On July 1 first I’ll be teaching a No One Is Broken class at East West Bookshop in Seattle, WA. This will be the first time I’ll officially teach this class, although I feel as if I’ve been teaching it for years. There isn’t a class or a workshop I’ve taught or a lecture I’ve given that hasn’t included stories about Sawyer and me. Ostensibly, these classes, workshops, and lectures have been for writers who wanted to become better writers, but I often find myself wondering what these students have really come to learn.
I am reminded of something the novelist Deb Caletti said during our first interview. Writers often fall into two different camps: those who can outline, and those who absolutely can’t. Deb is one of the latter. “I don’t know how I’d teach writing,” she confessed. “For me, it’s kind of like just going down the rabbit hole.” Deb writes without much of a plan, you see. She has something she’s interested in and she follows it. If she’s authentically interested, that interest leads her deep into that rabbit hole.
The rabbit hole has been given many names. Some call it simply the imagination, others the flow, or the zone, or the vortex. But I do like the rabbit hole, for when you enter it fully you feel very much as if you’ve followed a white rabbit into an alternate reality. Most writers I know prefer that reality to the one in which they must otherwise live.
And for good reason. When you’re deep down in the rabbit hole, you forget to regret the past or worry about the future, you forget about fear, and you forget about effort. In the rabbit hole, there is only the next interesting thought and the next interesting thought and the next interesting thought. In the rabbit hole, the only right is what belongs in the story and the only wrong is what does not belong in the story. In the rabbit hole, there is no judgment, no comparison, no failure and no success even. The rabbit hole is all success.
When I teach writing, I am really teaching my students to believe in the rabbit hole. The laws of the rabbit hole seem to contradict the physical and emotional laws of the world we all get about in every day. Many of my students have worked very hard all their adult life to learn the rules of the world so they might have something resembling success there. In my classes, I ask them to forget all those rules, and follow the white rabbit of their unique curiosity.
This is exactly what I’ll be teaching next week in my No One Is Broken class. There are no broken people in the rabbit hole. Only physical things can break, and in this alternate reality my wholeness is known as what I love is known. In fact, in this reality my wholeness and love are one and the same.
I much prefer this alternate reality, but I must believe in it to live there. It is easy enough to disbelieve it, and then, as quick as a thought, the world is filled with broken people once again. They’re everywhere, including the mirror. Now, all I want to do is fix the world and everyone in it. An impossible task that, and exhausting too, and somewhere in my fatigue, after all my fixing has led to nothing, I glimpse a tuft white hair, and it’s moving quick, and now I’m up and I’m after it.
If you’re in the Seattle area, and you’d like to attend the class, you can sign up here.
The essays I publish here could best be described as a spiritual view of what we call Autism. I am still somewhat uneasy with the word spiritual because of the many contradictory connotations surrounding it, but it remains the most accurate destination for what I wish to share. I have come to understand all spiritual teaching – whether in this space, or the books published by Hay House or New World Library, or in the Bible, or even from a particularly compassionate bartender – as an attempt to direct one’s attention to our unconditional wellbeing.
I spent most of my life being bounced around by conditions. I was bounced around by whether girls liked me or not, by rejection and acceptance letters, by my bank account, politics, sports, the weather. There are a lot of conditions and each one, it seemed, had the potential to make or break my day. And sometimes I made up the conditions. I would lie in my bed at night imagining a future where a trail of failure and bad luck led me to a wasteland from which there was no return.
About the time Sawyer came along and began to be observed and tested I started wondering if it had ever been the conditions that bounced me around. To see your son being observed can be a disorienting experience. As his father, my job had been to love him. Within love there is no right and wrong; there is only love. But I knew the experts observing him were noting what he had done right and what he done wrong on their little clipboards.
I did not like all this note taking they were doing, but was this not how the world worked? Was there not right and wrong all about me, and had I not lived my life naming this thing right and that thing wrong? Why should my little boy be spared the knife of good and bad? Because I loved him? How irresponsible to let a thing like love blind me to all that was wrong and prevent me from fixing it.
Fortunately, children teach adults far more than adults teach children. In his own way, Sawyer – like every child with every parent – asked me every day, “Which do you believe in more: Love, or right and wrong?” There was only one answer, of course, but oh how terrifying it seemed sometimes. How am I to protect myself from what is wrong unless I name it? How am I to stay safe from my enemies if I do not recognize them?
Sometimes choosing to love unconditionally feels like the last choice I’ll ever make. It as if I am lowering my shield, and only in that vulnerable moment will I learn the truth about the world. As soon as I lower it, however, I realize I would choose death over lugging that heavy shield about. I did not come here just to spend my days dodging and parrying blows. If life is not love then let it end, and if it is then let it be the only eyes through I see the world.
