Soloist and Accompanists
Tripping the Light Fantastic, Is Us

A Farewell to Tragedy

Charlie walking on a cool rainy day in May  Yesterday morning I read my last exams and papers for the spring semester and posted my grades. I had taken the train in for a 9am exam and, as I walked down a cold and rainy JFK Boulevard, I thought about how, next fall semester, I'll only have to go in early twice a week, Tuesday and Friday, as I've jammed scheduled four classes in a row on those two days. I'll still have some other teaching and meetings with students and work to do on the other three days, but the bulk of my teaching will be from 8am - 2.15pm on those two days. 

It's been a very intense semester, with more teaching than usual because I had multiple sections of two of the same classes---meaning that (let me add it up) I had: 2 Elementary Latin classes, Intermediate Latin, Women in Antiquity, Virgil, Ancient Greece and Greece Today (the travel course to Greece---we didn't meet every week, but a few times over the course of the semester), 2 Honors Research Methods classes. These add up to a whopping 8 classes, not to mention 1 extra session for the student who could only take Honors Research Methods on Friday.  Needless to say, I need to teach a little less. I'm the only Classics (Latin and ancient Greek) professor at my (small) college, so if students are majoring in Classics, I have to offer enough courses so they'll have enough credits. 

Also needless to say, I haven't been able to get much done this semester on a project I started last fall, a translation of the ancient Roman Seneca's tragedy, Phaedra. I did about 200 lines by February; lost most of it when Charlie, um, got a little 'active' with the laptop resulting in a Genius Bar jaunt for said machinery; found an earlier printed-out draft; started typing that in. Yes, I should have saved the file elsewhere than on the hard drive and I promptly did so with the new version. But I also started to think that it was a bit providential than version 1.0 got 'lost' as I didn't really like it. 

And then, seeing how little I'd been inclined to keep working at it, I started to think, maybe I really don't want to translate Seneca.

I hadn't chosen this author or his plays. An editor had mentioned to me that his publisher was looking for a translation of some of Seneca's tragedies and I thought, why not have a go at it. I had proposed a translation of the Roman poet Virgil's Eclogues, ten pastoral poems---poems about poetry, shepherds, the countryside--and been informed, there's no market for such pastoral poetry. I suggested adding a translation of the Idylls of the Hellenistic poet, Theokritos, only to learn that there is even less of a market for these poems, and and one does want to get one's work published. 

So, I tried Seneca. 

But, having worked on his play for several months, I have concluded, I don't have an affinity for his writing; for the literature of the early (political intrigue- and violence-filled) Roman empire. Seneca's tragedies are known for being, indeed, violent, and gory, and really bloody. I'm good with reading them and, too, teaching them, but I couldn't get his Latin and, what may I say, his sensibility into my head. Whereas, I walk around with lines of Virgil in my head and, too, of the late Republic poet Catullus' poetry. And so I wrote to the editor yesterday and learned that someone else is submitting a proposal for the Seneca tragedies. Then I went to Virgil's Eclogue 9 and did the first line, at which point Charlie came down the stairs and asked for a walk.

It was past 6pm: After I'd picked him up from a good day at school, he'd come home to use the computer and then betaken himself off to his room. As it was pouring and grey, this was a good plan. It was lightly raining and then drizzling at the start of our walk. We moved at a brisk pace, Charlie walking in front and cheerful, pausing only when a puddle covered all the sidewalk; I hurried in front and walked on the grass on the edge of the sidewalk, and Charlie followed suit. A strong breeze was blowing the clouds away as we neared home, where Charlie settled on the blue couch with chicken lo mein. After about an hour and a half, he was ready to walk again, and out he and Jim went in their matching sweatshirts, against the wind.

On my earlier walk with Charlie---watching him run or pause to spin around (he sometimes does this at a transitional moment---turning a corner, crossing an intersection); hearing him say strings of words of things and people he likes ('Mom Gong Gong'; 'Yes Blake Lou Tara Julie')---I felt at ease, to see him so, yes, peaceful-easy. I could see people waiting at the stoplights looking at him, at us. I'll imagine that some might be thinking, good Lord, that kid is almost a foot taller than his mother and he can barely talk, what a shame.

Or even, what a tragedy he's like that.

But one thing I very much have never thought about Charlie and our admittedly different, unexpected, and possibly strange life in Autismland, is that it's a tragedy. That Charlie's a tragedy, that his being autistic is a tragedy. Charlie is, as he is. Difficult things, painful things---suffering and awful things---have happened to him; things I would hope others don't have to live through because some of them have been altogether gut- and heart-wrenching, and physically, mentally, and spiritually taxing. Aeschylus in the Agememnon writes that one pathei mathôs, one 'learns by suffering': Yes, we have and I suspect we will much more.

Life, autism, and life with autism are still not and never a tragedy for us. These things happening are tragedies. And maybe life with autism is tragic for other families; I'm not here to judge, but to write ours and Charlie's experience. And our experience has involved loss and sadness and even something like melancholy, something like bittersweet. 'Bittersweet' is a word I keep returning to, in writing about life with Charlie and, for me, that word captures how any day or moment feels, an amalgam of happy times and sometimes dreadful ones, of fierce delight on seeing Charlie riding that bike down the street and a fleeting stab of worry on thinking, who's going to ride with him when we aren't here to anymore?

