April 17, 2014 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings

Over the weekend the weather was gorgeous here in Ohio. Almost like summer, we had bright sunny mornings, birds singing, and balmy breezes. Naturally, as might be expected of responsible adults, my husband and I spent Saturday morning finishing up the tax forms and taking them to the post office. Then he fired up the push mower for the first time this year, while I started cutting back some overgrown bushes that I hadn’t gotten around to pruning last fall. I also dug a few dandelions out of the flowerbed in the side yard, which will need mulch before I plant the flat of snapdragons I just ordered.

dandelion and bee
(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)

 
Sometimes I miss the little girl I used to be, waking up full of joy to be alive and running outside to play, maybe still in a nightgown. Why take time to dress when there were so many adventures waiting to be discovered? The world felt magical—like being inside the pages of a storybook, full of beauty and wonder. Without thinking twice about it, I would happily lie down in the grass and watch a bee buzzing in the dandelions.

Growing up often means letting one’s mind get cluttered with what-ifs. Instead of watching a bee in the dandelions, an adult might think: If I did that, I’d get grass stains on my clothes. The bee might sting me. A biting fly might decide I’m tasty, or a millipede might crawl up my sleeve. What if a curious skunk wandered too close while I wasn’t paying attention? Maybe even a rabid skunk—hey, it could happen.

Besides, lying down in the grass isn’t something that mature adults do. The neighbors might think I fainted, or fell and broke a hip, and call 911. Worse yet, someone might start a rumor that I was drunk and passed out. Gossip like that grows legs—why risk it? And what are those dandelions doing in my nice neat suburban lawn anyway? Better go get some weed killer before anyone notices them.

Although these worries may look ridiculous when written out like this, we routinely have all kinds of what-ifs sitting at the back of our minds with the other mental clutter. Often we don’t even notice because it has gotten to be such a matter of habit. We’ve filled our minds with socially-based expectations for how our days should go, and any deviation—or perhaps just the thought of a deviation—automatically triggers the scripts for our internal naysayers.

And even if it didn’t, chances are we’d get bored pretty quick watching a bee in the dandelions anyway. We no longer have that childish mindset of living in a magical world full of amazing discoveries. Unless we intentionally practice mindfulness, many of the things we loved as children don’t even cross the threshold of awareness once we’re adults. By then, our brains have become very efficient at subconsciously filtering out unimportant distractions: a bug in the weeds, no different from thousands we’ve seen before, no reason to notice it.

Realistically, we couldn’t get much done in today’s busy society if we lacked that filter and always got distracted by every little thing we saw. Experiencing a natural world rich in detail might have worked well for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but it’s more of a liability to modern humans, now that most people’s work involves abstract mental tasks. We tune out the distractions because our adult responsibilities don’t give us much choice in the matter. Even so, I believe that our busy, task-oriented minds would be much refreshed by pausing, every once in a while, to notice the beauty in the dandelions before we spray them or dig them up.

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

It’s in our nature as a storytelling species to filter our experiences through the narratives we create to explain them. As humans, we go through life full of self-talk, whether or not we do it consciously. When we plan an event we know will likely be stressful, such as traveling to a place we’ve never seen before, we rehearse it in our minds and tell ourselves why it will be okay.

Our culture goes through much the same process of creating new stories to explain advances in technology, changes to our traditional social structures, and greater diversity in our communities. Having to deal with so many unexpected changes can make us very anxious, just because life feels so unpredictable. We need simple, calming explanations that fit reasonably well within our existing mental maps and leave us confident of being able to manage the changes.

Now that we’re a half-century into the modern civil rights era, our culture has mostly gotten used to the idea that we shouldn’t expect everyone in our communities to look and behave exactly the same. Although we still have much work to do on clearing away old prejudices, our society has made much progress toward the goal of accepting diversity.

But many of us find it harder to accept ourselves for what we are. Mass-market advertising preys on our insecurities by suggesting that we won’t have any friends unless we wear the latest trendy fashion or drink the right brand of beer. Whatever our physical traits may be, there are cosmetic products or treatments aimed at improving them, along with ads that proclaim how embarrassing it is to look like our natural selves. If we don’t fit in with some clique at school or in the workplace, we could get bullied for being “weird.”

It’s not always easy to recognize such manipulation and bullying for what they really are. Often we blame ourselves, thinking that we’d have more friends and get along better if only we could be more like other people. Then we blame ourselves again for not doing a better job of dealing with our gloomy feelings and our anxiety. We don’t take enough time to consider all the factors involved.

