An Excerpt From My Non Fiction Project

Getting close to the end. There is no Angus Mohr interview material here, just me synthesizing cool stuff. This section is still a draft. It needs a few citations, and I’m not sure I’ve quite connected all of the dots, but look at all those pretty Greek words.

Chapter 8

Waltzing Alone

You’d never want to set your watch by Colorado seasons. I’ve seen spring show up in February. I’ve seen it wait until June. In the winter, looking at the mountains makes me ache for summer and wildflowers—hiking up alpine slopes and long winding drives. The sun is so seductive–blue skies and wind sculpted clouds–it’s easy to believe that a new season has already been born.

Yet, those buds in the branch are just as likely to freeze and die without ever having once unfurled as they are to become leaves that catch the sun and grow. Warm weather signs can be deceptive, and about the time you unpack your shorts, you’re hit with three feet of snow.

And even if it doesn’t, even if the snow holds off, the buds unfurl, and the sun keeps shining. It’s all temporary.  In the end, Hades inherits all.

However, I have a seasonal clock that is much more dependable. Death’s season begins on August 5th, Ronni’s birthday, and lasts till January 1st when we’re well past all the holiday trappings that surround her death date of December 14th. Calendar winter for me is more of a cold spring. Some seasons are harder than others. Years that mark milestones she’ll never pass precipitate a lot of pain. Years where the reluctant turning over of memory brings on some new epiphany lighten the darkness. A lot of times, those are the same year.

There is no love without a willingness to suffer for it. Joy and grief are the two lungs with which we draw and mix our blood. We need to be able to fill them and feel them. They give our hearts a reason to beat.

This is of course, not how we’re supposed to look at it. We’re supposed to treat our grief like a summer cold, something to cover with a hankie because it might be catching, something to get over as quick as possible so you can get back to normal, something that if it hangs around too long is going to need medication.

No matter how much our friends care for us, how deep the well of their empathy, some things no one can “be there” for.  Some weights we carry, we can only carry alone. Sure talking helps. We can run off the surface foam, hear ourselves think, maybe find one of those epiphanies. But pouring out our souls can also leave us feeling like islands. Empathy is a choice, other people can try to feel along with us, but they can also step back whenever they like. Our grief is not theirs. The knowledge that they can’t help, knowing that there are no words, leads to silence. They don’t mean to leave us alone, they just don’t know what to do.

Stephen Pinker calls music auditory cheesecake because he comes from a discipline that labels emotions in terms of excess and their expression as frivolity.  Contemporary culture’s scientifically formulated, easily bought and branded humanity becomes a vessel of numb contentment and polite empty phrases. In the modern mythos: Hearts get broken and need to be fixed.

Yet, I’d point out that our most enduring technologies are not those of war, but of music. It doesn’t make evolutionary sense to devote so much of our species’ resources to something that is, judging by Pinker’s analogy, an indulgence.

Driving home from school on a September afternoon, my chest locked up and radiating pain, I struggled with the utter loneliness of grief. Then like a whisper from whatever guardians straddle the worlds the thought came: Tonight, there will be music.  And everything eased. I’ve gotten into the habit of spending Wednesday evenings at Cannon Mine Coffee here in Lafayette. It’s an open mic, but there’s a core group of musicians that play together like it is play, and they’re good. I like to sit and just listen. “John the Revelator,” a blues song covered by a wide range of bands since Blind Willie Johnson first recorded it in the 1930s, is a particular favorite. It moves me, but there’s no dancing here. I like feeling like I’ve disappeared, like I’ve slipped between the cracks of whatever they’re playing. I like letting go of anything holding me together.

***

Human memory is extremely suggestible and unreliable. Except for when it comes to music. Most people, even those with no musical training will accurately remember the pitches in their favorite songs.  When it comes to folk songs like “Happy Birthday” where there’s no correct key, a room full of people will follow the key of whomever started singing. Songs take on what Levitin calls a sonic color in our minds, allowing us to not only recognize unfamiliar versions but predict the artist for music we’ve never heard before.

We take for granted our ability to recognize a tune even when performed in radically different ways. Yet, the fact that we can identify the intro of “Hurt” whether it’s the Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails, or the Angus Mohr version has helped challenge long held beliefs about how our brains develop and use memory.

