If I hadn’t read this set of symptoms in a book on grieving, I might think I was coming down with a neurological disease:

Bewilderment, confusion, indecisiveness, clumsiness, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, a reduced attention span.

I am so unbelievably disorganized.  (I only notice this when I am home alone, back from distracting and engrossing visits, trying to take care of business.)  I stagger around here, tripping over my own feet, completely defeated by mounds of unsorted papers, unable to find documents I could swear I put away carefully, unable to remember what I just set out to do.  All tasks, regardless of size and urgency, seem to have the same bland proportions, so I can’t prioritize, I can’t put them in any kind of order or hierarchy.  I mean, I do — I get things done — but it’s a senseless, blundering process, like wading blindfolded through a warehouse full of empty cardboard boxes.

Today I suddenly got why this is.  God knows I’ve received enough education, here and here, to put the pieces together.  It isn’t only emotional.  It is, in a sense, neurological.

I’ve lost my habits.

Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives.

“Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show,” says Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It controls habit-based behavior that we don’t have to think about doing.” . . .

The interplay between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex helps explain the resistance [to change]. . . . Doing [something] the way [you’ve] always done it draws upon the basal ganglia and burns less fuel than making a change and involving the prefrontal cortex.

What this passage doesn’t quite capture, but what I’ve read elsewhere, is that the basal ganglia are not only incredibly pervasive in our lives, but incredibly good at running things.  Not all habits are bad.  In fact, getting actions down pat and then hooking them to the brain’s automatic pilot enables us to function smoothly, gracefully, and efficiently much of the time, and frees up the prefrontal cortex to deal with novelty, beauty, and trouble.  The habit system is what we call “second nature.”  How almost unconsciously you drive a car (usually coming off autopilot in an instant if there’s a threat), how briskly you run through your daily routines, how nimbly you navigate the familiar terrain of your house and neighborhood (probably tending to take the same paths day after day), are all examples of the huge role habit plays in our functioning.  Unconsciousness gets a bad rap, but you really wouldn’t want to try to drive a car on the highway with just your conscious mind.

I could intone “Habit is a good servant but a bad master,” and talk about bad habits and addictions and our power to break them (the subject of Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding’s forthcoming book You Are Not Your Brain), but that’s another post.  This one is about clumsiness, disorganization, and grief.  Are you starting to put the pieces together?

Fortunately, I’m not trying to drive a car with just my conscious mind.  Driving and editing are among the few activities in which I still feel competent and collected.  I don’t want to do anything but work because that’s the one place (other than behind the wheel) where I still have a sense of mastery and orientation.

Getting around my apartment and neighborhood, through my errands and my day, on the other hand, are all new.  I have no habits that aren’t bent around taking care of Jacques, and those habits are now useless, severed, their loose ends trailing on the ground and tripping me, often into wells of pain.  Here’s where I used to . . . this is when I used to . . . The emotional part of it is that relationships, once they settle in, are about habit, and habits are about relationship.  There’s safety and familiarity and companionship and an almost sacramental ritual repetition in the routines you share with or perform for the other person.  You inhabit those habits, and all you need to be conscious of is how comfortable and dear they are.  When they’re gone, they are much of what you miss and the way you miss the other person, the way he or she is built into you. 

Then there’s the neurological part.

I am trying to get through my days without habits. That’s why I’m getting through them so badly.  My prefrontal cortex is really cranky at having no routines to rest on and rely on.  It doesn’t want to handle all those petty decisions itself any more than the head of the household wants to mop the floor or the CEO wants to do the filing.  For years my life was organized by the imperative urgency of taking care of Jacques and, if I ever did anything else, rushing it so I could get back to Job One.  Outside of work, I have as yet no other driver or organizing principle for my actions, no governor on my time.

So, like a beginning driver, I lurch around spasmodically, in fits and starts, grudgingly and intermittently putting my skittish thoroughbred prefrontal cortex to the brute task of mapping out workable pathways and rhythms — making lists, having “bright” ideas like “Clean out one drawer a day.”  It doesn’t help that this is not going to be my home, this place strewn with the raw ends of amputated habits like downed live wires.  Any structures I set up will be strictly temporary, soon to be struck like circus tents.

It certainly is a time between.

Folk Beliefs About Death [UPDATED]

It’s surprising to me to discover how many people seem to hold, in a low-key, vernacular way, certain beliefs about the dead, or at least speak as if they believe these things to be true:  that when people die they’re reunited with the people they love who died before them; that when you dream about someone who’s died, they are making contact with you.