Defining one’s personal identity and finding self-acceptance can be even trickier in the context of disabilities, mainly because our culture hasn’t yet fully accepted them as part of human diversity. Instead, our culture has created narratives about normality and what might happen to anyone who doesn’t fit neatly within its boundaries. As a result, anything outside those boundaries—wherever they may be at any particular time—can be hard to accept as part of one’s own identity.

Well-meaning people sometimes offer advice along the lines of “accept the condition, but don’t let it define you.” Such advice generally means not letting one’s potential be limited by low expectations. As with person-first language, the aim is to put less emphasis on the condition, in hopes of avoiding the negativity often associated with it. Put more simply, this advice is: Don’t settle for being defined by all the bad stuff our culture says.

Some may see this as acceptance—but it has the drawback of leaving all that bad stuff out there, unchallenged. And when we don’t actively challenge prejudices, we often end up internalizing them. That is why pride campaigns work toward reclaiming words and asserting control over their definitions. Whether we’re talking about disabilities or any other human characteristics, leading an authentic life requires acknowledging their place in defining our identity. We can’t truly accept ourselves as long as there is something we keep tucked away at the back of the closet, never mentioned above a whisper.

When we put acceptance into action we’re telling new stories, both to ourselves and to the world. We’re creating new definitions that embrace all of who we are, rather than just the parts that fit someone else’s idea of who we should be. This is how our culture grows and evolves. Seen in this light, the telling of authentic narratives is a gift to the world, broadening its boundaries and strengthening its diversity. No one should ever have to feel afraid or ashamed to speak a personal truth.

 

This article has been published on the Autism Acceptance Month site — visit during April and find posts by many insightful contributors!

April 3, 2014 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings

I had been wondering if I would see any crocuses in my garden this year, after such a long, cold winter. The spot where they are planted faces north and doesn’t get as much winter sunlight as some other parts of my yard. Usually they bloom in early March, but there was nothing at all emerging from the hard-frozen ground when I looked a month ago. They did start coming up eventually, though, and are just starting to bloom.

April crocuses
This week I’ve been reflecting on patience and the natural growth process vs. to-do lists and schedules. It’s all too common for people in today’s busy world to feel rushed and overloaded, not because of having daily tasks that actually require huge amounts of time and effort, but simply because there is always something more on the to-do list. Rather than finishing our work for the day and enjoying a peaceful evening, we think ahead to the errands planned for tomorrow, the business meetings next week, and so forth.

Now that it’s April, I am one-quarter of the way through my 2014 resolution to discover and comment on a positive blog every day. Several people have complimented me for this resolution, while also telling me that they wouldn’t have the time for it. In all honesty, not being perfect, I have occasionally missed a day and then made up for it by visiting two blogs the next day. Staying on schedule is not what’s important here; what matters is the incremental growth throughout the year, however it may be accomplished.

As for how to find enough time for projects in general, I believe that a childlike perspective of “play time!” can make a world of difference. In our culture, we get used to filling our days with scheduled tasks to be completed. Then we veg in front of the TV or find other mindless entertainment to give our brains some downtime, but that doesn’t completely distract us from the piles of stuff waiting to be done tomorrow, and every day after that. Life starts to feel exhausting. New projects become stressful commitments of time we’re afraid we might not have, rather than just being fun ideas for something we’d like to do.

I have to confess I almost fell into that trap when the idea of visiting a new blog every day first occurred to me. The task-scheduling part of my brain promptly kicked in with criticism—had I totally lost my sanity, putting 365 new items on the to-do list for the year? How was I ever going to manage that? And because it would take different amounts of time depending on how quickly I found a positive blog on any given day, I couldn’t even block out a nice neat defined chunk of time for planning purposes.

Then I realized I should be looking at it as a daily adventure—a journey or quest, instead of a series of scheduled tasks requiring detailed advance planning. Back when we were kids and went outside to play after school, we didn’t have calendars telling us to play tag from 4:30 to 5:30 on Mondays and to pretend we were astronauts from 4 to 6 on Tuesdays. We just walked down the street and asked our friends what they wanted to play; and if we changed our minds about it, well, that was okay too.

