The Nonverbal Kid’s influence on my writing

My younger son, Benji, is nonverbal and autistic. I don’t share it much because one of my primary responsibilities is protecting his dignity and privacy. And it’s usually not relevant to this site. But like any person important to you, his influence is always there in my writing, nevertheless. In this post I’ll share one of the ways my craft has changed because of him.

Ben has a limited vocabulary, though his communication includes expressive gestures and sounds, not just words. In talking to us (people who clearly are too dim to understand), he’s practically speaking three languages, and often, more than one at a time. It’s not his problem when we can’t figure out the translation; it’s ours.

To an outsider, however, it might create an uncomfortable situation. Not because that person is a bigot who despises neurodiversity, but because they are walking in unfamiliar territory. I liken it to me meeting a Black man for the first time (in my memory, he looks like actor Brock Peters in his Star Trek days). I was just a little kid, terribly shy around strangers, and before me stood a person so completely unlike every person I’d known in my secluded little rural town. At least, that’s the lie your brain tells you. In every aspect that I could see except skin color, he was like my neighbors.

I hadn’t been taught to hate or even dislike Black people; I just had some unintended bias to push past because my world was filled with people who looked like me and had basically the same beliefs and ancestry.

It’s one thing to know there are a variety of people in the world. Seeing them is another. Further still, interacting with them changes your perspective in significant ways. Watching Black people on TV wasn’t the same as meeting them. And meeting one certainly wasn’t the same as having people like him in my daily life.

I choose to believe the same lack of experience is true for people who aren’t sure how to react around Ben. It could be uncomfortable at first, but the smallest effort by them can overcome that. I don’t think they can do it alone, however. As Ben’s father, I believe one of my responsibilities is to help people with this, which also helps him.

Now, I grew up as a Boy Scout and I’ve always cheered for the underdog. I’m predisposed to helping others and recognizing those who are disadvantaged. But there’s a distinction between that and being an advocate. Believe it or not (sarcasm), there’s a difference between adding a rainbow frame to my Facebook picture and standing up to LGBTQ bigotry when people post it. Advocacy requires deliberate action, and I can help by leading through example, by sharing posts like this, and by injecting it into my books.

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Power of Words: Also

Words have power. It’s a simple enough concept, though perhaps underappreciated or downplayed when compared to fists or guns. That said, each of us has emotional reactions to words, whether a Shakespearean play, a political speech, or the handwritten note in a birthday card. And therein lies the control they have over us.

Many of us have heard as children, or said as adults, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a comforting lie that both parties believe because it makes the problem go away. At least for a little while.

If you’ve ever been the victim of slurs, whether racial, sexual, or gender-based, you already know the power of a single word. For those of us who haven’t, we can appreciate the impact of a good F-bomb, though that doesn’t tend have the same power as the examples of above.

Additionally, as I recall important events of my lifetime, there is considerable power in certain words, such as “marriage”, “Black”, “abortion”, “conservative”, and “liberal”. Just post a social media update that includes one of these to remind yourself of that.

I’m of the belief, however, that there is power in any single word – important or not – depending on the context. Which is why I’ve chosen “also” as my topic for today.

The aforementioned subjects are of great consequence to our world, and I am not suggesting that a linguistic discussion about a common adverb is of equal concern. Rather, I hope to demonstrate how something insignificant can change the tone and intent of any conversation.

I mean, come on, we probably give it no extra thought in writing, reading, or speech. In many cases, we could rewrite it out of a sentence and the reader wouldn’t know the difference.

  • We should get groceries and also pick up vacuum bags.
  • We should buy groceries and vacuum bags.

But that’s a minor application compared to its role in the following examples.

I would also like the right to vote.

I am his parent, so I also need custody of my child.

I would like my culture’s history also studied

I would like my child’s gender identity to also be respected

I would also like to practice my religion

In those examples, “also” plays a more powerful part. It leaves no doubt that a person is requesting an addition to an established practice or point of view. It speaks to inclusion and acceptance. Said another way, it suggests that we have room to grow: Here is where we are today, and this is where I’d like to go so we can be equal or have a mutual understanding.

And it has power not just for the person saying those things. When it comes to arguments against these concepts, “also” seems to have been mistaken as an outrageous synonym for “instead of”.

