Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hello in there


Walking through the parking lot of Whole Foods today, I was startled to see a woman in full chador loading groceries into an SUV. I live in rust-belt middle America, land of empty factories and declining populations. It's not exactly a mecca (!!) for international travelers. Here and there, you see women who wear head scarves, but that's all. So this woman, covered head-to-toe in flowing black robes, with only her eyes showing, really stood out. I wanted to stare, and I wanted to NOT stare, so what I did instead was glance at her and look quickly away. Which isn't an awful thing to do. The thing is, I know better.

I know better, because I have a daughter who is different from most of the world. My twelve-year-old is autistic. She's not "Rain Man" autistic - the shut down, affectless, savant. She's exuberant and affectionate, but has motor problems that make it hard for her to control all her muscles- eyes, tongue, arms, everything - and she has trouble seeing/focusing, talking, and performing simple tasks like tying her shoe. So, though she's also tall, pretty, happy, loving, and bright, her autism makes it so that those things are not what most people see and remember about her. It's like her Chador, hiding her true self from the world. I hate it when people stare at her, and I react in different ways to it depending on who's doing the staring. Sometimes, if it's a kid, I talk to them in a friendly way. Sometimes if it's an adult who is being excessively rude and should know better, I meet their eyes in a challenging way as if to say, 'What the hell are you staring at?' In other situations, I simply smile, to make us all remember that we're human.

It's not that I mind the looking, per se. She is different. I know that. And because we choose to take her with us anywhere we think she might have fun, rather than only keeping to places her differences will be accepted, she is out and about in the wide world having fun and getting stared at. So I don't mind if people look, or even if they look longer than is typically socially acceptable as they try to figure out just why this girl seems different. But what I truly wish for is that, while they're looking at my sweet baby, the challenge and light of my life, they'd smile. That's all. Look in her pretty brown eyes and smile. Which I didn't manage to do today, in the parking lot of Whole Foods, to the woman in her full chador. And as I walked away, after it was too late, I was mad at myself for not automatically doing unto others as I wish they would to unto me and mine. I'll keep trying, though, and maybe next time I'll get to that smile, the one that says, " the light in me honors the light in you."

19 comments:

sageweb said...

I am sitting here with my neighbor, I had her come over so I could read your post to her. She is a teacher of autistic kids. (middle school) One of the more difficult parts of the week is when they go to the local shopping center with the kids. Its not the kids that are difficult it is the looks that people give the kids. Just like you said she could so relate. She would love to see a smile from time to time. She thought and so did I, what you wrote was wonderful and truthful. It definitely will make me think twice before I inadvertently glance away before someone different then me, catches mine.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks sweetie. And it means a lot to me that you shared it with your neighbor, someone who knows exactly what I'm talking about. I think it's a challenge for all of us, learning to see beyond difference.

D-Man said...

I try so hard to do that very thing - not to blatantly stare, and conversely not to just look away. I imagine that being ignored can hurt just as much.

Elizabeth said...

d-man: What you do, what I did today, the glance away, ignoring, is OK, and certainly preferable to the rude stares we sometimes encounter. It just surprised me that, as the mother of a very different child, I couldn't manage my own responses better. Made me feel humble and actually more understanding of the less than perfect reactions my girl sometimes gets.

more cowbell said...

"It's like her Chador, hiding her true self from the world." That line alone ... wow. I like how you tied the 2 situations together. The idea to just smile, it's so simple. Thanks for sharing that.

JB said...

A smile can have a lot of impact. I try to smile as much as I can. Beautiful post, one we can relate to many things!

Elizabeth said...

Jb: Thank you, and a smile is always a good place to start..

jason said...

Thank you Elizabeth, I've learned something today!

I *will* smile.

yellowdog granny said...

I stare and smile at all kids, of all ages, sizes,color, handicapped, special or not..as they are all special to me in my eyes..I'm one of those lucky people that just happen to be crazy about kids..i love them all, and thank the Goddess, they love me too...kids, dogs and old men...kisses to your daughter..

Elizabeth said...

Jason: i'm touched and honored.

Granny: me too. My husband decided we had to stop at four kids. Me, I would have gone for a dozen or so!
And the beautiful thing about kids is that if you love them they love you right back, without reservation.
Thanks for the kisses to my girl. She's a snuggle bunny.

D-Man said...

(Oh, and I forgot to tell you - the pic at the bottom of the following post is for you!)

http://outinthemiddleofidaho.blogspot.com/2008/01/some-lazy-winter-pics.html

Elizabeth said...

d-man: YOU ARE SO SWEET!!!!!

SubtleKnife said...

I had a very similar experience recently. I was walking along the train platform, waiting for the train before mine to take off. As I glanced towards one of the still-open doors I noticed a woman in a niqab. There are plenty of women over here wearing headscarves, I've worked with several, and I never thought I'd react so strongly to it, but I did. It was almost disorienting and I did have to force myself to look away within a normal timespan. I think I managed to keep the friendly/mildly amused/Mona Lisa-esque smile (the one I use as my veil because half the time I'm not really there anyway) on my face.

It's natural, some of the greatest art consists of intentionally throwing us off by making impossible combinations or showing something that shouldn't be there.

It's easy to say that from thousands of miles away and from behind my computer, but I'm pretty sure I would smile at your daughter. And at you. It wouldn't be a smile of pity, as I'm sometimes afraid it would be interpreted.

If I may ask you a question. I have a very good friend, who loves to brag about my intelligence to others (much to my embarrasment). One of the things he likes to say is that I'm "Rain Man smart" or "autistic smart" or "a savant". How would you feel about that if you heard it?

Elizabeth said...

subtle knife: I wrote a long (and I hope thoughtful) response to this last night. And apparently it didn't go through. How frustrating. I'll try again.

First, I love your Idea that we all wear veils of our own to hide us from the world. I think encountering difference often pulls those veils aside momentarily.... I love that you would smile at me and my daughter, or others like us, and it would never occur to me to take it as pity. Pity doesn't smile. So smile away.

As for your friend, well, he seems to mean it in a complimentary way, but it does sort of present you as freakish. (The classic savant is extremely intelligent in some areas, much less so in others.) How does it make you feel? One thing you could do which would neither denigrate autism nor your friend would be to say something humorous like, "Oh, I'd be lucky to be THAT smart!"

Susan at One-Woman Show said...

As everyone else has already commented, sometimes people look away (or stare) because they just don't know what to do; in some cases, they don't want their reaction to be taken the wrong way. From now on, though, I'll know it's "okay" to smile. How strange I could think that something so simple and honest should be something to shy away from.

What a wonderful post.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks. I think it's always a good place to start. Hard to mind being smiled at, right?

Terry said...

Wow. What a super post. You took my breath away.

If I saw a woman in full chador, my first instinct would be not to stare. Your instinct was to smile at her.

Like Jason, I learned something from you today.

Elizabeth said...

Terry: Thanks for stopping by. Glad you liked it. And I hope that by thinking out loud, as I do here, I'll be able to respond more quickly and better next time.

mumbliss said...

This is hard. I think I cannot write to this here and now, but I need to see and/or talk to you with sound and vibration soon, maybe even sight and hugs. Love to you E-beth, and to Kirk and to your beautiful babies. XXXOOO