A Word from Francesa Ciotoli of Pages and Patterns

Dear Friends—

I am sure you are feeling the same deep sadness over the terrible tragedy that took the lives of twenty-six beautiful people. Having been a teacher and the fact that my own children are the same ages as those lost, it has affected me profoundly. As news reports are surfacing that the shooter had autism, there has been a plethora of misinformation, namely that autism is a “mental illness.” I see this as an opportunity for awareness—to educate people on the facts and create a more compassionate and civilized society in which all people have a place. Below is a link to a wonderful op-ed—I am asking that you take a few minutes to read it (it is not long) and share it with others:


I wish you all the happiest of holidays and, most importantly, a safe and peaceful new year.


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    Anyone Want a Drumstick?

    While Colorado Susan persists in her claim to have no connection Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we have a different problem brewing with another guest blogger.

    If you’ve read the comments to any of my recent posts you’ll notice that Francesca Ciotoli, who writes Pages and Patterns, took umbrage (as I knew she would) at my confessed and sacrilegious dislike of Jane Hair Eyre and in particular my inability to find the dark and troubled Mr. Rochester attractive, even remotely, in a post called “Postscript to a Vacation.”

    I asked her permission to post our exchange, which she granted, with the hope it might generate a bit of wider discussion.

    Here it is, in relevant part:


    I am truly devastated by your review of Jane Eyre—it is NOT about heaving bodices at all! In fact, it is her personal growth and indomitable spirit that I have always loved—Rochester is just a conduit (albeit a damn sexy one) for her individual development. It is he who needs her far more than she:

    “Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”


    “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.”


    “I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”



    Hi Fran—

    I knew you would be upset about my review of Jane Eyre. With your permission, I’d like to take your comment here and add it to a new post and open up a discussion about this.

    I don’t dispute your characterization of Jane, by the way. And your assessment of her growth I believe is correct.


    p.s. Rochester is not sexy.


    Yes, please open it up for discussion—I look forward to it!

    P.S. Rochester is sexy because he is arrogant and proud and brought to his knees by simple, plain Jane.


    First of all, I think the character Fran is in love with isn’t Rochester at all, it’s Jane. I think the attraction is to Jane’s fierce growth into a strong and independent person who knows who she is and what she wants. Now, why she wants Rochester is beyond me, but that’s another conversation altogether…

    In terms of personal reading preferences, I acknowledge that I’d rather read George Orwell than all of the Brontës put together any day of the week. And I admit this is like comparing apples to oranges (or should I say panting, trembling bosoms to upright walking pigs and aspidistra plants), but while reading for pleasure can be different from reading for edification, there is inherent pleasure in both types of reading. And the best reads, I find, are ”beautiful and useful.”

    I can learn from a novel—I can admire (even been in awe of) the writing and respect the author—but not still not truly enjoy reading it.

    Some of it does have to do with the characters. It’s hard to love a novel when you find the main characters exasperating (like Jane Eyre) or controlling (like the overbearing St. John Rivers) or repugnant (like the manipulative Rochester). A contemporary example of this on television is the brooding Don Draper of Mad Men, who is practically impossible to have any sympathy for—until life’s sturm and drang cracks a few chinks in his terrifying beauty.

    Perhaps these are my monkish inclinations coming to the fore. I’m no romantic and I do have trouble warming fully to idealization in art, but symmetry and patterns in nature and ourselves are very appealing. Were I to characterize my own point of reference artistically, I would say that I like to stand in the place where symmetry is challenged. There’s blood and lightning there.

    So, despite the cliché phraseology, my favorite characters always march to the beat of a different drummer…

    That doesn’t make me a wannabe troublemaker. I just like shadows and interstices and blurry borders. It’s where all the really interesting action happens.

    But enough from me. Readers, what do you think?

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      Wild Ride

      Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome once again Pages and Patterns guest blogger, Francesa Ciotoli, who reflects on the pages on her shelves and patterns in her life. As always, readers are invited to share your reactions in a comment.


      Joe and I recently took Christopher and Ava to the Wild Safari at Great Adventure. Prompted by Christopher’s interest in cataloging animals according to their habitat (thanks to a favorite DVD), we wanted to give him an opportunity to see the real deal. I’m not ashamed to admit I was pretty excited about the opportunity to get near a giraffe, an animal I have adored since childhood.

