Wednesday, December 19, 2018

'What you learn about silence is that it's not so quiet'

By Louise Kinross

Craig Morgan Teicher is an American poet and literary critic whose first collection of essays—We Begin in Gladness—was published in November. Earlier this year he wrote an essay in The New York Times about what he’s learned by reading aloud with his son Cal. Cal, 11, has cerebral palsy and doesn’t speak. We talked about communicating beyond, or outside, language.

BLOOM: What are Cal’s favourite things?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
Music is definitely one of them, but more than anything, he is happiest when spending time with other people. I feel his life is animated by his proximity to people. He’s very in love with his younger sister, and he lights up whenever she’s anywhere near him. He loves going to school and being part of the chaos that is his classroom. We do a lot of music at home. I love jazz and instrumental music and we have that on all the time, and we make up silly songs on the guitar and make a racket.

BLOOM: How does he communicate?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
 Smiling is his most basic way of saying 'yes,' and his 'no' is pretty clear. It’s challenging when I try to explain what it’s like to communicate with him. The people who spend a lot of time with him can see a lot of the shades of his feelings. One of the big challenges of my life—or not challenges, but wishes—is to really understand him. I feel like I’m missing so much of what he’s actually trying to tell me. And yet I also feel like I get so much of it.

BLOOM: Could he use a communication device?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
He’s tried everything. It’s the usual problem with severe cerebral palsy that he can’t quite get his hands, his head or his foot to activate a switch. We haven’t had much success with most of what’s out there. He uses an eye gaze system with mixed results at school.

BLOOM: With my son I always found the technology was cumbersome and not nearly as intuitive and automatic as mainstream business technology. I used to liken it to my son having to go to a dictionary every time he wanted to say something, and look up the word. After a while, you give up.

Craig Morgan Teicher:
Or it’s like a dictionary with only eight words—you have to make your life work with eight words.

One of the big lessons for me with my son is the same lesson that poetry teaches—that language is fluid, and constantly changes, as words are loaded and unloaded with meaning: that meaning is pretty fluid.

So I look at my son’s way of communicating as fluid. It’s not just a yes or no, I want to do this or that. It’s a continuum of trying to express pleasure and displeasure and excitement and beckoning and pushing away. The struggle is to get further away from yes or no and get to all of the things that really make up a life.

For me, as a word person, one of the things that’s so startling about raising Cal is that it’s intensely physical in a way that no other relationship I have had, or imagined, is. I have to act as an extension of his body and his wishes, and sometimes I have to work against his wishes. That’s really hard to describe, and there aren't words for it in our language.

BLOOM: When I read your piece in The New York Times, about reading aloud to Cal, and wondering what he’s thinking, it made me think of an interview I did with British theatre director Stephen Unwin, who has a son who doesn’t speak. Stephen said: ‘I was brought up with language. I had a really old-fashioned English classical education. I’m over-educated, language is everything for me and I’m dealing with a son who has no speech. I love the boy to pieces and I’m grief stricken and that’s not a contradiction, that’s real.’ As a poet, what have you learned from a son who can't engage in formal conversation?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
 Before Cal was born, and into the beginning of his life, I thought that language was really the way that life happens, and now I see there are many ways. I’m not unhappy that there is a part of my life that exists outside of language. Music is definitely a way that Cal and I transact happiness and feeling.

I’m not a good musician, but I’m a self-taught guitar player, and from the beginning of Cal’s life we’ve made up silly songs together—sometimes with words and sometimes not. That’s a pretty great way of communicating with someone. It’s not precise in the same way that words are.

I think maybe I have enough language in my life that I don’t specifically grieve Cal not having it. I deeply grieve that he doesn’t have a choice to use or not to use words. That’s really painful.

BLOOM: I read your profile of Jesse Ball, the author of the novel Census, which includes a character who has Down syndrome, but as readers we’re not told his diagnosis. And you quote Ball saying something about how it’s impossible to write a true portrait of a person using our culture’s language for disability. Do you find that words impede our understanding of what disability is like?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
Definitely. Sometimes Cal and I will lay on the floor next to each other and stare at each other, or make funny noises. There’s a lot of holding hands that you don’t normally do with an 11-year-old, but that stands in for what we might do with words.

One of the things I’ve learned, especially watching my daughter introduce her friends to her brother, is that a lot of people go through their whole life without ever meeting a person with a serious disability.

As a culture, we're a lot more comfortable with less and less precise language to describe the lives of people living with disabilities. That makes me sad and angry—except, of course, I was the same way in that I didn’t know someone with a disability until I became a father.

