Daily Archives: August 18, 2010

Distance Underthought


This is my post for the Disability Blog Carnival. It’s far from perfect, but I’ve been working on it for ages and I figure it I don’t post it now, it’s never going to get posted. Please read the “further notes” section before replying — this topic means a lot to me and I don’t want to see it misconstrued. (I also just plain feel weird writing about it without tacking on thirty disclaimers.)

underthought (again)

This painting has been demanding that it isn’t finished many times since I thought I finished it. I think it’s finished now. I trust that it will let me know again if it isn’t. I don’t try to make these paintings about anything usually, but often they end up about something anyway. This is one such situation.

There appears to be distance in this painting. The people in it are standing as far away from each other as possible, the ones on the edges looking in separate directions away from each other. But the distance is only physical. The real distance in this painting is something entirely different than that. But first, I want to talk about the lack of distance between these people.

They perceive the world in similar ways. Not identical ways by any means. But similar enough that when they communicate with each other, they are inhabiting the same world and communication is pretty instinctive for them. Each one’s responses to her surroundings are written on her body, and each one’s body is written on her surroundings. If they use words, each one’s surroundings and reactions are written in between the words (not the same as between the lines). And, inhabiting the same perceptual world, each one is able to easily read what is written on the others’ bodies, in their surroundings, and (if words are used) in between their words.

They don’t need to see each other’s faces. They can see through each others’ ‘seemings’ without getting caught up in them or even noticing them. They don’t need to go through the front, because they are already inside.

As far as the perceptual world they share, it’s hard to describe in words because it is so completely the opposite of words. And yet without at least trying to point at it with words (which is the most words can possibly do), people who don’t live there can’t know about it. (I have tried to point to it with words many times, so for those of you who have heard it already, this will be quite familiar.)

It’s a place where words, concepts, ideas, and abstractions don’t exist. The world is perceived as texture, motion, tone, timbre, smell, color, flavor, and shape, and the various (non-abstract) patterns between them. Having inhabited this realm since infancy and never truly left it for long (regardless of seeming), they are accustomed to navigating through it without becoming confused. Although I have tried to write about the particulars of this many times before, the details of how to describe this elude me as usual.

The real distance in this painting? The distance between the place that they live, and the place that most people seem to live. It’s a distance that they cross every time they have to communicate with someone who doesn’t live in that place. But the person they are communicating with rarely understands the distance. They hear the words, but they don’t hear the long climb it takes to come to a place where words have meaning. They perceive that we are in the same room with them, but they don’t perceive how different our perception of that room is. You can be physically right next to someone and be as far apart from them as possible.

Sometimes they do pick up on the distance. Especially if the people don’t seem to be responding or understanding the way others expect. But although others notice the distance, they misunderstand what that distance means. They might decide that this world is an empty, barren cognitive wasteland. Some people have a little experience, for instance memories of toddlerhood, or of shutdowns. But most such people remember this realm as simply chaos. They don’t have decades of living primarily in that realm and learning other ways of navigating and understanding that happen in a totally different way than most people’s do.

In the shared place they spend most of their lives in, they are equal. Not as a concept, but as a fact. There are not a lot of concepts here. There are sensations, which blend together. There are no words. No idea-thoughts. Abstract concepts are not here to wrestle sensations into tidy submission. Not even those most concrete of abstract concepts, such as ‘chair’, ‘table’, ‘bookshelf’, ‘door’. These things are not perceived separately from each other, they are perceived only as their component sensations. And even those are not categorized as ‘rough’, ‘smooth’, ‘curved’, ‘brown’, ‘loud’, but just experienced. Categories have no place here, but there are many patterns:

I heard what I know from the tattered leaf
That tumbles and twists in the wandering breeze
Sharp stones that lie by the side of the street
Forgotten yet carefully stacked on my knee
The cold of the pavement I press to my cheek
The glance that darts past me before it can reach
Flat rocks skim the surface then sink in the sea
They dance through the world and then come back to me

Most people put a great deal of emphasis on certain qualities that the people here don’t even notice when they are in the place that is home to them. People are considered wholly different from each other based on presence and absence and type of speech, employment, and education. These supposedly enormous differences are impossible to perceive in that place. These three might be very similar or entirely different by the standards of the rest of the world, but they won’t notice either way because the commonalities more important for them to be able to understand each other are obviously there. Those supposedly large differences, if they exist at all to them, are just barely perceptible and not at all interesting.

But they have to step out of that place. It is grueling and rips apart what they had, giving them only the scraps rather than the full texture. It feels like exile, like death. In this new place of ideas rather than the things themselves, there are all kinds of things going on that have nothing to do with reality. And yet most of the world lives in this place, cannot escape it, and do not even know the other place exists. If others do know of the other place, they don’t view it as too important, or too valid, and they fear it without knowing what they fear.

