Title: The Electricity of Every Living Thing
Author: Katherine May
Read In: 2022
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Woman’s Walk In The Wild To Find Her Way Home
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‘The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.’ Eden Phillpotts, A Shadow Passes
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‘… walking too far too often too quickly is not safe at all. The continual cracking of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of road come up into you.’ Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
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There is no single, defining version of autism, but instead an overlapping multiplicity of minds. The term ‘spectrum’ is a poor way of capturing the sheer diversity of our experience-it’s too linear, too fixed. When I imagine us, I think of a constellation instead, or perhaps a galaxy: millions of different stars shining, each expressing their fire in a different way. I am just one way of living that experience.
Part One: Desolation Point
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Minehead Sea-Front, August > Page 8 · Location 200
That enchantment has never worn off. I am obsessed with South Devon; I crave it. And yet the last time I made it down there, I didn’t walk the path at all. It seemed impossible with Bert around. I suppose other mothers would have fashioned some manner of papoose and carried their child with them along the clifftops; but then, I learned a long time ago that I don’t seem to be like other mothers. It’s not just the physical discomfort that bothers me (or the danger; I am not sure-footed). It’s something far more unspeakable: I don’t want to walk with a child on my back. I want to return to the days when I would wander with H for hours and return home with my skin radiating the sun’s heat, feeling like we’d set the world to rights. Better still, I want to walk alone. I thought I wasn’t entitled to do that anymore.
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Minehead Sea-Front, August > Page 10 · Location 228
People carry electricity for me; they have a current that surges around my body until I’m exhausted. It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, exactly; something about their noise, their unruly movement, the unpredictable demands they might make on me. It makes the air feel thick, like humanity has… not a scent, but a texture. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe.
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Minehead Sea-Front, August > Page 11 · Location 242
The thing was, once Bert was accounted for, I felt fantastic. I was free to get confused and exhausted. It was funny. It was liberating. There was one point, deep into the woods, when I stopped to see if I had a phone signal and slowly became aware of a noise like the crackle of static. I put my phone back in my pocket and listened. All around me, the forest was alive, growing and shifting, and drawing up water from the soil, and putting on new growth, and letting go of its dead. It was so loud, so absolute. If I were ever to believe in a god, I would have found it right there. It was exquisite. That was the moment I realised how much I’d lost of myself. No, that’s wrong: I’d already realised that, over and over again. I’d fought it and suffered it and mourned it. This was new. This was the moment I realised that it was necessary to get myself back again. This was the moment I realised that, as the mother of a young child, the world was never going to give me permission to be on my own, but that I needed it anyway.
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Minehead Sea-Front, August > Page 12 · Location 255
All I knew was that something wasn’t right. I thought, perhaps, that I could walk it off.
Highlight(yellow) – 3. Foreland Point to Ilfracombe, September > Page 27 · Location 443
I haven’t coped with an awful lot of things in the last few years. I didn’t cope with being at home, alone, with a baby. I didn’t cope with the lack of a job to do, with the absence of a structure to propel me forward. I didn’t cope with the other mothers, their obsessive talk of milk and sleep, their earnest discussions of progress, development. The very word ‘mother’ was enough to make my head spiral: mother, mummy, mum. I wondered vaguely, for a while, if I didn’t have some kind of gender disorientation which left me unable to relate these maternal labels to myself. I didn’t cope with hospitals and Sure Start centres, with the midwife who handled my breast in the maternity ward, seizing it unexpectedly to squeeze out the pathetic few beads of milk it could manage. All that awful contact; all that awful care. The world was thick with it. I didn’t cope before that, either. I didn’t cope in the early months of pregnancy when I took myself up to London one afternoon, to the Tate gallery. Back to reassuring old territory, to tell myself I wasn’t lost. I’m still not sure how I ended up howling in the basement toilets, having to be talked out of there by a kind cleaner who sat me in the canteen and found me a plastic cup of water to drink. So much grief, all of a sudden; so much terror. Perhaps I didn’t cope before then. Perhaps this not coping could be connected to other moments, the-same-only-different, stretching back across my whole life. But no. I was a coper before this. Capable: that was the word most often used to describe me. I always loved the word, like a superhero cape, encasing the world around me in a protective shell. The etymology of cope, too: to strike a blow with one’s fist. That’s me: a knockabout, bringing everything under my vigorous control. Not this. Not this. Not this sense of overwhelm, all the time. Overwhelm: to turn upside down, bring to ruins, engulf, submerge, inundate.
Highlight(yellow) – 3. Foreland Point to Ilfracombe, September > Page 33 · Location 529
‘I need to work out how to stop getting so tired,’ I say. ‘This is the second time I’ve run out of energy.’ ‘It’s just fitness,’ says Beccy. ‘You’ll get there.’ Probably; but I have no idea how. Maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe, like the triathletes and midnight cyclists, the aim of this is to bring about tiny, manageable moments of crisis in our lives, so that we’re ready when the inundations come again.