      It was a spontaneous decision, something that almost never happens in our family. Outings usually require intense preparation. Christopher is highly allergic to several foods and I always have to pack more than enough food for the day. We usually prepare him for where we are going using highly structured language—“First we will go… Then we will do…”  Having pictures helps a lot.

      This kind of preparation helps decrease Christopher’s anxiety and sets limits. It requires anticipating as much as possible what to expect and plan for the inevitable triggers that cause an OCD spin, which is usually stairs. Have you ever noticed how many staircases exist around you? They are literally everywhere! Long flights, shorts steps, winding stairways, twin sets: Christopher wants to climb them all.

      In fact, the compulsion to climb stairs is so strong Christopher will race ahead to them heedless of cars or anything else in his path. So the anxiety to keep him safe often keeps us at home.

      Despite the fact that we had little knowledge about Wild Safari and no time to prepare Christopher or ourselves, we took a leap of faith, packed a makeshift lunch, the Epipen®, jumped in the car, and ventured out.

      The ninety-minute ride went smoothly—we talked about the animals and both kids were obviously excited.  Even the forecast of showers couldn’t cast a shadow on our smiles. The radio sang along with us as we pulled up to the park entrance, blissfully unaware of what lay in store.

      How could we know that to reach the safari we had to pass the water park? How could something so innocuous derail the day? Imagine the stairways of Christopher’s dreams: towering twisting tube structures attached to complex, snaking staircases that seemed to touch the sky. Christopher immediately started screaming, “Stairs! This way! I want stairs!” And from that point on, he had one mission: to get to those magical stairs. Nothing else mattered.

      We soldiered on, handing our ticket to the collector (who has surely seen his share of roaring children) and taking a slow, torturous trip through the animal kingdom. Joe spent most of it squeezed between the car seats trying to calm Christopher, I did my best to block out the screams and not crash the car, and Ava took it all in stride—as she has done since birth.

      The ride was wild, but not in the way we anticipated.

      It’s hard to keep composed at such times. Joe and I often feel that we are in a battle with Christopher’s OCD and it is emotionally and physically exhausting. As I gripped the steering wheel and prayed that the cars ahead of us would  move already so we could complete the damned tour and go home, I saw rising ahead of me the sleek neck of a giraffe.

      For a moment my world stopped as this impossible creature gracefully lumbered forward, weaving on stiletto legs among the cars. All limbs, she seemed to be coming toward me alone. I savored each long step that closed the distance between us. I rolled down my window (despite posted warnings NOT to do so) and reached out my hand.

      Running my fingers over her neck I gazed up into her luminous, velvet eyes. Her long black tongue unfurled to lick my hand and I was enraptured in that deep peaceful silence of two beings connecting.  And then she was gone—onto the next car, the next hand, the next photo opportunity.

      As we drove home—completely spent—I kept envisioning my girl, marveling at the contradiction of grace and awkwardness, the paradox of power and gentility, the ridiculous improbability of meeting a giraffe just off the Garden State Parkway. The encounter hasn’t left me; I can and do conjure it at will during stressful moments. It’s a soothing balm.

      Perhaps this is because it’s similar to my relationship with Christopher. At times, looking into my son’s eyes is like falling into a deep well. We are completely different creatures trying to live together. I feel the complex paradox and primal unity of that connection.

      Although our safari trip was awful, I can’t say it was a failure. Writing this I am struck, once again, by the contradiction that there is suffering in beauty and that I love my son because of and in spite of our differences.

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        Literature and Love Triangles

        Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome once again Pages and Patterns guest blogger, Fran Ciotoli, who reflects on the pages on her shelves and patterns in her life. As always, readers are invited to share your reactions in a comment.

        “Any time with Jamie Fraser is time well spent.”

        Until a few months ago I was unacquainted with James Fraser of Diana Gabaldon’s immensely popular Outlander series, but I was intrigued in part by the recommendation of a colleague I greatly respect. It didn’t take long for me to crush on the main character—Jamie Fraser, an eighteenth-century Scot—and it was really no surprise, given the many notches in my literary bedpost.

        My first real literary love was a writer himself, the darkly handsome and rakish Lord Byron. I distinctly remember sitting in eleventh-grade English class as our teacher recited, “She walks in beauty like the night.”  At the poem’s end, fifteen Catholic girls and one nun sighed in unison. I was obsessed with “My Dark Lord” until the following week, when we read “To the Moon,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. From that poem forward, I was totally Team Shelley. 

