My Empire of Dirt


Today I was in town, eating lunch in the upstairs of a café, when suddenly bubbles started to float past the window.  Slowly, more and more people started to look out of the window and smile. It was a bit like one of those end-scenes in every Christmas special of every show ever, when it starts to snow and people gradually walk outside and look up with soppy expressions of joy and wonder.

The bringer of joy in this case turned out to be a two- or three-year-old girl, who had obviously just been supplied with one of those cool bubble wand thingies, and was standing in the street, waving it around to her heart’s content.

It was a nice moment.  With the fervour of someone who has just started a new blog, I sat there and thought, “I can blog about this later, how one small girl doing something so simple brought a little happiness into the everyday lives of lots of folks.”

And then I remembered that as a child, I hated bubbles. No, that’s not quite right: I did like bubbles.  I liked being given those little plastic cylinders with the wand inside.  I liked blowing through the hole and watching the bubbles float around the garden.  I even remember trying to re-fill the empty cylinders with washing-up liquid and water, and being a bit disappointed because that solution was never quite as effective as the original stuff.  What I hated was the ephemeral nature of bubbles: the fact that as soon as they landed, or touched something, or got caught in a slightly stronger gust of wind, they would pop and disappear.  It made me feel sad that I couldn’t hold on to what I had created; that something so beautiful was destined to die.

Sitting in that café, I realised that as a child I thought this way about many of the things that kids are supposed to enjoy.  Sandcastles get washed away; balloons deflate and wither; candy floss either gets eaten or deteriorates into a sticky mess.  I reflected how lucky it was that I went to school before they started using dry-wipe boards and iPads, because I would never have written a thing for fear that it would get erased.

All these thoughts ran through my brain at warp speed, because that’s how my brain works; and they happened in words and sentences, much as I’ve written them down, but with a lot more words, because (unlike a lot of other autistic people, who think in pictures) that’s how my brain works too.

But having a lot of words in your head is not the same as being able to get them out of your mouth (in fact, it can be downright unhelpful).  So when my companion got back from the loo thirty seconds later, I summarised my lengthy mental blog post in one sentence: “Everything I love goes away in the end.”

Given that you’ve just watched that whole scene play out from inside my head, you will probably agree that what I said was a fairly reasonable and rational statement in the circumstances.  But if you watch again from my companion’s perspective, what you will notice is that Autistics Say The Funniest Things.  My companion had missed the bubbles because he was having a wee, and had missed my internal monologue because *note to self:* other people are not inside my head; so he was simply greeted with a random (and apparently rather depressing) statement.  There’s a reason that people on the Spectrum often end up getting misdiagnosed with mental illnesses.

What was actually happening was this: my brain was so full of words that they became a sort of white noise, an unintelligible cacophony.  I wanted to keep them all, but they were all clamouring equally loudly for attention, which prevented me from finding and sorting out the right ones to convey what I wanted to say.  I had so many words that I ended up not being able to use any of them at all.  So instead, I fell back on a set of words I had already heard elsewhere.  Here, in fact: 

I’ve done this weird quoting thing for years, but only recently did I realise that it’s an autistic phenomenon. It’s called Scripting, and Musings of an Aspie has an excellent post on it here:  (Actually, her whole blog is excellent.  You should probably stop reading this one, and spend your time over there instead.)

But what I find interesting about this not-very-interesting episode is that when I played the song later, I realised that I had got the quotation wrong (and I really hate to be wrong).  Johnny Cash sings, “Everyone I know goes away in the end.” Not ‘everything I love,’ but everyone I know.  I had subconsciously changed the whole line to reflect what actually matters most to me: not the people I know, but the things I love.

Contrary to whatever you may have heard about Autism, I do quite like people.  Some people I like a lot.  There are even – shock, horror! – people that I love. But, hard though it is to confess, I also have strong emotional attachments to things. Sometimes (well, ok, quite a lot of the time), I feel more strongly towards inanimate objects than I do towards people.  I would rather lose a friend than lose some random thing to which I’ve become attached.  I’m not even exaggerating; it’s happened. A lot.

This is wrong on so many levels.  I know that.  It’s wrong because it’s dysfunctional.  It’s wrong because it’s illogical (and I do so like to be logical). It’s wrong because I spend more time considering the feelings of inanimate objects than I do considering the feelings of people. (And yes, I know inanimate objects don’t have feelings.  Candy floss doesn’t care whether it’s eaten or not.  Like I said, it’s illogical.)  Most of all, it’s wrong because I am a Christian minister, and Christianity is all about valuing people over stuff.  Saint Francis of Assisi gave away even the clothes off his back in the service of the Gospel, and I once told someone to fuck off and die because they suggested that I throw away my old toilet rolls.

I don’t know whether this emotional over-attachment to things is a typically autistic thing, or just my own particular brand of weirdness.  I did once hear an interesting thing from some boffin or the other who opined that maybe hoarding disorder had to do with visual processing, that hoarders see the beauty in objects that other people just throw away. (Cue the Wombles theme tune.)  I wonder whether a bit of that is true for me too: my autistic brain doesn’t see just a bubble, but every shimmer, reflection and quiver; so many details, so intricately interwoven, that a bubble becomes a beautiful universe, far too precious simply to perish on the nearest fence.

And maybe there is spiritual value in looking at the world that way after all.  Too many people see the world in broad brush-strokes: a field to be built on here, an army to be deployed there; a rainforest to be cut down, a school to be bulldozed. But when God looks at the world, does he see it simply as a big blue and green bubble, floating aimlessly in space, ephemeral and expendable? Or does God see the intricate connections, the ecosystems and communities, the reflections of light and the glimmers of glory?

There are problems in seeing the beauty in everything.  I’m working quite hard to reduce my emotional attachments to things, to let go of some of my empire of dirt – not least because I don’t really want to end up like one of those lonely old ladies who’s crushed to death in her own home under piles of old newspapers. And I also know that everything has its natural life-span, and sometimes it’s ok to let go and let things die, whether they are the empty bottles in my house or the words in my head. But I wish that just occasionally, everyone could have autistic eyes, to see the glory in everyday things: the beauty in escalators or the patterns in privet hedges or the wonder in bubbles.

That little girl waving her bubble wand in the street created such things of beauty, such things of delicate wonder and heartbreaking intricacy; things whose lifespans were precious and fragile and painfully short, minor miracles that could only be experienced for such a brief moment in time.  Down on the ground, she was having fun and laughing and enjoying the whole, broad-brush experience.  But above her head, those beautiful bubbles were flying away from her forever … and she never once looked up.


One thought on “My Empire of Dirt

  1. […] written before about my weird emotional attachment to inanimate objects and the sadness I feel about throwing […]


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