The Half-Sacred Disease

Natalie Mesnard and Patrick D. Watson

Natalie Mesnard teaches writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Her poetry has appeared in Tampa Review, Journal, and Gettysburg Review; her fiction has appeared online at Green Mountains Review and Kenyon Review Online and in print with Copper Nickel.

Patrick Donald Watson is a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at the Beckman Institute of Science and Technology at the University of Illinois. His scientific publications have appeared in Hippocampus, Neurocomputation, and Frontiers in Neuroscience. He is also one of the authors of Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation (MIT Press, 2012), an interdisciplinary work exploring links between the neuroscience of memory and the preservation of historical information by social systems.

 
I remember disjointed details. It was winter, and we’d agreed to meet at a pub called the Blind Pig. I was wearing a tweed coat that felt like armor and wondering why I’d decided to go out. When I walked inside, my glasses fogged in the boiler heat. I didn’t know if you’d be close to the door or somewhere in the inner shadows. Because I couldn’t see, I listened.

A collective murmur, the feeling of travel close to home.

After a time, I found you compressed into a booth and already holding a beer. You slid it across the table for me to taste, and I touched the sweating glass. I didn’t know what to talk about. I’d never dated a scientist before.

Once I saw a study about how cheese contains opiates. Afterward, every time I ate cheese, I wondered, “Is this addictive?” Before I met you, I thought science was about those kinds of facts.

But you said you studied memory.

 

I study amnesia. Memory turned out not to exist. I study the space where memory was. We’ve been slow to invent a new name. Besides, when I call the thing I study memory, everyone believes me because I’m a scientist. Ever heard of a strung-out cheese junkie holding up a grocery store? Scientists like sensationalist attention as much as the next guy.

I do remember us talking about memory. But I see you on that night wearing a denim jacket. And I recall a glass-topped table with business cards under the glass, and whiskey, not a booth with beers. There are two bars in our town called the Blind Pig, and we’ve been to both. But there is no film of our first date.

This is the disagreement that killed memory. Our personal pasts aren’t factual records. They’re made up on the spot, synthesized from disjointed details to answer questions we have in the present. When we developed writing and cameras, we began to see that our remembered pasts differed from our recordings.

Let’s use your scene because it’s prettier. I don’t trust my brain.

 

I don’t trust mine either. I’m a poet, so I try to remember according to lyric patterns. But so do you. Our themes are just different. Yours is uncertainty, so you focus on our inability to know what happened that night.

That uncertainty is why scientists like you pull the world apart into individual threads and study them. But then you act like poets do, folding experience up in ways that give words power. At the Blind Pig, you told me giving research dogs epilepsy is called kindling.

I’m certain this happened because we have a record. I thought that word was beautiful, and later, I used it in a poem.

 

Epilepsy used to be called the sacred disease. Hippocrates then claimed it had a natural cause, “and its supposed divine origin is due to men’s inexperience and to their wonder at its peculiar character.” [1]

Now the disease is only half-sacred because we’ve learned how to light the fire. Kindling involves pulsed electrical stimulation to the brain while the animal is anesthetized. Emotionally difficult procedures like kindling are drained of images in an attempt to protect the people who have to do them. Occasionally, evocative names survive.

I remember this discussion happening between our second and third drinks. I waited patiently at the bar, even though I’d left you alone. When my glass is empty, I have nothing to do with my hands.

 

While I waited for you to buy more drinks, I wondered if I liked you, or if I was just trying to prove I was smart.

There’s a writing exercise I do with students. Take a real, physical object. Maybe it’s a rose. Now, write down words that thing reminds you of. Some people would say chocolate, or red. I’d say backache, and beach. Then we write down words attached to those words. Wages. Hurricanes. Salt water. Hunger. Repeat ad infinitum.

When I see the word kindling now, it’s unordinary. It used to have only its usual definition for me: small, glowing materials used to build warmth. Something about beginnings. Now I’ve added the memory of my first date with you.

 

Memories and places are made in the same parts of the brain. Except, what is a place? I built my memory of the bar by saying what was in it: drinks, glass tables, and you. How do I describe an empty space?

I left the bar and turned right. Back at the car, I waited patiently until the drinks wore off. I drove two miles east, then turned south. My house has very little furniture. Two big, square rooms, branching into smaller, more specialized rooms.

Places are the flip-side of memory: specified by what they are between, or bounded by. There must have been a gap of several days between arriving home and later navigating to your house, but I didn’t keep anything to fill that space.

 

The story of a relationship ignores the spaces between the events on its timeline. But in that gap, I wrote the kindling poem.