Highlight(yellow) – 4. Ilfracombe to Barnstaple, October > Page 38 · Location 585
I was desperate to get back to work. After I had Bert, I couldn’t find my way back in. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to leave him. Quite the opposite: I needed to get away. It’s a terrible thing to say, I know. I am supposed to have wanted to cling to my beautiful baby for as long as was humanly possible. I am supposed to have begged my husband for a few more precious months at home. I didn’t. I wanted to get my own brain back, urgently. It’s very hard to make people believe that you can feel this way, and still be utterly in love with your child. I just couldn’t process that level of disorder; that’s the only way I can describe it. I couldn’t process the unpredictability of when a baby cries, and why; the sound of it, the way it would burn through me. I couldn’t handle the endless, fiddly routines, the hours spent staring into space while I let him do his thing. The impossibility of reading. The lack of any time to think about things I wanted to think about, to write those things down, to make words. It looks so innocuous laid out like that, but living through it made my heart pound until I felt sick, and many things worse than that, which I try not to remember. Going back to my old habit of banging my head against the wall until my vision went white. Dragging the sharp edge of the tweezers down the inside of my arm until they drew blood. Thinking, endlessly, of how much easier it would be to die than to go on living. Not wanting to die in any active, violent sense; just wanting to disappear, to be obliterated by forces beyond my control. I thought I’d conquered that after the last time my brain dissolved. Except this time it was different, because I had a tiny person nailing me into the present like a tent peg. Nothing in the world could induce me to hurt him, so I knew I had to stay. I got scolded enough times for saying I was the miserable (read: ungrateful) mother of a young child, as if I wasn’t willing to sacrifice enough. Believe me: I sacrificed every last particle of my wits, just so that he would never feel the effects.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. Barnstaple to Appledore, November > Page 44 · Location 665
Ihave been asked two questions over and over again since I started to walk the South West Coast Path. The first is some variation of ‘Are you safe?’ This rarely refers to the walking conditions on the path, which is lucky because, given my extreme clumsiness and enhanced ability to fall over, I am probably not entirely safe, but it’s best not to dwell on that. Instead, it’s pitched at me being a woman, alone, in a remote spot. I tend to brush it aside, and not always in good humour. It’s a way of saying ‘Don’t get raped’ in the same, gentle tone as you might say ‘Don’t catch a cold’ when someone goes out in the rain. Except that we’ve stopped saying ‘Don’t catch a cold,’ because we’ve realised that the connection between wet feet and a respiratory virus is, at best, a spurious correlation based on the time of year that they’re both most likely to appear. However, we still cling to the quaint notion that sexual violence is somehow brought about by women being in remote places. Those who adhere to this view may wish to note that, statistically speaking, they would be much better off warning me against being alone with any male relative. My ghoulish leanings also impel me to state that female bodies found in remote locations tend to have been driven there after the event. More to the point, one of the loveliest surprises of the South West Coast Path is the number of women you pass, all of them walking alone. We nod politely and don’t bother each other. It’s like being part of a discreet, silent community.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. Barnstaple to Appledore, November > Page 47 · Location 709
I walk, I think, to let my mind soar around open spaces while my legs get tired.
Highlight(yellow) – 6. Dover to Shepherdswell, December > Page 62 · Location 895
There was something going on that was real enough to me, but which I couldn’t seem to transmit to anyone else. The only conclusion I could draw was that I was making a fuss over nothing, always. I was clearly just coping badly with perfectly normal things.
Highlight(yellow) – 6. Dover to Shepherdswell, December > Page 62 · Location 903
What was the point, anyway, in admitting that something was wrong? I knew by now that it would be futile to challenge the impression she’d already formed, of a happy, content woman, perhaps a little highly strung. It seems to me now that it’s not that I fail to manage the simplest challenges, but that I pass too well. I am addicted to passing, and not just in the sense of going unnoticed. I want more than that. I want to be well adjusted to the point of inspiration, hyper-normal. I want to be everyone’s favourite. I don’t care about the cost, the way it breaks me open and exhausts me and sickens me. Am I willing to dismantle that carefully made passing for something as intangible as self-knowledge? Or is it easier to go quietly on, and brace myself for the storms every few years, when chaos comes again?
Highlight(yellow) – 6. Dover to Shepherdswell, December > Page 63 · Location 914
I make it to Shepherdswell by one o’clock, and there, across the village green, is a handsome-looking pub. I dither outside for a few moments before kicking off my muddy trainers at the door and stepping inside. I realise how odd I must look as I enter –a lone woman in green hiking socks with mud splattered up her running tights, asking for a roast dinner and a pint of bitter shandy. But here, on the mud and chalk of the North Downs Way, this seems to be gently accepted. Isn’t that why I walk, anyway: because it gives me permission to go a little bit wild at the edges, and to escape into my own thoughts? I am probably no different from a thousand other walkers who blow in each year, their stomachs empty and their minds still wandering the chalk downs. Here, I am normal in my strangeness. Perhaps walking is the only place where I don’t have to pass.
Highlight(yellow) – 7. Shepherdswell to Canterbury, December > Page 64 · Location 924
My world is made up of tiny electric shocks. Every living thing carries its own current, and this finds its earth through me. Every unexpected touch, every glance, has a charge. I am a lightning rod, laid out like the red-nosed patient in the game of Operation, eternally braced for the metal-on-metal jolt of contact.
Highlight(yellow) – 7. Shepherdswell to Canterbury, December > Page 70 · Location 1010
I consider not telling him at all, knowing all the while that this won’t work. I never have been able to leave a thought unspoken. The words –unformed, unsteady –lurk at the top of my throat, ready to spill out. I counsel myself that this urge to speak before I really know or understand is not to be trusted. I know he’s already exhausted by my emotional high tides, but they always rush in anyway. This is the problem. This is my problem. I am unable to contain my thoughts as other people do. Everything always comes flooding out. I drown myself in words, and carry off all those around me, too.
Highlight(yellow) – 8. Canterbury to Chartham, January > Page 73 · Location 1042
Idon’t make any New Year’s resolutions. Being the sort of person who is in a constant state of resolution-making one way or another, I have little use for them.
Highlight(yellow) – 8. Canterbury to Chartham, January > Page 74 · Location 1057
By the next weekend, I can think of nothing else but walking. The bounce from Christmas, with all its hours and hours of noise and social contact, into the New Year, and straight back into work has been too much for me. I’m rattling with sick nerves, the adrenaline rush of surviving, just smiling and surviving, until I can be alone. I need blasting fresh air, far horizons, the damp, green microclimate of woodland. I don’t care whether or not I get wet in the process. Rain is the least of my worries.
Highlight(yellow) – 8. Canterbury to Chartham, January > Page 77 · Location 1093
I did everything I could to speak the same language as them, but I could see that it landed differently. I felt like a wild-eyed beast who speaks beautiful words, only to find them received as grunts and snarls. There was a translation error somewhere down the line.
