Transient in Memory

These memories carry knowledge. These memories carry our identity
I awoke today with the distinct impression that “you can descend from the most intelligent family in a Balkan swamp, and fortunes change when the Persian Empire shows up.”

Rewind

I must preface my awakening by divulging that I’d received an unexpected back rub a day earlier. And that my very first therapeutic massage was meted out to me on a high-class campus, designed for spiritual and emotional healing. Among agenda items for a week-long stay was proffer of personal mediation technique … and therapeutic massage.

Never having been handled in this way before, I’ll confess I considered massages vaguely dangerous; I had no real inclination to get naked with a stranger I was paying to touch me. It all seemed so … illicit. I was a complete neophyte when appearing for that first appointment. Having spent previous days admiring sophisticates who knew the intricacies of spa treatments, and the best coffee houses in Gstaad, I chose not to divulge inexperience to this man. Steep concerns for disrobing overcome, my mind raced as I lay face-down on the table, simulating relaxation while imagining threats inherent in physical intimacy.

The confident-looking masseuse inquired after my treatment preference: “What would you prefer? Shiatsu, Swedish, deep-tissue, Rolfing?” My response is no doubt indication of my need to be in therapeutic community. Anxiety fueling a fight-or-flight response, I gave no forethought to an ugly retort: “I don’t care, buddy. Just get rubbing.”

I probably should have paid closer attention to the itinerary caregivers had set out for me. I’d have had facility with terms like ‘bodywork’ and ‘emotional release.’ I remember a deferential tone when the masseuse replied, half to himself. Something about unblocking muscle memories.

I’m pretty sure it was not ten minutes later that I began blubbering into the padded doughnut cradling my face. I ached over my father’s absence, dead a quarter century.

I had vague concept of ‘repressed memory,’ and absolutely no concern that I was afflicted by it. Likewise, I’d no personal identification with childhood trauma: anybody who knew me even vaguely could readily discern that I was raised in affluence and privilege. I’d had a blessed run through childhood, never suffering anything approaching real adversity.

In the next fifty minutes I was dragged through humiliations I hadn’t thought of in years. Specific pangs of immature regret, crushing childhood disappointment.

Fast forward

Having for some time been involved in family history research, I’m – twenty years on – a bit savvier about the role of memory. I’ve always been ‘nasally aware,’ and now grasp that my olfactory bulb’s location makes smell the sense most closely associated with remembrance. It’s no wonder that a burst of lilac fragrance will have me thinking of my maternal grandmother.     I assume science will soon lend credence to genetic memory. There’s a lot going on.

Two days ago, I eased into the flow as a clinician surprised me by adding an upper-back massage to treatment I was expecting. I really didn’t have time to make conscious decision before being manhandled into deep awareness of emotional bond with childhood pets. I was raised by female German Shepherds. With each animal in turn, I was urged to re-experience nearly unconditional love in an age of general innocence. (Nearly unconditional: Pixie and I ran away from home after receiving maternal maltreatment I no longer recall. Though it did not surface in my recent session, I still carry shock and a keen sense of betrayal: my best friend in the world trotted home for dinner.) I sensed affection shared with Tripod, a three-legged stable cat who – generally disdainful of mankind – appreciated me most in that family-of-origin. Buck, Peeper, I recalled them all. I was even able to conclude that my dim-witted quarter horse Brandy liked me more than I realized. Tears flowed and the nice, Asian lady with decidedly probing fingers asked no questions.

It surprised me to wake this morning, with discernible recognition that my dreams had placed me in a crude village where most men bore my father’s chin and brow. We all looked more alike than we did different. I hadn’t given much thought to ancestral ties to tribalism since Native poet and activist John Trudell asked an Oregon audience to pity us Anglos: “They once had the drum. They once had the songs and ran with the reindeer. Have compassion for your White brothers and sisters; they are Human Beings who have lost their way.”

None truly know whether my paper lineage, to European kings and queens, has any correlation to actual genetic ties. But dream recall seemed to inform me that once, long ago, my clan held dominion. Sure, I sensed their span of sovereign control was almost insignificant; it felt as if we were but a few hundred people in that crude village. But I had palpable impression that ancestors believed our destiny was largely within our control.

I’ve not been particularly disciplined about dream recall. It’s not a common occurrence in my lived experience. Clear memory grew notable this morning as I emerged into semi-wakefulness. Consciousness took the upper hand and a chilling ‘thought’ arose: no matter the kingly status of the men with my father’s chin, others arrived on horseback. With more durable weaponry they mastered my stock, dwelling in the marshes.

I’m not sure of the moral of this story. For all I know, I’m mourning lost hope. (My ‘Art is Breaking Out All Over’ theory is premised on the idea that, as Trump dismantles American institutions, creatives with stifled aspirations are turning to self-expression.)

I’ve never submitted my DNA for testing: I have no known connection to the Balkans. But I have managed to build intense emotional connection with others in my family tree who struggled through the American Revolution: I know in my bones the relief they felt, exercising opportunity to throw off tyranny.

Maybe I’m responding to something in those bones. Warning me that my genetic code has been through subjugation before. That liberty is so precious in the history of mankind.

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