So the other evening I heard the most terrific commotion from Dylan’s room; nothing unusual about that, I thought to myself as I took the stairs two at a time, except that something seemed different about this noise. But by the time I got to Dylan’s room it had stopped; he was sitting on his bed, absorbed by something. As I approached I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: Dylan was shredding his Pinocchio book.
What are you doing Dylan? I asked, alarmed. What are you doing to Pinocchio?!
But Dylan had disappeared into the zone where he is unreachable. I moved towards him wondering whether or not I should stop him from tearing the book but he pushed me firmly away. He was intent on ripping. I watched Dylan work carefully through the pages tearing each one into strips and throwing them in his waste bin. He was systematic and purposeful. The book had to be shredded.
Tearing pages creates sensory effects which can be soothing or stimulating if you are autistic. Although Dylan doesn’t usually shred, he appeared to have established a rhythmic pattern of tearing which he found calming. Still I was alarmed – not because of the shredding per se but because it was happening to Pinocchio.
Dylan has been in love with Pinocchio since he was a boy. Although he has collected various Pinocchionaelia over the years, his focus has settled on this particular book. I have described the book, in a previous post, as a sort of witness or friend. The book goes everywhere with Dylan; it waits behind him on the piano while he has his meals and it sits on the laundry basket in the bathroom, open at a favourite page, while Dylan takes a bath. It is carefully positioned on his bed while Dylan is in his bedroom and is carried in his backpack wherever he goes. Dylan even manages to hold it when he goes climbing.
Why then would Dylan shred it? His relationship with the book had seemed as usual less than an hour before when Dylan had it with him during his evening meal. Had something happened to the book to ‘spoil’ it perhaps? Could Dylan be upset because he had accidentally torn or spilled something on one of the pages or it had become creased or in some way damaged? If Dylan had learned to love the book so much maybe an alteration to it, however slight, would be disappointing and frustrating for him? This was the only explanation I could come up with, anyway, for Pinocchio being so suddenly, and so thoroughly, rejected.
To try and understand how Dylan might be feeling I searched for a parallel in my own life. Was there something important to me which I could feel let down by? I could think of plenty of objects which have sentimental value or which I care about and wouldn’t want to damage. I keep these in relative safety, however, rather than carrying them with me. If I restricted myself to thinking about things which are portable the only object I could come up with was a mobile phone. Perhaps it would help me empathise with Dylan if I imagined the frustration of not being able to get a signal? Might I be tempted to bin or smash my phone? I’m actually not very interested in mobile phones so maybe not. Still, this was the closest I could get to imagining how it might feel if something I depended upon let me down.
My concern at the shredding of Pinocchio reminded me of how I would panic if we didn’t have a spare dummy in the house when Dylan was a baby. I’d been dead set against using dummies (or pacifiers) before my children were born but Dylan turned out to be a sucky baby who wouldn’t settle without one. So for years we lived in the shadow of Dylan’s dummies – just as now I was living on the end of Pinocchio’s strings.
Although Dylan has an interest in collecting duplicates this edition of Pinocchio was a one-off; he has two copies of another version but there were no spare copies of this favoured edition. As Dylan turned and tore the pages, however, he appeared calm. I considered the possibility that I might be more anxious about this than Dylan. I remembered a woman I used to live with who would sometimes take a pot from the kitchen cupboard and hurl it across the backyard on her arrival home from work. She was a teacher at a London secondary school and smashing crockery helped her to release stress. Though the behaviour made me anxious it calmed her; afterwards she would put the kettle on for tea as if nothing had happened. Perhaps in a similar way shredding was helping Dylan to feel better.
This helped me understand why Dylan might feel compelled to tear his book but I was concerned that the benefits would be only temporary. For while my housemate smashed pots she didn’t like anyway, Dylan loved Pinocchio. What would he do without his book by his bed through the night? How would he eat his breakfast without Pinocchio? Or be comforted by the weight of his backpack if Pinocchio wasn’t in it? What was going to happen to us without Pinocchio?
The dummy-sucking years had made me anxious. One day a friend advised: loosen up a little Liz – he’ll stop using it when he’s ready – when did you last see an adult with a dummy? Perhaps it was my more relaxed attitude as a result of this advice which helped Dylan to give up his dummy soon after. He did this with the same determination that he had kept it for so long; one day he simply spat it out and never bothered with one again.
I would have done well to remember this instead of messing around online trying to source a replacement copy of his preferred version of Pinocchio. That night, Dylan took himself quietly to bed and the next day simply carried on with his life. It’s true he replaced the shredded Pinocchio with one of the alternatives but I saw this as positive change and development, like a hermit crab discarding a too-tight shell for one in which there is still space to grow. The thought of Dylan the hermit crab brought to mind one of my early poems, ‘The Littoral Zone’. The piece opens:
This is the littoral zone, you say, as we scavenge below strandline,
picking out shells and weeds for the children.
You lift a Dog whelk, turn it in long-fingered hands,
place it gently on your palm. Hermit Crab, you whisper,
as the barnacled shell rolls over, sprouts a pincer.
Gull-eyed, you pluck a tiny periwinkle from the sandy flats,
show me a speck of crab curled inside,
explaining it will leave this for a bigger shell in time.
This recluse, this little anchorite, is in the first shell of its life:
strung out ahead of it, across this beach, a future of univalves.
I like that, I tell you:
the thought of wearing a right-sized shell
with room enough to grow; getting the fit right –
feeling snug (but not too much).
And I realise, as I say this, that I’ve been crawling backwards,
reversing across the littoral zone –
cramping into ever smaller shells.
The poem goes on to describe the discomfort of this process and the way in which it can involve a loss of self and ‘voice’. It ends more optimistically, however, with the speaker resolving: ‘I fill my lungs, cry with the gulls’. As I re-read my poem I enjoyed the link I could find, years later, with Dylan’s pattern of growth and development. It also occurred to me, however, that a couple of shifts of direction I’d made recently could be considered as ‘reversing across the littoral zone’.
Last month, for example, I resigned my management role at work. Given most people seek promotion rather than demotion this is clearly not the expected direction of travel, professionally or materially. I prefer, however, to think of it as seeking a larger not a smaller shell; my reasons were driven by a desire to make space in my life for the things which matter more, not least my children. The amazing thing, I said to a friend, is not that I quit but that I managed it for so long.
Stepping back at work has had some immediate unexpected benefits. Within a couple of weeks I had drafted a couple of new poems (even with the ‘plenty else’ going on in my life for which reason I had resigned my role). They weren’t particularly successful drafts but I had, at least, made space for them. The other day I picked up the manuscript of poems which has been languishing on my desk: perhaps I would get around to sending this to a publisher now too?
After reading through it, though, I decided not to bother. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it. The poems are OK. Most have already been published in magazines. But really, I thought to myself – does the world need another book of love poems? Probably not. And I kept finding faults with the poems. I’m tired of conceits. Unimpressed by sestinas. Fed up with words like ‘heft’. So I did something I have never, in all my years of writing, done: I scrapped the lot (well, six poems got a reprieve). Time to move on.
I like the idea that starting over with my poems and giving up my management role are not very different to Dylan shredding Pinocchio; we sort of liked them, but they didn’t really satisfy us anymore. Something else will turn up, I tell myself, if we stay brave and open-hearted.
Barrett, E. (1998) ‘The Littoral Zone’ in Walking on Tiptoe. Staple First Editions.