The link between amygdalae and blogging

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I am a rock, I am an island. But I’m trying to get better.

The amygdala is a relatively tiny part of the brain. It functions as a sorting station to link other parts of the brain and to send stimuli to the right places. It is involved in the attachment of emotional significance to memory. It is the reason that the smell of cookies makes us nostalgic, the sight of a certain person makes us anxious, and the sound of breaking waves makes us feel calm.

My brain is in the process of retraining. The emotions don’t match the memories. The responses don’t match the stimuli. I am a rock, but not a voluntary one. I am an Island, but there is a referendum underway to reconnect me to the mainland.

Which brings me to blogging. The telling of stories helps us to rewire the brain and reattach emotional significance to the memories we have. The act of being creative helps to balance the tendency to over-rely on logic as a coping mechanism. The act of doing this publicly is cathartic and enormously helpful in bridging that gap between the island and the mainland.

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The Chapter in Which Mike Makes a Discovery About Love

A few years ago my wife turned 40 and held a big party to celebrate. There was an opportunity for people to take the stage and make a speech. Because she is a bookish person, I decided to write a chapter in an (as yet) unwritten book about Mike and Michelle. It was the chapter where Mike struggled to come up with a speech for Michelle’s 40th birthday. It went like this:

April the 18th. It had been on the calendar for quite some time and came with a realisation that I would need to say at least something at this event. I say lots of things all the time – some of them in a near professional capacity – why would this gig cause so much anxiety? There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t said over the years. I mean, I’m a man. And not saying stuff is pretty much how we roll. More than that, I’m a man who doesn’t mind silence and doesn’t feel the need to fill it with noise and who lives in a house where silence is a rare commodity anyway. There must be loads of stuff that hasn’t been said. I could just say some of that.

That was when Trevor pointed out that I was probably going to leave this to the very last minute. For those of you who only just started reading this book, Trevor is the part of my psyche that points out truths that I try to deny. I named him Trevor for historical reasons. He doesn’t say a lot but he’s unfortunately usually quite insightful. So I thought to myself “bog off Trevor,” and went and had a bath. But Trevor had a point. This was one of those things that I could feel dragging on until the last possible minute. I had visions of scratching two or three notes onto a page during the start of the party and then nervously filling in the gaps as I stood there.

Several more days of not doing anything about it hadn’t done much to solve the problem. The time had come to sit down and do something positive. So I made two cups of coffee and ate a packet of biscuits. This helped less than I had hoped. Eventually I started to write the things I’d been thinking. This often needs to happen. Thoughts get stuck and need to be acknowledged before they can go away. Here is what I had been thinking about.

You can tell a fair bit about a person based on how often they’ve fallen in love. The ones who have fallen in love once are the least happy of them all. They are broken and melancholy, backward-looking, wistful and meandering. They’re the ones who have fallen in love with something they cannot have. A person they met and parted from; someone they loved and lost; someone they loved and never told; someone they loved the idea of, but never got around to loving actually; someone they loved who only exists in poetry or prose or as some grand idea of who they will finally meet. They look backwards and forwards and sideways; they sigh and stroke photos; they tell stories of what was or will be or what could never be. The worst of them are those who love the person their partner used to be, and cannot turn the clock back to when things went well. They are stuck with relationships of habit and memories. To be honest, I hope the Trevors in their heads smack their brains soft and boot them up their limbic system.

Happier than them are those who fall in love lots. They perpetually enjoy a renewal of vigour. They fondly remember each occasion and feel safe in the knowledge that it can happen again. They are the players; the reason that Hallmark and florists and popular culture exist. Their gods drive fast cars and solve crimes and are rewarded with love in increments of 90 minutes. They know how to follow their hearts and ignore their Trevors. But they carry hurts with them too. Every love ends more tragically than intended. Amicable is a harder word to live than it is to spell. They’re happier, but they’re nervous.

