A year ago, with the ink still drying on my autism diagnosis, I waved goodbye to the ugly face of blatant, corporate discrimination. Someone had decided I didn't fit and my professional life became a living hell. I was good at my job and wanted to continue there. I was assured that obtaining this diagnosis would ease the situation and protect me. It did not. After fighting and losing the battle to keep my job, I gave up. I gave up the round hole life I had been living.
I am no stranger to starting again. I have had to do it before. I was once a teacher, possibly a good one. However, I battled homophobia every day in the classrooms and the corridors of London. After a few incidents outside of school too, I decided I couldn't take any more. I lost that fight but preserved my sanity. Years before that, I lost my job in a local authority up north. My boss decided I didn't fit in. She made it clear that she could find no fault with my work. It was me that was a problem. I was a square peg.
I may lose jobs but I am not a loser. Life can be unkind because I am a gay man with cerebral palsy and Asperger's Syndrome. However hidden beneath the labels and the isms, I am just another human being. I may not fit in but that is because I no longer choose to. I am a lover of life and a seeker of happiness. I am a pacifist but will go bare knuckle to fight my corner.
That life I love is now the Asperger Path. Since I set off a year ago I have seen and done things I never thought I'd do. I am travelling very slowly and stopping to look at life along the way. I am exploring whatever I choose. Writing is one way I explore the world. It has become very important to me and I make time to write every day. My thoughts and my poetry will never change the universe, but they are changing my perception of the world and my place in it. It's my way of squaring the circle.
Once I was blissfully unaware. I was an misfit, an oddball, an eccentric of a peculiarly English type but I thought nothing of it.
My few attempts to fit in were always just opportunities to stand out. I was a follower of fashion for example. However my “fashion-forward” sensibilities were heady when combined with my complete unawareness of the ripples I can create around me. Never thinking to look back, I sailed through the calm waters of life with the cut of my jib set jaunty.
Then they interfered. I was labelled. The very essence of who I was became the focus of others. Professionals were involved and meetings took place. People were concerned or perhaps even worried. I was placed on the Asperger Path and my life juddered to a halt.
Half the world away and here I am. The path is mine. I have owned myself and stuck two fingers up at those who told me what I could and couldn’t do. I live in a country where I don’t speak the language and my height, colour, build and beard separate me from the crowd. No one has really heard of Asperger here, let alone his blooming syndrome. We are all blissfully unaware.
So many years I wore boots. Big heavy boots that trampled a path through any terrain. I never stopped to think because I was always moving on.
I know that I have inadvertently trampled on some dreams. I know that my rough shod feet have caused more upset than they should. So many years I was unaware of the people around me. So what changed?
I did. Or more accurately I am. Changing that is. I realised one day that I had not been as kind as I could have been and that made pause for thought. I know that I have never been an intrinsically bad person. I am not a murderer, rapist or abuser. However it is not enough for me not to be a bad person. My aspirations are higher because I know I can be better than that. So I am changing.
Change is a long process. It is difficult and I will need to keep saying sorry every time I get it wrong. I will need to be develop my under exercised humility until it balances my pride and arrogance and become closer to the man I know I can be.
This then, is not an apology. Apologies are not generic, blanket statements that can issued impersonally. They should be a heartfelt message from one human soul to another. This is more a manifesto. I will throw away my boots and walk barefoot through this life. I will still move on but from now on my soul will be naked and exposed and each step will be taken gingerly. I think my journey will be all the better for it.
It’s been a year. How am I?
A year ago I lost my job in circumstances that were less than savoury. I discovered that discrimination is alive and kicking in twenty first century Britain. When it rears its ugly head its price is cold hard cash. Hush money was paid and I went. My head may have appeared to be held high but inside my tail was firmly between my legs.
So my first steps along the Asperger Path were walking away. Away from people who saw my weaknesses and seemed blind to what I could offer. Away from people who tried to get inside my head and happily trampled my self esteem and my dignity under dirty, corporate feet.
I went far and now my scars are no longer livid. A year has passed and my life has changed. I have taken my diagnosis, put it in with the rest of my baggage, and I have travelled. This rigid creature of habit who couldn’t cope without routines has slept on sofas, hitchhiked, stayed with strangers, made new friends and travelled half way around the world. I’ve seen the sun rise over mountains, deserts and oceans. With each sunrise came another day of my new life.
