Sleepwalking until we wake up

Sleepwalker's Gde Cover

My son Jim, who is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, came to me the other day and said, “Don’t you think it’s time I got a job?”

I checked an immediate response and thought for a minute. And then we talked and I helped him put together a cover letter (although mostly he wrote it himself, honestly and from his capacious heart) and update his resume, and he dug out one of the pristine, champagne colored, job doc envelopes and put his documents neatly inside. He looked up the address of the place he chooses above all, if possible, to work, and neatly printed it on the envelope, sending it to the attention of the manager. Today we took it to the post office. He seems to be spending the rest of this day in a kind of ‘what if?’ hopeful haze.

Jim is 24, and it’s been a long dry spell since he graduated from high school, on time and with no academic issues. But then he floundered without a mandated program. He has tried many things. The job coach at Goodwill would only let him talk on breaks—he can’t work, he says, without talking. Some piecework, sheltered workshop type programs presented frustrations that ended up in his quitting. He couldn’t stand the noise. At one, he reported, they blared top 40 music all day. The people who were there to work through their parole made fun of the people who were there because they had disabilities.

Some people, Jim said darkly, talked about nothing but sex all day long.

He drifted away from the jobs programs, went to one school, and stopped; switched schools, stopped again. He joined a therapy group. He spent a long while staying home, playing video games, and angrily brushing off suggestions. He took some math courses and did poorly. He took some computer courses and did well.

And then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the long-awaited breakthrough.

“What the heck brought that on? Why now? Why this particular day?” I was tempted to say. What I was tempted to say, though, would not have been in any way helpful.

And of course, Jim was going through a process, albeit a long-ish, slow-ish one. The process was just not visible. When he got to the point where the work-through was complete, he came and he asked for some assistance.

It just happened, we say. We were going along and going along and everything was normal and then one day: SPLAT!

It happened.

It could be that the man left, suddenly and without a word; it could be that after years of frustrating practice, the woman finally mastered a sought-after skill; or that out of a clear blue sky, it seemed, after years of solitude, she fell in love. After all that time, we think, like during that long, calm period, unmarked by explosions, amputations, or hurricanes, there was nothing going on.

Nothing was, on the surface. But underneath–great action. Conflicts were being dealt with subterraneously; blood was congealing; ragged edges of tissue, gashed apart, were reaching for each other, knitting, healing. We didn’t see it; we didn’t notice. Oblivious, it was like we sleepwalked through that period, only waking for The Big Event.

There are sleepwalkers like that in Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.

Things do happen in this novel–actually, some pretty horrible things happen. There is a ruinous visit to India, to the hometown, to the angry and ill-intentioned mother. There is an insult and an abrupt departure.

There is a dancing boy who gives up dancing for filial duty and maims himself.

There is a fire with no survivors.

There is a deadly car flailing off a high cliff.

There is a despondent man falling to his death as a talented woman snaps a momentous photo.

But, in between, there are long subterranean years.

Jacob’s book moves me, though,--I do not fall asleep, listening to her words–and her characters draw me in. They are flawed and humble; they are imbued with a mystical belief in a new reunion.

They seek true love; they seek meaning; they seek kindness and family. Some of them find these things at long last.

There are sleepers here–the dancer, the brother. There are treasures that stay hidden until it is time for the world to take a peek; the right person flicks the right switch, and the treasures, literally, come to life. There are emotions buried, carried, only surfacing when it seems there will be no other time, no other chance, to deal with them.

There are talents ignored until something pushes them to the surface.

Things sleeping, things hidden.

Is that tragic, or is it true? Or both? Does a mother, say, really close the piano and ignore it, choosing to do instead what she thinks is the right thing: care for her children? Does the father toss his sketch pad into the bin, too tired at the end of an evening to pick up the pencil and draw? Do we walk away from the relationship that reminds us of a painful time, or that calls us to put forth more energy than, at that very moment, we have?

A flicker, a regret, a point on a circle. As the wheel turns, if we are alert, if we are watching, it’s a time, a feeling, a gift, a person, we may well encounter again.

Jacob’s Amina and her family endure wrenching things, illness and accident and loss, and they sometimes seem to be sleeping through life. But they always believe. Underneath the torpor they are listening.

I see the truth of Jacob’s words in Jim’s “sudden” awakening, the underground enthusiasm that has found a way to well up and present itself. Perhaps we all have to sleepwalk at times; perhaps we would shrivel and fade if we had to pay intense attention to our subterranean workings. Perhaps, even, we would hamper those workings, get in their way.

I don’t know. But Jacob’s book suggests that those who listen for the soft remembered step will hear it; those who stay alert will be guests at the wedding. It’s a beautiful read.


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