Highlight(yellow) – 8. Canterbury to Chartham, January > Page 79 · Location 1126
I have been reading, trying to hunt myself down in blogs and websites. It is an enervating, compulsive task. I already understand that the very term ‘Asperger syndrome’ is no longer neutral. It has been removed from the DSM V, the most recent incarnation of the venerated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. That means that people who once would have been given this label would now fall under the more generalised diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Those who continue to say they have Asperger syndrome –abbreviated to AS –were perhaps diagnosed before the old categories disappeared, but some are deliberately defying the new clinical order. They identify as Aspies; they do not want to be thrown into a wider pool.
Highlight(yellow) – 8. Canterbury to Chartham, January > Page 80 · Location 1136
Descriptions of AS often note hyperlexia, an unusually enhanced ability to read and retain words, despite poor communication skills. This is where I recognise myself. I spent my childhood watching adults draw breath at my words, and my obsession with them. She’s swallowed a dictionary: I heard that one over and over again. And I had. I often found the contents of novels impenetrable, the characters hard to fathom; but the thin pages of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 1976 Edition, were beguiling to me, full of sounds and meanings and information. I read it from cover to cover, over and over again; I lucky-dipped in it until the hardback cover peeled off. I am angry, still, when I come across a word I don’t know. When I spoke, they all reeled out of me, those words I’d imbibed, in one continuous ribbon. Over time, I realised that my fluency alarmed people. It was pleasurable to me, but for them it was a torrent gushing out, an inundation. I learned, eventually, to disrupt myself with pauses and pretend uncertainties, to back-fill inflections that didn’t come naturally, to allow the estuarine vowels that I soaked up from those marshes to normalise me. I built a kind of dam to keep words in, constructed channels that let them flow away. Even now, I sometimes have to drive for an hour, talking to myself, to let them loose. Sometimes I sing to release them. The only times my words fail me is when my mind melts. Otherwise, they’re a spring tide that my sea wall struggles to retain. Communication difficulty, for me, was not born of an absence of words but of too many, too much breadth, and depth, and complexity. It is difficult to say what you mean through all those words. The message gets drowned.
Highlight(yellow) – 8. Canterbury to Chartham, January > Page 85 · Location 1201
ambiguous than that, far more amorphous. This leaves me with an unsteady –and, frankly, unwanted –sense of responsibility towards my own diagnosis. I have never been much of a joiner. The question is, do I want to join this tribe? I find that surprisingly easy to answer: here, finally, are the people like me. It’s all I can do to stop myself running towards them with open arms.
Highlight(yellow) – 10. Chartham to Chilham, January > Page 98 · Location 1360
It’s not like I’m looking for a cure. I know there isn’t one, and I know I wouldn’t want one if there was. Imagine submitting yourself to an operation that changes all that you are, your way of relating to other people, your way of thinking, your way of perceiving the world. It’s a horrifying thought, a hundred times more altering than a face transplant. I already know that I don’t want a cure for being myself.
Highlight(yellow) – 10. Chartham to Chilham, January > Page 99 · Location 1376
I am walking, now, as a kind of compulsion. I keep my weekends free for it, giving noncommittal answers when friends suggest we should get together. In the new dawn of AS, I want to find out what not getting together feels like. I’m sick of people. I suspect people are making me sick. I want to be alone, in the January drear, with the voluminous space of the countryside around me, even if it is spiked with blackthorn and bare branches.
Highlight(yellow) – 10. Chartham to Chilham, January > Page 101 · Location 1395
‘Just don’t tell her I’m walking. Tell her I’m working.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Walking’s a leisure activity. I’m not supposed to avoid her for something like that.’ It doesn’t feel like a leisure activity, though; it feels like survival.
Highlight(yellow) – 10. Chartham to Chilham, January > Page 102 · Location 1412
But I’d choose getting lost like this any day over getting lost in the maze of small talk. Sometimes, getting lost is a pleasurable alternative.
Highlight(yellow) – 10. Chartham to Chilham, January > Page 106 · Location 1462
‘People with AS often say that they can’t make friends. Is that true for you?’ ‘No,’ I say. ‘I can make friends. It’s another thing I learned. They tend to drift off, though, and I don’t understand why. I sometimes catch myself being boring, just talking at people and not noticing that they’re not engaged. I don’t mean to. Or I offend people; I say things that trample over their sensibilities, and it’s not intentional, but not everyone can handle me. My life is littered with broken friendships. I’m embarrassed to say that, because I try so hard.’
Part Two: Hartland
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Imagine, for a moment, that land isn’t divided up into areas, but into paths through. So, you cannot put a fence around a piece of land and call it your own. You can only join the dots between significant places (a gate, a bus shelter, a tree). If this join-the-dots comes full circle (gate –bus shelter –tree –gate), then all you have is a circular path; the space inside the circle does not belong to you. You have no more ownership over your back garden than over your journey to work. You cannot buy or sell land, because its only use is in providing scenery to pass through, and nobody has any interest in standing still. All that you possess is a way of travelling; a route. And each route is your own, unique sightline on the rest of the world. Many other paths will cross it, but only you can walk its full extent. Now, imagine that you couldn’t draw this path on a map, and not simply because maps don’t exist. The depth, the weight of the information contained within your path is too great to be drawn. A line cannot contain it. A line would only convey the thinnest part of the information; the blank, formless geography. Your path is more than that. Your path has peaks and valleys, yes, but it’s also littered with things that you treasure. That stream is your stream; you took off your shoes and socks to wade through it as a child. That village is the place you drove to one day, when life was ripping at the seams, and you put your head on the steering wheel and cried. That junction box is the one you notice every time you crest the hill on your way home; you have come to think of it as a sign that says, nearly there. Your path is made of meaning. All of these things are encoded in it. Because they’re too rich to be drawn, you must speak it. You don’t tell everyone you meet, only those closest to you. You take them from place to place with your tongue and your teeth, chattering out the detail. Unchecked, you would carelessly change the path every time you described it. Instead, you learn it, with all its diversions intact. You let it create a pattern for itself, a verse, a song. Now, you can sing this path to your friends, your lovers, your children, and as you sing it, you tell the story of all that you are. You transmit your creation myth. When you die, they are left with your song. This isn’t a utopia I’ve hallucinated at the low ebb of a long walk. Transpose it to Australia, and you have something approximating the Aboriginal understanding of territory. As Bruce Chatwin describes them in The Songlines, these paths memorialise the actions of the ancestors as they sang the Earth into existence. Australia is dotted with relics of the Dreamtime. They are sites of ritual significance, certainly, but they are also landmarks by which to navigate. The songlines link them together. By learning your song and singing it, you memorise a route that you have perhaps never even seen; and by walking the route that is encoded in your song, you assert a connection that flows through the generations to your clan ancestor’s dreaming. This is all that you own: the whole of creation and nothing at all; a path that cuts through time. Everybody has a song like this. A song that is a map, a compass; a song that sets you straight again. Learn it, and it will take you home. That song, of course, is a very different matter on English terrain in February.
