Issue 004
December 14, 2013


Memory, a heckuva thing

I was transported as I walked up the spiral staircase in the lobby of my previous apartment in San Francisco. The transport happened suddenly — without good reason — to a place and moment in Tokyo nearly a decade earlier. So burnt into my mind — so deep the tendril connections, so well formed the neural constellation defining my experiences of that city — that such memories often emerge without warning or obvious trigger. They appear like hallucinations.

These hallucinations seem to reside in the dull center of my gut — the place of residence for all nostalgia — and leave me wondering why and from where they come. They aren’t rare. I’d say they happen nearly daily or at least a few times a week. I wait in line at a cafe in New York and pick up a menu and suddenly I’m standing at the entrance to Royal Host in Kagurazaka, late for a meeting.

But as you know, this isn’t rare. 

I was having lunch with a friend when he mentioned that his wife, one day, just by moving her arm in a certain way, was taken back to a painting she saw as a child. I love the image of a thin cosmic psychic string connecting someone’s elbow to a painting seen once, long ago. 

The Japanese have a few phrases about strings and fate — there’s the overarching Unmei no akai ito. Literally: the red string of fate. Sounds so serious, doesn’t it? This fateful thread often appears when discussing true loves or star crossed loves, is often an excuse or method of assuaging the pain of a relationship full of a passionate but flawed love. In which case it manifests as: Akai ito de musubareteru or Bound (together) by the red string. As in: Honey, don’t worry, no matter what happens in this life or the next, we’ll always be bound by the red string.

Of course, this red string doesn’t have so much to do with your actual past as the implied past of past lives. Thing happened, battles were fought and, as the romanticism goes, you were bound to something way back when. It’s sort of the ultimate metaphor for uncanny or inexplicably intuitive, unexpected emotional connections. 

I find my own hallucinations or transportations or joyous disconnects are mainly associated with my 20s — arguably the most transformative and definitive years for us as adults. It’s the period of life where we decide (our hand forced by ‘time’ and ‘responsibility’ and, mainly, from those around us acquiring things (houses, babies, etc) and the tension born from seeing that) who we want to be, what we’re willing to compromise on, the type of person with whom we want to share our lives, and how we want to work. It’s also the period of life where we can choose to sacrifice short-term returns — higher salary, comfortable apartment, fancy clothes — in exchange for the experiential, leading to, one hopes, much more rewarding long-term returns. Or, at the very least, status in a frequent flyer program.

To the younger folks reading now: If you’re willing to live in that small apartment, forgo that fancy food and expensive clothing, and uphold a semblance of disciplined and focused work ethic, you can probably hack more experience into your life than you’d imagine. I spent most of my 20s working on low paying book projects — because I wanted to work slowly and deliberately and explore that form at my own pace — and traveling — because the world is large and life is short and it seemed (and seems) a pity and a waste to not try and see as much as I could — and it was all possible because of a temporary sacrifice of the material for the experiential.

Perhaps, then, this is why the roots of those years are so deeply embedded within me. The emotional textural quality of my memory of life then is so intense because it was a period of only the ephemeral. Those years can only reverberate in my gut because there is no material thing upon which to place those feelings. No physical token to help me remember. It’s a period of my life where I learned to walk a city (because it was cheaper than eating through a city, or five-star hoteling a city), learned to find great pleasure in the night-sounds of one piece of town winding down or the stirring of another the dawn following.

Considering all of that, it’s only natural that portions of those walks and nights and snatches of life turn up at the strangest of times.

This kind of memoric navel gazing and its spontaneous invocation actually has a name: Involuntary autobiographical memory. Great name, right? The Involuntarily Autobiographical. Wikipedia (of course) explains it as:

… a subcomponent of memory that occurs when cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort. Voluntary memory, its binary opposite, is characterized by a deliberate effort to recall the past.

The entire entry is fascinating and I recommend poking through it. At the very least it will give you some context with which to consider your involuntary autobiographical spurts.

But my favorite bit is what this kind of blurp or blip in our personal matrix implies for problem solving:

“The directive function of autobiographical memory uses past experiences as a reference for solving current problems and a guide for our actions in the present and the future. Memories of personal experiences and the rewards and losses associated with them can be used to create successful models, or schemas, of behaviour. which can be applied over many scenarios. In instances where a problem cannot be solved by a generic schema, a more specific memory of an event can be accessed in autobiographical memory to give some idea of how to confront the new challenge."

Or, if looked at from a slightly different perspective, the ‘ole: Solvitur ambulando; It is solved by walking.

I find these memories or solutions or hints to solutions appear when I give myself the space to allow them to appear. So, as I ascend the staircase in San Francisco, it’s only because my mind is open and in a meditative mode — as invoked by walking — that the odd connection to Tokyo manifests.

In contrast, these memories almost never manifest when I’m in an office, or multitasking on the computer or intensely ticking off a todo list. 

John Cleese of Monty Python fame has a truly great speech on creativity. Highly recommended. (It’s only about 25 minutes; great way to start the day over coffee.) The gist of it is that we have two modes of operation: open and closed. And creativity doesn’t happen in closed. I’d caveat this with: Involuntary autobiographical memory — and the problem solving brought with it — is also much more likely to surface in the open rather than the closed mode.

To bring this back to our namesake — Roden and its maker — allow me pull up a Mr. Turrell quote I shared back in July from a PBS interview:

“I spent seven months flying the Western states, sleeping under the wing of the plane, and every third night staying in a Holiday Inn, to clean up. And every site that I saw that was interesting generated new work, or new ideas. So it was really a rich time for me.”

If that — flying the open nothingness of the western states for months, sleeping under the wing of your plane — doesn’t place you in the open mode, doesn’t crack wide all the vast channels for involuntarily autobiographicaling, doesn’t deploy every aka ito into the dark recesses of past experience (fateful or otherwise), doesn’t present an excess of solvitur considering all that ambulando, then perhaps nothing will.

But — and I can tell you from experience — it does. And John Cleese, too, will tell you: Give yourself the space and time, take those walks — the world becomes richer and the solutions to blockages in life more interesting.

The time to start worrying about your mind is not when you hallucinate. It’s when the hallucinations cease, when the connectors become lazy. What that means, usually, is that it’s time to get up from the chair, break the routine, take a few more steps. Fly a plane around Arizona, if ya got one.

I ascend the spiral staircase in San Francisco and am transported to Tokyo; the mysterious machine is still working on problems for me. Thank god. Lord knows I’m too lazy to solve them all on my own.