It’s not that I disbelieve these things.  I’m neither a believer nor a disbeliever (which to me is another kind of believer); I am a rigorous agnostic.  To me, the more we learn about life and the universe, the less we realize we know.  To me, the findings of science about the complexity of the cell and the dimensions of the universe throw both past science and past religion into a cocked hat.  We’re growing up into the realization of our ignorance, of the complete mystery our existence is.  We don’t know what we are, why we’re here, where we come from, or where we go.  Well, anyway, I don’t.

So I’m surprised to hear these childlike, comforting, almost greeting-card-level beliefs from otherwise thoroughly modern people. They’re evidently part of the folk culture, the generic spirituality of our time.  Not that I dismiss them.  I would love them to be true.  I hope they are.  I sometimes go along and talk as if they are.  I just can’t fool myself that I know for a fact they are.  I don’t know where J went.  I’ve felt his presence once since he died, about three weeks after.  I know that he had a lot of busy conversation with ghosts the last weeks of his life.  I have no idea whether this was the thinning of the veil or just the hallucinations of dementia.  I’m very curious about what he was experiencing, but there’s no way to find out except to die myself.  (And even then, maybe every death is as unique as the inward experience of being oneself.  One of J’s favorite quotes was from Céline:  “Experience is a muffled lantern that sheds light only upon the bearer.”)  As he was dying, I sang out to him the names of the people and cats who would be waiting for him on the other side — if there is another side.  It’s always “if” with me.  I don’t believe or disbelieve, I entertain.  I’m the Martha Stewart of agnosticism.

From a road notebook:

I was having such a sad dream when Ruth Anne woke me this morning.  I don’t remember the early part, but I was in a dim house with some people.  I was alone, while the others were talking in the kitchen.  I had to go out — for food? or cash? or to mail a letter? As I was getting ready to go out, I looked out the glass corner door and saw J’s wheelchair, and some winter-coat-bundled guy helping him into it.  Apparently I’d been unable to take care of him any longer and had abandoned his care to strangers.  I hesitated for a moment, then decided the happiness of seeing me would outweigh the sadness, and darted out the door.  J was settling himself uncomfortably but stoically in the back seat of what looked like a horse-drawn carriage (but no horse), squeezed in among 3 other old people, mostly befuddled old ladies.  I saw his face twist as he tried to fit his shoulders in.  I called his nickname, and he smiled at me, sweetly and without blame.  His beard and eyebrows had been allowed to grow out to the point where his face was covered with an inch or two of soft brown fur — they weren’t even bothering to shave him!  After another moment’s hesitation I called out, “Come over tomorrow and I’ll give you a shave!” Then Ruth Anne woke me.

Does this dream reflect my state of soul, or his, or an interface between them?  Ruth Anne’s free association was that J is in Purgatory.  (“Evangelicals think there’s a vacuum tube to heaven.”)  Of course, that’s not folk belief, it’s Catholic dogma (using that word in the technical, not the pejorative, sense).  But its sense of an in-between place or state or spell of time was echoed by my brother:

Maybe the same thing, not stated Biblically: he’s on his way, in the company of ancestors and the care of impersonal angels, to a place where personal care of the physical self is starting to be beside the point.

Chris said, “Well, at least he’s coming ’round.”

Then there’s my side of it.  Someone, maybe also Ruth Anne, said that I feel guilty for feeling relieved of the burden of his care.  But I don‘t feel relieved.  I miss taking care of him, even though I don’t know how I could squeeze myself back inside that life (as much as I don’t belong out here in this one, either) if I had the power to turn the clock back.  That is what the dream says to me most clearly:  I feel as if I’ve abandoned him, not to strangers, but to death (what could be stranger?); and I long to turn the clock back — the Victorian motif is resonant of a book I love in which that becomes possible, Time and Again. His grown-out eyebrows and beard remind me of the way hair and fingernails keep growing in the grave — even though J is not in a grave — a perfect representation of the space between life and death.  Maybe the departure of death is not as abrupt as it looks.  I don’t know.

The relief was in waking up and realizing that, in fact, I saw it through, as I had pledged to.  I did not become unable to cope and abandon him to strangers — except for those four respite days in the hospice facility, which may (or may not) have triggered his shingles.  I steel myself against the pang of regret, against thinking if only I could have kept him at home he might still be here, by acknowledging that nothing much good awaited him here.  It was better to go while he was still himself, and aware, and able to savor things, than to outlive himself and lie there in a coma for a year (as my grandfather, with a related dementia, did).

I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know:  There is love.  There is also hurt and accident and evil (destruction is one thing, reveling in destruction is a whole other thing).  Love is just that much stronger.  It wins by a nose, world without end.  And that’s about it.


UPDATE: “Dr. Platypus” (Darrell Pursiful) linked to this post, and as I result I discover that one of the things he has been writing about is liminality.  That is highly pertinent.