Friday, April 3, 2020

Learning from Peter

When my youngest grandson, Peter, was two-months-old, his mother called one night in a panic. It seems he had stopped responding both to loud noises and bright lights. He had gone passive. It frightened Hal and me, too, and we went into a week’s period of intense prayer and fasting, not knowing what else to do. Within a week, young Peter began responding again as a normal infant to outside stimuli, especially sounds.
But our daughter, Kristin, while relieved, knew something was still not right. Then at four-months-old, we received the diagnosis. Peter was blind. We all accepted this news with sorrow and began learning braille.
Again, Peter surprised us as the months passed, reaching up to the bright mobile in his crib, and turning toward lights. As he learned to crawl, he managed to navigate around furniture without crashing into it. The first sentence he said to me, as I turned on the light in the bedroom, was “Light on.” Obviously, he could see something.  (We were later to learn that, while visually impaired, the sight he did have would allow him to live almost as well as a sighted person. That’s another story.)
But Peter continued to puzzle his parents. When he was two, Kristin followed her instincts and had him tested for autism. He tested positive. Again, we all struggled with this diagnosis and began our different ways of coping. Meanwhile, Peter kept developing and growing.
His speech was delayed, and we wondered if non-communication might be one of his autistic traits. Actually, on the inside he was absorbing language at an astonishing rate, and it began coming out in complete sentences during his second year.
I remember well the first “grown-up” sentence he said to me. I had just put him down for his afternoon nap, and as I closed the door, I said, “Night, night, Peter.” He raised his head, looked directly at me, and said, “See ya later, Honey.” (He must have heard Hal say that to me.)
Peter turned out to be a very communicative person. As corresponds with his autism, his communication style is frequent, sometimes loud, repetitive, and quirky. It requires great patience from the rest of the family.
One of the more interesting quirks is his inability to process metaphor. He takes things literally, which can have some funny results. One morning we were playing together on the living room floor. I got up, telling him I needed to go fix the lunch. “Grandma!” he protested. “You can’t fix the lunch. It’s not broken!”
As a member of the young-tykes T-Ball team, he loved batting since the ball was mounted close enough for him to see. But playing in the field was a problem, so the coach decided he could play third base. He could see the base and would be able to spot an approaching runner. The coach instructed him, “Peter, all you need to do is cover third base. Don’t bother about what’s going on around you. Just cover third base.”
And he did. As the first runner approached, with the crowd yelling, Peter energetically threw himself on top of third base, not letting the runner touch it. He effectively covered third base.
When Kristin accompanied him to the first day of first-grade, his kindergarten teacher from the previous year came up and exclaimed, “Peter, I can’t believe it! You grew another foot over the summer!”
Shock and anger combined in Peter’s face. He quickly looked down, pointed, and responded, “No, I didn’t! Look! There’s still just two!”
My collection of Peter-sayings is large, but these examples illustrate the challenge. He has since learned about metaphor, can recognize figures of speech, and has developed strategies of responding that make him seem normal. He knows people don’t always mean what they say. Peter is bright.
But Peter does more than make us laugh at his misinterpretations. We’re learning to listen for his unique perspectives. His brain obviously functions differently and his creative mind often comes up with insights that seem beyond his years.
I had the most interesting conversation with him when he was ten-years-old. He was staying with us for a week in our Friendsview apartment. One morning he began asking a series of questions on death and the nature of existence. The questions amazed us, and we quickly realized he was not expecting us to answer. He was expressing wonderment. So we just listened, encouraging him to continue. I took notes, which didn’t seem to bother him. I couldn’t catch it all, but here’s part of that series of questions and observations, quoted verbatim:

“What would you feel like if you were dead? Would you still feel like you were there? But how could you feel if you did not exist? It’s hard to explain….
“If you and Grandpa had not married, would I have been born to strangers? Or would I have been born at all? Would I exist?...
“If you’re dead, you’re gone. What would you feel if you were gone? Would you think or have feelings? It’s so hard to explain. I don’t think you understand what I’m trying to say, Grandma….
“If there was nothing when God didn’t yet create the world, how would you be there? If you weren’t born yet, how would you be there? Imagine not being there and not being able to think….
“I started to think about this since kindergarten. When I think really really big, my brain starts to hurt….
“I’ve got a huge suggestion for the Bible: they should make it easier to understand….
“The smallest word with the most complex meaning is God.”

