Thursday, June 29, 2023

What it feels like

I am living my life, enjoying the summer, my baby grand-daughter, cycling, painting, planning our next Refugee Hospitality Day, and my brain is devoid of things to tell you that might entertain you. I was just looking back on previous posts to see if anything inspired me and I came across this one by Dave that he wrote during lockdown. you enjoyed his last one about Cousin Doreen, I thought I'd repost this one, because it is so enlightening about what it feels like to be an Aspie.


Tell me how does it feel to be on your own …

You know those notices in the back of cars ? ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ ? Well, ASD is a bit like that. If you have autism spectrum disorder, it’s important to make friends with it. It is going to be there every time you wake up, and stay with you whether you are cleaning your teeth, fixing your bike, clearing out the shed, or trying to make sense of Wittgenstein.

I get on pretty well with ASD. I mean, OK, I am odd. But that’s fine. Lots of people are a bit odd. It’s just that I am consistently odd. I understand being odd. It’s ordinary people that mystify me. The stuff they find obvious is the same stuff I have to work hard to learn, figure out, think about how to apply. And that’s the problem. I might get to understand what it is to be normal: I can never hope to feel it.

The pandemic and extended lockdowns, even the only-faintly-lunatic tier system, have all taught me about what it must feel like to be normal. It’s rather like a tourist poring over a map of some place s/he is never going to visit.

Full disclosure. Lockdown has been a doddle for me, I could keep it up forever. It has not been a strain or a challenge. It has posed a new set of problems to solve, but not much more than that. This isn’t a cruel and insensitive boast, and it is certainly not a skill, talent or even virtue. It’s simply that my genetic quirk which disqualifies me from living a normal everyday life, equips me perfectly for the rare and extra-ordinary circumstances of an unimagined lockdown.

This aspergery insouciance is not because I don’t care: it is rather because what normal people have experienced in lockdown has been more or less my daily experience since I first fell out of a high chair. It’s just that neurotypical people have not realised that the pandemic has gifted them a perfect insight into the fairground mirror which is ASD.

In lockdown, normal people have been depressed in an undulating sort of way. A kind of tidal surge of feeling OK and sad. As far as I can make out, reasons for this saudade sort them into categories (ASD alert: categories do it for me):

  • Those whose activities are hampered (swimmers, table -tennis freaks, ballroom dancers, tourists and travellers)
  • Those whose jobs have become tricky (all those forced to work in lousy conditions without PPE, shopworkers, unappreciated postal staff)
  • Those whose chief delight is social activity (party-goers, pub quiz afficionados, those who like clubs, gatherings, meetings, random acquaintance)
  • Social specialists (who miss mainly family, intimate friends, confidantes, grandchildren)
  • Transgressives of all stripes (Like the unfortunate married fireman driving forty miles to visit his mistress, both of whom were taken to task for not wearing masks in the car. Think of that.) Amongst the transgressives, internet scammers seem to have found lockdown to be a rich vein of opportunity. Their tide had been permanently in.

What has been helpful is that people in one, some or all of these groups have been explaining explicitly what the problem for them is. They tell me why they are missing grandchildren, or why it is frustrating to contact people only through zoom. They miss so much that for them is normal. And mainly what they find normal is connection. This has flicked on a light-switch for me.

Apart from the obvious oddness, the serial obsessions, the strange compulsion to make 23 of everything, from omelettes to macrame pet beds, from obscure Japanese carpentry to proliferating coffee tables, yes, apart from those, we ASD crew are odd because we don’t make the kind of connections with others that you do. We live behind a sort of glass screen. We see connections others make, but can’t feel them.

For some weird inexplicable reason, just occasionally in a lifetime there is a sudden connection that ASD people do feel, but it isn’t the picking-up-friends-like-fluff-on-a-coat experience of normal people. Usually, we hover uneasily between wondering whether someone is a friend or merely an acquaintance. And we have no way of knowing. Our wiring doesn’t pick up the signals. It is like trying to get Radio 4 on a toaster. You can twiddle the browning knob all you like, but you will never hear Melvyn Bragg pop out.

