Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Learning How to Love

My great Oklahoma State friend Aileen Murphy has Nikki Giovanni singing her praises on the jacket copy for There Will Be Cats, so Aileen doesn't need me to pretend objectivity about this work. Still, our relationship has only a little to do with why I'm moved to write this blog.

My complex reactions to this book come from many directions. As I read and reread it, I find myself thinking of the many great people I've met this past year after getting involved in our school's first autism conference--ranging from parents struggling to understand their children and raise awareness about their children's needs to teachers and students on the autism spectrum, fighting to be understood and respected.

After all, to respect is to take another look, to take as many looks as are needed to begin to appreciate someone else's window on the world. With autism, this respect is particularly crucial because the objective reality is the same, but our place on the autistic spectrum (and I'm inclined to suspect we all have such a place) highlights a different aspect of that reality. A man I work with says that his son calls himself an "autist," suggesting the link between artistic perception and an autistic vision. Another friend's son loves David Byrne, and he seems to acknowledge that connection in the nature of the art.

I first heard the term Asperger's Syndrome a little over a decade ago when Aileen's son was diagnosed. I, along with most of the world, knew little about Asperger's or autism itself. We still don't know much. But everyone I've met with Asperger's has a unique passion for some aspect of the world most of us don't see, or see so clearly.

That's one reason this 14 poem collection is so important. It strives to see the world Aileen's son has seen as he has grown and learned--from simple childhood hostilities to an ambivalent relationship with his own reflection to a whole series of social rules that make no logical sense to school lessons that have no application to his real life. Sure, it teaches us a thing or two about autism, but it also brings forth echoes of all of our childhoods.

The flip side of which points up what I find most moving about this unique collection of poems--the way it distinctly captures the universal complexities of being a parent. Though many of these poems are from the son's point of view (which takes an act of willed perception crucial to parenting), three from the parent's perspective ("Armor," "Animal Heart," and "There Will Be Cats") resonate with me for all the ways they force me to confront my own parenting--the ways it hurts to perceive your child's defenses, the way such big love can turn "sticky" and "grasping," and the terrible way "the true future is unknown."

As these examples suggest, beyond parenting, There Will Be Cats navigates the many hard lines we all walk to love one another. More important, it captures the many reasons we need that struggle. Learning how to love teaches us to see the world all over again, every day, every time we listen a little harder, watch a little closer and strive for the give and take that is respect.

There Will Be Cats is available at Amazon and at http://www.fishinglinepress.com/