A few readers asked me to do an explication of my poem “Limited Engagement,” which is reposted here:
What we receive, we return
Not because we are petty creatures
Whose moral account keeping
Rivals that of the local chartered accountant
Whose brass shingle hangs crookedly
After the last heavy winds blew through
But because, in the pot on the stove
The milk rose so high when we weren’t looking
That we are still trying to scrub the remnants
And the burnt smell hasn’t left the air
So all our future meals carry the sense imprint
Of all the times we tried for normalcy
We disappear more than we arrive
Making sure to gather the pearls of laughter
That we may dwell on their precious lustre
Long after the people who laughed with us
Have turned their voices to newness
And still we cherish the echoes
We shrink from the full moon phases
Glad for the cloudy Amavasya nights
When we can appear the way we feel
Listening to the hunger pangs of the observant
Urging them to live our possibilities too
Accepting the deepest fears they project onto us
If I ever again wear the sun’s flaming robes
It will be because you asked me to
And I saw your love shining in your actions
So I trembled with the trust I placed in you
And you let me keep my cloak and my shield
While your lap transformed into the night sky.
I decided, after some thought, to oblige. While it was thrilling to know that several readers found the poem resonated with their own experiences and internal lives, I think close readings are wonderful, and part of the pleasure of writing is in engaging with intellectually curious readers. Thank you for being into this. It rocks. Here goes:
This poem is meant as a bittersweet love song to what happens in the inner landscape of long term caregivers, as time passes, and respite, social engagement, and connectedness to others become ephemeral. It is also about our loss of faith in community; we need active inclusion, and when it is not forthcoming, the hopeful eyes we lift to everyone else’s become dimmed with resignation.
So we return what we receive, meaning a) in kind, i.e. we learn to give of ourselves as parsimoniously as our children receive from society; and b) we take very little of what is offered to us because we do not want for ourselves what people are not willing to give to our autistic children. The metaphor of the chartered accountant and his wind-battered brass shingle symbolizes our knowledge that others have their own struggles and priorities; we recognize their reasons for resource-guarding against us even as their rejection wounds us.
I draw a distinction between the chartered accountant and us to show that our reasons for limited engagement lie elsewhere. Boiling milk is an iconic Indian household activity, a first step in making yoghurt. I use it as a way of showing that severe autism can render even simple family life moments challenging. Family traditions, cultural norms, tokens of affection—they all become permanently changed. Since sensory processing is such an issue with autistic people in general, and in our household specifically, I use the burnt milk smell to emphasize how hanging onto old ways does not serve us. So we are irrevocably changed by every attempt we have made to act ‘normal,’ as they were acts of desperation on our part, in an effort to block the knowledge that we had a new reality before us.
The third stanza is pretty self explanatory, I think. I have tried to explain why we cannot connect with social life as we used to.
We are not as we were. The full moon no longer represents us because we have accepted ourselves as wraiths of our former selves. Many Hindus fast on Amavasya (new moon), and as people whose lives have become almost entirely about karma yoga, we become pinned in the metaphorical sky by those who are comforted by the idea of placing us on a pedestal. As ‘noble celestial beings,’ we are aware of how, when people speak to us, their underlying fears are revealed in the things they voice. They also exert pressure on us to speak positively of our experiences. We wish them well, and take pleasure in their outside world successes, as those seem to exist in a parallel world for us.
In the last stanza, I move from ‘we’ to ‘me.’ This stanza answers the question: What would it take for me to trust in others, and in a sense of community again? For I do not have that trust now. I carry forward the metaphor of myself as a new moon, a quiet presence rather than expressing myself as fully as I once did. I would blaze forth in the robes of the sun (implying that I would not become the sun, but rather, don its robes occasionally) only if people and communities were to become sustainably trustworthy in the journey to autism inclusion. For now, I dare not ask for it myself, so “it will be because you asked me to.” I will not place my trust in the love people express through words, but meaningful actions, and even then, I will tremble with the fear of trusting again.
The proof of societal change will be when people let me be what I have become—guarded, restrained, protective of my realm—and when I see that acceptance, I will finally feel safe to rest my head in the lap of the night sky, i.e I will not have to pretend I am more than I am, as society will adapt to my children, and they will not be viewed as anomalies.
If any whataboutisms come into your mind as you understand my intent, I urge you to explore them internally. My emotional journey as an autism parent is valid, and I am the better for being truthful to myself rather than sugarcoating it, or blaming myself for not being more this or that. I hope this analysis helps you!