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.
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.
My introduction to the world of “special needs” children began when Sawyer was three and his preschool teacher told us we might want to have someone from the state have a look at him. A month later my wife and I found ourselves at a table with a group of experts who gently explained to us all that was wrong with Sawyer: He talked to himself instead of other children; he did not respond when his name was called; he spent too much time pretending. On and on.
It was disorienting and disheartening for a number of reasons, perhaps the most profound of which was that all of this attention was focused solely on his behavior. It was perfectly understandable that the experts should do this. Sawyer’s behavior was what teachers and children had to deal with. His behavior was his link to the outside world, his contribution to the life we were all creating. What else was there to consider but his behavior?
Yet all I could think at the time was who among us at this table would want his or her behavior put under such scrutiny? Who at the table of adults who would never be called autistic believed that such scrutiny could tell the whole story of who we were? I recalled a day several years before when I’d brought a friend of mine to the hospital so she could have some stitches removed. While I waited in the lobby, an older gentleman stomped through the sliding doors.
“I’m here to see Lisa,” he told the receptionist. “But I have to tell you I am not happy.”
“I’ll let Lisa know you’re here.”
“The parking in this place is atrocious!” continued the gentleman. “I mean it’s really awful. It’s like you people don’t care at all about where we’re supposed to park. I must have circled for fifteen minutes. That is really atrocious. If you people cared it seems to me you might actually do something about this.”
Lisa soon arrived and shook his hand, but the gentleman wasn’t done. He started in again about the atrocious parking, and how difficult it was for him, and how long he had to look. He wanted to know what brain-dead numbskull dreamt up this scheme. Lisa, meanwhile, nodded and listened, nodded and listened.
By this time, I had concluded this man was a jerk. I can’t stand guys like this, I thought. What’s wrong with him that he has to make everyone’s life miserable just because he couldn’t find a stupid parking space? Welcome to life in the big city, buster. And how can this Lisa woman bear it? Look how patient she is. How does she do it? She must be a saint.
The gentleman’s tirade finally ran out of steam. Lisa nodded once more and touched his arm, “Okay then. Are you ready to start your chemo?”
“Yes,” said the gentleman, and followed her quietly into the hospital.
The biggest difference between three year-old Sawyer and the seventy year-old gentleman was that Sawyer could not yet tell us the story behind his behavior. And so we were left only with our imaginations and need for him to act normally. That is a potent recipe for misguided assistance. I still think of Lisa form time to time and her patient expression while she waited out the storm of the old gentleman’s complaint. What is a saint but someone who knows the story of who we really are and can see through the veil of our behavior? That is the light in which the lie of sin dissolves and we return to who we are.
When we were still young parents, my wife would take our oldest son, Max, to a park near our apartment. One afternoon, Jen arrived at the park to find an older woman overseeing two young girls playing on the swings and slides. Jen set Max free, and settled in on a bench near the woman.
“This one is yours, yes?” the woman asked in a Russian accent.
“He’s my first, yes.”
“I am nanny for these two.”
The Russian nanny shrugged. “I have been nanny many years, with many children. These are good girls, but . . .” She pointed to the one sister at the top of the slide. “This one here is smart. Very quick. But this one . . .” She pointed to the other sister playing in the sand near Max. “She is not smart at all. You talk and she doesn’t listen. She just doesn’t listen.” She shook her head with Old World authority. “She is the stupid one.”
Jen tried gently negotiating with the Russian nanny, offering that maybe the girl was a bit of daydreamer and that sometimes daydreamers got lost in their own imaginations, but the nanny would have none of it. She’d been a nanny all her life, in two countries. She knew children. She had no illusions. There were smart children and dumb children, and this one, the one who simply wouldn’t listen to her, was a dumb one.
A few weeks later Jen was back at the park and there were the two sisters, but instead of the nanny a weary and worried looking woman who could only be the girls’ mother. Jen asked about the nanny. “We had to let her go,” explained the mother.
“I see,” said Jen, trying not to sound too relieved. No mother wants to be told she had hired the wrong woman to take care of her children.
“We’d been noticing something odd with Ally, our youngest,” the mother continued. “She just wasn’t responding in the way her older sister would. It just wasn’t right. So we finally took her in and had her tested and . . .” The mother shook her head. “She’s deaf.”
Jen spent the afternoon consoling this woman who had that raw quality parents acquire for a time after they learn this sort of news. This was still a year before Sawyer was born, and several years before we would begin receiving news like this mother had received. I would think of that Russian nanny from time to time once our world was overrun with doctors and therapists and tests. Her mistake, it occurred to me, was not calling the girl stupid, but simply believing stupid people existed. It was an easy mistake to make, one I made over and over again. How easy it was to believe it was the world that needed fixing, not simply the stories I was telling about it.
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.