I’ve been having trouble focusing on writing. My thoughts seem so trivial in comparison to the continuing apocalyptic events piling on top of each other. How did we jump from Covid to Ukraine? I was thinking about Gil Scott-Heron’s powerful poem published in 1971, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” wondering as I sat in my living room chair how it was that indeed, a world change can erupt while I can only watch. And throw only a teeny bit of help at it. Staggering.
The other day I was lucky enough to spend some mental time away from everything by going to my local art museum. I hadn’t been there in a long while and was grateful to quickly immerse myself in some beautiful paintings, sculptures and ancient artifacts. The piece in the photo above was acquired by the museum in 2020 when I was holed up in my house avoiding the virus. The description of this work is the following: “Loss” is part of a series WalkingStick created in response to the loss of her husband while she was teaching at Cornell University. The waterfall depicts one of the famous gorges of Ithaca, N.Y., and she developed the abstract forms as a reflection on Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce leader who resisted removal by the American government in the 1800s. For WalkingStick, the two sides represent a duality of the spiritual and the tangible, and she painted the abstract forms on a bulkier canvas, which stands out several inches from the wall as a way to emphasize the greater and more lasting power of the spiritual. This powerful meditation on personal loss reminds us of the capacity of art. News-Gazette.
Art is powerful and suggestive. In only a short while away from the news, I was able to turn my attention away from the daily terrors to other topics of interest that stem from some online classes I’ve recently taken through the Smithsonian Institute. In addition, I was reminded of some different provocative news stories that aren’t as dark as the brutal war.
Seas The Day: Life Lessons from Cephalopods : Sarah McNulty for Atlas Obscura
During the past few weeks I’ve taken classes on Antietam, the Civil War battle known for having the single bloodiest day in American history and on the Medici family who were power brokers in 16th century Florence, Italy. I took another class about the Spanish Inquisition. These three dives into various periods in history bear out the concept that brutality and treachery are certainly nothing new. My class about cephalopods is the most marvelous – a five part lecture series with a question/answer component which focuses on the fascinating strategies of marvelous sea creatures who lead complex lives which are still being interpreted by biologists. My previously unknown tidbit which I’ve learned so far is that the cuttlebones which adhered to the birdcages of my life as a source of calcium for my parakeets and cockatiels, were actually the buoyancy bones of cuttlefish. They are considered among the most highly intelligent cephalopods, along with octopuses. Three more sessions to go in that class. I’m glad I’m continuing to pour more information into my ever-hungry brain. I feel like I can continue growing myself instead of sliding into the aging abyss. But ironically, the bit of news that piqued my interest most, between the awful images of war and the political jockeying about fossil fuels and climate change, was a story about the death of an elderly man.
Science – Does life flash before your eyes? Brain scan of dying man suggests it’s possible – The Guardian
For anyone who has kept a bedside vigil beside a dying loved one, often in long periods of little communication or silence, there is the wondering. What awareness is still happening in the mind of the person still breathing? Are senses still operating during their waning connection to life? In my three most powerful experiences with death, as I sat with my father, my mother and my husband, I’ve pondered those questions. Most health care professionals told me that hearing is the last connection to go between the dying and the companions witnessing the end of life. I didn’t know what was true or not but I found myself singing significant songs of comfort to them all, whispers in their ears, hoping they felt comfort somehow. The only person who acknowledged that music was my mother whose ability to speak lasted longer than the others. And it was with her that my mind churned with the most questions. In the hours preceding her death, as she grew silent, she lay with her eyes open, repeatedly extending her arm in front of her, seeming to sweep aside a curtain, looking beyond that invisible barrier. What was she seeing? The white light I’ve heard described by those who’ve had near death experiences? Did she actually see anyone or anything at all, or was she dreaming? Until her last breath, her eyes were open. When she went still, for one brief moment, she furrowed her brow in what looked like a classic puzzled cognitive expression. I sat there, thinking, “oh no. I’ll never be able to understand what transpired in that instant, so different from what I’d witnessed before.” A thought, a dream, a reflex? Who knows? Except maybe now, with just a small amount of measurable data, maybe one day, the mysteries about death will become more explicable. Research on lab rats at the University of Michigan showed increased electrical brain activity associated with consciousness for a brief time after the heart ceases to function. Does that always happen to humans as well as animals?