Highlight(yellow) – 2. Hartland Point to the Eden Project, via Tintagel, February > Page 142 · Location 1901
I don’t suppose I was the first mother to wet my baby’s head with tears, and I won’t be the last. But I’m ashamed, still. Somehow, between us, we managed to love each other anyway. He seemed to arrive equipped to intercept the strange flows of my adoration, even when I couldn’t interpret them myself.
Highlight(yellow) – 3. Clovelly to Hartland Quay, February > Page 147 · Location 1961
at midday we are sitting on a picnic bench outside the green tea hut (now closed, this not being a changeover day), eating our sandwiches and letting our fingers travel southwards down the map. We estimate it’s an hour further to Hartland Quay, and that we’ll get even further than that, in this weather, with the path like this. ‘Welcombe Mouth, I reckon,’ says Beccy, and I agree, texting H to this effect, and cracking the first of many unsuitable jokes about this place name, with its delightful proximity to Lucky Hole.
Highlight(yellow) – 3. Clovelly to Hartland Quay, February > Page 148 · Location 1978
Fighting our way up to those high ridges is worth it just to watch, breathless, a waterfall crash down into churning waves. It feels as though you ought to earn a view like this, rather than drive up to it in your car. I can’t quite process the power or the splendour of it all. It’s an embarrassment of riches, almost too magical to be real.
Highlight(yellow) – 4. Hartland Quay to Morwenstow, February > Page 153 · Location 2033
The nothingness of the sea is what I came here for. It is empty, wide, rhythmic; it’s the ultimate antidote to the brash noise of people. Certainly, the sea is loud too, but it’s the sort of sound that has no meaning or sense, and therefore asks nothing of you. I spend my whole life turning down the TV, or asking H to nudge down the volume on his music, or asking Bert to mute his tablet as he plays a game. My own devices are eternally silent, and free, too, of vibrations or notifications. Mine is a fragile peace with the everyday world; I can live with it for as long as it doesn’t demand too much of me. Every scrap of noise –and I mean visual noise too, and the noise made by chaos and movement –drains me. Half an hour in a crowd or a noisy bar and I’m hollowed out entirely. But the noise of the sea is different; it nourishes me. It allows me to reset.
Highlight(yellow) – 4. Hartland Quay to Morwenstow, February > Page 160 · Location 2122
Eccentricity (meaning, literally, ‘not conforming to the centre’) is a gift, and the sea invites it.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. Chilham to Chartham, February > Page 163 · Location 2156
As for the tests, I have avoided them so far. They seem so blunt, so final, so absolute. I am worried that I will fail them, or that I will be so invested in getting the diagnosis that I’m convinced is right for me that I’ll throw the results. I suspect I’m a borderline case. After all, I’ve gone undetected so far. What happens if my expression of AS is too delicate to be picked up by the test, and I am left somehow stranded, being no longer able to explain myself? Because, whatever I am, this has been a comfort for the last couple of months. Knowing that I might have AS –believing it, the more I read –has made me feel like I might not be so bad after all.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. Chilham to Chartham, February > Page 164 · Location 2168
I should do more of this with Bert: become less obsessed with racking up miles and more amenable to meandering. I pass a deer leap, a ridge that allowed deer into the adjacent Godmersham Park so that they could be hunted, but didn’t allow them to retreat into the forest. I remember walking in this wood years ago, when suddenly a pack of roe deer –about a dozen of them –came thundering past, and disappeared into the trees. It strikes me that the difference between letting Bert run around here or at a soft-play centre lies in the sheer depth of information that’s contained in a wood. There’s history and memory and the biology of an entire life cycle all encoded in one space. There is no information at soft play; nothing other than flat, shining plastic. Outside, there is birdsong and the minute shifting of branches; there is tree bark and there are beetles; there is the odd glimpse of squirrel or rabbit. There are facts to be discussed and dreams to be had, and shared. Life –real life –has a texture, and an electric charge.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. Chilham to Chartham, February > Page 166 · Location 2201
I start with the Asperger’s Quotient (AQ) test, which is based on Simon Baron-Cohen’s Extreme Male Brain theory.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. Chilham to Chartham, February > Page 169 · Location 2234
The Ritvo Autism Asperger Diagnostic Scale is noted as both ‘reliable’ and ‘valid’ by Life on the Spectrum. I plough through its seventy questions, being more careful this time to ensure I’m not exaggerating the effects of my condition in any way. I far prefer this test.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. Chilham to Chartham, February > Page 170 · Location 2244
Reluctantly, I also take the Rdos Aspie Quiz, which is based on the Neanderthal Autism Theory, but which still, apparently, is thought to produce valid results.
