Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thanks be to Sense-Memory!

You don’t have to be an actor to understand the concept of sense-memory. Thanks to Inside the Actors’ Studio, there’s been enough mention of it and what it means, that most folks are pretty aware of the phrase and method. If you’re one of the ten people who have never seen the show, don’t know an actor, or just have never listened intently to the ramblings of either, sense-memory is where you use an external trigger to recall an emotion, state of being, period of time, etc. Usually this is evoked for the sake of being able to easily bring about a necessary element of a character or performance.

In my case, I’ve been experiencing sense-memory long before I was ever aware of what it was or why one would use it. In fact, I can remember the first time I felt the déjà vu-like sensation overtake me. It was springtime when I was in 5th grade, walking through the back field of my elementary school during lunch recess. My friends and I were blowing bubbles from the bottles we had gotten at a birthday party over the weekend and something about the air smelled sharply familiar, like it was charged with electricity, and suddenly I was transported to a Spring that I had lived before. It hit me so hard, I couldn’t move. Even now, as I write about that day, I can feel being 9 years old, I can smell the air, the humidity rising off the thick blades of green grass that had been heated by a blazing Spring sun. I can almost feel the breeze on my face and it makes my heart race a little. It’s incredible.

One reason that particular memory is so clear is because I vividly recall asking my classmates if they “smelled” it too. It was frustrating not to have the capacity of thought to convey what I was experiencing, which was a slightly fearful but equally exhilarating occurrence; scary in that I was the only one that seemed to know what I was talking about. That moment, in that day, stuck in my mind forever. I think of it every time the sweet scent of newly blossomed honeysuckle wafts through the air and mingles with warm grass.

The only thing that transports me more easily than obscure combinations of scents and energy in the air, is a song. Not every song has a memory connected to it. Not every song evokes a specific time or place or emotion. I am, however, aware of how easily such a thing can be imprinted onto a beloved song, so when I am going through something really lousy, I’m usually very cautious of listening to anything dear to my heart. For instance, I listened to Travis’s 12 Memories exclusively when I was going through some of the worst of my breakup with my ex-fiance’. It took a long time before I could listen to Love Will Come Through or Happy To Hang Around without immediately experiencing an aching pang in my chest, a pit in my stomach, and an expectation that the weather should be rainy and grey (as it was when I bought the album and as it was when I spent hours of time driving back and forth to Santa Monica to seek solace from KS).

Luckily, the same can hold true for happy, silly, sensual memories. When I hear “I’m Only You” by Robyn Hitchcock, I am instantly transported into my 1976 Toyota Corolla Liftback, cruising down San Carlos Blvd in San Jose, with LFS in the passenger seat, chattering about how anxious we were for the Cactus Club to open. The song "So Good" by Destiny's Child calls to mind driving through Pacheco Pass in the middle of the night in a rented SUV, couriering my worldly belongings to storage locker in Los Angeles, just before finally leaving home. And every time I stumble upon They Might Be Giants's “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head”, I’m 19 years old, standing at the copier at the legal offices of AAA, the unnatural taste of Cremora glacky in my mouth, thinking of how much I wanted to be just about anywhere else and repeating the lyrics in my head, “Quit… my… job down at the car wash didn’t have to write no-one a good bye note. They said the check’s in the mail and I’ll see you in church and don’tcha ever change.” (From the files of “Sunny knows the Secret works”: They laid me off a month later. Focus enough on leaving, leaving’s gonna happen!)

This is on my mind today as a result of my picking random songs on my iPod, trying to remember that there are bands other than Kaiser Chiefs, Keane and People in Planes to listen to. I landed on “After Dark” by Tito and Tarantula (off the “From Dusk Til Dawn” soundtrack). MAN, the sensations that song evokes! Not every time, mind you, but when I’m susceptible to the self-hypnotic suggestion, it’s like a sledge hammer to my psyche. Instantly, I am right in the place where I am filled with the force of longing for sensual connection in my life (at the time I first heard the song) and not knowing how to release the stranglehold of repression that had built up over time; the discomfort of beginning to transition out of my 20s and realizing that the irresponsible lifestyle I was holding onto no longer fit me and what I wanted, but didn’t know what I was heading for or how to get there. Yet, even though a good deal of what After Dark evokes in me is remembered struggle, longing and awkwardness, I don’t mind that it brings me back to that place. And even though I know that the lyrics hold a different context than the ones I apply to them (as lyrics often do for the listener), the final lyrics of the song nail home exactly how I felt about wanting to get to the next plane in my life, wanting to know who I really am and scared of letting her see the light of day:

In my heart
A deep and dark and lonely part
Wants her
And waits for After Dark

Here I am today, feeling more true to myself than I have in years and realizing that while I face my share of struggles now, I passed through one that I didn't see an end to and can feel a sense of relief (and not the smallest sense of achievement) wash over my like a cool mist on a sweltering day. And since I sucked at keeping a diary or a journal to document these things, I’m grateful for the natural tool that is sense-memory to allow me to travel in time. Sometimes you really need to acutely remember where you were and what that place was like, in order to recognize your journey and how better of a place you are in now.


Lisa said...

That was lovely.

Thanks for sharing :-)

Mrs. Britty said...