        File:Love-triangle.jpgLater that year, my wonderful English teacher and closet Romantic, Sister Marion, led the class through Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. I discovered in these novels two very different heroes: Rochester and Darcy. I became involved in a love triangle that continues to this day. Rochester’s raw, explosive temper complemented Darcy’s haughty and controlled cynicism and both spoke to passion in their own ways. With these men, I could be crushed in a consuming embrace and courted with the finest wit.

        I had a new English teacher my senior year, a rogue ex-nun with an Irish brogue who was five feet of feisty. This was AP English—for serious readers and writers. And I wasn’t disappointed. In this class I learned to love the mind of a man. Our first novel was The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. While I will never forget the image forged in Rand’s first two sentences—“Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked on the edge of a cliff”—it was Roark’s creative genius that fascinated. Similarly, Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird, read later that year, taught me to value a man who embraces and lives by a core set of beliefs. It is embedded in everything he says and does. Whether proclaiming loudly like Roark or quietly like Atticus, the result is the same—I love such characters for their clear-minded intelligence and devotion to their values and ideals.

        As a woman in her late thirties, I am no longer in the first blush of love. I have lived with these men for many years and our relationships have changed through multiple readings and manifold life experiences that affect interpretation. They are not clandestine affairs, but openly part of the woman I am. My husband knows all about these men, and is not threatened in the least. Nor should he be; in him I find many of the best characteristics of my literary loves.

        However, I have only recently begun to discuss these relationships with other women. And I find that many of the women I respect and admire also have multiple literary lovers. Take my colleague Claire—one of the strongest, most intelligent, beautiful women I have ever met and a professional at the highest level in her field—who can really dish the dirt about time-traveling with Jamie Fraser. The majority of these women are happily married to smart and attractive men who can and will change diapers and make dinner, and who appreciate the women in their lives.

        I say it isn’t about our real-life men at all, but about ourselves and finding who we are in who we love.

        Thumbnail for version as of 07:12, 20 February 2008Reading is a journey within and beyond me that sustains and enriches me. And it’s something I do alone—which is hard to come by for most women. I return to Byron, Darcy, and now Jamie Fraser, because in the wise words of my friend Claire, any time spent by myself is time well spent.

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          QWERTY: A “Patterns” Post

          Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome back our Pages and Patterns guest blogger, Fran Ciotoli, who reflects on the pages on her shelves and patterns in her life. This is Fran’s first “Patterns” post.

          Fran is the mother of two young children, Ava and Christopher. Christopher has autism. In her “Patterns” posts Fran will share a photograph of one of Christopher’s pattern-creations, accompanied by a brief description of the creation and some thoughts on it.

          As always, we invite readers to share your reactions in a comment.

          One evening when Christopher was just a little over four years old, I was making dinner when my husband Joe called me into the living room. He pointed to Christopher’s latest visual map and asked me in an incredulous voice, “Do you recognize that?” I looked briefly at the three rows of magnetic letters and was about to turn away when the ASD—Autism Spectrum Disorder—caught my attention (does anyone see the irony in that?)  I looked more closely and then it hit me: Christopher had recently been introduced to the computer and he had recreated the keyboard from memory, right down to the numbers above the letters, the space bar, the comma and period after the M, and so on!

          I have a picture of a two-year-old Christopher lining up those same magnetic letters on the refrigerator in alphabetical order. What floored us then was that he did it backwards. (Have you ever tried to do this—it’s really, really hard!)

          Playing for Christopher has almost always involved patterning of some kind.  Everything and anything is carefully placed “just-so” in a way that makes perfect sense to him. Between the ages of two and four, Christopher used books, socks, pillows, small plastic animals, paper plates, you-name-it to create elaborate, winding lines throughout the house. Over time, we watched what we saw as haphazard line-ups develop into recognizable visual maps. It was at the point at which he recreated the QWERTY keyboard that we realized that Christopher thinks in pictures.

          He is able to see differently than we mere “muggles,” if you will.  It is not always easy to figure out what Christopher is saying, but that he is creating visual maps is clear.  A very wise therapist once said about Christopher: “It is not always clear what is his intent, but that he has intent is always clear.” As I hope to show in further “Patterns” posts, his intentions and my understanding are becoming both clearer and more complex.

