Some days, I am not on the ball. I start to doubt myself, my performance at work, and then my place in this universe. Some days, I am surrounded by beautiful friends who cheer me with their humour and delightful tales of life from the wryest of perspectives. Some days, my friends aren't in the best of moods and it is my turn to balance that aforementioned ball on my nose and perform. I tell my tall tales and frivolously embroider my antics and anecdotes to create a happy tapestry to cheer up a pal in need. Some days, two friends are both in need. Those are the days when world feels like an ancient unoiled machine. Metal grates on metal and sparks fly. Axes get ground and yet no one cuts the air.
Today, I decided to take myself off on my bicycle to whirr my blues away. A friend rang and rang again. Texts started to ping. Then more calls. Eventually I stopped for rest. A text, a second, and then the third. The texts started with an invite and ended with insults. He was angry and, in not picking up, I had become his focus. I sent a text back. I tried to salve, but the oil for those troubled waters caused a flare up. I know he was drunk. He's always drunk. I know he needs a good friend, just as I know the company he craves will never cure his brand of lonely. However, I am not able to cater for that. Not today.
Today, I was not on the ball.
He says he is my friend and I want to believe his sweet words. However, his words are not always so measured or kind. His actions too, can be somewhat chaotic, and I am beginning to think this friendship comes at a high price.
He is Prince Charming. He is interesting and interested in everything around him. He comments astutely on the issues of the day, and I find myself in the company of a man who makes me think and ponder. I see new perspectives through his eyes but am never left feeling my own perspectives lack value. Hours pass and are barely noticed as we rally back and forth. Wit and charm married together in one man who seeks out my company. So what's the problem!
He is a drunk. Sometimes, by ten, the conversation is already a little muddled and a few times recently I've found myself in heavy waters. His patience wears thin and I feel blamed for his loss of concentration. With reduced focus comes a loss of veneer and, when the charm disappears, what lies beneath is not too savoury. A short temper is the most noticeable. Never directed at me, yet, but skulking in the background like a surly dog, he snarls at the people he loves. He becomes more negative about life and will cut people with a tongue that seems to sharpen in alcohol. When he is like this, I keep a metaphorical eye on exits and I am on tenterhooks.
So I have a rarely seen friend and an often times worrying companion. It's time to let this friendship slide into the cool waters of acquaintance. A kindly nod and a friendly hello with a distance kept. The next time I am texted beseechingly, I will remember that it is Lady Alcohol and not Prince Charming who is seeking my company. I will miss my friend. I do already, for I haven't seen him sober for a while.
He asked me if I was lonely in Cambodia and if I missed home. An unexpected touch of concern from a man I met in passing, but ultimately it was an ill thought question. He thinks that I should come home, but he doesn't realise that I am at home wherever I am. That wasn't his only mistake though.
I am not lonely in Cambodia. I am rarely lonely anywhere. My loneliness is something others see but it isn't actually there. I have always led quite a self sufficient existence. My life is hermetically sealed and my emotions are lived out in the landscapes and scenarios of my mind. No one really knows me and no one gets invited in. I am not lonely but I am often alone.
I love people. Well, I like a spot of company is probably more accurate. I enjoy telling silly stories and presenting my public face to the world. I get up and out and go about the town and say my hellos. However, more often when I have free time, I choose to relax in other ways. I have my own place and I just go there and lock the door. Being self obsessed, I enjoy my own company. When I am alone with my thoughts, time passes easily. My mind is the most beautiful place I know and I could dream my whole life away in there.
My problem is that other people cause me stress. It's not deliberate. The people I meet are kind and lovely as well as intelligent and witty. It's me and that beautiful mind of mine. I never feel I might have said something wrong, crossed a line, or not been considerate enough when I am on my own. Because I can't read other people too well, I am constantly on the wrong foot. Or I think I might be. So, I hop awkwardly through the briefest of encounters and then run away to my quiet, empty home.
Here is as good as anywhere. I know a few people and my language problems keep most relationships stripped back and simple. I don't know when I'll go back to England, but if I do, I'll be looking for my own place where I can just go and lock the door. If any asks, no one's home.
I love being on my own. I can happily spend the majority of the day in my own little world. Today I have barely spoken to anyone and it is now lunchtime. I have just been wrapped up in planning lessons and getting ready for my six hour teaching day tomorrow.
I like a routine so I get out of the house about 6 in the morning. My alarm isn't set but I am usually awake before dawn. I walk and watch the good people of Battambang. At the start of my walk the streets are quiet and life hasn't really commenced for most khmer households. I see the same faces exercising by the river. There's the kindly looking fellow who teaches his adoring, all female class Tai Chi and the men who play Kinja, a game where you kick a shuttlecock to each other.
I stop for a bite to eat at the same little place. Sok sabay I say to announce my presence. I like the fact that peace and happiness are my first words each day as I take my seat and wait for my dollar breakfast. I've usually walked two miles or more before I sit down, so I am more than ready for my pork, rice, pickles and broth.
After breakfast I wend my way home. By seven the town is feeling more awake and the streets are full of life. Children off to school and parents off to work. Others, like me, choose to have a Khmer pavement breakfast.
A cup of coffee just before home signals the fact that there is work to be done. I try to start early so I can have a break and eat my fruit salad lunch. On good days, like today, I get a paragraph or two hammered out before it's time to put my long trousers on and face my students. After the peace and happiness of the morning, my afternoons are more hectic. I love teaching, but I don't find it calming or tranquil.
Most nights after work, I will go out and be sociable. A chat with friends is great but the Asperger Path will have me home by about seven. That will leave plenty of time for some vegetables and rice and another slice of peace and happiness before bed.
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.
The time to write
A poem down for you
So for now
It’s just a note
And that will have to do
You have to love Diana Ross. Well, I guess you don’t have to but I do. She was with me at breakfast this morning and asked if I knew where I was going to. Hell no as Oprah Winfrey replied in the film version of The Color Purple. Luckily, not being black or southern, I did not receive a beating for my strident response. Diana just went on, almost as if she hadn’t heard, to ask if I liked the things that life is showing me. This time my answer was a life affirmating smile that wasn’t covered by hand but shared with the morning muesli.
I am starting to believe that life is a gift. Like all the other gifts and talents I possess, it benefits from a bit of practice and honing. I am just past fifty and feeling fabulous. I have created a life that, right now, plays a rather gentle hand. My skill sets and strengths have been carefully balanced with my, let’s call them, eccentricities, and life is being lived in a contented manner. I have a home far from home and I have found friends far from friends. There have been a few hairy moments over the years but my diploma from the school of hard knocks looks dusty in the bright sunshine of easy street.
Diana might be worried about my lack of destination but this life is easing on down the road. On my slow journey away from Oz I seem to have found myself a rather comfortable window seat. My name is not Dorothy and I will not surrender. I am somewhere, over my rainbow, living my spectrum disordered life one day at time.
Do I like the things that life is showing me? Hell, yes Diana! Hell yes.
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.