body talk 3

(image courtesy lensable)

(image courtesy lensable)

(continued from here first and here second.)

Whenever I write something on the back of my hand I remember Susan because when she saw those ink-stains she’d always point and roll her eyes. “Nice ink,” she’d quip.“You are such a quirky hipster.” She’d tell me that grown-ups used post-its and wonder if pens were poisonous. Now, whenever I put nib to hand I see her smirking at me. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing “milk” to remember to go to the store or “doctor!” for flu shots or “STREET SWEEPING” so I move my car or “eating crow” to remind myself of an idea I want to write about, it’s Susan I remember, as if her friendly teasing literally got under my skin.

For me, muscles are sometimes repositories for memories. I know about muscle memory but this is something different: It’s as if performing a motion while thinking a thought buries that thought deep into my muscle so that if I ever move that way again, even if my mind is completely occupied with a different subject, that previous thought will ambush me out of nowhere. When I brush my daughter’s hair I invariably think about a camping trip I once took with a friend when I cut myself quite deeply while opening a can of refried beans. You’d think this memory would be triggered by can openers or pintos but no, it has inexplicably lodged itself in the motion of brushing my daughter’s hair. I gently work the tangles to the ends and remember how that same friend, the one who calmly talked me through the shock of seeing blood pouring down my arm, once told me that I had done a good job of exposing my city-dwelling kids to nature. Other thoughts hide in other motions like when, while chopping garlic, I always think of a guy named Charlie I once had a crush on, whom I met as an undergraduate. We were in a senior honors class together and at first I found him unattractive–overweight, thinning hair, frumpy clothing–but when he talked, his intelligence worked on me like a hypnotist’s pocket watch, a dancing python, a hand creeping slowly, inexorably, charmingly into my pants, and so even though I had a boyfriend and he was dating someone else I wanted him and every time I chop garlic I remember how it felt to sit next to him, so close and yet so impossible, and my knife trembles just a bit. What garlic or sharp knives have to do with Charlie I don’t understand: it is an inconvenient but deep-rooted and ganglial connection, my body acting upon its own reason and rhyme.

The same thing happens when I paint a room. How many rooms have you painted, one might ask. I remember the black, hot pink, and gray paint I chose for my room as a teenager, the gray walls of the Haste Street studio apartments I lived in as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, the clean white I chose for the houseboat in Sausalito, and the walls of this house we bought fifteen years ago which I have painted and painted again over the years and it occurs to me that although I have lived in many different places, I only painted my favorite and those are the ones I remember most vividly, as if placing a skin of paint on those walls connected me permanently and viscerally to those places, forever. Anyway, every time I paint a room I notice a pattern: I start at point A and work my way methodically, usually clockwise, letting my mind wander where it wants, singing along to the music on the stereo, and when I’ve moved all the way around to point A again, my brain goes back to the thought I was thinking and/or the song I was listening to when I stood there before. It’s uncanny and yet it happens every time. Something about the smell of paint and the the heft of a brush in my hand, that exact spot in the room, that rung on the ladder facing that precise point on a compass, triggers the memory of what I was doing here before. A thought has been holed up there like a dormant creature, a ghost in a closet, waiting for me to come release it. In fact, a couple of months ago when I repainted our living room I lifted my brush to the upper left corner of the eastern wall and out of the blue a memory flashed into my head of a student I once had, a tall, gangly kid named Drew who played baseball, and I wondered where he is and what he’s doing and then realize that the last time I painted this wall was the year I met him, his junior year, which means my affection for that nice kid somehow got mixed with the paint and it’s been waiting nine years for me to come back and remember.

How does this coupling between idea and gesture work and why? Perhaps my subconsciousness is not yet done with that thought and this is its mechanism for dealing with unresolved issues. Or maybe this is my body’s method of directing my mind to repeat memories that feel good (or bad), a way of entertaining or comforting myself, like watching old and favorite movies over and over again. Or maybe I’m just getting old, no longer creating vivid new memories, simply traversing the same old ruts in my brain.

I don’t know why or how but I know for certain that my body is a vehicle for and to my past.

Does any of this happen to you? Or is it just me?  Is there a neurologist in the house?

*

(This is part 3. To read what came before, click here first and here second.)

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

23 comments

  1. “His intelligence worked on me like a hypnotist’s pocket watch, a dancing python, a hand creeping slowly, inexorably, charmingly into my pants, and so even though I had a boyfriend and he was dating someone else I wanted him and every time I chop garlic I remember how it felt to sit next to him, so close and yet so impossible, and my knife trembles just a bit?”

