Broken glass. Toothpicks. Safety razors. Syringes. I am freaked out by these things in equal measure, along with most other sharp objects. On the surface, my reticence around pointy stuff seems phobic and downright irrational. But fear isn’t the issue at hand; I’m not afraid, even though each of the above items fills me with trepidation. I recognize they aren’t harmful, particularly if one is careful, and I also know most are helpful tools that improve my quality of life. But when I see them, I feel something akin to fiery bolts of electricity shooting down my legs from my sacrum to my heels. When the object in question is truly troubling….imagine rusty nails sticking up from a board…I will also feel stinging pain down the back of my arms, wrapping around my chest. In fact, I felt these sensations just now as I wrote the sentence above. It doesn’t seem to matter if I witness sharp objects in my personal space, in the media, or in my minds eye; the sensation is exactly the same.
So, it’s a bit odd that I picked up fencing a number of years ago. It’s even weirder that I chose historical sword play, not sport fencing. Here’s the difference:
The weapons used in sport fencing (aka “Olympic” fencing) don’t look much like the rapiers, hand-and-a-halfs, and claymores that are their antecedents. Instead, the sport fencer’s foil, epee, and saber all have narrow, dull metal blades with a small saucer-shaped hilt and a grip-shaped handle. To me, these weapons have only a passing resemblance to any sort of sword, even though the activity’s uncanny strategy, footwork, lunges, and parries have deep ties to the ancient art of defense. Yet, they give me little synaesthetic feedback in the form of mirror-sensory pain, although I do feel mirror-touch synaesthesia and mirror-proprioception when I see sport fencers practice or compete. And of course, many sport fencers are complete badasses (a quality I both respect and appreciate) including my neighbor across the street at M-TEAM Alexander Masselias, whom sadly, I’ve not yet met. Olympic fencing is a graceful, aggressive, and brilliant sport.
Historical fencers use replica swords crafted to match the weapons representative of a particular time and place. My rapier “Ruby” was built by Darkwood Armory to recreate the German pappenheimers of the early 1600’s, and I fence in the style of the Renaissance masters: Capo Ferro, Salvatore Fabris, and George Silver among others. Ruby is a cut-and-thrust weapon with a diamond-shaped DelTin blade and a custom made piercework hilt. Like the sport fencer’s weapons, my rapier is unedged; however, it looks much more like the swords one sees in museum collections, such as the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England. She’s rather terrifying to behold. Even scarier is the sight of my opponent wielding a similar weapon pointed at my chest, even if that person doesn’t have my OLP tendencies, with a personality and name for their rapier.
Thankfully for MTS me, safety is a key component of historical swordplay. Fencers tip their rapiers with a “bird blunt”, an arrow cover used in bow-hunting wild fowl. These blunts prevent rapier blades from piercing helmets, gorgets, and bodies. But that rubber covering does little to deflect my mirror-sensory pain. It hurts me every time I wield my Ruby, every time I spar with another swordsman, or compete in a melee. And it hurt just a few days ago when I fenced with my friend Lidell Simpson in San Francisco’s Marina District, with the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge as our backdrop.
Dell and I had a grand time dueling, although both of us are a bit out of practice. I haven’t fenced in more that a dozen years, even though I’ve occasionally done footwork drills as a means of getting some cardio exercise and keeping my legs strong. My absence from fencing has its roots in the end of a romance and my move to San Francisco, but honestly, at the time I was actively fencing, I was a less than stellar swordswoman.
Seriously, I gave fencing my best effort. I did 500 lunges on each leg every day, read the works of William M. Gaugler, drilled most mornings with a dummy custom built for me by my maestro, practiced with the Order of the Sanguine Rose twice a week, and taught at that school’s children’s program. But I still sucked. The one time I won a melee I did so by hiding behind the taller, larger fencers, and using them as human shields, then lunging between their bodies to “kill off” my opponents. Finally, when everyone was gone save for a “wounded” man on his knees, and a teenaged fencer with skills more meager than my own, I took them both out and ruled the field for a nanosecond.
I now chalk up my awful technique and lack of fencing acumen to not understanding my inherent neurological weirdness, and what it means to have perceptual differences. When I was actively fencing, I knew something was amiss, but I didn’t understand that I was a polysynaesthete. I got it that I was a hot mess, and that I couldn’t integrate some of the simplest fencing lessons, but that understanding provided little succor. For example, my maestro would teach me an offensive technique, and instead of countering it with the appropriate defensive parry, I would mirror the movement he just showed me. Or, I would stand facing him as I learned footwork, and he would say “right foot….right foot….YOUR OTHER RIGHT FOOT!!! because I would default to my mirror-touch tendencies and align my body in his mirror image, left foot forward. And, I would get so distracted by the waves of pain coursing down my legs when another person pointed their sword my way, I couldn’t focus on the techniques I had worked so hard to learn.
A decade ago I found little joy in historical fencing, even though I wanted to participate in this sport with a driving passion. I did my best, but I was constantly confused and distraught from the juxtaposition between the moves I was trying to execute and my tendency to mirror other people’s bodies. I was shocked with pain in the presence of rapiers, daggers, and other sharp objects, a pain so intense and fiery, it could not be ignored. I physically felt every blow to my comrade’s bodies, but I didn’t understand that this was wholly normal for neurodivergent me. And more than that, I didn’t know that I could learn to acknowledge these strange sensations and continue playing at swords.
Last weekend, I had the loveliest afternoon fencing with my friend Lidell. I was filled with an exhilaration that I always knew was inherent in historical fencing, even though a dozen years ago I could not maintain that fire. I felt completely in my element with my beautiful rapier Ruby in hand, and the expansive lawns of Crissy Field under my feet. There was a giant art installation on the grass just north of us, a huge and beautiful blue whale. And, I was in wonderful company, sparring with the medal winning and highly skilled swordsman Lidell Simpson, my fellow synaesthete.
I’m sure some of Sunday’s delight is due to the comfort that comes with understanding my cross-modal style of perception, outing myself as a synaesthete, and connecting with a global community of fellow neurodivergents. It’s been immensely helpful in my ordinary life to identify as neurodiverse, and to recognize my many perceptual differences. But truly, I think the biggest change between fencing in the early aughts, and fencing in 2018 was this: I had the rare opportunity to fence with someone who brings the best of his own neurodivergence to the “elegant savagery” of historical fencing.
Thanks, Dell. You are a true friend!
A quick note: if you’ve not seen the HBO program “Sharp Objects“, I highly recommend it, even for those of us with MTS. This dramatic series featuring Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson includes synaesthete and LA Roller Girl Appelusa, who made the awesome skating scenes happen. Yay Appel!!! And thank the Gods for synaesthete friends…