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Privilege in a time of chaos and injustice

I live in a Minneapolis suburb, though I am far enough away that I cannot see the smoke. I cannot hear the protests. My sleep is not disturbed by the sounds of gunfire and sirens. While the murder of George Floyd has angered me, I have been separated from the cacophony of a world aflame.

I have felt helpless and rooted in place, and it has forced some introspection. I know I do not truly understand the emotions or thoughts of the communities affected by this murder. So I have been listening. As I hear the anguish, the powerlessness, the frustration, and as I read what it’s like to fear a similar fate as George Floyd, I have been reminded that I have lived a privileged life compared to many people in my country.

A decision lay before me: to live within the comfort and protection of my privilege or to use it for something positive. I chose the latter.

I took what I heard and wrote this.

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I am not black.

I am not of eastern Asian descent, nor Slavic or Middle Eastern, nor a member of most of the other wonderful ancestries that humans are blessed to have.

I am not Muslim, nor a member of any of the non-Christian religions that bring people comfort across the world.

I am not female, nor any of the other genders we are discovering in our DNA.

I am not gay, and I do not fit into any of the sexual orientations that close-minded people refuse to acknowledge.

I am not missing any of my five senses or four limbs. My brain doesn’t process the world in a way that requires additional interpretation.

I’ve never been impoverished or homeless.

I am a straight white male living in America and there are very few words that we use to modify that description. We live in a country that must label people to remind them they are different than a particular type of person – that they are other. That they do not have my privilege.

I recognize that in the United States, I have more privilege than all of these wonderfully different ways to be human.

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Let’s get kids to love stuff

man dangling noodles into his mouthWe got a text from our neighbor this morning. His daughter loves to cook (she gets it from him) and was enthused that we were enjoying the things she made. They both like to share, and my wife often makes something in return. Here’s what the text said:

Her response to you using her frosting: “Yay! That makes me happy! Let’s make big fat noodles next, everyone likes noodles.”

As you might expect, my response was encouraging, and not just because I really do like big fat noodles. I saw that she loved cooking and I never want her to lose that passion. Simple as that.

As a parent, it’s not that hard to recognize the importance of helping your child find something they like, and then foster a love of that within them. It’s not just about developing a relationship with them, but it’s about helping them find things that bring them joy and might guide them their entire lives. This morning, I was reminded of the important role that adults – not just parents – play here. Continue reading

A Stick and a Story

This post is approximately 450 words – my interpretation of a child’s imagination.

As we waited for the bus the other day, our son Benji picked up a stick and brandished it. He’s non-verbal, but I could tell by the look on his face that he was suddenly going on an adventure. Like millions of kids before him, this simple act transported him from our world to another, turning him into an explorer, a hunter, or a hero.

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Divine providence signified that Ben was to carry Excalibur. That is why he is your king.

The same was certainly true for me. Like many of my generation, I remember playing lightsabers as a kid. As soon as you picked up the perfect stick, you were transported to the hallway outside docking bay 327 on the Death Star: one of you was Obi-Wan; the other, Darth Vader. Good and evil didn’t matter because YOU WERE IN STAR WARS. (Sidebar: Once, I made the mistake of acting out Kenobi’s sacrifice, which resulted in a painful whack across the arm. I still enjoyed my time in a galaxy far, far away, even if I didn’t disappear amongst crumbling robes.)

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Like Lucy Pevensie passing through the wardrobe, Benji emerged from the bushes into a strange new world.

It’s times like these when you realize magic is real. Like a portkey, a simple catalyst was all it took to transport you to another place, introducing you to new people and new experiences. It could be wearing a cape like Superman, holding a flashlight like the Hardy Boys, or sliding into the open window of a car like one of the Dukes of Hazzard.

Writing a story is very much the same. You’re looking at the mundane or the unusual in your everyday life, trying to find ways to send readers to places strange and wonderful. Maybe it’s a twisted tree or a distant hill or a scent carried upon the breeze. The point of inspiration doesn’t matter in the end; it’s the resulting idea that counts. If you’ve done your job as a writer, it should be as effortless for the reader as picking up a stick.

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The school bus calls for an end to the adventure.

Being carried away by your imagination is an amazing power, and I think writers need to feel the magic contained within sticks more often. At the very least, we’re transported back to our fondest childhood memories; but at best, we’re inspired to get back to the writing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going outside to pick up a lightsaber.