For me, the brain is as much the final frontier as space. Science has come a long way in discovering its mysteries. Still, there is so much to be understood. I’m not a particularly mystical person. I like facts that are supported by hard evidence more than appealing ideas with no data to support them at all. Still, I’ve had experiences both while conscious and unconscious that I can’t explain, experiences which feel as real as a rock I can hold in my hand. I’ve always had vivid dreams that I can recall with both abstract and visceral elements. I remember some of the oldest and most powerful ones from many decades ago. One instance was back in 1988, dreaming of my death which felt incredibly real. I woke from that one, crying and inconsolable, even as Michael, right by my side, was explaining that it wasn’t real, that I was next to him alive and well. Two days after that night, I found out that dream occurred at the exact moment my oldest friend Fern was dying, miles away in Utah in the middle of the night. I’ve never forgotten that eerie dream, now approaching almost four decades ago. Was it the psychic bond between us built over thirty years which made that happen? I’ve puzzled over it for years. We’ve all had moments when we find ourselves thinking of someone when suddenly the person calls or texts and we say, “amazing, you were just on my mind.” Are those episodes coincidences or something more? Do our brains establish networks with others? Scientists are studying not only the human brain, but those of animals which for years were believed to be consciously inert. Research indicates otherwise. England recently included lobsters, mollusks and crabs in their Animal Welfare Bill, recognizing them as sentient beings. Imagine how much more will be discovered.
I’ve had dreams that were so physical that they’ve wakened me. With the device I wear on my wrist which measures so many biological functions, I can observe the moment when I went from dreaming to alertness, or when my heart rate accelerated. Those dreams are so palpable, I not only remember them, I can literally feel their physiological vestiges when I wake. A few days ago, I was having a complicated dream about hiking in the mountains by myself. I was getting nervous because I was afraid I might fall or get hurt. I started looking for other people to join in their group efforts as a safety valve for my current isolation. After a time, I suddenly found myself with Joanne, a friend I’ve known for five decades and with whom I worked for over thirty years. We sat on a high cliff together, resting, overlooking a lake which had a gorgeous tree with magenta-colored fruit at its edge. We talked and admired the beautiful view. After awhile, she pulled two attractive fuchsia mints from her pocket which she assured me were herbal restoratives designed to replenish energy after exertion. Before I ate mine, I noticed a little squiggle on top, the sign of where the batter had been dropped from a spoon onto a cooking surface. The details were amazing and the dream felt long. I woke after it, remembering everything. Next, I picked up my phone to check for messages at the beginning of my day. The first was one from Joanne, left fifteen minutes earlier, asking if I was awake and wanting to chat. When I compared its time stamp to my sleep record, the message was left during my REM sleep when she’d been my dream companion. Coincidence? Maybe. But I don’t think so although I can’t prove anything. The psychic thread that connects us is something we’ve both felt over the years, simply a matter of course as our relationship deepened. I feel those connections to others. Even the most scientific among us now casually acknowledge the psychic bonds we can’t explain.
I’m not sure I can even begin to describe the stunning dreams I’ve had about my most intimate people who are no longer alive. I’ve had many with Fern. I like the ones in which she’s wearing red, always her best color, although the ones which show her eyes daubed in daffodil, her favorite eyeshadow, make me smile. My mother always said she was never really leaving after her death, but would continue to watch over me, whether I wanted her around or not. I’ve dreamed my cranky maternal grandmother many times, boorching, which was the family word for complaining, in her thick accent. Dad appears in his monochromatic creamy beige outfits, flicking his mustache and talking about having a plan. And of course, there are my Michael dreams. Just acknowledging them as I write elicits embarrassing electric shocks in my body. Over these past few years since his death, I haven’t had anywhere near as many dreams about him as I’d like, but a number of them have been whatever more than memorable is, jolting me awake with my heart pounding away in my chest, wondering if I’d survive the intensity of the contact. My Fitbit has registered some remarkable readings during those moments. As I’ve lain there, trying to recover, preferring often to go back into where I’d just been, I’d think of the note he left me in the pocket of a shirt sewn into the mourning quilt he had made for me, which assured me he’d be with me forever. I certainly feel that which continues to be an unexpected surprise.
So what does any of this mean? Will everyone have some shred of consciousness that goes on after their hearts stop? When you’re connected to someone in the deepest way will that tie go on forever? And what exactly is forever? What precisely is going on in our brains that rumbles below the surface, sending cues, many of which we might be missing? I really can’t say. I don’t suppose I’ll be around long enough to find out, if indeed science ever catches up with that humming machine below our skulls. But I wish I could know…just a little bit more.