 

Your apartment was long and thin, with lots of furniture. Every room was small and specialized. You were in the shower. I could hear the pipes groaning and smell your neighbors smoking. The floor was dark in places, and I wondered if the hardwood was bad. The room was empty, except for a crumpled piece of paper on the coffee table. I flattened it out and read the poem inside.

 

I had chosen that apartment because it seemed like a place a writer would live. The kitchen was small and grimy, even though I love to cook. The first time I ate breakfast in there was with you. I said I had almost no food, but somehow, you made pancakes. We stayed at the table until afternoon, winter light spilling over the dirty dishes between us.

 

What we’re doing now is called mental time travel. It’s part of Endel Tulving’s theory of memory. He describes memory as a personal sensorial record: the subjective experience of our past, stored in a private diary no one else can see. With this record in our mind, we can travel anywhere, anywhen.

 

In my early twenties, I was engaged. I lived in my fiancé’s house in the suburbs, where I haphazardly dug up the yard. We ended up calling my garden the peanut, because it looked like that: two adjacent ovals I filled up with plants.

Natalie Goldberg, in her book Writing down the Bones, describes creative writing composition as a Buddhist practice. She says to fill up a notebook every month. My fiancé took up seven notebooks. I write less than one per month.

Though I’m not a Buddhist, I do believe writing is a constant struggle to record what we decide to remember. If I opened one of those notebooks now, I’d find myself weeding in the backyard, my fiancé returning home. He looked clean, and I wanted to mess him up a little.

One night I woke up and knew I didn’t love him. I remember leaving the bed, going to the window to look out. I saw the moon, the dark skyline, his rose bushes in the yard.

 

I’ve never had a diary. But when I was ten, and my parents were getting divorced, I kept birds: zebra finches. I had a stripy, loud male and a drab, quiet female. One day I was cleaning their cage. As I opened the tiny door, the male flew past my hand.

My mother was just arriving home. She couldn’t know there was a loose bird. I lost sight of him over my shoulder, and when I turned around, she was already shutting the door. We looked, but he was gone. Mom must have been so sad. I was crying, and there was nothing to be done.

I went into the bathroom to wash my face. I reached for the faucet, and he exploded up from where he’d been hiding by the sink. I still see him, wings extended.

Now it’s your memory, too. You can travel to my past by seeing the bird’s black-and-white stripes and the handle of the faucet. There’s an overweight, ten-year-old boy, with red cheeks, turning, his eyes following the same trajectory the bird took when he opened the cage. From close to far to what’s unknown.

 

When I teach new writers, I ask them to write about what’s close. I believe the images that come are important, even if no one knows why yet.

That notion is an entry point for making art. I’m reminded of reading George Saunders’s essay in the New Yorker about his writing mentor, Tobias Wolff. I was touched when Saunders said, “Teachers, if they are good . . . do something almost holy, which we never forget: they take us seriously.”

 

But is that good?

My training was adversarial. In school, my neuroanatomy instructor would cut up a brain, turn it upside down, and dye it blue. She’d give it to us and ask, “OK, what’s this?”

Challenge made me good at science. It was in this class I learned living brains aren’t solid. They are hot and bloody and pulse beneath your hand. If you cut one out and set it on the counter, it settles like fruit gelee.

The brains we dissected were fixed with plasticizing chemicals. I remember picking up a frosting spatula and cutting perpendicular to the longitudinal fissure with firm, lateral pressure. When I felt the cavity of the lateral ventricle, I lifted out the blade and sliced again. Lifting off the detached section revealed the medial surface of the temporal lobe. It was a perfectly smooth single vermis. The width of a finger, the length of a hand, tapering to a point. So different from the surrounding cortex that it looked like a parasite.

I later wrote my dissertation about that thing. The hippocampus. Your memories are folded up inside. Contrary to its name, it looks very little like a seahorse. Sometimes Greek and Latin names are hard to take seriously, but until we agree on what to call something, we can’t work together.

 

Sure, it’s a struggle to understand memory and be on a team. And intellectual struggles are fun. But my mom had breast cancer in her forties. She did radiation and chemo, lost her hair, came out alive. She was lucky, the way so many people aren’t. Why are scientists pulling seahorses out of brains when they could be curing cancer?

 

Why are you writing poems?

 

The Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Ninth Letter included a short story about cancer. The author, Sheila Schwartz, made her main character cancer itself, giving the disease a voice we could understand and take on its own specific terms.

My mom got sick when I was a teenager. I didn’t have a writing teacher back then, but I did have my diary. I wrote about everything else: swim team, TV, my sister. If I could time travel, I’d go back and tell my younger self this made sense.

The move you just made—turning my question back on me, implicating poets in the same neglect I accused neuroscientists of perpetuating—is a rhetorical play called metastasis.

Poetry is a way we understand, and hold, things that hurt.

