Crisis Across the Street

Scientists shower us with studies emphasizing the negative effects of isolation. Mental health declines. Heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes flourish. Meanwhile, my husband marvels over the health and wellness of coworkers involved with churches and clubs. I wince, imagining rooms full of chatty, optimistic people, dazzling us with blue-white smiles and small talk. We are introverts and keeping up with more than a few people at a time exhausts us.

So, we are the neighborhood family who keeps to themselves. We dispense cordial waves, check the mail at midnight, and blacken our house every single Halloween. Because we thrive on the information we glean in solitude, we watch instead of talk to gather data and plot future conversations.

Across the street from us live the Smiths. Juan and Maria are a decade older than us with grown children and a love for their lawn and garden. Lean and muscular, Juan resembles a petite Jason Statham. Every other day, he mows his grass and lavishes fertilizer on innumerable potted plants.  The beauty of their property is not their only gift. As Maria and Juan putter about, legions of dog walkers and affable neighbors swing by to shower them with compliments. Their driveway is a soup kitchen of hospitality—open to all and fully nourishing.

Sometimes we do step across the street. Twice a year when birthday balloons float above their mailbox, we give happy hugs.  I deliver a joke I looked up on google, like “Now the birthday candles cost more than the cake!” When offered a beer, we excuse ourselves and skitter home to watch festivities from behind our curtains.

We adore the Smiths for more than “the mere exposure effect.” What they do with their days charms us: driveway barbeques, bike rides in matching hoodies, and games of fetch with their big floppy mastiff.  

Utter shock shook me when I peeked out for my daily snoop and saw an ambulance and fire engine, lights flashing. Adrenaline-soaked blood shot to my legs; I could have pushed the ambulance to a hospital faster than any driver. As anxiety squeezed my throat closed, I paced until they brought Maria out on a stretcher. I gaped through the curtains as Maria’s contorted, pale face lolled.  Juan whisked a sheet before her, presumably to shield her from view.

I left my tiny peephole, loath to impede on their private moment. Trembling and tearful, I sat on the bed racing to put together a picture of what happened. Was this a heart attack? A stroke? A mental health crisis? What was so awful Juan had to conceal her? How could I help? Distraught, I called my husband at work. He reassured me that Maria was getting the help she needed and not to worry.

Later that day, when Juan came home, I slipped over to ask if Maria was okay.  Juan disclosed that Maria had been experiencing worsening vertigo for the past few weeks and was diagnosed with labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear. In Maria’s case, this was caused by tiny calcium deposits rolling around her inner ear disturbing her balance. When she woke up, the vertigo was so intense she could not make it to the bathroom without vomiting or toppling over. Juan called 911. To block the sunlight, which added to her dizziness, Juan held up the sheet when the paramedics wheeled her outside.

As Juan explained that Maria’s condition was benign, relief rushed through me. She would be released after positional manipulations moved her ear stones. Since my mom had been through a similar ordeal, I understood what Maria was going through. Flowers and food were in order.

A week later, Maria and I shared hugs and warmth as she told me firsthand how disturbing her vertigo attack was. Could you imagine being so disoriented that you don’t have the mental resources to fear for your life? Re-orienting her brain after her episode took a great deal of strength, she said. “I just can’t think or answer questions. All my energy goes to feeling level, balanced.” I hugged her and dabbed at a tear.

More heartfelt words were exchanged and I let her go to rest. Her example left me feeling strong and appreciated. In her driveway, Maria and I could conquer existential fears, support our children, and handle any crisis.

Months have passed and we still spy on the Smiths. They spot our creased curtains with a smile. Are we really so isolated, so different? Community and connectedness are unique for everyone. We can be healthy and feel loved from behind our curtains.

Salt Marsh Reflections

August 25, 2015 10:15 am

In August, a spontaneous trip to Maine found my son and me lodging at the edge of a lush salt marsh.  Grass and reeds had ripened to their late summer saffron color tipped with the grey-brown decay of fall.  High tide filled the curved channels that wound through the salt marsh reflecting heavy rain clouds. Fog hung within arm’s reach, smelling of salt, sea, and rich rotting vegetation.

Grateful to be alive, to exhale Atlantic Ocean air from the porch of a modest cabin, I lingered over coffee as my son slept. How many others reflected wonderous over the beauty of the world and our passing place in it. I imagined pilgrims hundreds of year ago on such a misty morning rejoicing for God’s creation of salt and color. Further back in time, indigenous peoples shared similar awe for their creator. Perhaps each piece of the scene had its own spirit. I would thank Mother Ocean and Father Grass.

And this coffee-sipping atheist? Gods are less miraculous than chance. I have no soul, or spirit; I am as ephemeral as a flower bursting forth in a quick spring. All I can do is appreciate, and perhaps write for the next reflective soul to find.

Two Sides of Tolerance: Accepting Others


Not long ago, I enjoyed tea and pastry at my favorite bakery. A woman with dizzying perfume swept into a seat behind me. Her sharp, expensive fragrance slid over my table, invading each sip and bite I took.  Irritation engulfed me. I snatched up my notebooks and stomped across the room to pen a few ill-tempered paragraphs. When my tea tasted good again, I stole a glance at the perpetrator. Slim and sixtyish, she stiffened under my scrutiny.

I expected someone offensive and unlikable–a diabolical, slathering fiend, perfume bottle in hand, ready to shoot pungent fluids at my face.  Instead, a frail and self-conscious senior citizen nibbled a croissant.  Her red-and-black plaid pantsuit radiated as fiercely as her fragrance. She was the kind of woman who applies lipstick with a tiny brush and styles her improbable chestnut hair with precision. In a deserted bakery, she purposely chose the seat closest to twitchy, tappy me.

