Spectrum: What Fills the Gap Is Spirit

My friend and reader Ashubii (check out her blog, if you haven’t yet–her writing is rich and delicious!) reminded me that I haven’t yet shared the post I want to write about online friendships. I have been mentally composing it for at least five months. Each time, before I sit down to write it, something happens that causes me to feel insecurity and confusion regarding the points I’d planned to make–so I’ve been putting it off. I guess I don’t feel it’s 100% authentic yet, so I am waiting. I’ve been waiting for a time when my confidence matches the tone of the post I’ve written internally, but now I’m thinking that I will likely write a different version, one that approaches the confusion and insecurity, while also expressing, yet in a less resolved way, some of the happier points I want to make.

Meanwhile, something else is fresh for me.

I’ve been exploring the way my brain feels in social situations. It is as if my synapses run on parallel tracks, lacking the cross-overs that neurotypicals have. (Quick research indicates that neurologists are exploring what they call parallel fiber synapse in conjunction with autism.)

I am aware of the inability to cross from one synaptic track to the other–and this causes processing-fatigue after social interactions that exceed my capacity. I’ve also been wondering what happens in the gap between these two parallel tracks, for that region of my being and consciousness feels to me very rich, very ripe, and very full of potential. It’s also where I dwell–in the gap.

Two parallel stories from a recent evening illustrate:

I.

Our department coordinated and produced the district’s “Celebration of the Stars,” an honoring of over 100 teachers, administrators, and staff members. In past years, our department director has understood and respected my preference to avoid large groups, so I haven’t been required to help.

This year, our new director wanted the entire department to pitch in. I very much want to be part of the team–so I was willing to make it work, even though I considered a) asking to be excused or to help in a different way, and b) calling in sick (I knew I wouldn’t do this, but I wanted to consider it, so I could realize that it was an option, if I chose.). I decided to shoulder the consequences (nervousness, possibly anxiety, upset at having our household and evening schedule disrupted, and post-event processing fatigue). It would be worth it to contribute.

I let myself have a mini-meltdown driving into work that day–and that relieved some of the pre-event anxiety.

I arrived early to help with set-up and was rewarded by a few joyful moments delivering bouquets of helium balloons from prep room to stage. Running down the empty high school hall with dozens of balloons, I felt buoyant, like I would lift at any moment! That joy remains! Then, the balloon strings got tangled, and so a coworker and I shared giggles as we untangled them.

My job was to staff the sign-in booth, greeting people as they arrived, checking off names of the honorees, and handing out certificates. This task was fun and easy–I loved the smiles as we congratulated recipients, and it felt marvelous to recognize so many in our district who give so much.

The times where I became aware of my divergent ways of processing happened in the off-moments and pauses, when clusters of people gathered to talk, and I watched the conversing groups. In those moments, I became, as I always do in social situations, keenly aware that I was missing things–texts, contexts, and subtexts were being shared which I had no access to. I could witness the effect of these shared meanings among those who shared them, but I stood outside the circle of sharing, clueless to the meanings.

This is where the gaps are.

For example, one group of teachers sat together, smiling, laughing, and enjoying their mutual congratulations. Then, one would make a snide comment–or even just a look–and, for the briefest of moments, they would all share in the meaning of that. Something was conveyed, agreed upon, and shared. As an onlooker, I lingered in the smiles, puzzled by the real meaning in the moments between the grins. I can see the two parallel tracks–the face of happiness and the grimace of complaint–but I don’t have the connecting synapses to see which is mask and which is true, or even how both could exist simultaneously. But it seems to me that neurotypicals have these connecting fibers, being able to see past mask to the true meaning, without breaking the socially acceptable facade. When I watch my coworkers, they convey volumes of meaning with each other through a glance, without needing to say a word. And if I ask what about what is really going on, my question is interpreted as being inappropriate–for, apparently, there’s some code about what can be said in words and what can only be said in a look. I am guessing that when one has connections between the parallel fibers, those connections allow one to translate the looks into meaning and to see past the spoken word.

At another moment, I said the wrong thing at the wrong time. One of the coordinators had made the mistake of not being clear in the district-wide email invitation she sent out that, just because you received this email, it did not mean you were going to be honored, so we had about four people show up expecting to get awards who hadn’t been recognized. I mentioned to the woman helping with sign-in that we needed to be more clear about this next year. She proceeded handing out certificates as if she hadn’t heard me. My impulse was to repeat myself, perhaps a little louder, since I’d spoken softly–then I realized: Oh. She did hear! It’s just that this is not the time nor place for this comment. But it’s the gaps that leads me to make that comment, regardless of place or time.

