“The Great Heart Split,” writer Gail Godwin calls it: that moment, about 400 years ago, when our knowledge of how the physical heart works leaped forward, sending ancient beliefs about the heart as spiritual headquarters backward, to be filed under folklore and mythology. News flash: the powerful, tangible pumping of the heart is what keeps our bodies alive. The heart’s emotional value, its mystical properties? Not actually located in the center of our chests. Ever since, rational knowledge has trumped what used to be called, simply, heart.
And then December comes along, and people start doing things that make no sense. We string colored lights from rooftops and balconies. We feverishly bake cookies, as if eating sweets mattered more than eating anything else. And, strangest of all, we cut trees and prop them up in basins of water in our living rooms. Even scientists and doctors do these things. And the scientists and doctors who study the brain—that mysterious organ where the intangible version of the heart has been hiding all along—they know that the protean behavior in which we indulge during this strange season called the Holidays can be both wonderful and awful for our brains, often at the very same time.
From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, our hearts and heads are bombarded with memories. Many are good. Some are not. If you’ve lost someone who used to be a big part of your holiday season, you’ll be feeling that pain. If you have a family member or two who ever excelled in causing holiday misery, you’ll be zapped by those memories too. And if your brain is not at its best—if you are suffering from mental illness or if you have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, then this season can be like a walk through the carnival not-so-fun house.
Several years ago, ABC Nightline aired a report called, “Experience 12 Minutes of Alzheimer’s Disease,” which has become a popular Youtube video. In it, a reporter and a caregiver put on goggles, gloves with some fingers taped, small objects in their shoes to throw off their balance, and, worst of all, headphones that emit static and gibberish, which is what many people with Alzheimer’s describe hearing in their heads all the time. They then tried, and failed, to perform a few simple tasks. It’s devastating to watch. And to think about how it would feel to be so impaired, this time of year, with all the extra stimuli of the holidays.
Chances are, you are going to cross paths in December with a relative or friend who suffers from dementia, which makes this a great time of year to try to gain a little insight into their world. But you won’t have to put on goggles and headphones to do it. Hollywood is here to help. Julianne Moore has been getting stellar reviews for her portrayal of a college professor with young-onset Alzheimer’s in the movie Still Alice, which opens in Seattle in January. While you’re waiting to see it, read the book it’s based on. Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, was the first thing I ever read that captured the anguish and frustration of Alzheimer’s I remember seeing in my mother’s eyes.
Another good read is Stars Go Blue by Laura Pritchett. It’s the story of Ben, a Colorado rancher who copes by keeping notes in his pockets bearing important facts like his wife and children’s names. What drives the plot of Stars Go Blue is not just Ben’s Alzheimer’s, but his broken heart. He has an idea of how to mend it, if he can only get it done before Alzheimer’s gains the upper hand. The static in his head, the words and logic that elude him as he tries to accomplish this task—which I won’t reveal because I loved this poignant, poetic book too much to spoil it—make for a page-turning read. It’s almost as if, as his rational faculties leave him, he’s trying to go back, to function on the old-fashioned fuel of Heart with a capital H. It’s a perfect story for the holidays, when we’re all doing some version of that. Putting Reason in the back seat. Letting Heart rule.
Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts February 11, 2015. Six Wednesday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!