Highlight(yellow) – 6. The White Cliffs of Dover, March > Page 171 · Location 2255
It is Mother’s Day. As a seasoned critic of forced levity, it will come as no surprise to know that this is possibly one of my least favourite days in the calendar, coming hot on the heels of Hallowe’en and New Year’s Eve. I always found it toxic as a daughter, loaded with the expectation of impossible-to-gauge emotional flourishes and expensive rituals that panicked me as an only child of a single parent. I vowed that, when I became a mother myself, I would continue to despise it. And, bar the first one, which was a novelty that bought me a pub lunch and a couple of glasses of wine, I have stayed true to my word. It’s a sticky, sentimental swamp in which I have no desire to engulf Bert.
Highlight(yellow) – 6. The White Cliffs of Dover, March > Page 171 · Location 2261
A gift –a surprise gift –has been hinted at, and apparently I will love it. I doubt this. I hate surprises. Surprises don’t give me enough time to find a response. Last Mother’s Day, he aced it and bought me a case of dry white wine, which I worked through dutifully over the coming weeks. Twelve bottles of white wine is not the kind of thing you refer to as a surprise; it’s more like a benevolent grocery shop. A surprise will, I fear, entail activity.
Highlight(yellow) – 7. Morwenstow to Widemouth Bay, March > Page 187 · Location 2470
friends continued to peel away from her, right to the end of her life. Yet people continued to adhere to her too; to find her electric and extraordinary. Friends, to Jean, were like a fuel that stoked her fire, and she burned them up accordingly.
Highlight(yellow) – 7. Morwenstow to Widemouth Bay, March > Page 192 · Location 2533
I inherited her need to eat through words, and her habit of asking for darkness and silence.
Highlight(yellow) – 8. Widemouth Bay to Mawgan Porth, March > Page 201 · Location 2655
‘You are a quitter,’ says Emma. ‘Always have been. It’s one of your endearing qualities. You know when to give up.’ ‘Like when I leave the last mouthful of dinner,’ I say. ‘I’ll never understand that. Never.’ We look down at the table, where I have left one-eighth of a flapjack.
Part Three: Outer Hope
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But this is the smallest thing that meditation has given me, really. It has left me with a sense, not of God, but of a current that flows through all things. Everything is strung together like fairy lights. If that electricity sometimes overpowers me, then it also often lights my way, and joins me to the rest of the world.
Highlight(yellow) – Page 210 · Location 2742
When I walk, a space opens up, and I can finally perceive the fine texture of my own life.
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Whitstable to Canterbury, May > Page 213 · Location 2774
Certainly, there have been many friends who have fallen by the wayside over the years, but isn’t that true of everybody? I know that I’m brash and opinionated, that I talk too fast. I know that I have no patience for small talk; that, as my mother always tells me, I don’t suffer fools gladly. She doesn’t mean that as a compliment; it’s an expression of exasperation that I heard throughout my teens, when it seemed like I’d never attach to anyone. ‘Why should I make an effort with the other kids?’ I would say. ‘We’ve got nothing in common.’ I went through this all over again when Bert was a baby and I attempted to fit in with the other mothers of infants, only to discover that they were engaged in an endless process of slimming, feeling guilty about falling off the wagon of their ridiculously self-denying diets, and systematically naming all the things they considered to be ‘lovely’, ‘nice’, or ‘really nice’. I find it hard to believe that people can content themselves with insubstantial things when there’s so much wonder in the world. I think I may be constitutionally unable to prioritise fitting in over saying what I think. I have no interest in milling about in little groups of people who all have the same views; to me, it becomes so close and precious that it starts to feel a lot like physical contact. My brain may be unable to store the contents of today’s diary (or, indeed, what time my weekly yoga class starts, or how much it costs to take part), but it is a receptacle for a dazzling array of facts and statistics and views. I don’t seem to have the same ability as others to filter. Even when I’m in a room of people with whom I broadly agree, I can’t resist appalling them by playing devil’s advocate, or compulsively pointing out the complexity of the situation. I find the alternative entirely uninteresting. Why should I be the one who changes? One of the features of autism is supposed to be the inability to read the feelings of others. In many ways, I think I have the opposite problem: I over-read other people’s feelings to the point that they choke me. But then, perhaps this is because I’ve learned to pay close attention. As a child, other people’s emotions seemed to come out of nowhere. There would suddenly be crying or hysterical laughter, and I would flounder, wondering how on earth we got here. I was equally poor at signalling back my own emotions to myself.
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Whitstable to Canterbury, May > Page 216 · Location 2820
It just doesn’t do, all this running away, all these difficult journeys to escape from real life. It doesn’t get me anywhere closer to coping with the mundane. I need to find a way to manage everyday life, rather than storing up the horrors until they spill over, and I have to run away.
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Whitstable to Canterbury, May > Page 217 · Location 2835
Within an hour, I’m deep into the woods, and there’s no point in turning back anymore. Soon, I’m walking through pine trees, and then farmland with enormous crates of apples stacked up around me. No one else is walking far here; only me. I feel like I’ve asserted another tiny piece of ownership: over the route, over my own life and its habits. It’s satisfyingly tiring. By the time I meet St Stephen’s Hill, with its steep descent into the city and cathedral views, my legs are tingling and my knees are hot. I pick up speed, almost skipping downhill. When I reach my work, I’m disappointed to find it quiet, because I want to tell everybody that I walked here, that it’s possible, that I carved out the time. I am joyfully, pristinely tired, just enough to merit a cold carton of Ribena and a baguette from the canteen. I feel as though I have conquered something that nobody knew was even there to be conquered. There is far more satisfaction in this than in completing a path that thousands of others have conquered. This is mine. This is my own little songline.