Happiest of all are those who realise that falling in love lots with the same person is not just possible, but much more preferable. They are the ones who wake up one morning and realise that the person in their bed is not quite the person they used to be. But instead of wishing it was back to being how it was, and instead of saying goodbye and finding another, they book a table at a restaurant and choose to fall in love again. Time and circumstance have made me one of those.

In the very beginning I fell in love with a laugh. A big and honest and unselfconscious laugh. The kind of laugh you told jokes to make happen. Fortunately a lot of jokes and a great big laugh are a match made in heaven. The laugh came with a metre of long blonde hair and a distinct rise in status. Love in those days was exciting. It was anticipation of seeing each other once a week. Talking on the phone each night. Wrapping presents in plain paper. This was true first love. Trevor said it wouldn’t last, and we agreed this time. Young love isn’t supposed to last; it’s just about discovery and exploration. It’s about spending an afternoon kissing, and not considering that a waste of time. Young love is also about making hundreds of mistakes and never knowing which one will prove the end of love. Trevor told me that one day I would blow it and have my heart broken in the way that only teenagers can. I thought he was probably right, but it turned out this time he wasn’t. Through no particular means, nor for any properly discernible reason, we just stayed in love. When weeks were the norm and months were extreme, we went out for years. Jokes and laughs and kissing and phone calls. It fair to say that we grew up together – not the childhood bit (we have no invisible friends in common) – but the important parts of growing up; when you work out how the world runs and how you find your place within it. That bit we did together.

The love of a laugh turned into a love of long car trips. Days filled with long talks and holding in farts. Of sorting out what was wrong with the world and proposing solutions for how to fix it. This was love finding a foundation. A love of the mind and the heart. A sharing of more than saliva. We began to shape our worldview based on the things we saw. It was a love that provoked tears and survived long silences. It was a love that learned to say sorry, eventually. Here was where we learned there was much more to each other than we first thought. In fact, there was more to each other than anyone else knew. We started to see that what others thought of us was only a partial glimpse of what was there.

This was the love that got legally recognised. Then it moved in with me. I had to fall in love again, with the person who was now bound to me, forever. With the person who was around me, always. With the one whose future shaped mine, with whom I negotiated progress. It was hard work. Some days were quieter than others. It was the best thing ever.

International travel exposed a different person again. Wide-eyed and nervous. Excited and terrified. We took on the world and it caressed us back. We walked out of our lives with a backpack each and some slim hopes of how things might be. Bungalows on the beach, backpackers in the city. Photographs, instant noodles, haggling, smells, motorbikes, insurance claims – all the normal travelling things. You learn a lot about a person when you have a tummy bug together in place that speaks no English.


I then fell in love with someone who baked. A home maker. Who taught our daughter about coffee shops before she could speak or walk. Who went to bed early to watch box-sets on a laptop with me. Someone who had ‘grown up friends’ and went on holidays to cottages, rather places with bunks. It was wine on a Friday and fibre for breakfast. Voting, NCAP safety ratings, and tax-efficient savings. All the maturing stuff that inevitably happens, but turns out to be good all the same.

Lately there’s an independent woman in my bed. She had a dream career in mind and reached out and seized it. She has colleagues and work stories and takes lunch in small plastic containers. She started late, but seems to have bright prospects. I miss the cakes, but the free books are a bonus.

What will come next? God only knows. But if I play my cards right then I may yet fall in love with a grandmother. With an adventurous retiree. With an old woman who does crosswords and reminisces.

I still have the laugh. I still love long car trips. I have photos of the world. I am especially partial to baking. Trevor still tells me that one day I’ll mess it all up, he’s probably right. But in thinking through this party I guess I realised that I must now be more than jokes and driving, and more than compliments and appreciation. Michelle chooses to still love me, and there’s nothing Trevor can do about that.

Umpty-once-twice

When all is quiet
…………The stomping thoughts
…………Smash around
With shipwrecked abandon
…………And tar-feathered doggedness
Stuck on repeat

Yesterday’s Eden
…………Oxidised brown
Like bile steamed pudding
…………One hefty lump

Thou shalt not
…………Did
Again?
…………Again

Then with glee the voice says
….Again!
…………Again?