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            Call me…Red Velvet?

            Blog readers may not always peruse the comment section, so I thought I’d post a response to a recent post, ”Call me Buttercream,” which featured a celebrated passage of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (and one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages, period) as well as a delicious-looking cupcake. Pages and Patterns guest blogger, Fran Ciotoli, who teaches Shakespeare, had this to say about my choice of source of the quotation:

            Indulge the Shakespearean Teacher in me:

            Shakespeare was an actor, and his plays were meant to be acted, not read as literature. Below is the same passage from the unedited First Folio. Keeping in mind the following rules, how does the ORAL reading change?

            • Capitalization reveals a character’s intention and stress.
            • Period at the end of a line = STOP. A new thought begins after it.
            • Period in the middle of the line = CRASH ON THROUGH. Take no breath, no pause. It is the continuation of the same thought.
            • Ask a question like a question.
            • Colons = “but” or “therefore.” They are a gear shift.
            • Commas and Semicolons = Put them where they are, not where they’re not
            • Verbal conceits (alliteration, simile, metaphor, etc) are an indication of a character’s attitude and reveal their attitude


            O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
            Denie thy Father and refuse thy name:
            Or if thou wilt not, be but sworne to my Loue,
            And Ile no longer be a Capulet.

            Shall I heare more, or shall I speake at this?
            ‘Tis but thy name that is my Enemy:
            Thou art thy selfe, though not a Mountague,
            What’s Mountague? it is nor hand nor foote,
            Nor arme, nor face, O be some other name
            Belonging to a man.
            Whats in a names that which we call a Rose,
            By any other word would smell as sweete,
            So Romeo would, were he not Romeo cal’d,
            Retaine that deare perfection which he owes,
            Without that title Romeo, doffe thy name,
            And for thy name which is no part of thee,
            Take all my selfe.

            O what the modern editor doth taketh away!

            Conversation Hearts Flower

            Readers, I am a bit red velvet-faced that in my posthaste (how’s that for mixing wordplay with baked goods?) I neglected to mention that I was quoting from a modern edition of Shakespeare’s beloved play.

            Indulge the Beleaguered Defensive Editor in me:

            • Was I swept up in the wave of St. Valentine’s Day love about to crash onto February 14th’s shore?
            • Was I working under Torquemada-style pressure of multiple deadlines? 
            • Was I completely distracted by tempting visions of pastry?

            Guilty on all counts!

            candy wrapperSeriously, thank you, Fran, for providing us with the edifying comments. It reflects your deep conscientiousness and care as an educator, and provides further evidence that you—my sister in reality and in spirit—are like those of us who row and swim these temperate waters: a language-loving GEEK.

            p.s. Stop back tomorrow to meet the newest resident of The Octopus Garden—she’s quite creative!

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              The Challenges and Beauty of Special Needs Parenting: An Interview with Francesca Ciotoli

              Francesca Ciotoli, guest blogger of Pages and Patterns, has two young children, a son and a daughter. Her older child, Christopher, is on the autism spectrum. Recently, Lauren Markham, who works with me to maintain blogopus, creates the artwork, and takes most of our fun and inspiring photographs, spoke with Fran about the joys and challenges of being a special needs parent. Here’s the interview.


              Introduction: According to Fran, Christopher didn’t display the typical signs of autism. He was “placid—the easiest baby in the world.” He had language, recognized letters and numbers at eighteen months, and could recite the alphabet forward and backward six months later. Christopher would not wave hello or goodbye, however, or point or acknowledge other people. He rarely made eye contact and slowly seemed to be entering his own world. After a Mommy & Me class during which he (age two) ignored the other children and would only walk around the room, Fran knew there was something was different about Christopher.

              Fran and her husband Joe addressed these concerns with their pediatrician, who mentioned autism. Soon after, Christopher qualified for “early intervention,” a state-funded range of services for children with disabilities from birth through age five. When Christopher was two and a half, a neurologist officially diagnosed him with autism.