I do recall making a daily schedule for pretend games when I was six or seven years old, just to amuse myself after looking at my dad’s daily planner, because I thought the idea of having such a regimented life was hilarious. Little did I know…

That’s not to say we should all throw away our schedules and lists. Life really does get complicated in the modern world, and often it’s useful to plan our daily tasks. But we don’t need to take it so seriously that we let those to-do lists control every moment of our lives. They should be helpful assistants, not tyrannical masters. Not everything needs to be done on a schedule. To-do lists can be much improved with a bit of imagination. Pretend you’re a little kid again and put stickers on the pages—smileys, rainbows, and cheerful affirmations. Write in some reminders to watch the sunset, imagine castles in the clouds, and just breathe.

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

March 26, 2014 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings

Most people would agree that when we are wronged, it’s best to forgive and to let go of our anger, instead of brooding over a stale old grudge and allowing that stagnant resentment to suck the joy out of our lives. Of course, this familiar advice doesn’t in itself answer the question of how to go about it. Letting go of anger can be much easier said than done. A primitive emotion, anger has a basic survival function—when we’re attacked, it motivates us to fight and focuses our energy on defeating the attacker.

In the modern world, chances are high that we’re not going to have any life-threatening encounters with marauding attackers the next time we walk down the street or drive to the mall. We are far more likely to get angry at someone who is not really trying to do us any harm, such as a careless driver who gets too close. When such things happen, letting go of the anger generally doesn’t take long because a moment of reflection makes clear that there was no harm, either actual or intended.

Forgiveness becomes difficult not in these everyday situations, but when we feel that someone really was trying to harm us. Maybe we are just going about a routine day when we discover that we’ve been targeted by gossip. Even if no actual harm was done because it’s obvious nonsense and the bully who started it has no credibility, it still triggers the anger response in those primitive brain circuits: Danger! Attack! Enemy! Fight!

Though we’re probably sensible enough not to get into an actual brawl, the anger can last much longer than the incident itself. Months or even years later, we still feel that we have an enemy who means us harm and who chose to attack in such a nasty, unfair way—how is it possible to just let go of that and forgive?

One approach I’ve found helpful is to remind myself that I don’t have to own stories that belong to other people. If someone with an overactive imagination invents ridiculous conspiracy theories and puts me on their list of imagined evildoers, I don’t own those stories. They are no more relevant or meaningful to my real life than a tabloid paper at the bottom of the birdcage. I can choose to give them only the attention they deserve—which is to say, none.

And I don’t have to buy into the anger narrative by mindlessly slapping on the labels of “enemy” and “attack,” either. Most likely, even when someone is being nasty, it’s not because of a personal vendetta but just because of random stuff going on in their life. After a while, they may not even remember what they said. From their perspective, it wasn’t a malicious attack—just ordinary conversation, and not at all memorable. They’re not framing the situation in terms of having enemies, unless of course it suits their melodramatic worldview to have large numbers of enemies; and they couldn’t care less about whatever they might have said in the past.

So—if they don’t care, then why should anyone else? Forgiveness can simply be a matter of reframing an old incident as unimportant, rather than making heroic efforts to love one’s enemy. When the other person ceases to be seen as an enemy and becomes just another flawed human being who is trying to get through life, we’ve effectively let go of the narrative that fuels the anger. That gives us more room to increase our creative energy and to develop new, healthy, empowering personal narratives. As for other people’s silly old stories—time to put some fresh newspaper in the birdcage and take out the trash.

 

March 13, 2014 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings

Toward the end of January, while shopping online for something to brighten up those dark winter days, I bought a necklace of crystals in cool, sparkling colors. It went nicely with two new sweaters I’d gotten over the holidays, and it also felt like it gave me a much-needed boost of refreshing energy.

Beads
Sometimes, without really thinking about it, I would find myself fidgeting with the necklace, just letting the crystal beads run through my fingers. People nowadays tend to feel self-conscious when they realize they’re doing something like that. There’s a risk someone else might judge it to be weird, inappropriate behavior. Nobody wants to be seen as weird or abnormal, so it’s easier just to put the beads away if there’s any chance of being noticed fidgeting with them.

And that’s a pity. As I see it, we’ve collectively done ourselves a great disservice by letting a narrow cultural construction of normality deprive us of such harmless ways of calming ourselves. Before the modern era, our ancestors often carried worry beads and rosaries, believing it perfectly normal to use beads for prayer and self-soothing when in public places. In some parts of the world, such as Greece and the Middle East, it’s still commonplace to carry a string of worry beads and to click through them while walking through a marketplace or having a conversation.

