A few weeks ago my next-door neighbor Jan told me she was sorry to be parking her new car, less than a year old, so close to my driveway. Her old Highlander just wouldn’t start any more and she said she was having it hauled away as a donation to a charitable group which might make it usable again. She wasn’t thrilled with her new car, but felt the old one had done more than its duty to her, so she was ready to adapt and move on. I made a mental note of it and proceeded to my own lists of things to do. However, I soon noticed that it not only kept being parked out on the street, but was being moved from one space to another, eventually winding up back in her driveway. Yesterday afternoon I wanted to give her a book so we met in the drive as we’ve been wont to do since the pandemic started. While chatting, I asked her what happened with the planned departure. She said she’d called a towing service who came out, were able to jump the battery and recharge it, leaving it completely serviceable. So now it’s going nowhere. She loves that old car and as we talked, we were suddenly off on reminiscences about our vehicle misadventures from our youth, when we drove cars that were mostly falling apart. I remembered one of ours whose floor was rotted out. We were stopped by a police officer for having a nonfunctional taillight. He took one look in that old white Nova and told us to drive it home and never take it on a street, ever again. Ah, youth.
I honestly can’t remember how many old junkers Michael and I owned in our early years together. Most of them were ‘60’s Chevrolets of one make or another, with an average cost of $150. The one I loved most was the silvery blue Malibu which we managed to keep running for several years. I remember driving it to Chicago before our wedding, absolutely certain that it wouldn’t break down on that trip. Which it didn’t. What happened to that blasé confidence that used to be my primary attitude? I still have confidence, but life has definitely made me more cautious over the years. Anyway…Someone smashed into the rear end of that car while I was driving west on Springfield Avenue. The culprit’s insurance payout was more money than we’d paid for the car so we pocketed the cash and tied the trunk closed with a piece of rope. As Jan and I talked, I suddenly remembered that toward the end of that car’s life, it honked every time I made a left turn. That memory elicited a good laugh. I started thinking about all the small memories tucked away in our minds, recorded forever but not always easy to access. Just how do we get them out of the layers in our brains?
Dr. Greg Dunn (artist and neuroscientist) and Dr. Brian Edwards (artist and applied physicist) created Self Reflected to elucidate the nature of human consciousness, bridging the connection between the mysterious three pound macroscopic brain and the microscopic behavior of neurons.
“The brain is composted of about 75% water and is the fattiest organ in the body, consisting of a minimum of 60% fat. Humans have the largest brain to body ratio of any animal, and the blood vessels in the brain, if stretched end-to-end, would be about 100,000 miles long.” Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
According to multiple sources such as Scientific American and NASA, the circumference of the earth is approximately 24,901 miles. That means that if you circle the planet four times, you bank about as much mileage after that journey as what lays between our ears in our discrete rolled-up brain. That’s a lot of room for the incredible number of daily operations going on in there, not to mention the storage capacity of stuff like a car that honks at every left turn that was junked over forty years ago.
I think about the ways we paper over do many hidden memories. In my community, a local radio station has a slogan that drives me crazy. After a pedestrian example of a random daily childhood event, (most of which occurred within a time frame when I was already an adult,) a childish voice says “a simpler time.” Ha. When I was a teenager in the 60’s, I would arm myself with a bottle of baby oil which I’d slather over my body. Then I’d lie in the sun for eight hours, either at Rainbow Beach at Lake Michigan or poolside at the Thunderbird motel, which let you stay all day for a dollar. I’d come home with flaming red skin and blisters. After the pain stopped, I thought I was gorgeous. Was that a simpler time? Of course not. I was paving the way for full body dermatology checks in my adult life to catch skin cancers before they catch me. Life seemed simpler but really I just didn’t know any better.
