My older son started a new school in May. This was a difficult decision, changing schools so late in the year, but one we made quite deliberately in navigating the New York City school system and the emerging needs of our own child. With some trepidation, we had sought a new apartment, trucking our boxes and boxes of books, all the detritus of our lives and ourselves, a few blocks to make our school choice attainable. And yet, our move did not accomplish this with certainty. Were the school to fill up, we might not gain a spot for September. By enrolling our son before the end of the current school year, we ensured his placement for the coming one.
A few days before our son would begin in his new classroom, registration successfully completed, my husband answered a knock at the door. In the boys’ room, I heard nothing, save the hum of the white-noise machine, the shifts of my sons’ voices and the tune of the lullaby I sang them in the dark, the blue-hued nightlight only faintly aglow atop the dresser in the corner.
My younger one raised a ruckus, revving up his engine in those final minutes before bed, as I tucked in my elder, his eyes already heavy with sleep. The little one, for reasons of convenience, still slept in a crib, which he deftly climbed in and out of more quickly than any adult could shift him. Our stories done, he did not want to give over to stillness, though his sleep is angelic and deep once he finally capitulates. My five-year-old already snug beneath his duvet, I chastised his three-year-old brother in the almost-dark, when the door opened, casting light and strangeness into the bed-ready room.
My husband stood behind a woman, her small frame partially blocking the light of the living room pursuing them down the short stretch of dark hall. I straightened myself from my angel-hellion, resisting the inevitable by prostrating himself on the floor near his brother’s bed, and moved to the doorway, maternal instinct prepared to block the passageway. I felt immediately a sense of intrusion, combined with confusion and concern. We were in a strange new land if a stranger could stand in the doorway at bedtime, breaking our darkened solitude. A mother and her children at bedtime (even with one child protesting, a brief and futile act) are like one being, their bodies attuned, drifting again closer to each other as sleep approaches. This is how I feel; quite likely it is similar for fathers, even for grandparents, I don’t know. And yet, when I think about the sensations of this time of day, a last act of active parenting for the evening—one which I often think I will hand off to their father, but then usually do not, for there is something precious about this synchronized slowing down—I think of the feeling of having them again within my body, a visceral memory, an irrecoverable experience, and yet simultaneously an experience that flashes back with surprising, erratic regularity.
And here stood this woman, diminutive, a smile on her face, who I could not help thinking of as some kind of dangerous trickster. Her teeth were embattled, several missing, and the smile seemed misplaced. Not for want of the departed teeth, but in the context of her visit. She had arrived to make sure my children—specifically my oldest son—was indeed sleeping in his bed, at this new address, which we had so boldly moved into, a financial stretch, and apparently one of chutzpah as well. My husband seemed oddly congenial, I noted through my slow-moving brain, my mind still trapped in the world of my children’s soon-to-sleep bodies. When he offered to turn on the light, my body recoiled, inside, and yet externally I remained strangely submissive. Watchful, I tried to find the rabbit hole we must have fallen down, and I wondered was this Kafka, Beckett, or Grimms? Without thinking, my mind retrieved the sensations, though not all the stories, and not all the sense, of the German fairy tales my father read so mesmerizingly to my sister and me as children; he the expert on Märchen, masks and doubles, on different ways of seeing disruption and danger, though not able to deter it for himself.
I scanned my brain for what story had taken over my boys’ room. Where was the paradigm, the literary map that would help me figure out how to behave, what to believe, and how to comprehend whether an intrusion into sleepy-time entailed some primitive danger? It did not. And yet something else lurked, an unease, confusion and reversals of a different sort.
When I think about my son’s aversion to the written word (see “Mysteries of childhood—avid reader, cannot read”), to interpreting, scanning, imbibing written information himself (is it temporary? is something deeper, more complex going on?), I am looking for a map too, encountering a new danger, still unsure of its reality. Another rabbit hole. It was unexpected, only gradually visible, and yet I had already fallen in. He loves stories, loves to hear new information; even when I am speaking, telling him about something we have done in the past or might do in the future. If I pause, he rushes in, the expression on his face intent, urgent: “Read to me,” he says. His desire is intense and real, but reading is auditory, for him, not visual. Even speaking is “reading.” His trajectory is, will be, atypical. I have come this far. And now, barely understanding this (something unimaginable a few years earlier), what might that trajectory be?
