Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Kathryn Forrester Thro, Poet Laureate, Autism and creative writing

After completing my recent manuscript, Mary's Joy, A Dance with Angels, which is a combination of Catholic inspiration book and autism memoir,I realized that there may be very few "highly functioning" poets laureate out there.

Part of my book deals with the decades of mis-diagnoses, in part due to my having so many "co morbid" conditions, and the rest due to being born in the wrong decade. Educational professionals today have in place many ways to help identify any number of challenges: ADD, ADHD, anxiety issues, dozens of conditions including Asperger's syndrome and anyone all along the Autism Spectrum.

Paraphrasing from Mary's Joy, A Dance with Angels:

Just after joyfully converting to Catholicim in 2004, I found myself in the most welcoming church Parish I would ever dream of: Blessed Sacrament Parish of Norfolk, Virginia.

Extremely awkward at social situations as easy- going as Sunday school classes or coffee hour, I found a way to serve, literally, by signing up for the after Mass Coffee Hour. There, I could hide behind a serving tray, sweeping up, refilling trays or dish washing. My agonizing, childhood bouts of mutism tended to re-surface whenever I had to "be myself" or make small talk.

My attempts at socializing, I'm certain, came across as painfully over-animated and awkward, so I found a way to "hide in plain sight." Mis-diagnosed for years with "generalized anxiety disorders" and all manner of panic attacks (and a later correctly diagnosed heart condition) I still longed to participate more fully. The Mass itself was so beautiful to me that indeed, I nearly fainted several times. I found a beautiful release in writing my first post conversion volume of poems, The Snow Bridge.

One night, deciding to try the Lenten soup suppers, I arrived full of determination, but on facing the room full of friends, and un-used to being in the role of a guest, I stopped at the entrance of the social hall unable to speak. Retreating to the long bench in the front entrance, I could not understand what was happening to me. It was not panic, but a feeling of great sorrow that came over me, as it had in childhood. Some might say it was akin to a "non epileptic seizure", but all I knew was that things were terribly out of place. Who was I to be a guest? My place, in my rather sheltered world, was to serve or simply write my heart out in my little attic room. I was frozen in place at the open doorway of a simple parish hall. I should be in the kitchen, I thought, or ladling out the soup, not sitting at the long thoughts were dizzying indeed just as a friend came up and wanted me to accompany her into the crowded hall.

I saw a pad of yellow post it notes in my bag, and scribbled down, "sorry, can't speak". The evening was spent surrounded by petals of yellow papers I scribbled on, over and over. "Sorry can't speak." It never occurred to me to keep the same note and simply point to it. Kind friends, sensing something more serious than laryngitis, filled in and spoke for me, explaining as I went through the serving line.

There was a beautiful gathering in the church for singing, as part of the Lenten experience, but I could not speak. I only looked at the words, as full of sorrow as I felt Christ Himself must have been in the Garden of Gethsemane. To this day, I cannot tell you where that sorrow comes from, but I know for certain that it makes me at one with all the downtrodden of the earth, and it is they that my writing often looks to for inspiration. There is a kinship there, souls waiting to blossom, straining towards the light of God's loving kindness. I feel that love there, in the Church, and it overwhelms me to this day.

The next week, an appointment was made for me at a nearby psychologist's office in Ghent, where I was professionally diagnosed with "highly functionoing autism." I poured out my heart: how I'd left the campus of Radford University long years ago, just a week after starting there, because I couldn't find my way around or understand the schedule of classes. It all suddenly made sense now: the childhood bouts of mutism, my tendency to stare, and my years of mis-diagnoses and refusing to be medicated to this day.

I remembered cotillions, the Junior Assembly dances where I would memorize baseball scores to use as conversation. While the room itself seemed to spin around me, my brother's kind advice to talk about sports assured my avoiding the label of "Wallflower." Dozens of other much prettier girls from private schools were left at the wall, wondering how a rather odd girl with braces had her dance card filled in seconds. What they didn't know was that I would collapse later at home, unable to speak for hours, overcome with all the sensations I'd encountered.

In middle and high school, I bounced between being completely mute for months at a time, and being considered a talented, emerging young writer. There was no in between place for me then or now. I am either giddy and the center of attention or retreating to my attic room to write. Writing then, my poems, is my one trusty companion in a spinning earth, with God and the angels to comfort me as I pour out my heart: that's the exhaustion of the poet.

Poetry had been my first love. My thoughts, abstract in nature, never did fit well into journalistic work or even paragraph form. But individual words or little phrases fall like leaves upon my psyche. Even as I had literally collected leaves since childhood (odd collections, that should have been a clue in itself) and continued to keep a large bowl in my front hall wherever I lived, I collected words as well. Lists of words that interested me had been a lifelong hobby. My attempted works of fiction were often put aside as I made page after page of possible titles for my still unpublished novels.

At my "Maiden Speech" as Poet Laureate of Virginia, a lovely celebration in my home town was given for me. I froze, having always had trouble speaking in public. I'm sure I read "Inaugural" breathlessly, as the room spun about. Afterwards, shaking hands with a hundred people rushing up to meet me was petrifying. I had no idea what to say and I'm sure to this day that it was only the kindness of the audience that saved me. I had been compared often to Sylvia Plath in her "blonde summer." I would blush when being introduced like this. My work, I am sure, and my gift as a poet, had nothing to do with intellectual capacity at all. It had more to do with a kinship with those I call the earth's downtrodden in spirit. Something broken in me felt at one with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He who seeks out the lost, the forgotten and forlorn. My poems could touch on that.