I’m not sure that the sentimentality of “simpler times” is anything other than an excuse for the escapes everyone would like to make when the world feels like too much. We pile all these innocuous respites on to our overwhelmed brains. There weren’t really simpler times. Just think, there’s a massive playground full of distractions right inside your mind, if you can only gain access. Loads of hidden memories lying there to provide texture to our current times with the layers of the past. Practicing my own brand of a little laziness seems to help me peel back some of those brain folds. Now that more tolerable temperatures are allowing me to sit outside without freezing, getting drenched or boiling, I plop myself in a chair, poke headphones into my ears and allow myself the luxury of listening to a random selection of tunes. I think it’s commonly agreed upon by the medical profession that listening to music is calming, reduces blood pressure and anxiety and improves memory and sleep. For me, it holds both evocative connections and triggers to people and to the past, unfolding long-forgotten events from ages ago that don’t often find their way to the front of my consciousness. I’m just usually too busy trying to accomplish all the tasks on my to-do list. Recently I’ve been thinking of what I’d like to experience one more time. Most of them are impossible for one reason or other. But I can find them in my head. Here are several of them, in no particular order.
I don’t recall when I became frightened of heights. But when I was eight years old, I could spend a few hours at Wicker Park pool, making round-trips from the water back up to the high dive, sailing over and over through the air with not a shred of fear. One more time.
I’d like to feel myself cutting all my high school classes for an afternoon like I did back in 1967. Fern and I would be tooling down Lake Shore Drive in her brother Glenn’s black Buick convertible, sharing a sackful of White Castle burgers and fries, listening to WLS radio, our long hair blowing around while we laughed, completely unafraid of any consequences to our delinquency. One more time.
I would like to be standing in the kitchen on 23rd Street in Sioux City, Iowa at age six, with my mom, right before bedtime. She would be getting my glass of warm milk and a sugar cookie, one that she’d made herself earlier in the day. The cookie dough was cut with a round glass, not a cookie cutter. This evening snack would be the last time I’d drink warm milk, as my older brother and sister had finally teased me so badly about still being a baby, that I never drank warm milk again. I don’t really remember how it tasted but I know I was always happy when I drank it. One more time.
I would like to watch Roger Federer play tennis in person again. One more time.
I can’t remember exactly how many Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers concerts I saw in my life. I think altogether there were probably around twenty in total. Because Michael owned a record store for almost three decades, we were comped dozens and dozens of free concert tickets. We literally saw hundreds of concerts, some in small clubs, some in huge stadiums and some in elegant, dazzling concert halls. I can’t think of almost any famous group I haven’t seen, beginning with the Beatles, or any genre from rock to reggae, classical to jazz, R&B to country that I’ve missed. But that Grateful Dead concert at the beautiful Fox Theater in St. Louis, in the early months of my relationship with Michael is as vivid in my memory as if I’m just on a bathroom break with the music still pouring off the stage into an intimate, magical atmosphere, all my feelings elevated into a joyous few hours. One more time.
While all these images and feelings tumble around my mind, I am still keenly aware that as the music plays on, I’m in the sanctuary of my backyard, the home of the birds and the bees who frolic in what can only be described as a fecund, lush atmosphere. I’m surrounded by mating creatures from the cardinals to the wasps producing babies in the air, to crawling critters in the grass and on the leaves of my plants. All the while the flowers are bursting forth with powerful sweet fragrances amidst trees heavy with blooms. Only recently I wrote about my four year wait for a kousa dogwood tree to flower, a tree I planted to honor the power of my endless relationship with Michael. This week its first blossoms showed up.
I looked up the origin of the birds and the bees as a reference in explaining sexuality to the young. The closest literary reference appears to come from the first stanza of an 1835 poem by Samuel Coleridge called “Work Without Hope.”
“All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—And Winter slumbering in the open air,Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring! And I the while, the sole unbusy thing, Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.”
There is an irony, with me plopped into the midst of all this robust life-affirming and creating activity. I live in self-imposed celibacy because for me, there can be no other romance than my internal unending one with Michael. Listening to the memory-stimulating music that elicits one churning emotion after another, I am inundated with visions of the forty-five years I spent with Michael. So many one more times I’d like to have with him, some simply too personal to share. But there is one favorite baudy one that always happened during balmy days like these, when I’d be working myself to the bone, pouring the sweat that’s my famous summery trademark. When I couldn’t bear another lopped weed or a trowel movement, I’d stroll over to Michael, swiping at the rivulets dripping down my head and say, “Man, I’m so hot.” He’d look at me, smile and say, without fail, “You’re telling me.” Every single time.
One more time…on I go.