BLOOM: Something I learned from my son was how important presence is. In our culture, people don’t appreciate the value of presence and being. It’s all about what you can do, and if you can’t do something, you’re stripped of value.

Craig Morgan Teicher:
If Cal hears someone he cares about walk into a room, he knows, and it’s not because he’s looking at them. He can feel the room in a way that I certainly have not learned to pay attention to. To him, presence is a huge part of what his life is, and he’s made it a huge part of what my life is. As a person who spent my childhood and youth in my head a lot, living with my son has taught me a lot about the power of just being in the presence of someone else.

BLOOM: How do people around Cal respond to his lack of speech?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
He’s a very happy person, a very joyful person, and the people who know him well are generally happy when they’re around him. He gets all the staring and weird confusion from other kids that many disabled kids get. Many grown-ups are afraid, and think they don’t know what to do. The most shocking thing for me has been watching my daughter become aware of the extent to which people stare at us, and how she feels about that.

Kids will stop and stare at Cal, open-mouthed. Some will ask ‘Why’s he in a chair?’ and we open a conversation. Others stare until their parents yank them away, or we stare back. What I want is for Cal to cross a bridge. We’ll say ‘This is Cal,’ and some kids will actually say ‘Hi, I’m whoever.’

BLOOM: I remember when my son was young that I read a lot about how you can prepare for difficult social situations by role-playing responses. For a long time I felt that was my job. But now it really depends on whether I’m in the mood. Sometimes I’m in the mood to educate, and sometimes I’m not.

Craig Morgan Teicher:
Sometimes I don’t rise to the occasion at all, and I want to make sure my daughter has that right.

BLOOM: Has Cal’s lack of speech influenced the way you write or read poetry?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
It definitely has. But poetry has as much informed the way I think about Cal as Cal has informed the way I think about poetry. Something that’s very true about poetry is that a lot of what it is about is the silence that surrounds it. It’s the stuff that’s not in it, but that is to do with it.

The thing we’re not saying that the poem implies, that the poem whispers. Silence is a big part of the world around Cal, and what you learn about silence is that it’s not so quiet and there’s all this stuff moving around in it. That insight is equally true of poetry and of people, and especially of people who don’t use words. Language isn’t the only way of communicating.

BLOOM: In your piece about reading to Cal, you note that he responds with sounds, but you can’t know for sure what meaning he’s taking away. By the end, you seem satisfied that his meaning could be a number of things. It could represent his love of your voice, or his understanding of the emotion it conveys. Or it could be his own unique way of visualizing a character when, as you note, he isn’t able to see colours the way you can. Our culture values speech as a way of demonstrating intellect. But is the meaning that a child who can’t speak, or who may think differently, takes from listening to a book as valuable as the meaning a typical child might be tested on at school?

Craig Morgan Teicher
: I don’t think the meaning a typical child might be tested on at school is particularly interesting. As a writer, the last thing I want is for someone to think about writing as a puzzle that you have to solve to get to the right answer.

I think of writing as much more like being in the room with Cal, a reader's presence next to the text, as opposed to anything that resembles testable understanding. What was fun about writing that essay was that reading to Cal had become a way of experiencing his presence and my presence next to a book.

Reading aloud was a way for me to hear the book myself, which was something that I wasn’t good at doing before. I had trouble imagining it in my head. 

I guess I’ve come to believe, though I can’t verify at all what Cal is getting, that the way he’s interacting is the ideal way. It’s to be present with a book. Certainly my own relationship with books is much more about them as good company, and as people in the room, than about getting the meaning right.

Part of what I do is interpret books in writing. I’m a book critic, but that aspect of what I do is a pretty limited way of thinking about what a relationship to reading can be.

BLOOM: What’s been the greatest joy of raising Cal?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
There isn’t any one thing. It’s just him. I’ve been surprised, especially as I’ve written about him more, that I can describe my family as a happy one, and that a lot of families I know that include a child with special needs are happy.

BLOOM: Have you written about disability in your poetry?

Craig Morgan Teicher:
It certainly comes up a lot. Cal comes up a lot. I don’t think it’s my place to write specifically about disability. I’m not disabled and I don’t want to speak for others who are. There is a very strong community of poets with disabilities who write all kinds of poems. Beauty is a Verb is one excellent anthology to start with. 

BLOOM: What do you hope people take away from your writing about Cal?

Craig Morgan Teicher: As I’m writing more about Cal I’m trying to figure out who I’m writing to. I don’t want to make someone feel that my way is the way they should do it. I want to supply some language around which people could think about this kind of a parenting journey.