A Siblinghood Well-Preserved: Tones of Green and Long-Forgotten Trees
Creativity allows me to adapt to and with the world in different ways. As a sibling of an autistic brother, creativity has been a critical aspect of our sibling relationship since childhood. At that time, our siblinghood was a space we sought out in search of tranquility, a silent (wordless) retreat we created together. Foraging for creative resources in the spaces we shared, we found the communicative value of color and sound.
My brother and I share vivid memories of backyard and outdoor spaces we once explored together. I tend to focus on the visual aspect of our memories while he creates hand drawn documentation of sounds associated with specific places, spaces and events. He invented this self-made memory storage system around nine years of age and continues to capture and reproduce his own arrangement of sound, as he meticulously encodes and delicately traces symbols on strips of paper. His attunement to the frequency and vibrations of everyday things such as appliances, machinery, human activity and nature remind me to shift my attention to what is heard and felt versus what is heard and understood. I have learned that some things in life aren’t meant to be immediately understood but rather, sensed and felt.
In adulthood, our social and geographical landscapes physically distance us a majority of each new year. Nonetheless, we are present in each other’s lives when we are attentive to fragments of high-pitched chirping and chattering of squirrels scampering above our heads, snippets of bird songs during early hours of the morning and tree leaves gently swaying just before twilight. Particular sounds reconnect me to my brother and his way of perceiving the world—the humming and buzzing of streetlights after dusk or the cyclic rhythms of a washer pulsating while on the rinse cycle, train wheels rotating on railway tracks, or the acoustic effect of lightening disrupting the earth’s atmosphere with air expanding and vibrating to create the sound of thunder. I am able to sense the difference between a thunderstorm and a thundershower, and know the patterns of shifting floorboards creaking as my brother methodically orchestrates his movements in the quiet stillness of our historic home. These seemly unimportant details are what are integral to how I sense the world and make meaning of my sibling relationship.
The sacredness of our siblinghood is held deep within miniature woodlands, old pines, maples, and a tulip tree that appeared almost unchanged year to year, as we transformed into youths uncertain of what was to come. The earthy aroma of old pines, the consoling shade of maples and a deeply rooted tulip tree with its distinctly shaped leaves and bulky tulip-like flowers hold within them the precious knowledge of our siblinghood. It’s yellow flower petals illuminated long-lasting warmth on days when thick sheets of clouds prolonged the presence of freshly fallen raindrops. Soaring high above our heads, our tulip tree absorbed full sunlight on sunny days while a constant worry consumed us with its vulnerability to thunderstorms and lightning strikes.
In the farthest back part of our yard, a miniature woodland of restless trees and shrubs lingered untrimmed as they unconditionally intermingled with those surrounding them. To move about them was a sort of unspoken wonder, a sense that filled us with open curiosity while bringing with it a sublime calmness. On hot summer days, we would retreat to the cool air found beneath layered branches of old pines that led us to our neighbor Anna, a gracious, wise elder who took great joy in greeting us with Oreo cookies shortly after we first moved into the neighborhood.
Anna’s backyard contained giant mossy pines with branches appearing as though they could swoop us up and hide us deep within the quiet darkness of their crowns. When standing directly underneath and looking up, it seemed day disappeared into night, as if to slip back or forward in time, forgetting the sun’s insistent reminder of the present. The drop of a pine cone would casually fall to the ground with a thud that resounded within our very bones, reminding us of the untouched, buried world below where the lives of trees mostly take place in mysterious and unidentified ways.
Back to our miniature woodland we would go, where twigs hung dangling in the faintest breeze as they reached out to entwine themselves with the twigs and branches of nearby trees—in avoidance of being swept away with the prevailing winds of a foreseeable storm. The transition to evening would disentangle our daily tensions while sunlight dwindled and the soothing sounds of nightfall initiated a restorative liveliness.
My brother has a deep appreciation for trees, and in our search for stability, we have learned through the existence of trees how to stabilize one another and embrace the interdependent essence of our sibling relationship. Evolving at his own pace, I remain deeply enchanted by his way of being and how much it resembles the life of trees.