When these three step into the place of words and ideas, they find that other people view them in ways they would never view themselves. Ideas like ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ get batted around, and may be applied one to each to separate them from each other. Even when people don’t use those words, they use the ideas. Neither of them understand why some people see their appearance as so completely distant from each other, when their reality is so close together.

So many other aspects of idea-land cause them problems. It’s worse than a translation problem: This place isn’t just one language that needs to be translated into another, it’s the opposite of language. Their experiences kill language and language kills their experiences. All they can ever do is use language to point vaguely in the direction of what they mean (as I am doing now), and hope that someone can pick up on it without attaching an unnecessary string of ideas to it (which people from idea-world always, always do). They may use language well or poorly (or both at different times), but they are deep down less connected to language than even the most incompetent writer who lives in idea-land. Cruel misunderstandings often result from this seeming paradox.

But in the place where they live, they are just three pieces of a larger pattern. Their resonance with each other helps them perceive it more distinctly, and to act in the ways they are meant to act, even when they themselves don’t intend it. This is a place without words, without belief, without ideas, without ideology, without what most see as “thought”, without symbol, without intention. This is a place they never truly leave, even when they climb into the realm of ideas to use words — and if they remember things later, it is the view from this place that they remember.

As may be obvious, I’m one possible person that can fit into this painting. I view the experiences I’m discussing as almost sacred, especially given how long it took me of being the only person I knew who saw things this way, which takes a toll. Please have some respect for that.

More posts/articles regarding similar topics:

What I mean by “beneath” words. (That’s what’s meant by “under” thought, or more specifically idea-thought.)
The Fireworks Are Interesting
Up in the clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours
With Sideways Mind: On Listening to Cats

Further notes (please read these before replying):

None of the things I’m talking about involve a crossing of boundaries in the wrong way. These aren’t people who have been sort of smeared into each other in a destructive fashion. These are people who are quite definitely separate, who don’t encroach on each other wrongly at all, in fact, but who have a sense of “being in/from the same place” as each other, a resonance. It’s hard to describe, but it’s very different from people who do smear boundaries, or who use concepts like “being from the same place” in order to hurt and manipulate other people.

Please don’t compare these experiences to things like Buddhism, drugs, or the supernatural. I’ve noticed that when I start talking about experiences that are outside of conventional language, some people make an assumption that seems to run something like “What she talks about is outside of language, and what I talk about is outside of language, so we must be talking about similar things!” Even though, for instance, the other person’s experience might be one of being so thoroughly embedded in a whirlwind of ideas that language can’t handle it and falls apart for that reason, which is the opposite of what I am talking about. (Plus, when language breaks down, a single set of words often ends up pointing both to a thing and to its polar opposite. Which doesn’t help in these situations.) I’ve had enough of these comparisons to make them leave a bad taste in my mouth for several different reasons I can’t get into here.

When I talk about “worlds” here, I’m using the best terminology that I have. I had so much trouble writing this, that I had to leave in terms that I don’t normally use. None of this should be thought of as confirmation of the stereotype that autistic people “live in our own world”. And it’s not about disability-based superpowers either. Please don’t smack me for using the only words I could find.

I’m not trying to create some new stereotype (or new variant on an old stereotype) of any kind of disabled people. I’m trying to talk about something that almost nobody talks about. That’s a difficult task. If you’re reading a stereotype in here, you’re reading it wrong. I know that some people will take a stereotype out of it anyway, or will add on meanings that aren’t intended. I can’t do a lot about that, but if it happens, it’s because of someone mistakenly reading things I didn’t write.

The people I’m talking about isn’t some kind of code word for ‘autistic people’. While many of the people I share such experiences with are autistic, some are not (usually they’re neurologically atypical in some other way, be it brain injury, intellectual disability, epilepsy, dementia, or any of a number of other categories people get stuck in), and most autistic people do not seem to share these experiences in quite the way I’m talking about.

Nonetheless, these experiences call to mind the following poem by Jim Sinclair, originally published in “Our Voice”, the newsletter of ANI. (This newsletter allows articles to be reprinted as long as the author’s name and the name of the publication are cited.)


This is the language we speak,
we who can talk without sound.
This is our voice in the silence
Where every word has weight, and no thought is ever lost.

This is the language we speak,
we who embrace without touching,
This is our dance without bodies
Where every touch has meaning, and no glance is ever wasted

This is the language we speak,
we who can see without looking.
This is our star behind darkness
where velvet rainbows sing, and no tear falls unseen.

This is the language we speak, we who can float outside time
This is our home beyond nowhere
where shadows’ footsteps fall,
where memory echoes from the future,
and comfort flows back from the past,
where smiles have no need for faces
and warmth breathes from the frozen places.
This is our source, our destination, where every song is heard, and no soul shines unknown.

And with that said, I’m now off to submit this to the Disability Blog Carnival before it turns midnight.