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Whitstable to Canterbury, May > Page 221 · Location 2885
We are in a dark room full of children and their parents, and things happening everywhere, and sudden flashes of light, and noises I can’t place. Bert is playing with a ball that rolls around and around a shiny bowl, before spinning, finally, around a hole in the bottom, rather like the striped charity collection boxes that encourage children to beg their parents for coins. Other kids keep throwing in balls that bump into Bert’s one, and disrupt its smooth orbit. He’s getting frustrated. So am I. It’s so loud in here, and the visual chaos. The visual chaos of the yellow balls banging into each other. The charge of Bert’s anger next to me. It’s too much. I leave him with H and go to the toilets, and think, Here I am, vanishing. I feel sick, desperate, on the edge of tears. It’s such a little thing, really; some noise; a few people. There’s no menace in it. The hand-dryer is going on and off next to my cubicle. They have got worse in recent years. I wish we could all revert to nice, quiet towels again. I can’t stay here. I walk back into the exhibition hall and scan the crowd. H, at six feet four, is usually easy to spot, but it’s loud and hot, and everything is moving, and so there might as well be a thick fog in the room. My attention is being pulled in so many different directions. I can’t see them. All right, I say to myself. They’re here. Concentrate. I steady myself, because I realise I’m swaying, just a little, in my anxiety. I look systematically through the room. I can’t make them out. I just can’t, and I never can. I’ve always struggled to recognise faces, but when there are so many of them at once, they might as well all be blank masks. I am not recognising my own son, I think, and try to swallow the shame of it. I have been through this before, every night when I collected Bert from nursery, and had to try to pick him out from twenty blonde-haired little boys, and usually couldn’t do it. I always wonder how long I got away with saying, ‘Oh there you are, right under my nose!’ before the nursery assistants cottoned on. I wonder what they thought of me. I wonder how long I have been standing still in the middle of this room, alone, staring all about me. I must move, before somebody notices. I stalk towards the middle of the room, the thick centre of the action. My face: my face is wrong now, I can feel it. It has fallen into its mask, when the muscles seem to set into slackness and I can’t corral it into a human expression. I blink, and try to regain control of it, but there’s too much going on around me. I cannot see them. If I could see them, I could tell them I am going.
Highlight(yellow) – 1. Whitstable to Canterbury, May > Page 223 · Location 2919
It feels as though I have two different selves; a desperate, animal self that emerges in chaos, and a calm, wise human who squints to recognise her twin. But isn’t that the nature of ASD? It’s a semaphore through a fairground mirror, where the signals get warped and mangled so that they’re sickening. A call-and-response that comes back disharmonious. A Chinese whisper between the speakers of two different languages. It’s an endless miscommunication between the world and me; between me and the world. For me, there are habits to be unlearned, and new ones to be acquired. I’m left with a strange sense of trying to understand something that’s invisible to me. I feel like I’m investigating a set of absences in my life, and trying to see them through the lens of other people’s half-remembered, half-perceived responses. It’s full of loss. It’s the end of my life story, the comforting, consistent one I’ve told myself so far. I’m unpicking it. I have to reset the seams again.
Highlight(yellow) – 2. Whitstable to Thornden Wood, May > Page 226 · Location 2937
To be fair, he also knows how much I love birds. This is not obvious from the outside; I am not given to spending my weekend on RSPB reserves, gazing out of hides with a pair of binoculars. That’s all a little too static for me. No, I enjoy random encounters with birds: the sparrow flitting from tree to tree in the garden; the starlings bathing in puddles on the beach. I’m fond of ordinary birds; birds you can build a relationship with. I was brought up with Mr and Mrs Blackbird in my grandparents’ back garden, and with the thrush that my grandma slowly trained to eat sultanas out of her hand. Those are the birds that matter to me, the ones that animate everyday life. I don’t want to have to go looking for them. I want them to find me. Look around you, any time you’re outside: the air is full of birds. There’s nothing exotic about them. Here in Whitstable, we have herring gulls nesting on the roof and there are always black-headed gulls riding the air above the beach, as if they’re suspended on hidden strings. There’s the occasional wagtail, or blue tit, or chaffinch. Nothing special, really. But the world seethes with them, and we barely even notice. We might remark on a kestrel hovering at the side of the motorway, or a buzzard soaring over farmland, but if that buzzard turns out to be a crow, we’re disappointed. We shouldn’t be. Birds –ordinary birds –give the world its full three dimensions. Without them, the air is a flat surface, an absence of matter. Birds populate that space, explore it. They fill it with song. They mark the dawn and the dusk for us, the first heat of spring and the last gasp of autumn. In return, we’re busy forgetting them. It has struck me over the last year that this is a loss we’re suffering as an entire society, a quiet recession of knowledge. We are losing the ability to name ordinary things. We have forgotten to notice birdsong, to the extent that we no longer hear it; and now, on the rare occasions we tune in to it, we can no longer identify the bird it comes from. We can no longer pick out the individual flowers in the tangle of greenery at the side of the road. We can no longer separate out the different trees in the wood. We are fascinated by exotic animals on Attenborough documentaries or prowling in compounds at the zoo; we can detail the life cycle of a penguin but know little about the robin or the wren. We seem to judge these domestic creatures too mundane to merit our detailed attention. They are too quiet; too brown. We have too many other opportunities elsewhere.
Highlight(yellow) – 2. Whitstable to Thornden Wood, May > Page 227 · Location 2961
we’re more conscious than ever of conservation, and of showing respect for animals in their natural habitats. When I was a child, there used to be a stack of boxes in the top of my mother’s wardrobe containing the blown-out eggs of dozens of bird species, all nestled on a bed of cotton wool. ‘I’m not sure it’s even legal to have them anymore,’ I remember her telling me. ‘I really ought to throw them out.’ The terrible truth is that, when my dad was building this collection as a boy, he was also building a relationship with an array of birds, and learning the detail of them. I am, of course, not suggesting that egg collecting is in any way a good idea. But we live in an age when we routinely warn children away from interaction with wild spaces –don’t disturb the rocks in rock pools; don’t take insects away from their natural habitats; don’t pick wild flowers –and that’s without our fear of letting them explore anywhere on their own. I am beginning to wonder whether a few more beetles in boxes, or sticklebacks in jam jars, or wild flowers pressed between the pages of books, wouldn’t rebuild our detailed relationship with our own wildlife. Too much careful respect has become complete separation.