This is why the brain cell committees are so active, permanently trying to assess the data to figure out if person X might be a friend, or what you might be expected to feel about a favourite aunt.

I think I love researching family trees because it is a sort of Facebook for dead people, and there is no chance of being sucked into Facetime[i].

Like a cat, I tend to live in a permanent now. When Sue goes away, I eat what is in the house until it’s gone, then don’t think too much about getting more. If it’s there, fine. If it’s not, also fine. This is the same for almost everything. My brain cells tend to focus on the immediate environment, and do not worry their little heads about what might or might not be out there beyond it.

And come lockdown, there is no discernible difference, of course. For normal people, lockdown stops their sense of connection, just as a pillow over their face would stop their breathing rather than be merely inconvenient in a sotto voce way. For me, lockdown is a great leveller. Now nobody feels connected, and I feel unexpectedly normal. It’s weird to find everyone in the same boat, my boat that is usually deserted.

ASD is a social disease (in the nicest way possible, naturally). Clubs, gatherings, parties (aaarrrggghhh, PARTIES) fill me with alarm. Social interaction is both exhausting and unfulfilling. It leaves me with a committee of brain cells working day and night for weeks on end trying to figure out what this meant, or why that person did this.

The absence of social quandaries is almost tangible relief. But now I can suddenly see that normal people actually do derive some sort of pleasure from ‘doing social’, and the degree of pleasure is more or less commensurate with the sense of loss. Ah, now I get it.

The pandemic is a chance for every normal person and ASDer to trade experiences in the interest of enhanced mutual understanding. Thanks to lockdown, I understand a little better how you feel, and maybe, all unawares, you really feel how I feel. A gift. Who knew ?


[i] No ASD person could have come up with the idea of Facetime. It is terror in your hand, an inexplicable confrontation with the failure of intimacy. It is certainly not connection magic. I feel more bewildered and distant after a bout of Facetime than before. Yes, I did say ‘bout’.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Cousin Doreen

Dave did not write the following for the blog, or for public consumption, but I thought it was such a nice piece I asked if I could share it with you and he said yes.

Cousin Doreen

In 1971 we were living in Beeston in an insalubrious flat behind and above a Christian bookshop, and opposite A R Elliott’s Quality Butchers who had a very jolly pig in the window. The flat was unheated and had two baths, neither of them connected, an outside toilet at the bottom of the garden, and no hot water. The rent of £2 and 5 shillings a week seemed like a steal.

It was an eventful year. My father’s father died in January, and my mother had cancer and a mastectomy in the same month. Zoë was born in March, and my father died in April. I was in the middle of a post-grad teaching course at Nottingham university, trying to bridge the gap between the fantasy land of university and the reality of needing to earn a living. Sue was coping with our daughter in an inadequate and utterly unsuitable flat, and something seemed to have gone badly wrong with the universe generally.

The oddest thing, looking back, is that these events were unremarked upon. As a new family we were clearly under huge pressure, but there was little option but to just get on with it. At Christmas, our friend Het was going away and bequeathed us her only-very-slightly-motheaten Christmas tree, which we, having no money to speak of, decorated with painted eggshells and glitter. It was not the worst Christmas by a long shot.

As part of my course, I had a lengthy teaching practice in Derby. Two other students were placed at the same school, and one of them had a car so getting there involved a daily hike up to the A52 to pick up a lift and travel across to Derby in the rush hour. On the first morning, we were in a small accident on a roundabout, and late for our first day, but after that things became less exciting and we developed a rhythm of sorts.

The other two students were scientists, and I was teaching Classics. The school was a traditional boys’ grammar school where the masters still wore gowns. The staff were welcoming enough, and the main staff occupation at every break and in free periods was to play shove ha’penny in the staff room. The board was in constant use and it is amazing that the mahogany was not worn as thin as paper. The staff were keen players, and we were soon included. It seems incredible looking back that things seemed so relaxed and that nobody felt that they had anything more pressing to do.

It was during teaching practice that I was invited to lunch with Cousin Doreen. This arrangement was finagled by my mother-in-law who herself was an early version of the internet and an inveterate networker. Cousin Doreen had a flat on Friar Gate in Derby, and it was there I went once a week for lunch.