We don’t worry about things that we can’t imagine happening. An unexpected door opens and gradually a new landscape is revealed. I consider this more frequently of late; one new piece of information holds the power to herald another. Knowledge and understanding deepen our comprehension of the world, of others in it. Yet new experiences and new information are not always immediately welcome. We must process them and incorporate them into what we already know, into memory, into fact. Memories, and facts and events, accrue to each other. Dr. Michael J. Kahana, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, is cited in a recent New York Times article, “The Then and Now of Memory,” by Benedict Carey, where Dr. Kahana notes,
“When you activate one memory, you are reactivating a little bit of what was happening around the time the memory was formed…and this process is what gives you that feeling of time traveling.”
Benedict Carey explains,
“The new study [in the current issue of the journal PNAS] suggests that memory is like a streaming video that is bookmarked, both consciously and subconsciously, by facts, scenes, characters and thoughts.”
I would add emotions too, sensations that layer one atop the other like silt, like layers of earth. We dig; we sift. Sometimes, we are glad for the distance from the top to the center—glad our lives have depth.
Sometimes it takes a while to find the depths, to test them and grow comfortable near them. I remember long stroller walks, tracing paths, routes of memory, making new ones, my son a baby, a toddler, a boy. We talked and talked. He talked. He made me, someone who loved solitude and quiet (who still does), a person who could speak on and on. I needed to help him to understand the world, question after question. We learned things together (we still do); and I was surprised how much I knew. My knowledge, my memories, shifted shape, acclimatizing themselves to a two-year-old brain, then three, and so on. Already he was formed; and he was and is still forming. I remember the seed then, the small buds and tiny leaves; I marvel at the young tree now and lean forward imagining the different shapes he will become, wanting to help, to feed and water with love and information and advice, to prune and help him to thrive. I change with him. Each of his stages, the memories I attach to them, harken also to memories of myself. What I thought, what I dreamed, what I feared or yearned for. For him and for me. As in that night room, sleep beckoning, there are parts of him I cannot separate, segregate, from who I am. And yet he is entirely individual. Individuated and his own. Contradictions. He will have memories that contradict mine. While I try to understand my son—try to understand his difficulties alongside his strengths—I struggle to understand myself.
I am a writer and reader—as fundamentally as the color of my eyes—how did I become this, who I am? Think of genes, think of memory and history, think of childhood and books and experiences. My son contains some of the same—some of the sum of me, by example and here-say and genetics and stories—and much that is his own.
“I am looking for the comfort and encouragement memory provides, and the nostalgia of reclamation. We are the stories we tell, the things we make up and invent, we are more than the answers we give to questions, more even than our limitations—we are the cantankerous, infinitely mysterious dreams we somehow find the courage to imagine and sometimes to tell others.”
Maybe sometimes it’s enough to take pleasure in the dark, that space of in-between, secure and mysterious, known and unknown. We find comfort; intruders are not as perilous as they may first appear; and slowly we find ways to see. Clusters of letters begin to emerge as words.
~ ~ ~
~ If you are curious about dyslexia (or experience it yourself, or know someone who does—or love words and are curious about life), don’t miss Philip Schultz’s fantastic New York Times Op-Ed,”Words Failed, Then Saved Me.” Schultz, the winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (and founder of The Writers Studio), didn’t begin reading until age eleven, and didn’t come to recognize his own dyslexia until the diagnosis of his second-grade son. The Times essay sent me racing for his book, My Dyslexia, which I read with unusual rapidity. It is concise, highly engaging and beautifully told. I cannot recommend it highly enough—as a writer, a reader, a parent grappling with differentiated learning. ~
~ Another wonderful memoir I read earlier this summer, The Anti-Romantic Child, by Priscilla Gilman, is about a mother investigating the unexpected experience of having a child with learning disabilities (in this case hyperlexia and autism spectrum behaviors, although the book jacket rightly avoids labeling the specific issues). The story has a universality to its appeal, and the book is beautifully written, interspersed, even structured around, fragments of Wordsworth. (Gilman is a former literature professor.) While I have no particular fondness or kindred feeling for Wordsworth’s prose or poetry, the lines are used to excellent effect, and I ended up appreciating him more, a side-effect of this engaging and intelligent book. ~
~ I look forward to adding The Power of Neurodiversity, by Thomas Armstrong, to my shelf. Indeed, our differences serve us, as individuals and as a society, making each of us unique, giving us different ways of imbibing and interpreting the world. ~
~ Philip Schultz appears tonight (Sept. 23rd) at The Churchill School in Manhattan, along with Dr. Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia. ~