Saturday, December 25, 2010

Blogging Blindly

[photo by Bryant Webster Schultz]

Yesterday, the Affect Theory reader arrived at our doorstep in a manila air-bubbled envelope soggy with the frequent rains of winter on O`ahu. I've hardly opened it, but suspect that it will be a good companion for two other books I've been reading this week, John Elder Robison's Look Me in the Eye, an Asperger's memoir, and David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous, an argument for finding transcendence inside of nature, rather than without it. I have neither book in front of me now, as they have both migrated to my in-laws' house--one as a gift, and the other as a symptom of my forgetting. So I blog blindly, though "deafly" would be perhaps the better word, as these books are as full of voices as of images. Robison writes about his own voice as one that is recognizable to other autistic people for its flatness of affect, its cadence. His voice does not betray (consider that word!) his emotions when a crisis occurs; to the news of a neighbor's death, he might say "oh," instead of the listener's desired tonal shift upward, outward. Abram's affect is anything but flat, is as mellow as a Steinway's middle register. For Abram wants us to attend to the world as it is, and that involves the recognition that we can touch the world with our hands because our hands can themselves be touched. We are in a reciprocal relation with nature; it, too, has affect. It's a relation of mutual effect.

It would be too easy to say that placing these books next to one another, putting them in a boy-meets-cat kind of staring contest, might suggest that the contemporary world--infinitely mediated, placed at all the distances provided by iPod, iPad, iPhone--creates an autistic field in which we all lose ourselves to abstraction. There is something moving in the persistence Robison displays at learning how to be in the social, natural world. But this feeling becomes one of disturbance when you consider your last walk down a sidewalk where you were the sole unplugged-in traveler. I assigned my freshmen to take the Circle Island bus this semester and to write about it. "Do NOT take an iPod, and do NOT use your phone," I told them, adding with some measure of pedagogical sadism, "and do not even take a friend, unless you intend NOT to talk to them!" I wanted them to experience what Kathleen Stewart calls "ordinary affects," those that are as strong as they are sometimes cushioned in dullness. (I had thought my own ride dull for at least two hours, when the conversation I'd been overhearing for that long turned; the young man being described in such banal terms from Sunset Beach to Mililani became the abuser discussed in hushed tones from Mililani to downtown near Bishop Street.) So, at semester's end, when all the blog posts came flying in, last minute-like, I arrived at one about by a young man who related that he had started by making sure he had his iPod with him. Many of the narratives were curtailed suddenly with an admission that the author had, halfway around the island, fallen asleep. Many of their stories, vivid, annoyed, well told, simply fell off a cliff. And then I slept.

TheBus is a fascinating place because it is both a sealed container from which you cannot touch the outside world and because it is so utterly social (if not sociable) a place. It's like my writing perch, from which I see a sliver of the field behind our townhouse, a mown green lawn, alighted on by white egrets, the occasional dog (black lab, English shepherd), fallen palm frond, boy with bat, girl with soccer ball. Just a sliver of a view. The perch is more peaceful--usually--than a bus seat, and it moves more slowly. But it suggests to me that I can touch the outside world without really allowing me to. And it contains me in a space where my daughter asks me over and again to spell family names to write on packages she's making for Christmas dinnertime. I am inside and outside the game. The one promises peacefulness, the other is as annoying as it is ultimately gratifying (I'm useful; I can spell!). Oh, and there's the constant triangulator, the computer screen and keyboard, on which thoughts about these things form and then dissolve as the blogger box moves up, line by line. "Mom," my son interrupts, "I may have gotten the first cardboard cut in the world, ever," then comments on the cat (asleep), the packages (the visiting student's name is hard to spell), then reads the screen ("spell!") and, when I tell him I'm writing about him "right now," he sits. "Let's see!" he says, then smiles. "Anything?"

Maybe it's parenthood that taught me to write about what's happening at the very moment that it's happening, something a recent Ph.D. said that she absolutely did not want to do, because she wanted time to pass, measuring (in all senses of the word) her experiences of betrayal and loss. (I remember those days.) But it's writing the distractions rather than trying to evade them or even parse them after a decent interval has passed that draws me to blogging and, increasingly, to the activity of daily life. (In those days, daily life seemed dull, an awful Musak that went with the ceaseless search for abstractions that might relieve it.) A mixed state that is neither Abram's full-bodied experience of nature nor Robison's constant act of translation from outward chaos to his internal logic maker. A mixed state that sometimes leaving me wanting either extreme. The full-bodied is harder to achieve, what with the kids and the computer. The logical parsing of moments cannot be done with kids, and cat, and partner, and egrets to attend to. (You should meditate more, the raven says from my shoulder.)

It is perhaps no mystery that this mixed state of perception brings together what is lost (chronologically) in Alzheimer's. First the present disappears into the sometimes invented (collapsed) past, so that the past is what is and the present is what gets abstracted from it (perhaps). Later on, the past itself disappears and only the present exists. My mother looking over and over at a flower, at which she exclaims each time, freshly. Finally, the mind/body shut down until whatever (metaphorically autistic) perceptions are completely closed in and down. It's a wavering between states that is finally the states' withering away.

Where is the mystery in any of this attending to, caretaking the moment? Isn't it mystery that we often want, whether spiritual or plot-based? "So what happened then?" applies equally to God and funny French detectives. Where is the rock we're meaning to turn over to find the bugs and the scary snake? Mystery perhaps becomes less mysterious over time. The mystery is that being in all these things (even in the inability to be there, in Robison's case, or that of the iPod wielding bus rider) seems to make more of them happen. It's the mystery of my one semester of teaching when every book I taught came true in my daily life over the course of about six weeks straight. It's the mystery of love and hostility in the classroom. It's the mystery of how things cluster. Rilke's "you must change your life" becoming "you must apprehend your life," and your recognition (sharp or flat!) that there's as much drama in the second as in the first demand.

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