My "Mary's Joy Ministry," after converting to Catholicism, had been inspired by reading about the saints. While Therese of Lisieux, my Patron Saint, had spoken of souls ranging from the simple wildflower to the graceful rose, and how all were beloved of God, I felt a kinship with the yet to emerge root seedlings of the earth. A broken and dysfunctional home during adolescence, along with my undiagnosed challenges, had made me shy away from real socialization. Yet I wanted to help! I would often feel a kind of heart's whisper: "Mary's Joy" came to me. "Mary's Joy?" I asked aloud in prayer. "Yes," the thought came to me again. "Mary's Joy." And later....I understood: the blossoming of all souls upon the earth, even mine? Yes, even mine. Miraculous!

"Mary's Joy is to share with others as we can" That was another heart whisper. I heard of a Catholic Worker House which could use some baked goods, put up a sign "Mary's Joy Breadbox, and left a shiny copper container in the church kitchen. People left bread there, and it became a continuing joy to drive it over after Mass and coffee hour, where I stayed to clean up and sweep occasionally.

Then came the whisper about "shoeboxes." I spent hours making the flyers listing "Most wanted items" and tying them to the hundred empty shoeboxes I collected. People adopted a box, filled it up with the requested items and returned these to the church. To this day, it's my honor to deliver these to the local Samaritan house and others who care for young mothers struggling to get their GED's and make their way in the world. What makes my heart sing is the little children of the migrant workers rushing towards the trucks with donations of toys, clothes and needed supplies. If I have only a few boxes to send, I know they are greeted with smiles! I am reminded often of Christ's little feet as He made His first steps towards The Blessed Virgin. He would one day walk to the Cross, and arise from the tomb triumphant, but they both remember these little ones who now walk barefoot upon the earth. His joy joins with Our Lady's whenever they are shown loving kindness. I am surrounded by parish supporters in this work. God's grace, along with my compassionate pastor and Sr. "Sunshine" are both the center of this loving universe.

My first book of poems after my conversion was "The Snow Bridge" which has been described as elegiac and mystical. I publish these in hardback myself, and when I later wrote "Museum Piece, a Poem of the Nativity," a kind patron bought fourteen copies as Christmas gifts. Rare books indeed, as I've yet to find an agent, and have them lovingly bound, each one by hand, by a French bookbinding family.

I once walked into a local museum, painting in hand, noting the empty spaces on the walls, and asked if there was room for my "Blue Vase with Flowers Upon a Table," but the curator declined. I imagine I appeared a bit out of line, but this same child- like inability to self censor, which may get me into trouble, is of incomparable help when writing creatively. There are no boundaries, I find. I do not stop to edit at the first word, but instead allow myself to feel a kind of earthy compassion for my inanimate surroundings. Leaves, earth, root seedlings, the downtrodden who walk barefoot on the earth, all these overwhelm me. I think some inexperienced writers tend to over think their subject. I can see it often in their first line, their trying too hard to be clever. It comes off false and off-putting. I, not being clever, must be myself. The heart, if broken, is a well spring of inspiration.

I believe it may be a myth that autistics lack some innate ability to empathize. Indeed, I believe what may be happening is not an inability to empathize, but in fact may be a hypersensitivity, a being overwhelmed by circumstance or emotions. I may be wrong, and am not a scientist, but emotional overload and hyper- awareness may be the culprits here.

My dearest friends are the ones who make me feel safe when they address me, and give me a moment to respond. Each person is unique, each a gift of God. The adage is true of autistic persons as well: When you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person. I honor others in the same way. I tend to look at people as miracles. Their eyes dazzle me. I want to tell them "You're miraculous, a gift from Heaven," but of course it's not the proper way. So I work at my poems, and may, very rarely, send one through the post, with a number assigned to it for my archivists at the Library of Virginia, Richmond. Some day, a hundred years from now or ten or twenty, some of my letters will be open like John Donne's souls are described as opening to God. Until then, it is enough to offer a humble poem/prayer to friends whom I admire.

When I lecture now on creative writing, it takes hours of preparation and an honest sharing with my audience about my terror at facing them as myself. I explain the difference between writing on the page with reading my own words aloud. The difference between losing myself onstage in a play, and standing before my peers as my lone, broken self, that is all I can share honestly with them.

God is gracious, whether we are gifted or not. I like to say that poetry has been a way for me to express my abstracted mind with the world of un-abstracted. Poets are usually given space to be a little different, certainly that has been true historically. Perhaps many of us are somewhere on the autism spectrum. I feel it's a great gift.

Sitting under that lovely tree at Radford all those long years ago, and the painful decision that I was unable to remain, might seem a great loss to some. One unkind person said to me that "You might have been a teacher by now, a lecturer, author or writer." Wait, I want to say: I am all those things, and less and more, all at the same time! God loves me in my broken heartedness and gives me grace, just as others excel in other ways.

To be broken is to be open to light and love. God is gracious to all within His garden. Surely His light shines as brightly over his little root seedlings as it does on the emerald lawns of Saint Therese's blossoming flowers. Mary's Joy, then, is the blossoming of all souls upon the earth. I am happy to be a witness to this love.

Kathryn Forrester Thro is a poet laureate emeritus of Virginia, Publisher of Anthem Press of Norfolk, Virginia, artist, playwright and author of seven books, including her two most recent: Laurel the Flower Girl and Three Cats at a Wedding, her first children's rhyming picture book, and Mary's Joy, A Dance with Angels. She is foundress of Mary's Joy, a helping hands ministry "linking those in need with those who can help."

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Foundress of Mary's Joy, a Catholic helping hands link. Poet Laureate Emeritus of Virginia and Poet Laureate of Clan Forrester Society.