Distance Underthought

Standard

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.)

Autispeak

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.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

20 responses »

  1. Hey,

    So, I really liked this, even though it described a (for lack of a better word) world almost completely different from mine. My word is structured and soothed through words, so it reminded me a lot of the scene in “The Speed Of Dark” where Lou, an autist, goes into a park and just lets his senses roll.

    It also made me think about one of the kids I work with (profound intellectual dis/ability, someone with no language as far as I can tell), who I have often thought (from my limited vantage point) as living in a “world” very much like this, almost entirely sensory-based and experiential, and in no way lesser, though of course it seems virtually impossible to help him to cross-over to and navigate the dominant world, for educational purposes.

    Argh, I feel like I should attach fifty disclaimers to this (this is only what I can surmise of his experience, it is not true of many people with intellectual dis/abilities, this piece makes me think of him and his education because that is what I am bringing to this reading, what I am interested in and puzzled by…etc.) but I think I’ll just say I really like this, and maybe send it along to some of the full-time teachers who work with him.

  2. Thank you for sharing this.

    I wish we lived in the kind of world where it wouldn’t be necessary to attach a bunch of disclaimers (though if I had a blog, I too would be disclaiming things left, right, and center…)

    I have been so lonely lately, partly because I don’t know any autistic people in real life (I know your post isn’t just about autistic people, BTW) and it would be really nice to be around someone that could maybe share some of my experiences to maybe some degree.

  3. I tend to use words as an anchor, mainly as a way of decoding the auditory world. I’ve done that all my life and keep trying to wring as much meaning as I can out of them. At the same time, there are days in which words don’t come, or if they do, it takes tremendous effort. Those are days in which the visual world becomes pure delight and trying to put anything into words feels almost like I’m being false—like I’m pretending to speak a language that reflects my experience when it doesn’t.

    But it would be appropriative to say that we have the same consciousness, or really to say anything like “I understand” when I’m not sure I completely understand anyone else’s consciousness. I know that some people make a living out of thinking that my “theory of mind” is therefore “impaired,” but to me, it’s just simple logic. How can anyone know how anyone else experiences life, really? We carry our whole lives with us inside consciousness, and since no two lives are alike, how one person sees the world from the inside has to be different from how another person sees it. It doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with how people feel–I seem to pick up how people feel very intensely and without much filtering. It just means that I’m honest about the fact that I can’t ever be sure that I’m doing more than myth making when I say that I totally understand how someone sees things.

  4. “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 know this isn’t the focus of your post, but I like how you talk about your painting demanding that it isn’t finished. As someone who has occasionally written in creative fashion (I’ve published a novel ages and ages ago, and have occasionally dabbled in writing other fictional works), I can relate. People who haven’t engaged their creative muse in whatever fashion (painting, writing, singing, whatever) seem to think that the artistic process is within complete control of the artist, that the artist simply decides, “Okay, I’ll start developing a work of art … okay, and now I’m done, the end.” But at least for some of us, that isn’t actually how the creative process works, is it?

    I don’t know how it is for you, but for me the creative process is almost as if the conscious part of my brain is working in coordination with the subconscious part of my brain … as if the subconscious puts out the raw material and my conscious brain shapes it, perhaps guides it a bit (similar to how people herd cats, I suppose), perhaps sometimes just translating from (in my case) non-linguistic or not-quite-linguistic-but-still-in-idea-thoughts (sort of) into words that convey at least some of the flavor and color and flow of the original. But if I tried to impose complete control from the conscious part of my brain over the subconscious part, then the creative process just wouldn’t be as effective. This means I don’t always get to decide what direction my stories take, or when they’re in polished form ready for consumption.

  5. To me the whole creative thing can feel like something intense and burning is trying to come through me, and all I can do is let it. Not in a creepy possessed sort of way. More like my entire environment is somehow coming into me and coming out as art or music (I am working on trying to become proficientcenough in just one instrument to really do it justice rather than just humming or something).

    I guess in a lot of ways it’s like that whole set of perceptions described in this post are that raw material, and the rest of me is subordinate to it and just providing it a framework to express things. Which is actually how I try to live life in general, with the overthoughts being subordinate to the underthoughts and just providing them a means to get things done. Like the overthoughts are just there as a tool for use by the underthoughts rather than taking over and doing their own thing. If that makes sense. Generally when the overthoughts try to take over they just mess things up.

  6. Pingback: Disability Blog Carnival! « Brilliant Mind Broken Body

  7. “I don’t try to make these paintings about anything usually, but often they end up about something anyway.”

    “To me the whole creative thing can feel like something intense and burning is trying to come through me, and all I can do is let it. Not in a creepy possessed sort of way.”

    I can relate to this as a musician. I find that I am often unsuccessful if I try to make the piece of music I am writing about something to begin with. I’m hoping when I get better at writing music I will be able to be more intentional when I choose to, although I wouldn’t want to quit this other way either.

    On an intellectual level, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that art “just is” and isn’t about anything, so it’s frustrating to me when I don’t KNOW what something is about when I’m the one who made it. I guess figuring it out is part of the whole thing though.

  8. “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.

    Urgh, yeah. All of that. I have actually had… something needling at me for the past few months, actually, along those lines. Not necessarily of people assuming similarity because something is outside language, but people assuming that because they consider various popular language-sets and the ideologies they associate with those to be their “enemy” in some way or another, and we talk about people who act like using certain words entails an entire ideology behind them and how difficult that can make communication for us, we must be talking about the same thing.

