In October 2010, the City of Livermore hosted an Ekphrasis Event in which it asked writers to view local artwork and submit poetry that responded to it. I fell in love with one of the pieces: Autumn Soul by the talented Lily Xu.
To me, the beautiful watercolor resembled neurons in the brain, where some chunks were connected and others were not. In short, the piece reminded me of my daughter Katie—or more precisely, her brain. Plus the title struck a chord because I’ve always viewed Katie as an old soul. The truth is I would have come up with any excuse to write about the piece because I thought it was gorgeous. To use the cliche, it spoke to me.
Here’s the poem I ended up with.
I’m still in bed as you pass
My room heading for the stairs
I freeze, can’t help but hold
My breath waiting, just waiting
For the day the words break
Free flooding fallow fields
You glide past, a shadow
Receding with the dawn
The whisper of a heartbeat
Tethering you to this home
These stairs, your world
A secret garden hidden
From prying fingers
Unsubstantial as a cloud
I would follow if I could
Part the mists of fear and doubt
Tunnel into angry tissue
Burrow into exhausted brain
Tie a frayed neuron around
Your slender waist and
Pull, and pull, and pull
Until I yanked you, tore you
Limb by limb clawing, desperate
Into this world—my world
But how would I ever know what this
Well-intentioned violence cost you?
What pieces would be left behind
Floating weightless in the shadows?
The poem was selected as the Judge’s Choice, and the reception was a big deal (at least for me) because it was the first time I’d submitted a piece of poetry to people I didn’t know. I mostly consider myself a nonfiction writer, so it was fun to hear the poets talk about my poem using fancy literary terms. A lengthy discussion about spirits and piercing the veil between two worlds occurred. Ghosts were mentioned, and after life. Maybe even reincarnation.
No one suspected my poem was about autism.
This past weekend I sat on the couch, reading yet another progress report. I wasn’t paying much attention to Katie, who was in the kitchen. A voice in my head said, Listen. Katie, who has been interested in food since she was a preschooler, was studying photos in a cookbook and talking to herself. “That’s soup. Soup is hot. I like soup. I like chicken tortilla soup. Soup is good. I can make it. I’m stirring soup. Let’s make chicken tortilla soup.”
She flipped the page and talked about pumpkin pie. I didn’t even know she knew what pumpkin pie was. More pages flipped, followed by a long discourse on chocolate cake, then meat, then salad with cranberries. It was as if she wanted to say every sentence she could that included the particular food item. It went on for 15 minutes, maybe longer. To say I was stunned would be an understatement.
I listened as the words poured out, barely breathing. Then it hit me. This was it, the moment I’d been waiting for. The words were breaking free, spilling into the kitchen and filling up the room. They filled me up.
Then inexplicably, this popped into my mind: Houston, we have lift off.
A prayer is answered, and I think of NASA. What can I say?
Until next time,