Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Muscle Memory

By Paul Gordon Emerson

When I woke this morning I found a note in my inbox from someone who means a great deal to me. It was a short note, just a line, for a memorial service for the man who had transformed her life in a way I'd never seen another do in the 20+ years we'd known each other. I don't know what the term of art would be -- friend, lover, companion, boyfriend - for their relationship.

He mattered.

His illness was brief, severe and terrifying. He left behind a rich reservoir of people who loved him and a lifetime of achievements unfinished yet of such texture that we who love nature and the world beyond our immediate geographic borders owe him a debt I was not even aware of until I read his obituary and then the words of friends, colleagues and loved ones who had found voice on a website devoted to his memory.

We met only a few times, this gentleman and I. But I remember his voice and the rough grace of hands used to the air equally as to the corridors of power. Gentle, compassionate and strong as those who know the meaning of each moment.

He died January 20th, Inauguration Day. I had no idea. Yet all through the day today I felt that handshake wrapping from the heel of my hand around the bones and skin and muscle. I wondered at the loss of it, of the hands that would miss that subtle yet profound embrace, and of the power of so simple a gesture, of the many who should so very much have the chance I had to take it in, to make it a part of themselves, to retain and refocus it into their understanding of the world. So simple a gesture but so resonant.

The memorial service came in the season's first snowstorm. Despite the challenges it presented for those attending I am sure it was in its way fitting, nature's salute to a fallen friend who at that moment would have loved nothing more I suspect than to be out in it, shallow though the idea of winter in Washington may be.

I was miles away, no more in the scheme of his life than any brief acquaintance should be. Yet all day I carried that handshake with me. It was a gift I didn't deserve, and one that I had no cognizance of receiving when it happened some years back. But this is the magic and the pain of being human. So much of depth happens while, as the song goes "we're busy making other plans." It is not till later that we understand that we're different in some small way than we were before a brief encounter. Those events, those experiences, rarely are about language. They go deeper than words. They become memory, but of a different sort than that which accounts for a phone number or a grocery list. They are physical memories, muscle memories. They linger in our tissue and ligaments, accesible through passion and that primal place we all posess but which dancers access every day to transform the linguistic into the physical.

Movers remember and are revealed to the world this way -- through muscle memory. That which we do on stage cannot be achieved by "thinking." The body and the non-verbal mind take the pilot's seat and we glide through dances, entwined with each other, with the music, with the moment, in a way you cannot understand if you don't dance. It's our gift and our state of grace. It's our language with ourselves and our companions, our embrace with the world.

The sun set on the day hours ago. Somewhere a person I barely knew is being mourned, loved, missed, celebrated and, I hope, knows in whatever way it is meant for us to know the love of those we have left behind, that his time here mattered.

Dancers pass the world on through movement. What we know we share by imparting a dance, a step, a moment and in so doing give over the essence of our experience to another. It is a private language in its way. But a handshake? That I can share. It's in my muscle memory now, this gentleman's handshake. A gift.

I believe we outlast our own short lives this way -- carried forward by those we touch, and that in this way we echo down the ages. Whether we are known by name or deed is not for us to decide. We change the world in the simple gesture, the quiet step under the lights and the handshake in the hall.

We are, in a way, the sum of our experiences, and those experiences are the sum of all those who came before, deep into a past we cannot know, but carry with us as surely as that handshake we have had and which, with the promise of tomorrow, will impart, and so begin the process anew.

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