 

You said scientists pull the world apart and try to see its threads. When we did that for polio, we found a single thread twisting through every patient. With cancer, we found our patients were a snarl of unique threads.

You and I rolled seizures and first dates into the word kindling. Cancer is a million diseases we point at with a single word. What they all have in common isn’t death. It’s life.

Almost every cell in the body wears out and is replaced. The birth of new cells is balanced by the death of old ones, to keep specialized organ systems from growing out of control. Cancer is when that process fails.

 

When my engagement failed, I rented a house on an old farm and slept with my landlord, an artist who carved intricate shapes from metal. We went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina and imagined living there in a salt-worn trailer, away from my parents and his ex-wife.

Later, I lived with a poet. I thought I would marry him, but we didn’t even get a ring. When I stopped feeling love, I experienced it as a feeling of rot. But I was always the one who left.

 

Early in my scientific career and first marriage, my grandfather, also a scientist, turned one hundred years old. That year he published his seventy-fifth research paper, and his wife of seventy-five years died.

The same year, my son was born, and my wife and I separated. At my grandmother’s funeral, I pushed my grandfather’s wheelchair into the church’s tiny elevator. He waited for the door to close. He said he’d heard I was having troubles. He was sorry I had to go through that. Then he asked if I’d read his latest article or seen the story in the Times that quoted his research.

 

I worked for a botanical garden for a while. I wanted to be part of an ecosystem larger than my own. While I was weeding, I found signs labeling plants with their Latin names. If you tried, you could learn the genetic history of every plant. Some trees had been planted a century ago when the garden was made.

I loved how names were woven with the living world, secret properties waiting to be known. Plantago major, wild plantain, was a weed, and had to go. Rosa rugosa, the beach rose, grew in twining thickets, unlike the delicate tea roses in the wedding garden. They thrived best on coastal bluffs, but we managed to keep them alive.

Words stick to me like burrs. With so many to choose from, I thought finding order would be easy.

 

You started calling me Oat (Avena sativa) because one day, typing fast, you hit the o instead of the p. One letter slipped and I had a new name. Evolution is accumulated errors. Names for species are arbitrary. Darwin called naturalists who made lots of twiggy distinctions between species splitters and those who made big groups lumpers. Everyone could have a special name, or we could just call the tree alive.

 

I used to be a splitter. I had to give this up when I became a teacher.

Once I was talking to a bright student of mine about a story. I told her, “The writing is so heavy, I can hardly bear its weight.” She responded, “But I carefully edited every line.”

“That’s the point,” I replied.

She asked me how to revise. I talked to her about vines. They push forward blindly, using a clockwise pattern to sweep tendrils over the environment. When they hit a structure, they attach and grow even faster.

 

Touch is an old sense: “What is against my envelope?” When neurons first grow, they navigate by touch, their pseudopods branching out until they find another neuron growing toward them. Then the two intertwine their fingers and stay like that until they die.

 

A poem is a chance encounter between a writer and her audience. Sometimes the two intertwine, but we can’t know exactly why or for how long. The reaction is only something you can half-control.

When your son and I first met, it was spring. He likes small things, so I picked him a flower: Magnolia grandiflora, a huge white bloom whose anatomy locates it as ancient. He carried it the entire day, to the coffee shop and the bakery, even when the petals started to wilt.

 

The growth of new neurons is carefully controlled. Adult neurons almost never divide. That would have unpredictable consequences for the network of connections they have made with other cells.

There is only one part of the adult brain where new neurons are born. It’s the hippocampus.

Some think we need new cells to add space in the mental diary to hold new experiences. But when new cells touch old cells, it doesn’t add empty space. Every new cell twines its branches through those of an existing tree.

Two zebra finches. One bird flies away but is not lost forever. My grandparents, my parents, me.

 

In a fiction-writing class, I once asked students to describe a character in a moment of unpredictability.

I wanted them to stop abstracting the feelings of their protagonists, saying they were lost, lonely, in love. I wanted them to be immediate. To transform the words between scene and audience into empty space.

 

One day I was walking with my son on my shoulders and he sang: “We are walking, we are walking, we are walking to the coconut tree!”

I have no idea why.

 

I recall being in bed with you on a day just warm enough to open the window. My mind traveled. I imagined leaving my bed and walking away.

Instead, I put my hand on your chest. My palm atop your solar plexus. I have no idea why. When I touched you, you stopped talking. In honor of this, I stopped talking, too. The silence was a shock. I listened to you breathe.

A single murmur, a memory of home while traveling.

 

Now it’s my memory too.

 

Notes

[1] Hippocrates, Prognostic; Regimen in Acute Diseases; The Sacred Disease; The Art; Breaths; Law; Decorum; Physician (Ch. 1); Dentition, trans. W.H.S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library 148. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1923), 139.

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