Frozen

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When you’re a Vicar, alongside death and taxes comes a third inevitability.  It is that whenever there is some massive thing-that-everyone’s-talking-about, be it a major news event, a number one song or a blockbuster movie, some day you’re going to have to feature it in a sermon.

For the past year, I’ve been putting off preaching on Disney’s Frozen, because [cue gasps and cries of “Heresy!”] I just don’t think it’s a very good film.  That, and the fact that I didn’t particularly want to have ‘Let It Go’ stuck in my head for weeks afterwards.  But on Sunday, we celebrated Candlemas, and the combination of a liturgy which focuses on opening up the doors and a character in the Gospel reading called Anna meant that it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

To be fair, Frozen does stand up to some quite interesting interpretations about self-acceptance in general and Autism in particular.  I didn’t do more than give a nod to that on Sunday, but The Third Glance has an excellent post on it here, which is well worth a read.

I talked, instead, about stories which start with opening doors, and about how Candlemas is the ‘doorway’ festival, marking the transition from Christmas to Lent, Winter to Spring.  Traditionally in Europe, Candlemas was the time when people took down their Christmas decorations – although sadly this is now largely forgotten in England, apart from the few die-hards like me, who still insist that the tree is FINE in late January, and try not to notice that there are more pine needles on the floor than on its branches. The Americans have held onto this sense of transition much better than us, with the celebration of Groundhog Day, which originated in Germany and is virtually unknown in England.  In my Parish, we do have a little toy version of Punxsutawney Phil who sits on the pulpit at Candlemas, and we do also have a solemn announcement of his weather prediction at Mass; but that’s only because I am slightly obsessed with Phil’s beauty and feel it’s important to share my weirdness with the world. Also, because it allows me to say the phrase “Gobbler’s Knob” in Church.

Anyway, I digress.  The point is that I preached a really great sermon (if I do say so myself) all about open doors, and journeys of healing and growth, and the need to move forward and embrace new things, and all that jazz.

And then I went back to the Vicarage to take down the Christmas decorations.

Oh my goodness.  Why do I never remember how traumatic that is?  I find it stressful enough putting the decorations up in the first place (because, you know, change); but taking them down is a whole other world of pain.  I stressed, and cried, and rocked, and stimmed, and shouted at my friend alternately for not helping and for daring to touch things, and the whole thing took hours and was a bloody nightmare.  Apparently, it’s like this every year, but I honestly don’t remember that.  I had thought, beforehand, that I might feel a bit sad, but I was totally unprepared for the tidal wave of emotion that would overtake me, or for the deep depression that I am still experiencing 24 hours later.

I’m not good at feelings and empathy and stuff, but I would guess that my reaction to taking down the decorations roughly equates to the way people feel and behave at the funeral of a much-loved relative or friend.  That is clearly crazy, because (a) we’re taking about baubles, not a favourite granny; (b) I’m not losing them forever, just putting them away in boxes; and (c) I’ll be putting them all up again – in exactly the same places – eleven months from now.  But, crazy or not, it’s how I feel – I am actually, properly grieving.  So much for ‘love is an open door.’  I’m letting nothing go.

I’ve written before about my weird emotional attachment to inanimate objects and the sadness I feel about throwing things away, but this is the first time I’ve ever really made the connection that what I experience is a classic grief reaction.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross posits that in grief there are five stages through which we pass; but yesterday four of them hit me all at the same time.

The one that is missing for me is, of course, acceptance.  People who only know one thing about Autism generally know that autistic people don’t cope well with change.  I’m no exception to that rule, no matter how many sermons I preach about it.  I have enough trouble with the transition from putting on my socks to brushing my teeth, so I don’t think I’m likely to reach a place of zen acceptance about the death of Christmas any time soon.

It would make this post conceptually very neat if I could say that I am frozen in the face of change, but that feels like the wrong metaphor.  The word ‘frozen’ suggests sharpness and stillness, but yesterday was more like a tornado, and today has the blunt, muffled quality of being buried in mud.

So let’s cycle back to Punxsutawney Phil instead, and talk about a different movie: Groundhog Day.  I’ve never seen it, but from what I understand, it concerns a man who is forced to re-live the same events until he learns to deal with them better, or make better choices, or become a nicer person or something.  Every Candlemas, I take down the Christmas decorations, and apparently every Candlemas I am thrown into paroxysms of grief about it. Thus far, I appear to have learnt nothing from this repetition at all; but maybe now that I’ve blogged about it, it might stick in my mind for next year.  Even if I can’t stave off the waves of emotion, perhaps I can be a bit better prepared for them and batten down the hatches in advance.

In the meantime, a bit of perseveration seems as good a self-care strategy as anything else; so I shall just continue singing along with this rather awesome video:

Nobody Knows I’m Autistic

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When I was at Seminary (Vicar training college), one of my fellow Seminarians had a T-shirt which read Nobody knows I’m a Lesbian.  That shirt always raised a smile amongst the student body: (a) because of its inherent irony; (b) because it was a slightly risqué thing to wear in a Church of England Theological College, and always threw the staff into a welter of indecision about whether they should deal with it or not; and (c) because the wearer happened to be a man.

