody battle forced me to drop all my plans and live without plans, some of those Things that were cluttering my life fell away, and I’m no longer taking those logical steps. In fact, I watch TV a lot and drive more than ever before, and it looks like I’m taking steps away from that goal of a life of depth and harmony. I’ve been eating hot dogs regularly, cutting way back on the tofu. I marvel as I watch myself Americanizing. I pay to use an electric dryer in the summer, and pay again to remove the heat produced by the dryer from my apartment with an air conditioner, and pay again to remove the heat generated by the air conditioner as it works to remove the heat from the dryer, and so on and so on. It’s like trying to fathom the size of an electron. The bizarre ways Americans do things and what we do and don’t do are mind-boggling even as I live the lifestyle. And I think about what most people do all day: shuffle papers, build weapons, and control other people’s behavior (media, schools).

In my plan-free hot-dog-based urban transition period, I’ve noticed more what is going on right now. There has been a little community and depth with the craziness. It isn’t so elusive when I find it here and now, but when I plan for it, it recedes into the future. People come to go swimming. (And yes, I serve hot dogs.) I walked over to Starbucks and cried over fairy tales in the atrium of the Hyatt. I’ve written music. We played leap frog in the park with all the random kids who were there. The spirit is actually with me, and here is that sense of community, now. It comes nearer when I go away from what makes sense. We are together even in my upscale apartment and even while commuting in my Volkswagen, and even though this lifestyle is on the brink of insanity in every other respect.

I have learned that the following are not preconditions to finding depth in relationships: (1) the environment; (2) the other person. They matter, but even these seemingly “central” aspects of life are just some of the ways of the spirit, and if I mistake them for Big Things, they become clutter.

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