ON ESPECIALLY AIMLESS summer days, we used to cut worms down the middle, out on the sidewalk in front of the house. Then we’d watch the way the one half kept squirming. That’s all we cared about seeing—the miracle of that still-moving, tortured worm. But here is something I didn’t know until I read a headline some weeks ago: “Decapitated Worms Regrow Heads, Keep Old Memories.” The article explained that “scientists let the worms’ heads grow back and found that their memories returned along with the new noggins.” This was interesting. The worms could find food that they’d known about before the beheading. Memory stayed and helped them survive.
Around the corner from that front sidewalk with the unfortunate worms, on the side of our red-brick house, I would take a stone and scratch my initials and the year, very small, into the surface of a brick. I did it around the same time each year, in the fall when things felt bracing and new: both bad-new (dreaded school again) and good-new (sparkling new TV season). I kept it up even after I was a little too old to be caring about such things: J.S. 1979, J.S. 1980….I never told anyone I did it. I assumed no one noticed, and I didn’t care if they did. I just wanted to leave my mark. It was a secret between me and a place that I loved.
After reading about the worms, I read something else that made me momentarily sad. It was an item about the return of a Canadian astronaut to the earth’s atmosphere by way of a Soyuz space capsule. He survived perfectly intact—there was no accident, no tragedy—but something about the way the description was worded made my heart drop: “As he plunges into the atmosphere, he will transform from a free-floating body to a heavy prisoner of gravity.” Prisoner of gravity: it sounded too bleak, as though we were all trapped. For five months he was floating around up there in space, then he slammed back into life as he knew it. Apparently it would take him weeks to regain his balance.
If I remember my physics correctly (granted, I barely passed), a free-falling object starts out with zero velocity and then gets faster with time. So if you start to fall slowly, rest assured you are going to pick up speed.
Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch conceptual artist who lived in Los Angeles and now has achieved a dark cult status (Frieze magazine called him a sort of “Syd Barrett of contemporary art”), made a short film of himself standing in the middle of a lane tilting to one side, nearly falling, then righting himself, again and again. He was obsessed with the concept of gravity. “When asked, for example, to explain the significance behind the frequent inclusion of ‘falls’ in his work,” the Frieze article explains, “he simply replied ‘because gravity overpowers me.’” Other falls in his short films include the artist falling off a chair on the roof of a house, or the artist tipping over on his bicycle into an Amsterdam canal. In all of his work, there is a sense of tenuousness and fragility. In 1975, at the age of 33, Ader set out in a boat from Cape Cod for a transatlantic crossing that he planned to document for an art project called “In Search of the Miraculous.” His boat washed up on the coast of Ireland but his body was never found.
It seems he was never able to get his feet back on land, a fate he may have been courting. I can understand the allure of an otherworldly pull. Once, years ago, I was staying in an old farmhouse for a week in a remote part of upstate New York. The first night there, I woke up in bed with an odd sensation. I felt as though something were trying to pull me upward, up toward the ceiling and out of the bed. I can only describe it as a powerful, whirling force that I had to fight against. I had no particular interest in the occult, but it certainly felt like there was a ghost in the house, and for a second there, out of pure curiosity, I almost let myself go. But I held on, trying to will my weight into the bed. The feeling eventually passed. I pushed it out of my mind until the woman who owned the house asked me, after I’d gone, if I’d “felt any spirits” while there. For some reason I said no, figuring the less I knew about what it was, the better.
But something was orbiting up there. Orbiting: a word that sometimes makes me think of a poem by James Tate called “The Lost Pilot” that I was morbidly fascinated with as a teenager. The poem is dedicated to Tate’s father, a pilot who was killed during World War II when Tate was five months old. “If I could cajole you to come back for an evening, down from your compulsive orbiting, I would touch you….I would discover you, and I would not turn you in.” What would it be like to have a father disappear in the sky before you even knew him? It was hard to fathom such a feeling of incompleteness, of neither-here-nor-there-ness. Gravity surely pulled his father’s body down to earth, but in the mind of his son he must have been forever lost in space.
My own father, who’d been a pilot, once remarked to me that if you wanted to do yourself in, this was the best way: Pilot a small plane (if you happened to know how to fly) so far up into the air that you simply passed out. By the time the plane came down, you were blissfully unaware. It didn’t sound gloomy the way he said it. It was just a good and logical solution if you were looking for a way out.
As it turns out, my initials did not remain on the side of our house. One day when I was in my twenties and back home for a visit, my father told me, very apologetically, almost guiltily, that when he had had the bricks pointed on the house, to make the insulation more efficient, they’d had to spray the surface of the house and my markings had been washed away. He had known, then, what I’d been doing all those years but had never mentioned it. He’d let me have my secret communication with the house. I should’ve been sad or disappointed that my scrawls had vanished but I wasn’t, not really. I’d remembered doing it—the feeling of stone on brick and the invisible passing of another year—and so the mark had been left at least inside of me.
Those worm researchers admitted, by the way, that they have no real idea how worms retain memories after losing their heads. “What we do know is that memories can be stored outside the brain—presumably in other body cells,” one of them said. Which I assume is true of us too. They’re all over the damn place, in our blood and in our skin, keeping us here as long as they can.