              A year later, Christopher began developing symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). This led to tantrums, rituals, patterning, and a serious—at times paralyzing—need for routine. The team at Christopher’s preschool program referred Fran and Joe to a psychiatrist who specializes in autism and OCD, which deeply affects Christopher as well as the family. Along with Fran and Joe, Christopher’s school teams worked closely with the specialist to coordinate his treatment at home and school.

              Today, at age six, Christopher is blossoming. He attends a regular kindergarten class in which he is fully included. He continues to receive services such as speech and occupational therapy as well as cognitive behavioral therapy to help him cope with his OCD.

              Christopher’s language and socialization is developing. He has an incredible memory and three-dimensional visual skills in which he can recreate people’s homes and other designs with building blocks.

              Christopher also has difficult days when, if a ritual cannot be completed or his routine is altered, he will have a meltdown. Such changes in comfort and predictability appear to be physically painful to him. Nonetheless, he is learning how to express his thoughts and better deal with his OCD.

              LM: What is the biggest challenge to raising a kid with special needs?

              FC: I guess I would have to say there are three. One, it’s physically challenging. It’s constantly hands-on and I experience a continual lack of sleep. Second, it’s challenging in terms of scheduling: all the planning and organization it takes to meet Chris’s varied needs, the doctor’s appointments, etc., and taking care of all of that in conjunction with having a career, with having a relationship with my husband and my daughter. I almost feel like I live two lives.

              Third, there’s the emotional aspect of raising a kid with special needs—coming to terms with it, allowing yourself to go through the grieving process over the loss of your initial expectations of parenthood without feeling guilty. Did I do something to cause this? Am I making the right decisions on his behalf? Am I doing enough? Every year the gap between Christopher and other kids becomes wider.

              The challenge is to see him an as individual. For me, this is where it connects to my professional life as an educator specializing in curriculum development with a focus on inclusion. Are we looking at inclusion in terms of kids being in a “race” with other kids? Can Christopher compete? If we look at it that way, then he’s always going to lose. If I look at inclusion in terms of whether he is achieving at his rate, Christopher can and will be successful.

              LM: What are the unique challenges of raising two children, one with special needs, the other without?

              FC: Again, the first challenge is the physicality of this type of parenting. The other challenge is that my daughter Ava sees everything that’s going on with Christopher. I worry greatly about the impact this has on her and the fact that she is developing while watching all of this. It’s a double-edged sword, because she is also the most understanding, the most compassionate four-year-old I’ve ever met. She doesn’t know otherwise, so Ava’s acceptance of her brother is a thing of great beauty. Ava’s always thinking about Christopher. At the same time, it’s not as if she only worries about him, she just wants to be with him. She misses him when he is at school and she is home. It’s the sweetest thing in the world. He’s just Chris to her. Another challenge is finding time just for Ava. She goes to her own dance class and enjoys similar activities, but there’s only so much time in the day. All parents, I think, can relate to this challenge.

              LM: What do you do personally to cope with these challenges?

              FC: Part of my way of coping is to combine my professional experience with my approach as a parent of a child with special needs. At first, I set out to learn as much about autism as I could. When we started early intervention with Christopher, the therapists (speech, occupational, developmental interventionist) would say, “You can go do something else now,” but I made it a point to sit through every session. I feel I learned in some ways how to be a therapist. That’s really the ideal, because as the parent of a child with special needs you are your kid’s primary and lifelong therapist.

              But you also have to give yourself credit and just keep going. There have been tough days when the following morning I’ve woken up and thought, “We made it through yesterday—Christopher’s safe, we’re all safe—and we are still here.” But I have plenty of other days, too, where the bar for “success” is much, much higher than survival. And we really celebrate those days.

              Again, this is something all parents can relate to, but there are challenges I face with Christopher that involve issues many parents take for granted. Many parents of typical children see “the big picture” of their child, they measure progress by big milestones—like when a child learns to ride a bike or write his name. For Christopher, it takes so much more time and effort to do what comes, well, naturally for most other children. There are so many smaller steps in learning to ride a bike or write one’s name. And these smaller steps become milestones in and of themselves.

              This is one of the times that I feel lucky—because I get to celebrate Christopher on an everyday basis. Acknowledgment from others about what those of us who parent a child with special needs must face is encouraging, as is patience and acceptance. Still, there is great beauty to what I and my family are experiencing.

              Readers, we invite you to post your thoughts in the comment section.

              Fran’s next Pages and Patterns post will appear mid-February.

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