Our complex, rapidly changing society is difficult enough to deal with in itself. If we’re always avoiding simple ways to calm and nurture ourselves because other people might think we are weird, then we end up with another layer of pressure on top of everything else, and there’s no outlet for it. It’s not surprising that so many people in today’s world are hugely stressed out. Reclaiming our ancestors’ comforting old traditions such as worry beads would go a long way toward calming our minds, quieting those old nagging fears, and empowering us to love who we are right now.

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.

 

Earlier in this series, I discussed the addictive, damaging nature of persistent negative thoughts and wrote that when we feel our thoughts are out of control, we shouldn’t be afraid to look beyond ourselves for help. What comes next—the third step in a 12-step recovery program—is the decision to actually do so.

Sometimes the third step is described much more succinctly as “Pray.” Although there are other ways to look beyond oneself for guidance and nurturing, many people find traditional prayers helpful because they provide the structure of a familiar, reassuring ritual. Words remembered from childhood come easily to mind and give us comfort, without need for all the mental effort that would be required to construct an entirely new ritual from scratch.

Ritual is important because when we remove anything from our lives, it needs to be replaced in a structured way by something else to fill the space. Otherwise, whether we’re talking about addictive behaviors or anything else we don’t want, it soon finds its way back into its usual spot because the power of habit is so strong. So, if we’re to succeed in removing negative thought loops from our minds, we need to put regular and comfortable patterns of positive thinking into the space they once occupied.

As mentioned, there are many ways of going about it—prayer, a gratitude journal, reading inspirational material, centering oneself through mindfulness and meditation, spending more time outdoors connecting with nature, and so forth. What’s important is that the new positive activities be done regularly, so that they can train the mind into better habits. Behavior and thought always are interrelated. When we do something regularly, it feels normal and expected; and whatever thoughts occupy our minds most of the day are the ones on which we’re most likely to act.

At first it seems awkward to fit different activities—whatever they may be—into our daily routines. We worry that there won’t be enough time or that it will feel like drudgery. We’re afraid of how other people will react—will they think we’ve joined a cult or gone loopy in woo-woo land if they notice us praying or meditating regularly? It seems so much harder than just keeping on with the same old stuff we’ve done before. And if it’s hard, then maybe it’s not working. Maybe we should just give it up before we totally fail and things get even worse.

After some time passes, though, we find that the new habits build on and reinforce each other. It feels more natural to start the day by counting our blessings, rather than by grumbling about the weather or some little inconvenience. Even in moments when we’re not consciously trying to shape our thoughts, we just happen to discover a few rays of peace and serenity breaking through the gloom anyway. The world starts to feel like a place where we really can expect to find love, care, and guidance when we need them. Of course, the journey is still in its early stages; but far below the surface of our awareness, real, substantial changes are happening.

Often it’s the little details and ordinary rituals that determine our happiness, rather than the major events and big-ticket purchases. Although our consumer culture insists that comfort has a price tag, what we buy doesn’t necessarily change how we feel about ourselves. Arranging things comfortably can make a lot more difference. An expensive new car, for instance, may not make driving all that much more pleasant if the garage is full of junk and the car has to be parked outside in the snow and ice.

This winter I’ve made a point of keeping a glass fruit bowl on the kitchen table, filled with navel oranges, McIntosh apples, and bananas. It’s meant to be a symbol of abundance in general; but I have noticed that there are also more specific positive effects, in addition to general feelings of well-being.

fruit bowl
When the kitchen table lacks a centerpiece, it tends to get used as a shelf and to get covered with clutter. That in turn causes depressing feelings of disorganization and time pressure, such as that the house is a mess and it will take forever to get everything clean. If I let those feelings get out of control, I’m likely to neglect some household chores and end up with a real mess. A fruit bowl on the kitchen table avoids this unfortunate result by making clear, through its presence, that the table has been arranged with care and is not a random junk repository.

Keeping a fruit bowl where I’ll see it every time I walk into the kitchen gives me an effective visual prompt for healthy eating. Even though I know that fruit has a lot of good nutrients and fiber, if the fruit is tucked away in the refrigerator drawer then it’s “out of sight, out of mind,” and other, less healthy snacks may come to mind instead. Seeing the fruit makes me more likely to think “Yum, apple,” and eat it.

McIntosh apples are my preferred variety, but the supermarket where I regularly shop no longer stocks them; it seems they’re not as popular as they used to be. So I have to make a trip to another store just to buy apples. At first I thought the extra errand was a nuisance; but on reflection, I’ve decided to consider it a self-nurturing ritual and to be grateful for it. Every time I see McIntosh apples in the fruit bowl, they subconsciously improve my mood by reminding me that I am willing to go out of my way—literally—to do small things to make myself happier.