Highlight(yellow) – 2. Whitstable to Thornden Wood, May > Page 230 · Location 3000
This part of the county is absolutely cross-hatched with footpaths. I choose one that takes me –somewhat anxiously –through the centre of Chestfield Golf Course. It’s marked on the Ordnance Survey, but I’m really not sure I’m allowed to be here. Won’t my heavy-soled boots ruin their grass? I brace myself to be shouted at, or questioned by some officious middle-aged man, but all I get are friendly smiles and waves from everyone I pass. It’s almost disappointing; I was thinking of waving my Ramblers Association membership card and asserting my right to roam.
Highlight(yellow) – 2. Whitstable to Thornden Wood, May > Page 232 · Location 3022
I used to think I liked contact with people. I used to think it stimulated me, revved me up, kept me sane. I now realise how crucial it is for me to be alone on a regular basis. I’m coming to see that I was drawn to people in the way that addicts are drawn to their poison. I find social contact abrasive, and that over-stimulates me, creating an adrenal charge that gets misread as pleasure. The comedown afterwards is diabolical. I’ve always told myself that my social life is a sign that I’m coping, but it’s actually the reverse. It’s a sign that I’m not looking after myself. It’s a sign that I don’t acknowledge what I need. I need to find a better way to live than this. I need to find a way to be straightforward with the world.
Highlight(yellow) – 2. Whitstable to Thornden Wood, May > Page 234 · Location 3046
When I took up walking, I accidentally found another way to meditate. The gifts are the same. My brain alights on the problems that walking throws up –finding my route, managing aching legs, hunger, thirst –and while my conscious self is otherwise occupied, other processes grind on quietly beneath. For the first few hours of a long walk, I’m brimming with new ideas and insights. After that, everything falls blissfully quiet, and I am empty. In that wide-open space, mountains can move. Without walking, I don’t think I would ever have realised what I am. I had never made room to realise it before. When I walk, I feel as though I acquire the compactness of one of those hawks, the same sense of focused sufficiency. I am lean like them; strong and continent. I am able to draw my wings around myself, and to stare past the fussy surface of this world.
Highlight(yellow) – 3. London to Canterbury, May > Page 241 · Location 3142
This is the landscape that Samuel Palmer drew in the 1820s, when he was barely out of his teens. After meeting William Blake and becoming a true disciple of his work, Palmer would walk the twenty-five miles from London overnight, into the west Kent landscape that, for him, encapsulated the wonder of creation. After a while, he moved to Shoreham, not far from Eynsford, and in a few short years produced the most extraordinary paintings of his life. In ink and sepia wash, we see a landscape that has been crafted by a benevolent artisan, in which buildings rise like cottage loaves and oak trees seem to reveal the imprint of the hand that set them in place. The Weald is populated by stolid labourers harvesting stout wheatsheaves, often under moonlit skies. They gaze dreamily at the celestial bodies above them, as if staring through time. It is impossible to see them without believing, even if just for a while, that all of creation is here in Kent, and that everything is just as it ought to be. Few of them survive, because they were so hated by the art world of the time, which had previously believed Palmer to be a prodigy, the next Turner. He took to only showing his work to friends, and many of his drawings and sketchbooks were later destroyed by his son, who thought they were valueless. His later work became more conventional, but still offered views of the sublime. In Clovelly, Palmer was one of the first to see the beauty of perilous crags of coastline and trees mutated by prevailing winds. He died poor and forgotten. His work was rediscovered in the early twentieth century, long after his death, and there, suddenly, his vision of the world began to fit. Until then, he was simply a man who could plainly see things that other people could not –or would not –perceive.
Highlight(yellow) – 3. London to Canterbury, May > Page 246 · Location 3207
We drive down the M20 to Hythe, so that I can teeter unsteadily around their famous ossuary in the crypt of St Leonard’s Church, with its shelves of numbered skulls whose original identity was lost long ago. We are delighted by them, Bert and I; we are both morbidly curious about the stark mechanics of living things. H jokes that I prefer the skulls to living people: silent, plain, comprehensible. No, no, I say. I’m pretty fond of the living, too. In moderation. I can match my pace to theirs most of the time. I think about the Harris hawk, as I often do lately. I like to imagine her sitting on my arm, showing me how to channel my over-eager senses into an alert poise. There’s a term for a raptor raised by humans: an imprint. It may not recognise its community with other birds, and they, in turn, may not recognise it as one of them. The imprint is often dependent on humans for its basic functions, and can be tame enough, but it can also be needy and demanding, tending towards squawking aggression. Other birds are raised to retain their wildness, and yet are still persuaded to come back to human company through careful management. There is always the risk that you will lose these birds altogether, of course, but that’s the risk you take for contact with the wild. I’ve come to see myself as an imprint who is learning my wildness again. I don’t know if I’ll ever shake my unnatural compulsion to behave like other humans; but sometimes, I think I’m grateful for my mimicry.
Highlight(yellow) – 4. The South Hams of Devon, June > Page 253 · Location 3291
Every night, beach-worn, Bert curls up in bed next to me, and I often wake to find two bright eyes on me, just savouring the glee of being close. He strokes my face and whispers, ‘I love you, Mummy,’ and then wriggles his little body nearer, insinuating himself under my chin. And I realise, quite unexpectedly, that Bert is the only person in my life whose electricity exactly matches my own, whose touch is as native to my skin as air or water. There was a time when I couldn’t bear this, when I wanted to be separate from him. That has passed. We have negotiated, between us, some kind of balance. I admire his patience with me, his willingness to adapt. But then I admire, too, my own adaptations. I begin to believe that I’m not so terrible after all.
