Saturday, September 11, 2010

Words and Starlings

I watch a flight of maybe two dozen birds – starlings, I think – rise from a treetop, and take a wide semicircular path to settle in another treetop. They're barely more than specks: I identify them as starlings by the jitteriness and pointiness of the individual dots. But what draws my eye is that, at this distance, the group of birds is obviously not a collection of individuals, but a creature in its own right. You can imagine, if you can't see, the invisible membranes that hold them together, their flexibility and tensile strength; a bird too far from the group is drawn back in, as if tethered by a transparent rubber band. The whole constellation flies with a graceful undulation, far more graceful, and transfixing, than any individual starling: individual starlings being actually rather uncouth and awkward birds. What to make of this creature of flickering points, riding on the sea of the air? How did it decide to move to another treetop, and why?

I have never been so deeply aware of how unlike most human beings I am, of how hard I have to work to keep up with the normal world and present acceptable personas to it. I spent much of my thirties and forties berating myself for not making more of my gifts, literary, mathematical, visual, analytical. Now, in my fifties, I am beginning to think, not only that all that judgement is a waste of energy, but that any proper accounting would also have to weigh how well I did, given my disabilities: my crippling shyness, my inability to integrate with the flock, how rapidly social interaction floods my circuits and renders me passive and stupid. I also often simply blank out if asked to switch tasks: I can concentrate on one problem for longer than most people can, but I make silly high-level mistakes. I'm perfectly capable of working intently for fourteen hours on a problem without ever noticing that it actually is irrelevant and doesn't need to be solved. And once shaken out of my problem-solving trance, I'm dopey, automaton-like: it takes a hour and a half of walking about and mental idling before I'm good for anything again. Gifted I may be, moderately, but I am also neurologically – what? Disabled is possibly too strong a word, but it's the aptest one I can find.

I would call this something on the Autism/Asperger's spectrum, but it doesn't fit in two ways. For one, I am intensely, even excessively verbal. I am a slow and awkward speaker, but I'm acutely sensitive to writing, to its shading and nuance, and I produce it with alarming ease. One of my gifts is linguistic. And the other is that I don't usually seem to have any deficit in empathy, any difficulty in reading social and emotional information, in understanding the language of facial expression and gesture. Still though there are strange gaps in my understanding, and my emotional memory is notoriously unreliable. My current emotional state floods back through my past: when I'm unhappy, I imagine that I've always been unhappy, and when I'm happy I imagine that I've always been happy. I recognize this intellectually as distortion, but I find it very difficult to counter, and I have to rely on other people for access to my own emotional past. And I make from time to time emotional mistakes which no one of ordinary intelligence ought to make.

I could blame this on my family history, on my gender, or on my culture (or perhaps on my awkward placement in that culture, half in and half out). Or upon my neurology, as my current immersion in Oliver Sacks' books disposes me. Or simply on my own peculiar weakness of character. But however I play the prologue, the action of the drama is the same.

We understood each other better before ever I opened my mouth. I quoted that to Martha, after a difficult conversation recently. (Maturin to Dillon, or Dillon to Maturin, after they finally break silence with each other, in I think the second volume of the shelf of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels.) “I can never say what I mean.”

“But you're so good with words,” she said.

“No. I'm not good with words. Words are good with me, that's it,” I answered.

Words lead me on, plausible, clever, entrancing: endless varied swirls of those 26 letters, those 47 phonemes. Word after word after word, each with its ancient history, crusted with past meanings or shiny with new use, forming brilliant mosaics of sound, of movements of the throat and tongue, of patterns for the eye. I follow where they lead, until they vanish, and leave me in a cold dark unknown street, where all the doors are locked against me. No. I am not good with words.

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