Cousin Doreen – that was how she was always referred to – was an elderly Quaker aged around 70 at the time. Her name was distinctively pronounced. D’reen, with a heavy emphasis on the second syllable. She was Irish, and had never married. Instead, she had worked all over as a nurse and midwife, spending time in Africa, and, I assumed at the time (wrongly?), India.

D'reen was smiley, grey, welcoming, and had a twinkle in her speech as well as in her eye. She had a great sense of humour. She cooked lunch, which was always curry – hence my assumption about India. D’reen’s curries were always hot, which was how she liked them. I had never come across food of such ferocity previously. A few lunches in, there was a particularly fierce dish. It was so hot that D’reen took off her wig to eat it. This was quite a surprise to me. D’reen’s wig was left like a hairy side-plate, or a small abandoned pet sleeping quietly while we consumed the feast. Up to this moment, I had never suspected that D’reen’s hair was optional, and I had to work hard to focus on the curry and not to stare at the wig, or her head. D’reen insisted that if a curry did not make you sweat, it was not worth eating.

I always walked back up to afternoon school with my lips on fire.

D’reen was born in Cork, where her father was a grocer. She qualified as a nurse, and later as a midwife. She travelled around a lot, I think working before the days of the NHS as a private midwife. She spent time n Mozambique, and what was then Northern Rhodesia. She was often back in the UK, and worked in maternity hospitals after the birth of the NHS.

D’reen was from a family with a long history of Quakerism, and she was a member of Derby Meeting when I met her.

D’reen did not know me at all before inviting me for lunch, and her kind generosity, HOT hospitality, and openness of spirit made a big impression. She seemed to me then to be very comfortable in her own skin, and completely unflappable. Always quietly spoken and with a laugh never far away, she was good company. In a difficult and stressful time, she was a greater haven than she or I knew.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Serious, but not unhappy

I spent time with two grandchildren in two different homes on Friday. One is 7 months old and one is almost 19. What a joy they are. And yesterday it was (my son) Isaac's 50th birthday. I remember his birth so well. Thinking of these members of my family with such disparate ages has made me thoughtful.

And I realised something this morning when I was writing to a friend. In her last email she had said “well done for staying above the depressing effects of such a ghastly political environment.”

I found myself writing back about how I felt about it all and how I am trying to stay aloof from it because in the past I have been so depressed by this disgusting government. I told her about the things I do, which I hope are positive contributions. And then I found myself writing “I had hoped to have a Labour government in the future that would put things right, but Starmer is so duplicitous that I have given up hope of that. So having no hope at all, I am focussing more on my life and trying to do what I can in my own small part of the world.”

What I realised is that I am devoid of hope. But I am not unhappy.

I’ve been awake since 5.30 a.m. These early dawns have that effect on me. Now I’ve written this I’m going to go back to what I was doing before, reading Staying Alive

I decided it was time to go back to reading poetry before I got out of bed in the morning. In the front of my copy of Staying Alive I found I’d written this quote from Bukowski: “Poetry is what happens when nothing else can.” 

Also printed in the book before the Introduction are some quotes from poets.

This is the one I like:

“Poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.”

I’ll leave you with this, the first poem in the collection:


Thursday, June 15, 2023

Life, death and painting

Sunny summer days are so heavenly at Hepworth Towers it often feels as if we’re on holiday here. I am currently addicted to cycling and to painting, which means that the extent of my work in the garden consists of watering the seedlings, the geraniums on the front door step, and the baby trees that I’m growing in pots. The weeds are having a field day.  😊

But my first sweet pea came out yesterday:

I’ve finished another daisies painting, which a friend is buying

I’m having trouble with one of cow parsley, which is still very much a work in progress

and I’ve discovered a treasure trove of interesting interviews available online on BBC Sounds (BBC iPlayer) that I listen to when I’m painting. 