    Basically, a few times we’ve tried to explain difficulty with using language in a conventional way, and specifically the fact that just because we use a word or seem to have adopted a particular language set, it does not mean we come with a giant ideology and set of pre-determined values and opinions attached to us. And there have been people who popped up to insist they “knew just what we were talking about” and that “that happens to me too,” and it turned out that what they believed we both had in common was some idea about “politically correct policing of language.” Which is… the complete opposite of what we are talking about. (One of the opposites, anyway.) Because apparently it was terribly convenient or pleasing for them to believe that we were their ally in that “we’re the brave fighters against politically correct language policing, woo hoo” nonsense, even though we are as far from them as we are from much of what they regard as “politically correct language policing.” And I’m still struggling to find a way to explain the difference without getting so frustrated that I start spewing anger at them or something.

  9. “To me the whole creative thing can feel like something intense and burning is trying to come through me, and all I can do is let it. Not in a creepy possessed sort of way. More like my entire environment is somehow coming into me and coming out as art or music (I am working on trying to become proficientcenough in just one instrument to really do it justice rather than just humming or something). ”

    Wow

    To me it feels like a fire somewhere inside me – the fire of the sun, almost – and the only way it can get out to light other things is through my camera, paintbrush, computer mouse, keyboard etc. And it WANTS to get out. To move.

    At the same time it sometimes feels like a dance between me and the world – where the world is pulling what “she” wants out of me and pushing me and putting me in better, more graceful, positions. As much as I’m giving to her. Until the divide between us is moot.

    Ok, both descriptions are missing major stuff.

    The first is why Brigid is one of the only gods I have to interact with or take seriously. I can see where she comes from. So I can hardly ignore her.

  10. When I speak I imagine the words appearing in my head as I say them, like they’re in a page of a book. For a long time my only controlled way of communication was words and pictures-gestures, inflection and rhetoric have only recently started to make sense.

    You’re right, it is difficult to imagine that painting’s world. Doesn’t mean it’s invalid but I live in a different one, which, although superficially closer to NT thinking, is still very concrete.

  11. I don’t know your policy on excplicit language in comments, but I have to say that this piece is fucking awesome.

    As a member of a system who lives mostly in idea-land, at least two thirds of this is way over my head. At least the experience part of it, which I believe is at least two thirds of the post. The other third, the intellectual part (understanding what I’m reading) I have about 80-85% understanding. The one who is closest (and that’s not necessarily very close…….I’ll have to tell her to read this and respond herself) to this kind of life experience would be Athena….

    she doesn’t like being out in the world because she says that people are often confusing with their many words, movements, insistence on conformity to certain mores and norms (like not stimming in public, for example)

    I really enjoyed reading this but honestly it was a little bit depressing simply because I wish I could escape from idea-land and overthoughts for a while…..whenever I wanted to.

    I’m curious…..do you think of word-abstractions and math-abstractions differently? Are there types of abstractions you can handle more easily? I would call the classical limit-definition of a derivative as somewhat abstract, to give an example of what I mean.

  12. I come back to this post every now and then, ostensibly to check for new comments, but I really think it’s just to look at the painting again. I really love it, in so many ways, especially the figures that you’ve added. It gives me such a feeling of calm and depth.

  13. Three on line, one being proofread, number five in process. Novels, that is. Yes, words. But, also – there are drawings, pictures, some intricate, some otherwise. Number four has thirteen hundred and more pages, many chapters, and reads like a house on fire. They all do, supposedly.
    In reading your posting, I was struck by a picture, this in my mind: I could SEE the pictures, these both partial and combined, though they were different than what you painted. What I saw was an odd corkscrew-shaped cucumber of indeterminant length, covered with fractal-shaped spines of a multitude of colors, with each spine vibrating, the coiled aspect vibrating AND twisting in oscillation, and then the whole assembly vibrating like a guitar string.
    It took perhaps about ninety seconds to get the whole of this picture – about as long as it takes to see how the parts of a most-intricate mechanical mechanism. Ninety seconds is a long time – I perceived the whole of an insulin pump in a third of that time, both as to the mechanical assembly and the programming aspect.

    Hope this indicates that, perhaps, there are some people who are, uh, ‘bilingual’ as in they can use words passably, and process pictorial/sensorial data preferentially? Make any sense?

    Dennis

  14. “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.”

    I think most “normal” people assume that leaving the word-world is like exile and death. We can’t experience what you do, so we imagine emptiness in place of your fullness. We imagine you feel how we’d feel if we lost our world.

    This is maybe why some people think autistic/intellectectually disabled/whatever people would be better off dead.

  15. Just to clarify, I absolutely do NOT think that “certain people are better off dead” views are ever excusable, justifiable, or in any way ok. But I want to know how and why people get their definitely-not-ok views.

  16. I come back to this post every now and then, ostensibly to check for new comments, but I really think it’s just to look at the painting again. I really love it, in so many ways, especially the figures that you’ve added. It gives me such a feeling of calm and depth.

  17. I think I have visited this place. There are exercises language based people can do to enter their less dominant side of the brain.

    There is no time, no labels, only sensation.

  18. come back to this post every now and then, ostensibly to check for new comments, but I really think it’s just to look at the painting again. I really love it, in so many ways, especially the figures that you’ve added. It gives me such a feeling of calm and depth.

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