Once, brain scientists argued about whether or not the brain constructed memory from leftover impressions of experiences centered around a prototype idea, or whether memory was a file cabinet of recorded information in discretely labeled manila folders. Because we privilege linear order and hierarchies, the researchers long assumed one paradigm or the other must be correct.  Hierarchy is the supernatural shaper of the western mind. We are taught to construct every meaning in terms of a pyramid with the best and least accessible at the top and the base and common at the bottom. If one thing is right then the other thing must be wrong. Theories, and the people who construct them, must compete like runners making furious strides toward an arbitrary finish line.

Questioning the validity of hierarchy’s omnipotence is as heretical as undermining the power of any other vengeful god. It is an abstraction so ingrained in our culture that we literally have a difficult time seeing the world without its lens. In the Disney film, The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible bemoans the need for his family to hide their talents because, “… if everyone is special then no one is.” The implied assumption is that without hierarchy and competition, there is nothing to individuate us, nothing to aspire to, and nothing to keep society from “descending” into mediocrity.

Doctors have long described culture bound syndromes where people become mentally and physically ill because of their belief systems. Despite the correlations between feelings of failure and worthlessness that precede depression and attempts of suicide, doctors and other professionals would not consider our hierarchical worldview a “syndrome.” They might mention the benefits of competition, but far more likely, they would dismiss the question as silly. To most people, it’s not a world view. It is simply the world.

Except that it blinds us. The most recent research on memory is that both theories when spliced together, do a much better job of describing how the mind works than either of them do alone. We do have vast stores of all of our discrete experiences. We do have a fuzzy network of abstractions that connect our memories to our sense of self. The more connective strands, the easier the memory is to recall. If there are gaps, we fill them with our abstract ideas about what should be there.

In thinking about this research, I started to question whether memory really represented the past. Its Latin root is memor, and it translates to mindful as well as remembering. In Memory and Material Culture, Andrew Jones describes memory as “evoking meaning” rather than simply carrying information, and claims that we should treat “…mind, body, and world as fields of interaction…” rather than, “separate entities.” Jones describes layers of memory. The episodic records, the mimetic representations of the external world, the linguistic and mythic constructions of meaning, and the theoretic extrapolations that come from the rest.

Our hierarchical worldview tends to privilege particular layers. Academics often see theory as thinking of a “higher order” than the episodic record. Artists might place a greater value on the mimetic, writers could be expected to champion the linguistic. Yet when we step back from competitive belief systems, we can apprehend all four interacting layers as parts of a whole.

There are differences in levels of abstraction. To use a metaphor: Episodic memory is forest soil. Memetic memory is the varying root systems of the linguistic plants that feed our theoretical animals. This metaphor itself interacts with your mimetic memory which draws on your episodic memory in order to create linguistic constructions capable of communicating a theoretical understanding. Like all metaphors, it attempts to say more than its words, and like all abstractions attempting to model the concrete, it is incomplete.

Analogies break down. We get to a place where our abstractions cannot contain our experiences. Too often, we try to excise the aspects of our experiences that are incompatible with our abstractions. We pretend that painful episodes don’t exist even though they are recorded in our mental soil. Left ignored, those episodes can concentrate and poison the ground.

According to Daniel Levitin, language and music share some pathways in the brain but where language lights up specific areas,  music, like the wash of a cleansing rain, lights up everything. Aristotle gave us the word “catharsis” for art’s potential to help us release and purify emotions that could poison us if left stagnant too long.

Mimesis is art’s capacity to represent the wholeness of our existence. Where it intersects with catharsis, we experience a sense of completion. We go from feeling disconnected and alone to feeling connected to the very ecstasy of life that Greeks divided into philos, eros, and agàpe, and we’ve simplified to “love.”

The structural pieces: patterns of notes and words can be seen to represent philos, the rational, ethical, aspects of love. The escalations and disruptions of that pattern, as well as its culminations that result in ideas previously discussed, such as beat and groove, are sheer eros: passionate love.  Agàpe is the point in which the two intersect with the listener’s imagination, in-the-moment experience, and memory to trigger feelings of transcendent spiritual love.

In that state we become porous.  Cleansed there are spaces for the stars to wash in. It’s  what Aristotle called “unification with the common cause.”

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