Did you ever travel somewhere and, when you wake up in the morning, it takes some time before you realize where you are? I don’t mean you feel a little fuzzy; an actual, disconcerting, sense of confusion or disorientation — like you really can’t orient as to time and place. A breakdown in one of the mental heuristics our minds use to keep our bearings. When we habitually wake up in the same bed, same room, same house, our brains don’t have to work through all the details, there’s a shortcut already carved into our psyches by repeated prior experience. And thank goodness; When I awake in the morning, it’s a really good thing I have prior experience to guide me, because most of my higher order functions do not work until after a hot shower and some coffee.
But it’s not just familiar surroundings. What we think of as a routine is more than just that — it’s perceptual: actual cognitive gap-filling by our brains that allows us to avoid reconstructing the whole world every time we apprehend it. When we wake up in unfamiliar territory, our brain reaches for a familiar template that doesn’t match what we see around us. It’s confounding.
The concept of these “priors” and the way they help our minds infer the reality around us is part of the discussion in Michael Pollan’s last book “How to Change Your Mind.” Pollan’s chief subject is psychedelic drugs, particularly psilocybin and LSD. I got the book because one of the applications he explores for psychedelics is end of life anxiety and trauma. But he also discusses the human brain and consciousness more generally; the idea that our minds are always constructing our reality not just from empirical observation, but from ready-made constructs formed with past experience that we engraft on the world. Pollan’s point is that “reality” is a construct of our brains even when they’re not tripping on acid or mushrooms. Our brains fool us all the time by confabulating the blank spaces what we experience, and even when we experience something “directly,” it is only by means of photons, sound waves, or other sensory input being translated by our eyes/ears/hands through neural pathways that we see or hear or touch something.
What fascinated me was the breakdowns in our normally very accurate neural heuristics — those times when the fact that we are operating with a cheat sheet is laid bare and we are confounded by our own (mis)perceptions, even when there’s no substance-induced altered states, (though the book is excellent on those too and I enjoyed it for a thousand other reasons) but instead during our most everyday and sober acts, like getting out of bed.
This awakening disorientation happened to me a few times recently in a new and strange way: I’ve had the dislocation I associate with waking up in an unfamiliar place, but I am in my own bed at home. The most obvious explanation is that, before Nina died, we were in the process of planning a remodel to our house and, in the months after, I moved ahead with our plan, including a completely new master suite, where I now reside (in the relative peace and tranquility of a significant remove from the boys’ bedrooms, but also really far away from them at a time when we’re all muddling through life somewhat (and adjacent to a newly built room where Freddy practices drums and electric guitar, so one step forward … ).
Because I changed rooms and left behind the bedroom where we spent the last 7-plus years of our marriage, it makes some sense that there would be some adjustment and the new room would feel unfamiliar. The thing is, I’ve been living in my new bedroom since August of 2017. I’ve long since become accustomed to waking up in that bed, that room, with those surroundings – including a lot of familiar furniture, books, and pictures that got transplanted from the old room, so it’s not 100% unfamiliar. Why the sudden disorientation? Why now?
I have theories, but no real answers apart from the fact that the human brain is simultaneously at work on multiple – and sometimes conflicting – interpretations of reality. When I go to sleep, I guess that sometimes my mind settles into an old reality, one in which Nina was still alive, or at least before the addition was finished and we still slept upstairs, (sharing a wall with Freddy’s bedroom, listening to every mattress creak as he tossed and turned his way to sleep, another element I miss / don’t miss).
But it’s not like the disorientation I’m feeling is exclusively about grief. Although we slept beside each together for many years, the disorientation isn’t about Nina absence next to me in bed, or that I’m expecting to be in our old room. I just don’t recognize my surroundings for a moment. They feel foreign.
Maybe it’s discontinuity in a more general sense stacking up and making my brain unable to hold on to its normal heuristics. The past few years have been filled with changes and the boys and I have had to make lots of adjustments. Back in 2015, mother in law dying was a big shift in all our lives. She was a powerful presence and a lot of things in our family life were organized around her – not just cancer-related things or caregiving, but holidays, family dinners, travel, etc. When a person dies it dislocated in all directions and vectors: concentric, orthogonal, even parallel. Jan’s death blew things up — gave new meaning to “nuclear family” for Nina, her dad, and her brother. The blast zone was big. It came at a time when we were all still grappling to get her mind around her own diagnosis, which in turn sent shock waves through all of us around her.
When Nina died, the template I’d grown accustomed to, built not only my life but much of my identity around, came farther apart. In many ways Nina’s body wasn’t the only thing that died, but also the larger life she’d led, which of course included me, the boys, her family, our friends. That whole narrative thread was cut. Though our stories survived her, they no longer had the arc or ending any of us had expected. Instead, radiating out from one of the very hubs of our life’s narrative structure, instead of an enmeshed weft and warp, was total disintegration (the center did not hold, gyres, falcons with tin cups wielding white canes, etc.).
Then, not that long after Nina died, I met Lucy, herself a widowed parent grappling with surivorhood, and we made another series of radical shifts. We met and fell in love, unlikely enough in itself, then had a long-distance relationship, every day of which probably defied some cosmic unlikelihood or another, and finally we split up. We took two threads oddly snipped by the Fates, got them all Gordian knotted, then yanked them apart. Lives are never static, but they’re maybe never more fluid than when people are dying or falling in or out of love. The past few years were perhaps dynamic to a fault, and the changes wrought are still percolating to the surface.
The other day I was driving in the car with friends when Benny and Freddy recalled a trope the two of them and Lucy’s daughter used to enjoy together: being allowed to shout “eat the poop” at the top of their lungs anytime we passed under a bridge or tunnel. It was a clever solution by Lucy to the problem of potty words: she made it a fun game that could be played with official sanction (go kids!) on a reduced frequency basis (yay adults!). I think about the loss of this kind of shared memory a lot, obviously in terms of Nina and the nearly 20 years we spent together, but quite a lot in terms of Lucy, too. Maybe that’s just recency bias, but not entirely.
My shared experiences with Lucy, like all three of the kids’, emerged at a transformative time and space for us. Childhood smacks of this kind of dynamism even without loss or grief: kids are just existentially more in the act of becoming than adults. The conjoining of two families riven by the kinds of loss we experienced added a whole other layer to that. Even if our shared time was ephemeral, it was powerful and I suspect wrought significant changes for each of us. The kids’ recollection reminded me that they have their own perspectives on the ups and downs we’ve been through, which must have been topsy-turvy for them in ways I can only guess, and their memories and interpretive priorities for making sense of it all are probably not the same as mine.
The boys’ “eat the poop” incantation, which lasted for several minutes but died out mercifully quickly due to a lack of overpasses or tunnels, was also disorienting. We were in my car, which I’d bought subsequent to both Nina dying and Lucy not being in our lives any more, with a good friend of mine – also a widowed mom, but who we barely knew when Nina was alive or I was dating Lucy — and her two kids, both of whom were new, oddly enough, to shouting “eat the poop” aloud in the car with my boys.
But I felt suddenly unsure of my surroundings — not déjà vu, but a momentary time slip and the sense that I needed to fix my bearings before speaking to make sure I knew what was going on.
Maybe it was travelling, maybe the juxtaposition of the redolent and the cut from new cloth – a thoroughgoing discontinuity laced with familiar notions, like a song I’d never heard before with phrases I know by heart. Or like waking up in my own bedroom and yet feeling like I don’t know where I am.