The evening, while successful and worthwhile, exhausted me. A few days later, my brain still processed moments, overheard conversations, and exchanges, trying to bridge those gaps in parallel synaptic tracks. I am trying to make meaning out of the shared experience that seems so common to most everyone else who was there that night.

And of course, there are echoes of every mother-daughter tea, high school dance, busy elementary school classroom, wedding reception, family celebration, office meeting, and countless other social interactions involving more than five people where I stood, outside, even if I was inside, trying to bridge these gaps.

II.

And then, there was this exquisitely beautiful moment:

During the recognition ceremony, I remained in the entry hall, at the sign-in table, to greet late-comers, answer questions, and help as needed. Early on, a big sister, around 12 or 13, came out, carrying her wailing two-year-old brother. The auditorium was too loud, too dark, too crowded, too confining, and he needed OUT. I understand, for that’s the real reason I remained in the relatively quiet and less crowded foyer.

She carried her little brother outside, brought him back in, and one of the other staff members handed him one of those delightful balloons, a big gold mylar star, filled with helium!

I wrapped the string around his wrist, so it wouldn’t fly away.

“Is that OK?” I asked him. He nodded.

We played for a bit, batting the balloon and jumping, miming the act of being lifted off our feet and flying, floating.

We were both there–present, wholly present, with our smiles, our game, the joy of a bright balloon.

“Are you OK?” he asked me during a pause in the game, and I smiled inside at the echolalia of my earlier question to him.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” I replied. “Are you?”

“Yeah.”

We played some more.

He became very still for a moment. I could see him tuning in, feeling what was inside of him, and identifying that feeling.

Very softly, he said, “I love it.”

“Aw,” I replied, “Do you love your balloon?”

He broke out into a smile as he looked at me. “I love you!” he said.

And he ran to me, wrapped his arms around my neck. “I love you,” he repeated, and he kissed my cheek.

It was–genuine. True. Authentic. It was all within the gap, not happening on parallel tracks. This was a pure expression of a pure feeling.

Love rose up through the earth, through the soles of his feet, into his heart–and with the consciousness of being, this two-year-old felt, identified, and expressed love. Just like that.

In the purity of feeling, energy, and expression, there is no confusion. There are no parallel tracks–no masks, no facade.

He and I met each other in the gap–where we both were simply our present human selves. And in that meeting, we shared love, which is one of the energies that can fill the gap.

As exhausted as I became in processing the rest of the social interactions of that evening, that simple and pure exchange, with another human who ventured into the gap with me, fills me with energy.

So, I am aware of many of the consequences in missing meaning and connection with others that come from my divergent neurology.

And I am also aware of the countless gifts, in presence, in spirit, in connecting with divine energy, with nature, with purity, and with love, that come from my neurodiversity.

What fills the gap? It is love, energy, presence. Spirit.

<< Previous | Next >>

Spectrum: White Lines on the Meter

My boyfriend and I have crafted a rich, warm, healthy, fulfilled and fulfilling life. It’s taken (and takes) lots of hard work, lots of good fortune, and lots of privilege (yet what we call “privilege” in this society, and the “privileges” upon which our life rests, are things which we should extend to everyone–I tend to see access to water, food, health and dental care, shelter, music, education, art, dance, exercise, literature, and equity as basic human rights, not privilege. Is it “privilege” that I am able to experience these human rights? It’s a crime that not everyone is. This is a tangent to be explored elsewhere, not here. Back to the topic at hand!)

It took us a few decades to build this life. Our first fifteen years together, we lived below the poverty level, moving often (over 30 times during that epoch), making it (and usually just barely making it) month-to-month. This was a time in the U.S. of rising homelessness, and the fear of becoming homeless loomed. We had no savings, and we rested on good fortune to protect us from crisis.

We did have a safety net in my family, who would have taken us in, if needed. And we are white, educated, with no visible disabilities. We looked like hippies and lived a counter-culture lifestyle, so that kept us on the outs in some ways, but it was always seen as a choice, and we lived on the West Coast where there was comfort in tribe. We fit in, even when we didn’t fit.

Grad school was what changed things for us, allowing me to discover and create a career that worked for me, for maintaining our free and creative lifestyle, and to allow us to, finally, buy a home, plant a garden, and settle in.

Keeping this life going takes about 98% of my capacity. This isn’t unusual. When I think of all the working women I know, each seems to be using 90-110% of their capacity to keep their lives, their homes, and their careers going. This is especially true for women with children.