As I have mentioned before, the one thing my wife and I really did with Sawyer early on was to “join” him. Joining is the practice of doing exactly what the child is doing- the idea being that instead of asking Sawyer to stop humming and flapping and beating his chest and join us, we would join him by running and flapping and humming. The effects were immediate: Sawyer went from having five timeouts a day at school to one a week. Yet all we had done was to tell him, in the best language available, that he wasn’t wrong. At the time, it seemed like a small thing. It wasn’t a small thing.
I was talking to Sawyer last week as he worked on an essay that would be a kind of culminating project for this school year. Writing challenges our ideas of write and wrong. The author must decide word-by-word what is right and what is wrong. The answer lies entirely within him; no one can actually tell him if what he has chosen is right or wrong because what he is trying to express exists in a realm beyond anyone else’s perception.
For this reason, writing can be painstaking for Sawyer. He’s expressed how much he wants to write, but when confronted with the blank page his mind jumps to anything other than what he had set out to write. As he struggled to bring his attention to the essay, he talked about school. Sawyer has very strong ideas about school. If asked, he will tell you how the education system is broken, that the kids are treated like cattle, that their intelligence is not respected, that the schools are underfunded and old fashioned. On this day, he began his usual rant, but petered out on it quickly. He looked down at the half-written essay and sighed. “I was always wrong,” he said. “Everything I did was wrong.”
He meant not just the answers he gave in class, but his impulses to soothe himself. At that time he had a limited vocabulary of solutions to the problem of feeling uncomfortable. His best solution was to retreat within himself where he could focus on what he wanted to instead of what he was told to. But, in the world of school and – I must admit – his world at home, this was often called the “wrong” choice. How do you function if your strongest impulse is considered wrong? Where do you look to feel right?
It is simply impossible for me to feel safe and comfortable in the world while simultaneously distrusting my own impulses. When I distrust the silent guidance that helps me choose words and careers and friends I am instantly lost. I have no idea what is right and wrong anymore and I too want to retreat to an island within where nothing can be wrong. Sometimes, however, I do not understand my own impulses, and my translations are awkward and rarely fit easily into the world.
It is as at these times that I most tempted to call myself wrong, and to curse that impulse for it’s wayward guidance. But the guidance is never wrong – not for me, not for Sawyer, not for anyone. It just sometimes asks me to go where I do not believe I am ready to go, or to say what I do not believe I am ready to say. The impulse frequently contradicts a story I believe the world is telling me about good and evil, about love and talent and poverty and wealth and fame and peace. What am I to believe at these crossroads? Obey the impulse and risk being called wrong by others, or disobey it, and know that I will have wronged myself?
This blog and coming book are called No One Is Broken but they could just as easily be called Nothing Is Broken. It is really impossible for the first to be true and not the second. After all, the natural world isn’t broken. The natural world is not in argument with itself. Animals may kill one another, but this is the natural world consuming itself in order to create more of itself. Likewise, a desert is not a broken ocean, and an erupting volcano is not a misbehaving mountain. The natural world is doing exactly what it is meant to do, just as not one thing in this universe is meant to remain exactly the same forever, not even the stars.
But then we have people. We are also a part of the natural world, but with one powerful addition: an imagination. I love my imagination, I love using it, strengthening it, delighting in it, and yet it is also the source of all my suffering. It is through my imagination that I worry about the future and through my imagination that I relive some old grievance from the past. And it is my imagination that looks at someone’s behavior, even my son’s, and in a heartbeat concocts a story of a lifetime of failure and shame if that behavior never changes even though everything in the universe is perpetually changing.
It is the imagination, in short, that paints a picture of a broken world. I do not mean to demonize our imagination, however. It is an entirely loyal servant. If I casually ask myself, “What if Sawyer never changes?” then my loyal imagination will dutifully show me a dystopia where all is ruin. Interestingly, it was Sawyer’s relationship to his imagination that started this little journey. He could focus on the stories he was telling himself so intensely that we could not get his attention. I told him once that it was as if he had a superpower, and that it his job to learn to master it so it wasn’t mastering him.
But we all have this same superpower. When I see a broken world, I am really seeing a story I am telling myself. If I do not recognize it as a story, then I will try to fix that world. This is what I often found myself doing with Sawyer early on. Fixing problems that don’t exist only creates more problems that don’t exist that need more fixing. It is an endless and exhausting and cycle.
Sawyer taught me to question what I was calling reality. If no one is broken, I eventually asked myself, and if I am seeing a broken person, I must be seeing that person inaccurately. If no one is broken, if nothing is broken, what am I actually seeing that I am calling broken? Now my loyal imagination shows me another world. My imagination is capable of showing me as many worlds as I have questions. It doesn’t care; it doesn’t judge. It is happy to provide whatever I ask for.
I know that if you are reading this you are probably an adult. I know an adult is supposed to be responsible and realistic. I know the children for whom you feel responsible can toddle about in their pretend worlds, but you must contend with life at is actually is. You’re the one paying the bills and cooking the meals and voting for presidents. But if you want to be really responsible, begin with your imagination. Use it responsibly. Ask it to show you the world you want to live in, and you may discover that you already do.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.