Highlight(yellow) – 4. The South Hams of Devon, June > Page 255 · Location 3318
A whole universe is there, between one side of the road and the other.
Highlight(yellow) – 4. The South Hams of Devon, June > Page 255 · Location 3319
One of the theories of what makes a brain autistic is that people with ASD perceive the world in far more detail than everyone else.
Highlight(yellow) – 4. The South Hams of Devon, June > Page 256 · Location 3331
Detail has nuance; detail has application. Not all detail is iterative, blunt, competitive.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. The far tip of Cornwall by road, July > Page 262 · Location 3412
Parenting alone is an anxiety-ridden process. There is a terrible moment when the waves knock him off his feet, and I rush out to grab him, but he has absolutely no sense of the seriousness of the whole thing. I suppose that’s lucky; I suppose I don’t want him to be afraid. But I feel afraid, all alone, between the chaos of him and the chaos of the sea. I want to move on. This takes some persuasion, but eventually we’re back in the car, and I feel steady again. I am a little overwhelmed, but having him strapped into his car seat makes me feel safe again. I know exactly where he is, and I’m not juggling bags. The problem is that the far tip of Cornwall is surprisingly small, and so we’re not in the car nearly long enough. We stop at Zennor, and I can’t face getting him all the way down to the cove and back up again, so I take him to a cafe and watch him demolish a brownie while we talk, vaguely, about a mermaid.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. The far tip of Cornwall by road, July > Page 265 · Location 3448
What on earth does it signify to seek a label as weighed down as autistic when I’m nearly forty? After all, I want nothing from it. I’m not seeking benefits or concessions or any special treatment at work. I’m not looking for medication, or a cure. I’m not craving membership of any special club. Perhaps I am hoping to excuse myself. Perhaps I’m hoping that people will love me a tiny bit more for knowing that I can’t help it, that I’ll never be able to access the easy patience that I see in everyone else. Perhaps I’m hoping for a better life story, a coherent, tidy narrative arc that finally draws my scattergun life together into a kind of sense. I sometimes feel as though I’m asking for a privilege, to be allowed to say that I’ve watched my friends sail past me into competent adulthood, while I’ve stuttered and stalled, but that it’s not my fault. It’s beguiling to think that I could shake it all off that easily.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. The far tip of Cornwall by road, July > Page 267 · Location 3471
Why on earth would a happy, healthy, functioning person feel the pull of a neurological ‘disorder’ (don’t forget that ‘D’ in ASD), when really I should be running as fast as I can to escape its event horizon? Why on earth wouldn’t I want to accentuate the positive, and push the dysfunctional parts of myself as far away from human view as possible? Well, here’s the thing. When you have spent your entire life so far –childhood and adulthood –feeling as though you’re continually circling the plug hole of not coping, you end up wanting to make sense of it. It really isn’t so hard to understand. When you’ve made multiple attempts to pull yourself together, and to tamp down your own experience of the world, but it’s still painfully evident that you’re different from the people around you; when that difference, or the process of trying to ignore it, frequently makes you sick; when you realise it will probably shorten your life because you drink too much to cope, or your blood pressure runs high, or you wonder how many more times you can withstand the feeling of crashing out of the mainstream world and falling through the cracks; then you might just begin to think that it would be convenient to name the thing that’s made everything so bloody hard. That’s all. It’s not actually that strange an instinct at all. Right at the beginning of this journey, when I was driving in my car at night, listening to a woman on the radio tell out my experience of the world, I remember her saying that she felt definite commonality with people at the outermost reaches of the autistic spectrum. I wondered if I ever could, too, and I think, on balance, I do. I understand the way that the sensory world can scream at you so loud that you want to retreat; I understand the flashes of aggression that come from the threat it brings; I understand what it’s like to inhabit a body that simply stops responding when it reaches its point of overwhelm. But at the same time, I realise I’m profoundly different. My bridge to the outside world is steadier, I think; I have the good fortune of an above-average IQ and a set of sensory experiences that are bearable. I could not, in all conscience, call myself disabled. I realise that other people like me do. I suppose I feel lucky, after all, to have gone for so long under the radar. I learned my life skills in the most brutal way possible, but I’m proud of them. They are worth it, on balance. They have given me so much. The truth is that the label of ASD helps me to make a better account of myself, and to finally find a mirror in which I can recognise my own face. I’m proud of it, actually. It has given me many gifts. But, equally, taking on that label is the only way that I can remind other people of the spectrum of wonderful difference on which we all sit. Sometimes, a label is the only way of parlaying some compassion out of the world.
Highlight(yellow) – 5. The far tip of Cornwall by road, July > Page 269 · Location 3496
he spies a river winding through the beach towards the sea, and before I know it, he has stripped down to his pants and T-shirt and is wading in. He crafts little boats out of twigs, grass and feathers, and shoots imaginary laser guns at the swallows as they dip down to drink. ‘Shall we go across the causeway and see the castle?’ I ask, in the most exciting voice I can muster. (‘ Shall we go to the causeway and see the CASTLE!!!?’) ‘No,’ he says definitively. My landmarks are not his landmarks. I realise, bitterly, that he’s actually being terribly picturesque, even if it runs contrary to my plans. Several times this weekend, my brain has ached for the chance to disengage and sink into my own, internal world, and now I realise that he’s needed a similar thing. His mind diverts naturally into play. I’m entirely irrelevant. I talk to him about the gulls washing the salt off their wings in the fresh water, and he replies in boats, sails, captains and anchors. He’s taken a lurch into imagination that is so absolute I can’t break through. I sit on the bank beside him and watch him wade through the water, making a tiny universe around him. I’ve spent a year trying to learn to feel the wonder that comes so naturally to him. It’s like he exists on a different scale from me, an entirely new level of detail. When we’re finally allowed to leave, he says goodbye to every single ant in turn, regrets the loss of every blade of grass.