Monday, August 13, 2012

The Body Speaks Bike

Royal Enfield Sport Roadster
Those who've spoken more than one language over the course of their life will sometimes notice a curious phenomenon: They will remember events and conversations from their past not in the original language, but in the language that is currently dominant for them. It is as if our mind auto-translates the dialogue. I will remember conversations in English that couldn't have possibly happened in English. And then I must struggle to reconstruct the real dialogue, the actual words used, in order for my mind let go of the auto-translate and restore the "correct" memory. It's just one of those weird, fascinating, disturbing things that the human brain does. And it isn't limited to language.

Last weekend I went berry picking at a nearby farm. Blackberries are in season now, and with a small green basket I headed out to the rows of bushes. Pulling the plump bubbly things off the prickly branches in the afternoon sun, I remembered the last time I'd done this: It was in my 20s and I lived in England. Our small university town was surrounded by miles and miles of meadows, a riverside path winding through them. I remembered in vivid detail cycling through the meadows in the exquisite afternoon light and stopping to pick blackberries along the way. Sometimes I'd be alone, other times with my friend. In summer the blackberries were everywhere and, excited by this discovery, we gorged on them shamelessly - staining our clothing in the process, drunk on the countryside smells and the sheer beauty of our surroundings. In my mind's eye I see it all so clearly: The river. The farm gates. Climbing over nettles to get to the berries. And, of course, riding my bike along the path. Except, wait... rewind. I could not have been on a bike. I did not own a bike at the time; I did not cycle when I lived in England. 

And so there I stood now, dismantling this incredibly real-seeming memory of myself riding a rusty 3-speed through the East Anglia countryside. And its companion memory of riding together with my friend - both of us astride such machines, summer dresses fluttering in the breeze. In fact we did not cycle side by side. We did not dismount our bikes and toss them onto the grass upon spotting the berries. I suppose we must have walked. But the visceral recollection of walking is vague, buried somewhere in there like the true dialogue of those auto-translated conversations I struggle to remember in their original language. I guess my body speaks bike now. 

36 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful and fascinating story told with such evokative language.

    I think we are finding out that human memory is far from the storage device we once thought it was. This is why eye witness testimony is being scrutinized as evidence in criminal cases. So many people have been falsely convicted due to the faulty memories of people who did indeed see what happened but over time remembered the scene quite differently. Your tale is a perfect demonstration of this peculiar phenomenon, but one that is much more pleasant than anything one would hear in court.

    Thanks, and so interesting!

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    1. Looks like my memory of how to spell "evocative" played a trick on me!

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  2. I think this can happen with people, too. When I think back on my past life, for instance, I have a hard time imagining my wife not being in all those memories, even though I'm 33, and we've only been together 13-14 years. I have to intentionally remember that she wasn't there at my childhood Christmases, camping trips, through high school, etc. Kind of weird how our experience is kind of retro-active like that - it spreads back through our history and changes it.

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    1. "I'm 33, and we've only been together 13-14 years"

      Only : )

      When a relationship involves constant and continuous interaction, the other person can get incorporated into our self-awareness. I guess it also means they get to time travel with us.

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    2. Heh, well, I just meant 'only' in the sense that there's 19-20 years there where I didn't know her, but it still seems like she was along for the ride, now :) I like that idea of time-traveling together :)

      This whole conversation is actually reminding me very heavily of the film Big Fish. Have you seen it?

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  3. Interesting. I sometimes drive past a place where I used to go to (a boarding type) school. School placed far out on a huge open area. I remember some few times walking fom the train or buss, and I remember it was boooring. This was a year or two before I bought at bike at age 18 so I guess my only option would have been my bike from childhood, I think it was a 24" one. Can not really remember much about our childhood bikes but I think I did not have a bike that would fit and also do the work at this stage. Still I keep asking myself why I did not ride a bike when I look at that huge plain I walked on. Guess I can not quite remember that I did not have 20 bikes in the shed and a dumpster with free bikes just around the corner then..
    badmother

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  4. This happens when you have a baby too - I now recall memories of past events from 5, 10, 20 years ago and my daughter is there in the memory despite the fact that she's only 2!! - its like she's always been there with me even before she was really there with me...

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  5. fascinating post. i'm dutch and struggle to speak it after twelve years in england. but more to the point, i remember being at uni and doing qualitative research with a professor telling me that it involves a study of human experience - not reality - that were studying phenomena, where the word refers to chunks of human consciousness, not the external world we all hold to be so real (and from the perspective of a qualitative researcher is, largely, not at all). as a late adolescent, I found this very hard to swallow, it's becoming easier as I get older, keep up the good work, cycling, I think, is a doorway into a more open, conscious life.

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  6. "Our small university town was surrounded by miles and miles of meadows, a riverside path winding through them." in East Anglia

    It sounds very much like Cambridge to me although I wouldn't describe it as 'small'. I graduated almost 30 years ago, but I will be back at my College next month and looking forward to it.

    I speak a couple of languages too and have lived in many places and have experienced similar events and conversations you mentioned.

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    1. I think subjectively it seemed small to us then, because the town center is small and the university/colleges scene is so self-enclosed. Enjoy your reunion; I have not been back yet.

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    2. Actually I'm at a conference there, but a few classmates will be attending. No doubt some pints will be sunk at the Champion of the Thames.

      You and I must have been some of the few who didn't cycle at Cambridge. In the early 80s it seemed to have more cycles than Saigon. As a fellow North American (I'm from Canada, but qualified and settled in England for many years) I had a fair amount of ribbing about not cycling. Glad I'm cycling now.