Here in Cambodia, I met an extraordinary man. With the gentle honesty that sometimes only a stranger can exercise, he pointed out my strengths and dismissed my protestations. He was passing through, geographically speaking, but he will be around for a long time. He gently told me that my fine mind is balanced by a fine heart. In doing so he reminded me of someone I used to think I was.
So here I am. That goodhearted man, blue eyed and smiling, is older but he is not lost. I’m not walking away anymore. The Asperger Path is mine. I don’t deny it; I own it. I will go where it takes me and I am confident it will take me where I want to go.
It’s been a year. How am I? I am fine.
Cambodia is a land that got lost in time. A dictator came along and declared Year Zero and tried to recalibrate the society into an agrarian socialist utopia. The ‘new people’, teachers, artists and intellectuals were purged and tortured in the genocide that followed. After years of bombing from the Americans and bitter civil war Cambodia decided to inflict even more lasting damage upon itself. The aftermath is apparent but I feel powerless to help because I’m not sure what I can do.
Cities were deserted and the people were returned to the land. Those that weren’t tortured faced starvation or hard labour and in two years about a quarter of the population were dead. Mass graves, horror and destruction were left as the Khmer Rouge were pushed back from the capital by the advancing Vietnamese liberators.
Now Cambodia faces new challenges. A prime minister who has been in power for decades and whose role in the Khmer Rouge is still vague, rules a country that is lurching into the twenty first century. Rapid urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation carry on seemingly unregulated. Any attempts to preserve habitats and cultures are hindered by corruption at all levels. In Cambodia there are many complex and conflicting needs which are failing to be met. Sadly many of Cambodia’s population are as poor now as they ever were.
One the legacies of this newly democratic kingdom is waste. You see it everywhere. In a country with so many issues is it a liberal European concern that Cambodia is choking to death on plastic. Perhaps it is, but I am as liberal and European as they come. Plastic Free Cambodia launches today and I will do my bit. This country could be a jewel in Asia’s crown with its diverse habitats and amazing ecosystems. Mighty lakes and rivers dominate the country but, if they end up polluted and choking, Cambodia could find its still largely agricultural population falling victim once again to a leadership whose primary concern is not the welfare of its people.
While I am here, just a visitor passing through, I can ensure I inflict as little damage as possible. I can’t stop illegal logging or palm oil plantations but I can say no thank you when I’m offered a plastic bag.
When I was young I never really knew what I wanted to be. I was a good all rounder academically so I was not encouraged to make any decisions. People told me I should keep my options open and not specialise to early. I never committed to anything and, as I have made my way through life, I never really have.
So here I am. At fifty I am still drifting through life and wondering what and where is next. I fell into teaching more than twenty years ago. It was more about escaping the drudgery of life at the town hall than finding a vocation. I now appear to happily richochet between the two, though teaching is my preferred choice.
My current incarnation, a teacher of English in Cambodia, is going rather well. I am enjoying the challenges and there are plenty of them. My current path has taken down some very new and different teaching avenues and might almost tempt me to stay a while. I have already been here six months and it’s starting to feel like home but then there are so many other countries and they are so close.
I am a restless soul. I roll and I drift and I don’t gather moss because I can’t keep still. Some researchers say that ADHD and Aspergers are closely linked. I don’t know if it’s true but certainly I can switch my focus from one thing to another fairly easily. It’s what I do best. After all I am a good all rounder. It seems a bit daft to settle down to something at this point. So I will continue along my rather chaotic Asperger Path, passport in hand, and no doubt find some activities that will divert my attention. The only deficit I can see is the judgmental way society labels and classifies its dazzling differences and distinct diversities.
I lead a very small life. I get up and go about my business and to most I am an unknown. I am a nameless stranger on the streets of a city whose language I cannot read or speak.
Yet, everyday I feel welcomed. When shopping, the generosity of a smile, when I struggle to communicate, calms me down. The old ladies of the market laugh at me but I can see the kindly twinkle in their eyes as I stumble through buying my vegetables. The toddlers, standing on the footplate of their parents’ scooter even shout hello as they go past. So I may be unknown but I’m not unnoticed. As a foreigner, a barang, I stand out. I am tall, even by British standards, so here in Cambodia I feel as if I’ve come down a bean stalk. I sail around the town on a big old fashioned bike, having eschewed the ubiquitous motorbike, gathering smiles.