And one more thing about eating fruit – it’s a great opportunity for mindfulness.

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

Last month I began this series of posts by writing about the addictive nature of negative thinking, which can make our lives unmanageable. As with any addiction, the first and hardest step is admitting there’s a problem. What comes next in a 12-step recovery program is to believe that a power greater than ourselves can “restore us to sanity.” The concept of sanity comes bundled with some thorny social constructs, so I’ll leave it aside for the moment and talk about belief.

In this context, belief doesn’t require professing faith in a particular church or creed; it has more to do with acknowledging that we don’t know all the answers and that we can’t do everything ourselves. The human ego often stubbornly insists on trying to do things without help. While that may be understandable when we’re four years old and struggling to master shoelace-tying, it’s not the most useful way to go through life as an adult in our complicated modern world.

Sometimes we just need to recognize that there are things we can’t handle on our own. We shouldn’t feel that it is a weakness to ask for help, whether we are seeking divine guidance or simply calling a friend when we’re feeling down. And when we have the attitude that nothing ever gets done unless we do it ourselves, we end up depriving ourselves of help that we might otherwise have gotten, and struggling under heavy burdens that we didn’t actually have to carry alone.

Why are we often so unwilling to look outside ourselves for help? I’d say that a large part of it is fear. We may try to convince ourselves that we are tough and don’t need any help, or that whatever help we might get wouldn’t be very useful anyway; but underneath that bravado, we’re afraid of showing trust and then finding that it didn’t work out. Not believing that we’ll get any help is a defense mechanism to protect against the risk of asking and then being rejected or otherwise hurt.

Now, back to the topic of sanity. It has both a subjective dimension (whether or not we feel in control of our thoughts) and an objective dimension (whether or not our society pegs us as having a mental disorder). Because of the stigma associated with the latter, which has persisted even into a modern era that otherwise embraces diversity, many of us are reluctant to describe ourselves as needing to be restored to sanity. And considering how much negativity our culture deems acceptable and normal in the mass media and other places, going through life with gloomy thoughts does not, in itself, fall outside the range of what is currently regarded as normal.

Put another way, having negative thoughts burdening our minds probably is not going to result in being diagnosed with a mental disorder, unless we become overwhelmed with so much depression and anxiety that it interferes with our daily functioning. But even if we don’t reach that point, negative patterns of thinking can leave us feeling out of control. So I would say that taking action to banish such thoughts is likely to improve our sanity, regardless of whether anything in our thought patterns might amount to a clinically diagnosable condition.

 

Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Three.

Mindfulness always has been a challenge for me because I tend to get easily distracted by drama of one sort or another. Drama is fine for creative writing, but not so good when it gets into one’s personal life and occupies way too much brain space. So I’ve tried reminding myself to just be here—to focus on where I am. That never seemed to work quite right for me, though, because (especially when I was at home) I couldn’t manage to unbundle the word “here” from all of my place-memories and associated thoughts. Instead of centering me in the present, the word “here” evoked images of a gallery filled with Ghosts of Here Past.

I recently tried another focusing phrase, “what is now,” and to my surprise, I felt immediately calmer and more centered. Even though the words don’t look all that different when written down, they feel much more concrete to me, stripping away the usual mental chatter and leaving only simple objects and physical sensations. In the future I’ll keep in mind that because we all process language differently and have so many personal connotations attached to each word, finding the right phrase to set forth a thought can take some time and perseverance. So instead of being impatient when something isn’t quite right, we should be gentler and more forgiving toward ourselves and others, in recognition of the fact that we are all works in progress.

ice
Even though it is still cold and icy here in Ohio, I’ve heard birds chirping cheerfully for the past few days, as if they can feel that spring is on its way. I took this photograph of ice on bare bushes yesterday; the branches seem just a bit brighter than they had been, and the afternoon sunlight stronger, as if sending a quiet message that the seasons are changing as they always do.

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.”  Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

This is Part 12; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.

 

Sitting in three neat rows of desks, the middle school students did their best to look attentive and ignore a furiously buzzing fly on the window. The classroom was otherwise quiet on this sunny spring morning, except for the distant sounds of highway traffic and the squeaky new shoes of the boy walking forward to present his science report. Mark was tall for an eleven-year-old, with the promise of a broad, muscular adult frame. His sandy hair bristled in a military-style buzz cut, which was the usual fate that befell male students seen fidgeting with their hair.