This doesn’t seem to be the case for men. The men I know at work seem to be using around 40-60% of their capacity in their careers and at home. While the women are on the edge, with the taut lines of stress around their mouths, the men, generally speaking, relax their bellies, walk more slowly, and take the time to, sometimes, simply stand and look out at the sky.

(Back to the topic of privilege, which seems to want to assert itself in this post: that relaxation and within-capacity-operation that men enjoy in the work place should not be a privilege. It should be a basic human right, extended to women, too. It’s not equitable that women have to work twice as hard, generally make 20-40% less, and generally receive fewer promotions. It’s not equitable that, in addition, 60-90% of the housework falls to women.)

What happens, then, for someone using 90% or more of their capacity to keep things going when something extra comes along? When children are sick, cars break down, dentists or doctors need to be seen, and the cable guy needs to come? At these times, unless we have extra help, we exceed our capacity.

I feel fortunate that my present career doesn’t require full capacity, or at least not most of the time. (I do have rare periods of special projects when it does take 100-110% capacity.) When I taught full-time at the college-level, my career demands exceeded my capacity. A few weeks into the term, I was stretched too thin. Weekends were spent trying to recover, when I wasn’t reading papers, and those long winter and summer breaks were devoted to recuperation.

When my current web-editing job was 40 hours a week, and I was teaching three courses a term online, too, career-demands were around 100%. But for the past decade, I’ve been working only six hours a day at my office job. This makes my two jobs sustainable. I have long hours every morning to relax and fill myself with the garden and the cello. Evenings have long hours for enjoyment and relaxation. And the work itself is engaging and often fun. Teaching tasks happen on weekend afternoons, online, in the comfort of my bright and sunny living room, with Beethoven quartets playing on the stereo. This works for me, for our life.

During these past two weeks, I’ve been home on winter break from both jobs. Life during these past two weeks has required 10-20% of my capacity. It’s felt unusual, and it’s only in the past few days that the gears have shifted and I’m feeling comfortable with these lower demands. On Monday, it’s back to the office, and I’m looking forward to it. I like that full-meter feeling.

Comparing the demands of these past few weeks to the demands of the normal work week has me evaluating what, specifically, it is that requires so much of me during the work week. At home, the daily tasks of preparing meals and caring for the garden and household aren’t draining–they’re fulfilling, contributing, rather than using up, my energy.

At the office, the tasks I complete (converting text to html, correcting html code, designing web graphics and web pages, writing and editing copy) also contribute to my energy. I love the attention to detail, the immersion of coding, the satisfaction of presenting information clearly, and the rewards of finishing tasks.

The demands seem to come in two main areas: executive function and social interactions. Much of my energy goes towards prioritizing projects, scheduling work, sorting demands, and all of the micro-details connected with that, in addition to the transitions of starting and stopping. It requires a lot of energy to handle the executive functioning aspects of multiple projects, responsibilities, and tasks.

The social interactions seem to draw considerable amounts of my energy. If I didn’t make a point to talk with others, I would probably quite happily simply walk directly into my office each day, communicate primarily through email, and only talk to those directly involved with the projects I was working on and only about these projects. This approach wouldn’t require extra energy on my part, and I’d feel quite satisfied with it. But I expect that I would experience negative consequences. It seems to be required to greet and chat with the receptionist, with the friendly person in the office off the hall, with my office-mates, the others in our department, and my supervisor. It takes so much effort to do this. Is it possible that 50% of my overall capacity goes towards these social interactions?

I think it’s likely. Fifty percent for non-task-specific social interactions; forty percent for executive function: that leaves 8% for the actual work, which seems about right! This may not be an accurate measurement of where my energy goes, but this is what it feels like to me.

I’ve often wondered how it is that my workmates are able to socialize in their time off. Most of the women I work with get together with friends after work and on the weekends. They look forward to this. I’m not able to do this. All of my social energy is used up during the workweek, and if I got together with friends during my time off, I would be running in deficit in no time at all.

I finally figured out that it’s a matter of where do we get energy and where do we get drained. For my workmates, socializing, at work and in their time off, does not drain them. It fills them. So for them, to get together with friends after hours brings enjoyment, fulfillment, and refreshment.

For me, the social interactions at the office are tasking. Social interactions outside of the office would be more than I could handle. In my hours away from the office, I like to walk, practice yoga, prepare meals, spend time in my garden, play my cello, daydream, write, play video games, read, and think.

<< Previous | Next >>