The Brain Is A Really Weird Thing

I’ve been thinking a lot about the brain for the past five years or so.  Something lucky, before I begin: My brain still works pretty well.  I do crossword puzzles, I am physically active, and I read and write all the time.  Even so, there are no guarantees.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s don’t care all that much about what you’ve done to stave them off.  To say nothing of brain injuries.

Here are some of the reasons I think about the brain – maybe more than the average person. First – one of my sisters suffered a traumatic brain injury four years ago, and I have been very involved in her rehabilitation, and in her life since her accident.  This is a sister I never had a close relationship with, but who I would now kill for.  This is basically the premise of a memoir I just completed about being a sister.  Second, my father died of complications from dementia, a harrowing experience I wouldn’t wish on any family.  Third, I started writing a novel that was based on the premise that you could “freeze” your brain (or something like that), and “live” forever.  Or, at least your brain could.  I got well into this novel until I hit a wall and set the book aside for a while.  But in the meantime, I did a ton of research into the brain.

So, this is a subject I obviously find fascinating.  Just recently I read a brand new memoir called Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes On My Dementia by Gerda Saunders.  It is an amazingly raw and tender and sad and joyous story.  I had originally heard the author a few weeks ago being interviewed on NPR, and immediately went to the library to get the book.

A few out of many memorable passages:  “I write to remember, to inhabit for a while, my earliest self…”  And, “I convinced myself that shining light into the lonely and scary place of my mother’s dementia – and mine- could possibly be of value to other people who live with dementia, whether it’s their own or that of someone they love.”

I highly recommend finding the interview on NPR, and also reading the book.  And if you can bear it, and haven’t done so yet, read Still Alice by Lisa Genova, and see the movie by the same name (with Julianne Moore).  I know it’s hard to talk about this, and read about it, but the more we face these issues with some type of understanding (and even humor and grace) the better equipped we might be to survive with our humanity intact, and maybe even enhanced.

(I also shared an essay I wrote about my father’s dementia in a post on 4/27/17.)

The Art of Place

(Every story takes place somewhere… In my work I often go back to Golden, Colorado, where I spent most of my childhood.  Here is an excerpt about Golden from The Queen of Everything.)

The town of Golden still has a nicely kitschy sign arching boldly over the center of Washington Street, the main thoroughfare that runs north to south, paralleling the Coors brewery. It states Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden, Where the West Lives!

To our family, hailing all the way across the country from Plainfield, New Jersey in our cruise-ship-like Plymouth, this Howdy Folks! sign was exciting and exotic stuff. We had left the gritty, grimy, graffitied city life behind; left behind our Irish and Polish relatives, and arrived in the Wild West.

Lookout Mountain rises hugely and majestically out of the western plains that slope immediately upward out of Golden’s city limits. The Table Mountains – North and South – form flat, dusty sentinels on the town’s northeastern and southeastern edges, and the powerful fist of Castle Rock looms over the sprawling Coors plant. You can see the outline of its distinctive shape on cans and bottles of Coors beer.

Our family took a collective breath of the clear, piney Colorado air and noticed something else. Another smell. Something slightly yeasty and malty, cloying and sweet. This odor, the distinct odor of the brewery, belching out steam clouds of its processed hops and barley into the dizzyingly thin mile-high air, was a sense memory my sisters and I would forever associate with Golden, and with our childhood there.

That day though, that first day, the brewery – a few blocks east of downtown – was just part of the exciting sights, sounds, and smells of our new Golden life.

A River Runs Through It

I write a lot about being a sister, and I am always looking at sibling relationships in both real life and in literature. One of the most memorable portrayals of a sibling relationship is in Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It. (It is also in my top ten of best movies ever made.) I learn something new about both writing and being a sibling every time I re-read this classic book. One of the great “lessons” of the book is the despair of never being able to “save” a beloved brother, but also, finally, acceptance that this was so.

One passage from the book that I particularly love: “Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as ‘our brothers’ keepers,’ possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting of instincts. It will not let us go.”

My brother’s keeper is one of the most familiar phrases in our civilized society. But what about my sister’s keeper? Is there a rule book for this stuff, or are we all just winging it? Maybe my family of six sisters is just standard-issue dysfunctional, and we are all walking around trying to figure out our lives, and putting on a good face. As the oldest of the six sisters, I have always felt the fierce obligation of sisterhood, or “the haunting instinct” that will also, like Maclean, not let me go…