–Michael


Enjoy what you just read? Leave a comment or like the post and we’ll ensure that you see more like this from Michael!

© Michael Wallevand, September 2017

How Do You Honor A Life?

This post was the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and I apologize if your heart breaks like mine.

I’d nearly forgotten.

It’s been eight years since the traumatic birth of our son. Benjamin spent 14 weeks in the hospital and needed oxygen and other breathing assistance even longer. With that much time in and out of hospitals, a family sees regular examples of how precious the miracle of life is. And how fragile.

When you emerge on the other side of your ordeal, you are stronger in many ways. You are grateful that your loved one has survived. You consider yourselves lucky because many families have had it worse. Unimaginably worse. Over time, your heart and mind are healed, but permanently damaged by some piece of emotional shrapnel you can never remove. Forevermore, when you see children suffering, that splinter of old anguish is a twisting knife in your heart.

It’s not something that many people discuss, and the closer you are to it, the less you try. Whether it’s the pain, the sadness, or the desire to talk about happier things, many of us don’t seek to have those uncomfortable conversations with anyone we know. Eight years ago I tried so share some of what I was seeing, but it was too sad and too depressing:  Things I Heard In The Hospital That Broke My Heart. I wrote that piece so I could always remember, and because I knew I’d want to forget.

Recently, I learned about the four-year-old son of my wife’s high school friend, and all the memories came crashing back.  Continue reading

Paths of Imagination

This post is approximately 500 words long. That’s about a word for every friggin’ marble I’ve stepped on.

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Benji and I recently played with our Marbleworks set from Discovery Toys. Think of it as a cascading bobsled track for marbles that you assemble in any configuration you desire. Place one in the funnel at the top and it follows your path all the way to the bottom. This wonderful experience develops creativity in kids (and reignites it in parents).

Our construction approaches vary. Sometimes, Benji just gives me pieces. Others, I try to work in something creative, like every level is the same color. The basic approach is the same: funnel(s) at the top, finish line(s) at the bottom, fun raceway in the middle.

And (he says, appreciating the segue he’s created), this is analogous to writing a story. Continue reading

Building Blocks of Imagination

This post is about 400 words. 

I’m at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, sneaking in whatever writing time I can in a house with eleven people, two dogs, and more leftovers than any one fridge could contain. Despite these distractions, I’ve spent enough years writing that I have some tricks for keeping the creative fires warm. Right now, I’m sparing some time for a post that serves as writing analogy and inspiration for building creativity in your children.

Last night, our youngest son Ben brought out the blocks I played with as a child, and suddenly I was writing this post in my head as I built with him.

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My maternal grandfather made these blocks for me using 2x4s and some leftover paint. The basic blocks looked like this, though there were other lengths, too. With these, I could construct walls and forts and many other things as I played with my Star Wars figures.

But it was the oddballs that truly fueled my imagination. Call them scraps or discards, many would consider these pieces worthless. Clearly, my grandfather did not agree. Nor do I.

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Writing As A Parent #1

This post is approximately 200 words.

Sometimes, a writer needs absolute silence. No distractions.

Sometimes, you’re so inspired, the words just flow and you can power through the sounds of kids, wrestling dogs, or the television.

And sometimes, you need the wisdom to hand the computer over to forces greater than yourself.

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The smart writing parent saves and closes the manuscript, leaving a copy for the child whose artistic inspiration cannot be contained.

Ben was quite cuddly this morning, covered in several blankets, and pressed as close to me as a hibernating baby bear looking for warmth from his mother. He watched me typing for fifteen minutes before becoming interested in the computer himself. He loves drawing, whether with crayons or on electronic devices. I was still waking up – and he’d broken my concentration (though I wasn’t unhappy about it) – so I let him do this thing.

We spent some time together, doodling and such, which was a more enjoyable morning than putting him in front of the tv so I could get back to work. He eventually took a break, and now I’m back on the job, happier than I started the morning.

One additional note, I learned some new functionality, including the discovery of more emojis than I’d ever care to use.

–Michael

Enjoy what you just read? Leave a comment or like the post and we’ll ensure that you see more like this from Michael!

© Michael Wallevand, May 2016