    I want not only to be able to write like you, but to be in your brain. Or just by your side! You are seriously brilliant, chère Anna!

  2. I couldn’t say it better than The Girl above did… it was that exact passage that made my heart go pitter patter.

  3. macdougalstreetbaby

    Beautifully written, Anna. And, no, you are not alone.
    I am thinking about your question regarding the past and present and our (in)ability at forging new memories. I know I find comfort in the past. Everything has already happened. The here and now is more fragile. On the other hand, there is hope in a blank canvas, reminding us that anything is possible.

  4. So, so beautiful. Muscle memory, memory as ghost, ghost as muscle…yes and yes. How much of this unseen information guides are actions? Sensory and sense and nonsense. Gorgeous writing:)

  5. Jon

    Hi, I stumbled across your blog following a serendipitous consecution of curiosity-driven link-clicking. I have to say I really, really like this series. The idea that the body exists as a separate entity and is capable of carrying out a life of its own would make a great piece of fiction, I think. These personal essays are great too – they taste rich and possess a vibrant narrative. I can certainly relate to the discovery of memories lingering in the strangest places – this is a little different, but sometimes I’ll find family members in certain gestures, usually exclusively employed by the relative in question, but the scary thing is that when I do it, it’s completely unwitting – a result of filial imprinting or DNA demanding to be expressed perhaps. I really don’t know. I wonder how much of my body is really listening to me. Perhaps as we speak it’s performing some autonomous, imperceptible metamorphosis. The prospect of someday waking to find my parents in the mirror is both fascinating and terrifying to me. Anyway, I really enjoy your writing, looking forward to your next post!

    • Hello Jon–
      I think maybe that’s what the Jeckyl/Hyde story is about: mind vs. body? Or conscience vs. instinct? But yes, I agree this idea could be more fully explored in fiction. (I’m wracking my brain trying to remember if Philip K. Dick wrote something like this….) I love your idea about the gesture– how a personality can be summarized in one action and that perhaps it is heredity. Some people think personality is unique, but I think it is inherited, or at least mostly biological, more than we’d like to admit. And yes, every day I glimpse a little bit more of my mother staring back at me from the mirror. I suppose when she is dead, this will be even more alarming and comforting to see her there. Thank you so much for finding and reading and commenting!

      • But maybe the personality is in the movement. And when you perform that gesture, you inhabit that personality. I wonder what an actor would say about that. Thanks for making me think.

  6. I love this series, Anna.
    We are intricately put together and it’s fascinating to think about how our minds and bodies are connected, how they are known and not known at the same time.

    Whenever I read your writing It just feels so good – it’s much like experiencing a creative buzz. Only good things can come of it.

    • Sorry for the delayed response, Karen. I don’t know where my head is. Buzz! I love that idea. I was just thinking about buzzing earlier– busy like bees, busy hands and brain– Thank you!!!

  7. Wow. You have wicked sensory memory…

  8. I DID ask, “How many rooms have you painted?” Well, how many times, because I have not painted much at all. This post reminded me of what you said in your first post about your friend Lisa saying, “that bodies are where we store the truths and memories we don’t deal with and that they have their own intelligence, one we could learn from.”

    I am sure that there are movements that remind me of things, but I am not sure that every time I move that way I remember the SAME thing. I have not noticed that happening, but now maybe I will. But because of my job, I often am concentrating on the actual movement I am making and the sensation in my body. But I’ll see.

    • Interesting, Terre. Because my friend Lisa is what I think of as a body-person, a person who feels and experiences a lot through her body– she is extremely healthy and does yoga and dance and body work and somatic learning, etc.– while I am what I call a head person, I sometimes forget I even have a body. Maybe you pay closer attention to what your body is telling you all the time, while my body has to find tricks to get me to listen. Who knows.

      • Ah, I don’t always pay close attention, but it is something I work at. And sometimes, as do so many, I ignore what my body is telling me, for instance when it is tired, but I want to stay up to do one more thing. But I on a journey to pay more attention and live in the moment, so it is a work in progress. I, too, have my keys in my hand while I am looking frantically (because I am going to be late if I don’t leave that moment!) in my purse for them! Or worse, I wonder where my glasses are when they are on my face. 🙂 Yet, I still try to acknowledge sensation.

        I am still going to look out for the movement memory thing which you described.

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