You did it again
And now
…………YOU ARE DONE FOR

Once was forgiven
Twice was for shame
Umpty-once-twice?

So I cling to
…………IT IS FINISHED

On Forgetting

I was told at a funeral once
That people live as long as we remember them
Which was sort of comforting

But comfort at funerals is thin
Stretched among suits and canapés
So I declared
“We’re at the wrong funeral”

If the guy in the box is remembered by us
And not really dead
Like we all sort of believed
Then who has been forgotten by the guy in the box

Great Aunt Betty
Or a someone called Hans
Who hitched across Europe
Or the weird old guy who lived alone on the street
And invited him in to see the new puppies

Their final passing is unmarked
Sans suits and comfort

But what of all the other days
When my brain culls memories to make new space?
Whose life ends in grey fuzz
When I need room to conjugate Sein?

So is this how life really ends?
Not with a screeching of brakes and the edge of a cliff
But with a simple “ich bin, du bist, er ist”

The Bible in 1,000 Words

During my Bible College training, a lecturer got us to summarise the whole message of scripture in 1,000 words. It was fantastic fun and something I found very useful. I saw that lecturer again this week and enjoyed once more sitting under his teaching. I’ve put that story here for you to enjoy and as a way of saying thanks to Rod Thompson.

Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God

On the last day of history God makes this proclamation and declares he has kept all of the promises he once made to a man named Abraham. God’s story is thus complete, and through his story he has made himself known.

When it began, God created the heavens and the earth. He shaped them and formed them and placed a man in them. To Adam he makes a promise: do not disobey me or you will surely die. When the man and his wife listen to the lies of a serpent they doubt this promise. God curses them for their disobedience, but promises that one day one will be born of woman who will repay the serpent for his deceit. Soon after, the children of the man and his wife become the first victims of sin and death. Then it all gets worse from there.

God becomes so grieved over his creation that he orders the waters to swallow up the land. But before this happens he saves a remnant of Adam’s line through the work of a righteous man named Noah. Noah is one born of woman, but he is not the one promised from the curse. Neither is his descendant Abraham, although to Abraham and his descendants many more promises are made.

The promises include these 3 incredible things:

  • God will make Abraham into a great nation with its own land.
  • God will bless the nation and repay anyone who hurts them.
  • God will bless all of humanity through them.

God causes Abraham’s family to multiply. Then, as he foretold, Abraham’s people find themselves in a foreign land where they catch the eye of an evil king.

This king has no knowledge of the promise keeping God and tries to obliterate his people by killing their sons. The people cry out to God, and God remembers his promises. He rescues a rescuer named Moses, and through him Yahweh keeps his word. He repays the king for the evil performed against his people, just as he promised Abraham he would. By the killing of the Egyptians’ sons, he rescues his people and leads them out of the land of suffering.

God leads them to a meeting with him on Mt Sinai and makes many promises to them. He calls them a treasured possession; they are unique and set-apart, and will continue like this if they remain faithful to God. In this promise lie the seeds of future blessings and the seeds of future curses. Israel will either be at peace in the land or they will be exiled.

Once Moses dies the people are without strong leadership. They fail to complete their task of overcoming the peoples of the Promised Land. They live amongst them and adopt their customs. In keeping with his promise, God curses them until they repent, and saves them when they cry out. Despite his faithfulness, God’s people fall further from grace and assimilate even more with the nations. It becomes clear that Israel needs a king.

Through a foreign woman named Ruth, God remembers his promises to Abraham and brings forth a godly king named David. David is God’s new rescuer and through him the nations are subdued and peace prevails in the land. Although he is one born of woman, he is not the one referred to in the curse. God promises him that from his body will come one who will build the temple, and one who will remain on the throne for all eternity. Hopes are high for David’s son Solomon.