As an autistic woman, I cursed both my sensory sensitivity and social reticence.  I wanted to explain my huff, but I had neither the words nor the poise. Perhaps the perfume she wore was her stim, her comfort, her way of making the outside world tolerable. Sitting close to me was an act of camaraderie, not hostility.

No matter how righteous my beliefs, I should not scorn the woman across the bakery.

After all, how many recoiled from me in hallways and lunchrooms because they found my excitability unnerving?

It is easy, instinctive even, to divide the world into smaller and smaller pieces to protect yourself. Cutting away people who smell too strongly, talk too loudly, or twitch too often can evolve into intolerance on a grander scale. Assail ideas, not individuals.

I timed my departure to match the flower woman’s, so I could hold the door open for her. Conciliatory words jammed my throat, but my eyes leapt to hers. I gave her my warmest, kindest smile. She held my gaze and smiled, “Thank you.”

Olfactory Political Correctness

Fragrances Offend

Oh dry shampoo, why must you smell of pineapple or tropical blooms? Are you not made of cornstarch and propellant?  Must I trail the mists of Hawaii behind me when I cannot bear wet hair?

Hand lotion! Spare me your false vanilla, green tea, and orchid! Make your fragrance-free products affordable and prolific!

Palmolive dish soap, you lie! Your unscented soap reeks of weedy melons!

Alas, the preponderance of fragrance!

Before Unilever shot rockets of underarm deodorant over the iron curtain, I lived in Moscow.  Masses of summertime people pressed against me on public transport. Subway after subway, bus after bus, the aroma of tangy onions and tinned meat clung to humanity.

The uniform and predictable odor of the people became familiar, comfortable, even.  Humans really don’t smell so bad, rather we have been conditioned (brainwashed?) to be revolted by personal odors.


So, if the purpose of hygiene products is to prevent offense, should I be less offended by the lady standing next to me, shoveling bucketfuls of lilacs into my nose?

I don’t mind if our culture is compelled to smell like flowers or fruits or trees, provided they do so with temperance. One can look away from an unwelcome sight or muffle excessive noise, but an unsolicited smell is inescapable.

Olfactory political correctness should be de rigueur. Let personal odors have a context, an intimacy. Let personal odors be a whiff, a breath of molecules as you draw near, not a drenching monsoon of semi-insecticidal body spray that fills each visited room.


Be kind to unknown strangers who may have autism, asthma, allergies, or other sensitivities. Keep perfumes private, within your walls or arms reach. Many will appreciate your olfactory discretion.

Axe to Grind: I rate this popular men’s fragrance!

Common Scents: Adventures in Autism and Chemical Sensitivity

The Guide to Living Life Unscented

Reflections on an Inconstant Life: My Eight Year Blogiversary

Eight years ago, I sat in my library, organizing books and reflecting on my life.

Dust motes whizzed through a ray of late afternoon sun as I sat. I contemplated their furious energy, abruptly halted as they collided with years of my journals shelved at the end of the sunbeam.

Shabby, mismatched and worn, the assembly of spiral notebooks echoed my own unevenness in life.

I was one of those “promising” high IQ young people that never amounted to much. School inexplicably exhausted me. I missed weeks at a time. More than once my indignant parents fought to keep me enrolled.

My attendance did not improve when I went to college. Inconstant grades plagued me. Only in retrospect did I realize I excelled in classes with take home tests and independent work. I collapsed in timed problem solving exams and group projects.

Sometimes I thought I was losing my mind. In fact, if one could be driven to madness by a physics exam, my experiences with Dr. Stromberg’s Physics 270 would certainly certify me.

I dashed through homework with ease, working harder to amuse teaching assistants than to solve problems. But midway through the first exam, my brain latched onto the sound of the buzzing fluorescent lights. In an instant, the droning lights and institutional urine-yellow of the classroom collapsed upon me, skewing reality.

I became not me.

The world around me prized into my mind; I could not drive it out. Classroom rustling and coughs seemed so immediate I wondered if they emanated from my own person.  The bolts on the chair prodded me while the scents of the students around me challenged me to match them to their owners.

The unreality dislodged the problem solver inside me. My mind froze so solidly that I bombed every physics test that semester.  Yet, a year later, I topped the class in a complex electromagnetics course.

As dust caromed and settled, I regarded my worn notebooks.

Revisiting me throughout my life, the surreal sensation of the physics exam is more existential than any panic attack. I can best describe it as the inevitability of doom and failure that occurs in certain dreams—the sort of dream where you see death rushing at you.

Imagine standing alone on a sandy beach wondering where the sea went only to spot a mile high tsunami above you. In seconds you will be crushed.  Do you sprint for distant safety or tip your head to watch the dark water fall upon you? The bee-like buzz of the classroom lights felt like drops of tsunami water to me.

The Wave

My notebooks pulled glittery specks toward them.

Would parenthood be a repetition of college or my sketchy part-time work? Would my mothering be as untidy and irregular as my journals? Would I fail, not at some ephemeral exam but in nurturing and shaping a young life?

I took control by imposing order on my journals.  My words would not remain trapped on paper or canted on shelves. My words would resound in tidy typeface against a glowing white background. Through the patterns these words wove, I uncovered the great mystery of my life: I am on the autism spectrum.

Eight years have passed and my life is still uneven. Tsunamis abound. But now, when I look up, I see something beautiful. I accept and find worth in my differences. And even when I don’t rejoice, I find more purpose in being a parent and autistic advocate than million physics exams. I stand tall as the water falls.