In my small life, these seemingly meaningless interactions are anything but. Each one contributes to a sense of happiness. Here in Cambodia people are shy but they are not wary. Having come from Europe where the single adult male is shunned as potential stranger danger it is lovely to receive happy waves and carefree waves and hear parents encouraging their children to say hello.
I will never change the world and I have no aspiration to do so. Nor will many of the people I see every day. However, a cheery hello or an open smile can change someone’s day. I know this because the good people of Battambang share their small city and their kind, friendly nature with me, making my small life a happier one.
A streetcar named desire stopped in my town the other day. A stranger disembarked and before he got back on he got and the bell clanged to signal his departure he declared that I looked comfortable in my own skin. Such a lovely compliment, thrown as he sped away to elsewhere.
We had spent such a short time together but looking back, the conversation was deep and the humour dry and sparkling like a good champagne. Certainly I had felt easy in the to and fro of the friendly conversational joust in which neither of us were tilted from our seats. We were well matched.
I’ve never depended on the kindness of strangers but when you’re travelling alone a stranger’s takes can light up dark unknown skies. I thrive on meeting new people. The relationships are superficial even if the conversations are deep and the torturously subtle complexities and conventions of long term relationships are hazards that need not be traversed.
As I travel alone on the Asperger Path, I realise that my life has acquired an openness and sense of freedom that it had often lacked. I have neither the time nor the ability to set up bizarre rules and restrictions. My life, so often run around a set of self constructed, constrictive mantras, is now open to the four winds and whoever they blow my way.
I have made some unusual choices and I’m sure the odd eyebrow is raised in my honour. However I took the road less travelled so I grateful when the streetcar drops off a stranger and he walks a block or two with me. I don’t depend on their kindness but it is most welcome.
It’s not so much that one conversation can entirely change the course of my life. At fifty I am probably no longer open to that sense of immediacy and change. However, as I travel languidly through life, I meet people and there is a connection and it’s like a fresh breeze blowing through my cognitive cobwebs.
On the Asperger Path my small talk is rarely small. The little social niceties are often over looked as I dive headlong into conversations. I enjoy people with something to say and love an evening happily squandered over food and beer sharing thoughts about the thorny issues of life, love, death and god.
I would love to say I am open minded enough to share my table with the full range of human ideology. I am not. I like to discuss things with people who may have similar core beliefs but see the world from another perspective. I find it best when my core foundations are left stable but questions are poised that make me question what I have been constructing.
My life is simple. I don’t believe in much except myself. And it is this simplicity which becomes complex. To build a moral framework from scratch without the church, party or the state offering you a blueprint. So I would like to thank the architects and the engineers, the thinkers and the dreamers who have shared their time and thoughts with me. I am who I am today because of a thousand big conversations and no small talk .
Last night I had dinner with friends and it was a lovely way to end the long holiday weekend. In other parts of the world people were celebrating Easter but here we are still celebrating the Khmer New Year.
The world can be such a small place and most of the people around our table last night know a friend of mine from the capital city. This link, albeit tenuous, makes me feel a sense of trust belonging that is rare. The Asperger Path tends to shy away from multidimensional relationships and favour black and white labelling and compartmentalisation. Circles of friends are tricky for me. The subtle interrelationships can leave me floundering and lost. However there I was sharing an evening with work colleagues and non work colleagues, friends and partners, homos and straights and I was happy.
I usually prefer my friendships to be like a simple spider diagram. Each friendship separated and independent. Each one stranded out into a straight line. This does not leave me in the centre of anything but does allow an intensity on which I have thrived in the past. I tend to meet a friend and devote my attentions solely to them. Deep conversations are preferable to the lighter chatter of a group setting.
I will persevere with this group. Serendipity has dropped me amongst good-hearted people who I enjoy spending time with. I’m travelling because I wanted to change the life I had. So I will try circles, spirals, wheels as well as the straight lines I am used to.
Sour s’day chhnam th’mei – Happy New Year.