Tonight, sparrows and bats crisscrossed the sky failing sky. I thought they were all bats at first but the stealth arrow of the sparrows set them apart from the frantic flutter flutter of the bats, never able to glide with grace through the night. Watching them, an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon found its way out of memory. In silhouette, bats really do look a bit like the giant bugs Calvin decreed them to be, their pudgy little bodies suspended between undersized wings, as if a caterpillar or stubby little grub were allowed to fly. I recalled that one of my 5th graders reported that bats were sleeping in the eaves of our school; she saw them snugly wrapped in their wings on her return from recess. I’ve had all these passing experiences with bats and they’ve come tumbling back to me, pried out of unlit corners and frayed synapses. It seems like there should be some kind of meaning in this but I can only list all the times bats have flown past.
The human brain is built to make connections, to build meaning. I give this lecture at least once every few weeks. Our brains are designed to see the patterns and even when they’re not actually present, we draw the lines. We can create constellations from even the most disorganized points of light, s I feel like there must be something that can be sifted from all these fluttery bat thoughts. Something greater than the mundane theme of bats, that is.
At 5th grade camp this year, we played a game called bat and moth to demonstrate why bats fly to erratically to catch their prey and when I was in Nicaragua we toured a bat cave originally formed by the nearby volcano but I saw absolutely nothing because I wore my sunglasses in to the cave. And without a prescription, I’m blind. As a bat. Is that the connection?
I ran the treadmill today while listening to the guys on Rabiolab discuss the limits of human bodies and human memory (during which I reached my pathetic limit for running). They followed a man who appeared to have no limit to his memory–digits, experiences, the entirely of Dante’s Inferno in Italian, all stored impeccably in his neural circuitry.
It seemed inconceivable that he could have a limitless memory because there are only a finite number of neural connections, at some point he would have to run out, wouldn’t he? When they finally found his limit, it was not where you’d expect it to be. This man had made a trade, one that most of us do in the other direction. While he could remember millions of individual pieces of data, he could build no meaning from them. His brain had sacrificed making meaning for quantity so he could remember the bats and every time he’d ever encountered bats in his lifetime but he could find nothing greater in the sum of the parts. No theme, to message, no sublime sum of the parts, only the mundane label that all of these things were about bats.
It seems that the human brain intentionally filters out those things which seem to have no meaning in order to save space for creating greater meaning. It saves space for seeing the thread that ties all the pieces together into a story that is not just about remembering bats. But what happens when we try to hold on to the shards of information we’re bombarded with these days? The shrapnel in thirty emails a day, ten of which are correcting other emails with misinformation. The memos and phone messages and advertisements and requests and meetings like bombing raids, explosive with things to be recalled and followed through on. This there a point at which we become like this man, remembering so much we no longer have the mental space for meaningful thought?
Maybe that’s why I’m still stuck in retrieval mode, making lists, lining up all the bat snippets and looking for the edge pieces that will fill in the frame.
When I was a kid, we used to sleep out in the orchard with our cousins and tell vampire bat stories until we could scare Bob inside. Then we’d lie awake and watch the stars be sporadically blotted out by a body in flight and wonder at the truth in our own stories. Is that what this is about? Telling stories?
I believe writing, or anything that employs the creative process, is about building new things out of the ideas already out there. It’s about lining up all the little stories, the seed moments, and teasing out the thread that stitches them into a greater idea. That means writing is about exactly what our brains are created to do. Writing is seeking meaning, creating connectivity and divining patterns. Writing is exactly what stops happening when I clutter my mind with GLEs and testing schedules and competition results and curricular plans, layered on top of vacation itineraries and television shows, garden plans and the hours of operation at the Y. My head has become a dumping ground. There’s no space left to create something new because the old crap keeps falling off the top self of the closet and burying me alive.
If writing requires a reduction of mental clutter then I need to find a way to focus in and grow a blind to all the distractions that take up space. Like television. And GLEs (seriously, does anyone else even know what that stands for?). And meetings. I need to find away to see past the ever present clouds, the telephone wires, the Japanese maple, the neighbor’s giant dog that insists on peeing on my garden and the endless flocks of sparrows. I need to focus in and dwell only on the black outline of bats, frantically beating their wings in a bold denial of gravity as they zigzag through the endless empty space of a twilight sky.