Peter is now 12-years-old, learning to negotiate the world of middle school. His favorite classes are band (he plays the drums and loves repetitive rhythms) and computers, at which he is a whiz. He says he wants to write and illustrate books when he grows up. He already has a small stack of his creations. I hope he continues.
Among other things, Peter is teaching me to value the perspectives of people who are in some way different, strange, marginal, other. We have much to learn from them.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Best books read in 2019

This has been one of the best years for good reading. I discovered some new (to me) authors and re-read some old favorites. These are the favorites that I read during the year; most were published in other years.

--Richard Powers, The Overstory (2018): Possibly my favorite novel this year, this is the account of the relationships between humans and trees, with the trees being the real protagonists. Nine different stories eventually intertwine as the people share their concerns for the trees of the earth.
--Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (2017): About generations of Korean immigrants into Japan and the racism between the two groups; how the immigrants manage to survive and flourish through their involvement in the casinos (“pachinkos”), although the triumph is bitter-sweet.
--Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs (2007): In a town in New York state divided by race and social class, three young people from different strata develop a relationship and explore their limitations and possible destinies. How much do family heritage and environment shape lives? Or are humans free to dream and grow?
--Nadia Hashim, When the Moon is Low (2015): A wonderful and difficult book about an Afghani woman and her children trying to escape and migrate to Europe amid incredible hardships. Illuminates and personalizes the refugee crisis.
--Madeline Miller, Circe (2018): Based on Greek mythology, this is the story of Circe, the witch banished to an island who later becomes the lover of Odysseus on his journey home. The characters are quite human in their struggles and joys. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
--Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean’s Watch (1960): By a favorite “old” author, a story about a friendship between a cathedral dean and a common watchmaker, set in a small English town. Goudge’s wisdom comes through, without a cloying superficial righteousness sometimes seen in Christian fiction. Profound and full of grace.
--Delia Owen, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018): I loved this story of a strange girl who lives alone in the marshes of the North Carolina coast. It brings together the themes of stereotyping people, caring for nature, what it means to be a person, and the serendipities of grace.
--Lois Lowry, The Giver (1990), Gathering Blue (2000), Messenger (2004), and Son (2012): This was my first time through these award-winning young people’s futuristic books. Beautifully written, set in a strange dystopia, they show brave, creative individuals discovering the values that make life worthwhile.
--Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered (2018): About two families in two different centuries who occupy the “same” house and find it falling down around them. Both stories are set amid the clashes of science and tradition. As their houses are falling apart, so are their cultures, and both families are facing the possibilities of becoming “unsheltered” on different levels.
--Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018): Based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who met in the camp of Auschwitz. Well written and moving, but hard to read because of the details of life in the camp.
I read too many good novels to write here about them all. Other authors I read and would recommend include Celeste Ng, Kristin Hannah, Ken Follett, Elizabeth Wingate, Anne Tyler, Liane Moriarty, Barbara Delinsky, and Ocean Vuong.

--Nina Willner, Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall (2019): A wonderful story, written by the US born daughter of a young woman who escaped from East Germany to make her way in the West. I learned so much about that historical situation, and about the courage to act with integrity in dangerous places, even while measuring the risks.
--Greg Koskela, Finding Hildegard: Healing through Medieval Wisdom (2019): Written by a friend (Friend) who tells about finding a path toward healing from church controversy through the writings of Hildegard. I found much I could identify with, and so experienced a measure of healing myself.
--David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (2019): Part memoir, part essay on what it means to be a mature person. Good.
--Francisco Cantu, The Line Becomes a River (2018): Unforgettable memoir by an ex-border patroller along the US/Mexican border. Cantu tried to change the system from the inside, but finally gave up in frustration. A hard, but important story.
--Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World (2013): The memoir of her early life, up until the time she became a federal judge. Shows her determination to overcome the odds of her immigrant family upbringing, as well as the influence of family members, friends, and mentors who supported her along the way.

I read lots of poetry this year, as usual, but especially enjoyed Jane Kenyon’s collection, Otherwise (1997).