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  7. I deal with this phenomenon often when writing memoir and teaching the writing of memoir. I have realised that memory is creation. It is not a faculty for storing images accurately so that they might be retrieved but is so intimately bound up with imagination that they are perhaps the same thing.
    This raises questions for memoirists who want to commit themselves to writing the truth of their experience, and assure themselves of their integrity,when truth may not be available to them.

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  8. When I think back on fond outdoor childhood memories, I can't help but wonder why I didn't ride a bike more. I had been obsessed with horses and didn't get one until I was 16. Then several years ago a friend urged me to ride a horse again and I immediately thought...it's been a long time since I've ridden a bike. I bought a $50 vintage mountain bike from a friend and loved it so much I haven't stopped cycling. All things seem to revolve around my bicycles now.

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  9. Interesting. Of course, all memory, even recent, is a construction. We just make ourselves up, including our history, as we go along.

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  10. You're good for the soul woman

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  11. This post is so sneaky, it caught me because I've spent A LOT of time over the years thinking/reading and even drawing about memory and trying to form some kind of understanding that lets me relax about all the goofy things our minds do with our past. Then you had to go and make that remark about how your brain translates remembered conversations into the language of current use...

    It explains why even though I grew up surrounded by Spanish and everyone spoke a little or a lot of Spanglish everyday I don't remember speaking anything but English at all. There's a pretty useful Spanish vocabulary and a messy understanding of Tex-Mex grammar sloshing around in my brain but I really don't think of my self of being able to speak it at all. But as soon as I step off a plane in Dallas or roll out of the car in my hometown in S. Texas it's all right there...

    It makes one mistrust the perspective one has of themselves and the shape of the space we take up in the world and other peoples lives.
    Like Frontal Lobe says in her/his remark, "All memory is a construction", I know this but now I'm starting to wonder where the hell my brain is gathering the materials. I used to think it came from actual personal experience and it just got jumbled up and damaged in the warehouse...now it appears the materials for all this stuff is as likely to come from some ungoverned chemical process in my spleen as the dreams and imaginations of the monsters I draw on my basement walls.

    Damn.

    Spindizzy

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    1. "I used to think it came from actual personal experience... "

      It gets better, in that what we think of as personal experience has already undergone a couple of layers of filtering/distortion - first at the stage of perception, then interpretation and encoding. This stuff was my research specialty when I was active in academia. Basically we don't exist except in our imagination and in the imaginations of others : )

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    2. So if the theorists that posit that information once created is indestructible like matter or energy, than the meaningless data I've generated while doing bike shop inventory, bolt torque testing and trying to quantify "why some chicks are hot" is more real and integral to the universe than all my thought and creative effort FOR MY ENTIRE LIFE.

      It's a wonder there isn't a line at every street corner of people queuing up to step in front of buses.

      Spindizzy

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  12. This is also applicable to dreaming. I dream about my childhood in English, even though Korean was spoken.

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  13. I was also just remembering talking to a Dutch friend of mine in college, who said when he was younger, before moving to the U.S., he had a couple of dreams where he was talking in his sleep, in English, before he had really learned English (his mom had heard him).

    I think it was Sufism that teaches that everything exists only in the imagination of God. I always found that a wonderful imagery.

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  14. Oh believe me one of the reasons I tune in here is to see reality reconstructed.

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    1. i second that, until that is i finally get around to doing some reconstructing of my own..

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  15. When you've been riding a long time and you ride with others who've been riding a long time conversation occurs without any words. Emphatically the body speaks bike. This is one of the main reasons old riders become cliquish; it's wearisome to deal with those who are inarticulate at speaking bike.

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  16. my self conscience memory never amounts to a hill of beans...never matches reality....sometimes bicycling helps me to connect to the unconscious in surprising ways. it seems to free my mind of the self and connect me to reality. i probably said that all wrong :)

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  17. very nice story! it happens to me with languages, friends, music

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  18. Lovely post! I've read that every time you revisit a memory you change it. I can't decide if it's sad or beautiful that as we go over and over our most cherished moments we are subtly altering them. But then, like you said, we only exist in a series of imaginings (ours and others) so what does it matter that we're switching languages and inserting bicycles? There's something comforting about fluid memories that speak to our present over rigid records that protest when we try to evolve.

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    1. not a fan of sentimental...it inhibits evolution.

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  19. I bet I can guess what otherlanguage you speak basedonyourwriting :)

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  20. I'd like to read a post about bikes an monogamy :)

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  21. I liked this a lot. I studied a semester abroad in England and have a really hard time with memories that involve roads. I know when we rode in that cab, it was on the other side of the road and the driver was on the other side of the car. But in my memories everything is reversed. Even the memory of having to consciously remember to look the other way when crossing the street is fading...

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  22. Engaging writing, complimented by great photography, about a wonderful subject - bicycling. Allows enjoy coming to this blog.

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  23. Nature created blackberries for the lane cycling cyclist. There is nothing finer than a golden, late summer day, the tick of a three speed and the hedgerows heavy with the aroma of ripe blackberries. I can easily understand your cerebral confusion. It is as English as the Queen playing cricket in the rain.

    It hasn't been a great year for them but in two or three weeks the hedges will be black with berries so hopefully my deep freeze will be full of them too. Blackberry and Apple crumble with gallons of custard; life doesn't get better!

    I will be doing this very

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  24. :) Lovely Post!



    Bicycles, Neuroscience, berry picking all at once. I enjoy your posts, thanks.

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  25. I spent one year living in Ganville, Ohio in 1978-79 while attending Denison University. I clearly recall bicycling over the rolling landscape of rural Ohio. My freshman year roommate, who I'm still in contact with, tells me it never happened. "You didn't have a bike and if you borrowed one, I would have know because you would have told me." I thought this was pretty odd but after readying your post I guess it must be true!

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