Our early siblinghood was deeply meaningful because it was a time in both of our lives when we were able to experience life as it was and as we were, unharmed by notions of what we were not and what we should be. This was a time when my brother’s way of being was never judged or modified to replicate non-autistic or normal behaviors. Our shared life histories are delicately interwoven just as the branches of his tinfoil trees were molded by his conscious fingers to brace one another for the uncertainty that lies ahead.
My brother’s tin foil tree creations twist and shimmer in the faintest of light. Although trees are assumed to stand voiceless, they have a resonance humans tend to disregard, merely for the absence of human intonation. This is an oversight of our human ways. What lies beyond voice (spoken words) is what I strive to become more attuned to in my daily experiences. This sensory perspective of life and love is what helps me to re-connect myself with my brother and his way of being.
It reminds me that no two experiences of life are the same and when we listen to sense the experiences of others versus listening for instantaneous understanding, we become more open and patient. When we cannot access an immediate understanding, we are at risk of becoming judgmental, making destructive assumptions and excluding people. When I take time to listen for a possible understanding (with unconditional acceptance that it may not be immediately accessible) I find I am better able to sense my brother. I focus on his feelings, sensations, movements and gestures which allow me to join him and share experiences which go beyond language. I perceive this as mirroring trees and the way they entwine their branches and roots with those of surrounding trees. It takes patience and openness to truly sense those around us and to nurture the dimension each person and living creature brings to everyday experience.
Wordless moments with my brother provide a sense of creative and physical freedom, a space where there is no pressure to perform to the expectations of others–freedom from the values and normative expectations society sets for us. These expectations can interfere with how we access the humanity of others. Each day in my academic, familial and personal relationships I exhaust myself seeking permission to exist in my own way (as my brother does) while at the same time being complicit in societal norms to please people and to not have my abilities questioned or compared to those of others. My brother and I are different in how we engage with these expectations and more than ever before, I feel a deep internal conflict with how I manage what feels like different worlds, transitioning from one to the other without any hope of a merge.
This is what makes accessing and connecting to the world in different ways vital to my existence. For instance, taking time to access other living forms and their way of being, whether it be stopping to notice squirrel nests in branches of trees entirely constructed of leaves and twigs, secured and persistently nurtured year-round or listening for the thunder of an approaching evening storm. Or pausing to acknowledge a rabbit crossing your path on a breezy afternoon walk with a spoken hello there, and some gentle clucks to call its attention. No matter how brief or unfulfilling the encounter may seem, it provides an opportunity to reach beyond ourselves, to perceive our experience in a different way and to question the assumptions we make and the expectations we develop based on the limited way we view normal life.
Wordless moments with my brother allow me to be as I am, without any prescribed way of engaging. It is these moments of openness that preserve my sibling relationship and propel me to reach beyond myself. I begin to stop prioritizing specific parts of conversations or over analyzing a comment made by a friend, colleague, or family member. Instead, I begin to reflect on the ways I may impose upon others the value of spoken words—for there are multiple entryways to experiencing the presence of those we share time and space with throughout our lives.
When in the presence of my brother, I am free to be me and he is free to be him. This is love. I may not hear the words, “I love you,” but rather they are sensed in the places, spaces and time we share together. Through stories, objects and other living forms we associate our siblinghood with, we remain connected to the presence we have in each other’s life.
Despite the occasional overgrowth of moss and weeds, a fallen tree, or overgrown roots setting my brother and me on different paths, we remain entangled where the pines graciously sway above our heads and squirrels chatter—reminding us of the wondrously imaginative and creative presence we share in our existence together.
About the Author
Magan Denae Straight is a PhD candidate in Teaching and Curriculum at Syracuse University. The deeply reciprocal, sustaining, and transformative influence siblinghood has on her life propels her to share her perspective as a sibling of an autistic brother. Her writing is often interweaved with her brother’s visual creations. This relational and interdependent voice creates a space for us all to better sense how autistic adults and their siblings experience their relationship despite dominant autism narratives.