Unfolding a large three-panel cardboard display on the presentation table at the front of the classroom, Mark kept his gaze focused on the audience. Maintaining eye contact and typical body language always counted for much of the grade; this was part of the school’s behavioral program for autism treatment. Having been a resident student for more than seven years, Mark had very little idea of how other people went about their lives beyond the school’s walls. All he knew was that the teachers were quick to point out his faults whenever he did something that other people wouldn’t do.

Carefully printed black lettering at the top of the center panel gave the report’s title: Extremophiles of Hydrothermal Vents, by Mark Woods, April 2011. Pictures of various types of bacteria, worms, and other organisms had been glued all over the display. A dark plume bubbled up from the bottom of the page, cut from black construction paper and representing the mineral-rich water flowing from a thermal vent in the ocean’s sunless depths.

“Good morning everyone, I hope you’ll enjoy my report on creatures that live where nothing else could survive!” As he began to speak, Mark went through the usual mental checklist as he’d been taught: smile, keep looking at his classmates, and put enthusiasm into his voice. The last item wasn’t hard to do because he really did find thermal vents and their inhabitants absolutely fascinating. But he also had to be careful not to get so enthusiastic that his body language would look wrong to his teacher, Mr. Rafferty, a rotund older man whose deep-set brown eyes always kept close watch on the students from behind thick bifocals.

“Extremophile means that they love extreme conditions,” Mark went on. “Thermal vents are scalding-hot geysers on the ocean floor. Because there’s no sunlight that far down, plants can’t grow. Bacteria live on the chemicals in the vent water, worms eat the bacteria, and other creatures eat the worms.”

Mark described in more detail the tube worms and other creatures shown on his display. He occasionally glanced toward the teacher, who sat quietly at his desk taking notes. That was a good sign, because if Mr. Rafferty didn’t like anything in a student’s presentation he wouldn’t wait until afterward to say so. A high grade on this report would earn Mark enough points to get the new set of Legos he’d been coveting in the school’s rewards store. But if he messed up, he’d get nothing but another lecture on why his behavior was all wrong.

“And that’s what you would find living around thermal vents,” Mark concluded, making sure to smile again. “Does anyone have a question?”

One hand was promptly raised. Thomas, who sat in the middle row and had a round, amiable face, began typing a question on his iPad. Although Thomas also had been at the school for many years, he had never learned to speak fluently and could say only a few words, with great difficulty. He used a text-to-speech app when he wanted to say something.

“Do other planets have thermal vents?”

A few students shifted uncomfortably at their desks. Thomas was a Star Wars enthusiast who just couldn’t keep space travel and Jedi Knights out of his conversations, no matter how often or how loudly the teachers scolded him to stay on topic. Because his classmates all had gotten similar rebukes at one time or another, the sound of Thomas’ electronically generated voice mentioning other planets left them sure of what was coming.

“That’s a very good question, Thomas.” Putting even more enthusiasm into his voice, Mark tried to dispel the tension he felt building in the room. “If another planet or moon has liquid oceans and a hot core, then it also would have thermal vents because the same physical processes would cause them to form. Someday, scientists will explore other worlds, and maybe they’ll find creatures like these when they do.”

As he spoke the last sentence, Mark imagined himself as a researcher studying a hydrothermal vent on a distant world. He visualized a cloud of magnified microbes surrounding him, with their crystalline membranes shimmering in all colors of the rainbow, lit from above by artificial light and from beneath by a volcanic crimson glow. They felt so close, so real, he could just reach out his fingers and touch them…

“Hands!” Mr. Rafferty barked.

The rainbow-bright cloud of imaginary microbes vanished, leaving Mark standing in front of the classroom with his hands outstretched. He’d been flapping his hands without being aware of it, which he did sometimes when he felt happy and excited. That always meant losing behavior points because it didn’t look normal. And he’d been told many times that if he didn’t look normal, then other people would think he was weird, and they wouldn’t want to be around him.

Mark dropped his hands to his sides. “Any more questions?”

His classmates had nothing more to say, which was usually what happened when a teacher corrected a student’s behavior. Now that they’d lost their focus on the topic, they wanted to be done with it. Mark stumbled through his prepared closing remarks and went back to his seat.

The fly on the window was quiet now—just a tiny, motionless dot clinging to the double-paned glass. Sunlight beat down from the hot, cloudless sky. Highway noise still rose and fell, the indistinct sounds blending into a rhythm of purposeful activity as ordinary people went about their business, somewhere out of sight and even farther out of reach.