I forget now whether the man in question actually had a political point to make or was just being a bit provocative, but lately I’ve been wishing for a similar T-shirt, one that says Nobody knows I’m autistic.  I would wear it with pride.  Probably inside out and under a jumper, and only when I’m not going out in public.

Because, you see, it’s true; nobody knows that I’m autistic.  Well, almost nobody.  I haven’t told the Church authorities, I haven’t told my Parishioners, I haven’t told members of my family or any of my friends.  I haven’t even told any medical professionals, which is to say that I still haven’t plucked up the courage to get formally diagnosed (partly because I have a morbid fear and dislike of all things medical; and partly, I admit, because I’m a little bit scared they might tell me I’m not autistic – because, you know, there’s probably some other totally logical explanation for my social and communication difficulties, sensory overload, meltdowns, narrow focus, stimming, special interests, language problems, prosopagnosia, emotional regulation difficulties, executive function failures, etc., etc., etc.).

So nobody knows I’m autistic, apart from one or two people who worked it out for themselves and have been brave enough to say so.  People who don’t know me well, or who do know me well but are generally insensitive anyway, continue to do all the things that make life hellish for me, like standing too close, or talking to me when I’m in the middle of doing something else, or expecting me to answer the phone and be vaguely coherent and remember what we talked about afterwards.

But recently I’ve come to realise that over the years I’ve been in this Parish, the way people interact with me has changed.  When I first came here, my phone used to ring off the hook; nowadays almost everybody texts or emails.  If I’m invited to dinner, the invitation now comes with a full description of what’s on the menu, who else will be there and what sort of time the evening will end.  If I’m being asked to do a task, people now ask if I want reminding, and if so, how often and by what means.  Every so often, someone will present me with a glass of water before I realise I’m dehydrated, tell me to put on a jumper before I realise I’m cold or produce my sunglasses before I’ve even registered that I’m finding the light too bright.  This morning after Mass, someone even told me to sit down and thrust a puppy into my arms.  I hadn’t noticed that I was suffering anything more than mild irritation, and it was only after I’d sat stroking the puppy for a while and it had fallen asleep on my lap that I realised how dangerously close I’d come to a public meltdown.

Realising all this makes me feel a bit embarrassed, as if I’ve become like those stroppy celebrities who have people running around them in a blind panic all the time checking that they’ve got the right kind of sparkling water in their dressing rooms.  There are plenty of clergy who become high-maintenance dictators in their own churches, and I definitely don’t want to be one of them.  Priesthood is a call to serve, not to be served.  I don’t want my Parishioners to feel that they’re constantly treading on eggshells or having to keep me sweet.  I haven’t been open with them about my autism partly because I’m still a bit ashamed of it (hello, internalised ableism), but mostly because I don’t want them to feel they have to rally round their “special needs” Vicar.

But really, this is self-delusional bullshit.  They do rally round me, and they do realise I have specialised needs, whether or not they’d ever use (or even think of) the A-word.  In our Church, we make all sorts of little accommodations for people who are colour blind, or hard of hearing, or a bit unsteady on their pins, or emotionally vulnerable.  Nobody thinks these are unreasonable adaptations or that the people concerned are being demanding or difficult; it’s just normal human behaviour to be sensitive to one another’s needs and help each other out.

I’ve spent most of my life pretending not to be autistic, and frankly, it hasn’t served me well.  I can’t even begin to recount the number of friends I’ve lost, jobs I’ve screwed up and horrendous situations I’ve got myself into, simply because I’ve been unable to admit to myself or anyone else that there are certain things I just can’t do, or won’t manage without support.  The only reason I have survived this long in my present Parish is because I am surrounded by people, both in the Church and in the wider community, who just somehow get it, without being told, and are decent enough to try and provide me with the accommodations I need.

So, yeah, nobody knows I’m autistic … except that quite a lot of people do.  And despite all the things that make living in the NT world really difficult, like air fresheners and fluorescent lighting and knobbly socks, there are lots of people who subtly and intuitively work to make my life easier, not because they’re saints or do-gooders or Autism experts, but simply because they’re half-decent human beings.  I’m grateful to have them in my life, and I’m blessed to have them in my Church.

I don’t want to suggest that my Church is some shiny, happy Christian utopia where everybody is always a sunbeam for Jesus.  It isn’t.  We still have fallings-out and frustrations, and some days they all drive me batty and I could cheerfully murder the lot of them.  But somehow it’s become a place where stimming is ok, executive function disasters are tolerated and everybody accepts that sometimes it’s just necessary for the Vicar to pretend to be a horse.

Plus, did I mention that we have puppies?  Really.  How awesome is that?

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