The programme is called This Cultural Life. So far I’ve heard 45 minute interviews with Ken Loach, Maggie Hambling, Paul McCartney, Caitlin Moran, Jacqueline Wilson, Sally Wainwright, Tracey Emin, Glenda Jackson and Florence Pugh. They were all fascinating, but Tracey Emin’s is the one that sticks in my mind: her thoughts about death and life were thought provoking and brought to mind the bit in Quaker Faith and Practice that reads: Accepting the fact of death we are freed to live more fully. I’m living mine as fully as I can, and loving it. 

And here’s a related idea which is relevant to my painting (which I fell into three years ago when I was 70.)

Monday, June 12, 2023

Daisies are our silver

Daisies are our silver,
Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
We can have or hold.

My sweet peas are doing well this year. They had a good start and there’s been a lot of sunshine, which makes them thrive. Long time readers of the blog might think that sweet peas are my favourite flowers, but they’d be wrong. I’m more in love with the wild daisies that people call oxeye daisies and I call moonpennies. 

Last year was an amazing year for them and they self seeded in my neighbour’s roadside garden and looked so, so lovely. He was not pleased with the way they wanted to take over from everything else, and one day in early spring I saw him digging them up. So I asked if I might have them, and I planted them in several places in my borders. 

We also have a self seeded patch in the back lawn which I’ve been protecting from the lawnmower and they’re out now and looking lovely. Admittedly the grass around them looks a bit windswept and untidy but I’m happy to put up with that.

We do no-mow-May in our Quaker Meeting House garden too and there are moonpennies there which we leave flowering into June.

Back to our garden- the poppies are having a good year, along with the foxgloves.

And the hardy geraniums are beyond exuberant. One patch has completely taken over a path and they look so lovely I’m letting them get on with it. With the hot weather we have right now they'll be finished in a fortnight, and then I'll cut them back.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023


The dust has settled but the paintings are still up - all but two which have gone to their new homes. They look so good displayed like that, it’s a shame to take them down, though that will happen soon. I sold seven in all, plus one print.

And I have had two lovely long nights sleep, badly needed, not because of tiredness but over excitement and inability to stop my mind from many people came on each day, who they were, which paintings had sold, how many cards, how much money I had made and how much I could send to the refugee charity I was supporting. Dave and I agreed yesterday that with this disgusting government it could soon be illegal to support refugees in ANY way. 

Anyway…it was fun and rewarding having friends and family come to see all my paintings displayed at one time. Both days were sunny and hot so visitors could spill out into the garden with their tea and cake, once they’d seen the paintings. I made a coffee and walnut cake and a chocolate cake and some flapjack and scones, and I had to make another coffee cake for the second day too. (Btw, for American readers, a coffee cake in the UK is a coffee flavoured sandwich cake with buttercream icing in between and on top of the two layers, and often decorated with walnuts.)

Dave’s job was to make tea and coffee for everyone, and, being an introvert who hates parties, he said he was going to barricade himself in the kitchen so he didn’t have to talk to anyone. But of course THEY wanted to talk to him, to admire his stained glass and wood carvings and enquire about his clocks.  

“Of course they did,” said my brother later. “He’s a very interesting person.”

If you’d been there, dear reader, you’d have had no idea that Dave was feeling stressed. He comes across as Mr Charm & Conviviality. 

When it was all over he said “They were too close for comfort. I like to keep people at sniping distance.” 

There are a couple of people visiting today who couldn’t come at the weekend and then I can put down my piece of paint spattered carpet in front of my painting table and get painting again. It’s been too long.

This was the most popular painting: 

It’s probably my favourite too. 😊

And this was the most popular of the three cards on sale:

Saturday, June 03, 2023

Exhibition weekend

Whoopee! Today’s the day! And I am far too excited to sit here in bed doing Wordle and Quordle and all the rest. Yesterday morning I was so excited I woke up at half last three. 

The pictures are hung, the labels are written, cakes and flapjack have been baked, and the cards have arrived.

For those of you who won't be here, here are some of the paintings:

On our dresser - with three of Dave's kumiko pieces below

Now I’m going to pick some flowers and do some last minute vacuuming and make some scones. I have even made flapjack for the two known vegans who are coming. Was I this excited for my book launches?  This feels like even more fun. 

p.s. yes, those are some of Dave’s clock faces under the table. I believe we still have 10.