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?