Charlie walking on the beach on SundayThe poetry that captures this sense of loss and loss-tinged reflection for an idealized, simpler way of life that one no longer has, is pastoral poetry, especially its subgroup of elegy, which 'expresses the poet's grief at the loss of a friend or an important person.' Not that I entirely 'mourn' what life was long 'pre-Charlie' and 'pre-autism.' I frankly think our life with Charlie---these past 13 years---have been the best ever. I know Jim thinks the same.

As for pastoral poetry---in case I've confused you with this overly long post or been too oblique---I'll have more to say quo uia ducit, wherever the road takes us and things in its wake.



Beautifully said...I know most parents do not consider their children or their situation tragic....they state to me that their kids are "The best kids ever"...I love your prose and style of writing/thinking. Thank you for continuing to write about life with Charlie!


I love reading your blog. It makes me feel warm and snuzzly.

I also wish I knew latin. Because it tastes interesting.


Kristina, the best academic work is marked by its growth from passionate and personal interest, It embues what can be stodgy research-heavy tomes with the humanity that compels the reader to engage with it. Jim's book is like that,

Your translation of Virgil's Eclogues would be one of those.

I can foresee a book where you translate the poems, and accompany each with an autobiographical essay about being "aut and about" with Charlie - walking around home, or at the beach, or all the other places you take him. Charlie has a physical love of the bucolic that embodies the spirit you describe in the pastoral. Your reflections on travels with him are an wonderful examination of the nature of the elegiac not tragedy, but appreciation.

It would be the kind of book that helps the modern reader understand the great speaker of a culture supposed to be "dead." It would also reach between the NT and autistic worlds, and teach all who read us what translation means.

I'm serious. This could be a bigger seller than a book of Seneca's tragedies ever would be.

Kristina Chew

thanks so much--we met a young man on the spectrum a few years ago who noted to us that he much preferred be in a 'boring' suburb because of the quiet (haven't seen any cows around here lately but did site some Canadian geese + goslings....)---now Jim doesn't have to hear me go through all the reasons I don't like the Roman empire again and again.

thank you so much! I also like to think of life with Charlie as an epic poem---certainly it is one adventure after another!

Kristina Chew

I've always found something very comforting about reading Virgil; I've a bit of a preference for Greek, many more 'tastes'---hoping to keep up the warm and snuzzlies here!


As you know, tragedy results from a moral weakness or the inability to cope with unfortunate circumstances.
In your case, Charlie's autism was completely unexpected and not anyone's fault. From what you communicate in your blog, you and Jim cope quite well with trying circumstances resulting from Charlie's autism.
I doubt you were thrilled to learn that your child had autism. Considering the high level or academic achievement attained by both you and Jim it must have been a blow when your only child turned out to have difficulty communicating verbally and to have virtually no interest in reading. (As an aside I'll add that my husband and I are enthusiastic readers but only one of our three children reads with the same intensity and delight as we do. Our two college student boys have other interests that take precedence to reading and while it's too bad, it's no tragedy.)
Getting back to Charlie, he's a physically beautiful child with an inquisitive mind and a good heart. You could have been REALLY unfortunate and had an ugly kid who was a mean-spirited bully. THAT would have been a tragedy.
I'm aware through reading many books by parents whose autistic children are older than Charlie than learning continues in the twenties, thirties and beyond in the case of some autistic people. There is much that Charlie may be capable of in the years ahead.
I hope that if you decide to give Seneca a hiatus you go ahead with your plans to write a book about your family. Your story is an interesting one and I think a book about Charlie would be quite successful.


You have a way of expressing the very same things I feel about my son. His autism is not a tragedy and I have not "sacrificed" a lot to be his mother (as a friend recently told me). Yes, it's hard--sometimes very hard--but I feel so LUCKY to have him and the life he has given us. I feel as though I know a secret--and I'd love to share it, but I can't. You have to walk in our shoes to know it. Because of him my life is better in ways that are hard to articulate--and I love reading your blog because I feel kindred spirits in you and Charlie and Jim. Thank you!


I can't comment over on Care 2 and don't wish to login to another site.

To answer your question... because they become overwhelmed, depressed and a million other problems happen. Ashley says "well just ask for help"?? Who, what, where, when, why, how... There is nowhere to turn. And if you blast on a blog about how awful it is, how much trouble you are having... the "autism is glorious" crowd calls you all kinds of horrible names... You can't even get help from the very people who have the same dx your child has.

That... is what happens.

Instead of being "horrified"... people need to realize that there are those, that simply can no longer cope. Instead of casting stones... offer help.

Kristina Chew

Certainly we all try to help, in our different and limited ways---

Kristina Chew

@kim, a 'secret' that we know---I often feel like that too, that we've figured out some way of being and living that it wouldn't be so bad for others to at least get a taste of.....


Uh, I don't really think that being overwhelmed and depressed is an excuse to kill a child. I wouldn't call folks all sorts of names for seeking help and support... Plus I don't think the autism is tragic folks really help with that either. Folks should support people, it's true, but I kind of draw the line when it comes to taking things this far.
Also I'd like to learn greek if I ever get around to learning Japanese and trying to take all of the jingles and stupid things out of my head and replace them with lovely Japanese/Mandarin characters.

Kristina Chew

@ synesthesia, Japanese is on my list of languages to learn, 'one of these days.'

regarding reading---on the one hand, I know I'll always feel at least of touch of sorrow about Charlie and reading. On the other hand, I was incapable of imagining life without books and reading until Charlie---reading's not for everyone, not that I ever thought I could say such a thing.

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