Solomon does indeed build a temple for God and brings about such blessing for Israel that even the nations become blessed by him. But, in his weakness he shows that he was just a picture of one who is yet to come, and the blessings are stripped from the nation as God’s children fight over the scraps of a divided kingdom.

Every subsequent king rules over a nation whose hearts are further inclined to evil. Many messengers come and call out for repentance, lest the people cause God to remember his promises of curses and exile. The people are stubborn and the kings are fallen, so God judges the land. Fortunately God remembers his promises to Moses and limits the time of exile to 70 years.

God tells a man named Daniel that we must wait for a further 4 centuries before everything Yahweh has promised comes together at last, then a baby is born…

Jesus, called the Messiah, is born of a virgin and heralded by a new Elijah. He becomes what everyone has failed to be: he is the perfect man, able to resist Satan’s temptation; the perfect Israel, able to persevere in the wilderness; the perfect Moses, able to give new law; the perfect prophet, able to perform all miracles;  the perfect king; able to conquer his enemies; the perfect priest, able to teach all scripture; the perfect servant, able to suffer in silence; and finally the perfect sacrifice, able to atone for all of the sin in the world and reconcile people with God. God accepts Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus chooses a people and gives his work over to them to complete – but first he sends a helper.

When the Spirit of Christ is poured out on believers, God’s anointed Apostles proclaim his favour in every language. Every blessing becomes available to all nations of the earth. By the will and purpose of God, the message of forgiveness spreads throughout the earth. No nation is untouched and though the people of God suffer many hardships, they are helped to remain faithful.

Before the narrative ends, God gives a picture to a man named John. Just like it was for Daniel, it is a message of the following years. When the people of earth will fight with the people of God and suffering will mark the passage of time. Yet the story has already been told. God keeps his promises and his Son will return. God will create again and everything will be made new. God will once again walk amongst us, and he will be our God and we will be his people.

 April 2010

 

Dying Embers

There comes a time in every fire
When everyone accepts it will die

There is zero volition to fetch more wood
No tender desire to feed morsels
Into the voracious gob

But we remember how it burned
It’s etched in orange starform in our eyes
And steeped in acrid glub in our noses

One person will always stay
To watch orange turn to black
Unwilling to part with the life they begat

So the embers dance unkowingly
In and out of existence
Like Schrödinger’s cigarette butt

I’m there at that point
Poking the heart in the hope of sparks

But eventually I realise
I stink of smoke
There are tears in my eyes
And I’ve burnt the end off my stick

The Perfect Poem

I love poetry.

Especially pieces ripe with rhythm.

This poem by Maya Angelou is the one I keep coming back to. It has everything I like about poetry, and teeth. Drenched in a shared history, reworking Paul Laurence Dunbar; it cries a pain that isn’t my own, but resonates somewhere deep. I declare it my perfect poem.

Caged Bird
By Maya Angelou

 

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
מרנא תא

 

My Mistake

003f40f5.jpgPart of the songs that changed who I thought I was thread.

Lying in bed listening to a portable CD player (the absolute newest and fangledest gadget at the time) was where I first heard Split Enz. I was 14.

There was something so playful about the combination of brass, polka-esque rhythm, and the Finn brother’s velvety voices that made me laugh out loud.

Having thought of myself as a metal head, I was genuinely shocked to enjoy something so light. Perhaps the colloquial affinity to some kiwi blokes helped me across the line.

Split Enz opened up several new avenues. Madness came first, with Our House, and were acceptably cool because they featured on an episode of The Young Ones:

Rick: Do you lot know "Summer Holiday" by Cliff Richard?
Suggs: You hum it... I'll smash your face in.

I also fell in love with Hothouse Flowers and still sing along to Don’t Go. There was something disarming about how Liam Ó Maonlaí looked just like Rowlf the Dog from the Muppets when he played the piano.

Having been primed by these artists it was hardly surprising that National Express by The Divine Comedy became my anthem of the noughties. Having then looked into the origins of the Ska sound, I have become a closet fan of reggae – exemplified by Bob Marley’s Redemption Songs.