March 21, 2016

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory is a very real thing. It happens when you do something over and over again until it becomes committed to your recollection and eventually you don't have to think about it anymore. Like typing or riding a bike. 

But what if muscle memory is not limited just to our ligaments and sinews? And what if it's not limited just to ourselves?

Sometimes when I'm at yoga class, and my body is folded into one pose or another, I feel this strange sense of deja vu. Like I'm part of something that's much bigger than me, and I've been part of it for longer than I realize. Going through the movements and motions, I wonder about all the people who have moved their bodies into those same poses before. Maybe it seems strange, but I feel connected to them. This feeling of connection is what made me start to wonder about muscle memory in the first place. 

I've often thought about my ancestors, not just my grandparents, and great-grandparents and people I've actually known, but the ones who came before...way, way back. Each generation brought forth the next, and as they were, so came the rest of us. Strong men and women whose bodies brought forth new lives, and so on. And what if maybe somewhere in all of that, the memories and movements of each generation were passed to the next?

Now I highly doubt that my Freewill Baptist preacher's wife of a grandma ever even heard the word yoga, let alone did downward facing dog. She who never cut her hair or donned a pair of slacks in her life (only dresses) would have considered it some sort of devil's magic. But I feel certain she stretched and moved, and worked as she plowed her garden. And tended to her family.

And everything she did was a part of her, all the way down to her muscle memories. And so, because of her, those things are a part of me. Even if I haven't experienced them, or haven't witnessed them in many years. 

Like holding a wide metal bowl between your knees while sitting in a cane-bottom chair that is especially low to the floor. And the continuous motion of snapping off the ends of white half-runner beans, pulling the strings away and pushing them into a clump to one side, while tossing the beans themselves into the main pile. 

Or ringing the necks of chickens, two at a time, one in each hand. 

It's like the memory that washes over you when you encounter the words of a poem you've never read before, but somehow feel that you've known it all along. That the emotions and sentiments they embody could just as easily be your own, evidenced by the way in which they move you. Like a mother must feel to look out into a crowd and pick out her own one child from hundreds of others. There's a comfort in knowing that something or someone is of you, is from you, is for you, is about you. 

It must have a little bit to do with time, or the absence of it, in heaven. At least the absence of it in a linear sense, like what we earth dwellers are able to understand. I suppose in God's eyes, everything that ever will happen has already happened. He already knows how it all ends. So there are no surprises.

And maybe that's why the words of poet Mary Oliver ring true to me, as if they could have been my own words. If I'd had the courage to write them. Or the inspiration. It's not just that I love her words, I feel deeply connected with them. Do you have a writer you makes you feel like that? Whose words evoke a strange longing in you, a muscle memory that doesn't quite make sense?

I'm no scientist so I don't really understand where nurture stops and nature begins. Some things about us are so because we saw our parents or grandparents do those things, and we learned to do them too. And other things are so because those things were inside our parents and grandparents, whose own parents and grandparents passed them along.

There's a particular way my mom uses her hands when telling a story. And sometimes, I catch myself doing it too. These are motions we didn't even realize were within us, and yet there they are.

That's the beauty of being human....there's a lot more beneath the surface left to be discovered. And there's so much inside us that we rarely tap into. We're never alone in this world, no matter if it sometimes feels that way. Whether you knew them or not, there were people who came before you. People who struggled and overcame things we'll never understand. We may not know their stories in the same way we know our own, and we may not be able to fully understand the challenges they faced or why they made one decision or another, but all that they were is in us. Part of our muscle memory. And knowing that makes it a little bit easier to face what life serves up.

[image via State Archives of Florida]