Today, after a several-month-long gap thanks to my sabbatical leave, I am ensconced again in my university campus office. (I made the trip in today to meet a doctoral student and to attend to some bureaucratic matters.) My journey to campus–a half-hour walk as usual, preceded by dropping off my daughter at daycare–was uneventful, reminding me of the many times I have traversed the pleasant neighborhoods that intervene between my home and the college main entrance.
On arriving at campus, I went through a slightly modified arrival routine: because I had arrived early, the department office was still not open for business, so I made a trip to the library cafe to pick up a coffee that would ease me into the day’s work. That done, I headed to my office. As I unlocked the door, I noticed an old, familiar sensation return: the key to the lock does not fit exactly on the first insertion and requires just a tiny juggle. Which I provided. As I have many, many times before.
Till that point in time, my return to campus had been entirely unremarkable: its sights–the students, the quadrangle, the security guards, the buildings–and sounds–classes in session, students talking on cellphones in hallways–were familiar enough, as they should be for a place where I’ve now spent a fair percentage of the last twelve years. None of them stirred me though, in the way that the bodily sensation of the not-quite-fitting key did. It was a memory all right, but an embodied one, a feeling within me that had lain dormant and been evoked by the right kind of interaction with the environment ‘outside.’
Memories can evidently be of many kinds. Sometimes we see a familiar face and feel an emotion stir within us; we are thus able to summon up the appropriate facial responses when we meet an old friend. On other occasions, a sound may remind us of a time in our lives–one accompanied by a mood, a mental sensation; we are able to experience a musically accompanied nostalgia.
And then, there are remembrances like the one I experienced today: a particular bodily configuration, an action that orients me in a very particular way with external impresses, that summons up long-practiced and experienced responses to the world’s affordances.
We carry the traces of our physical relationships with the world with us: in the way we walk, run, use our hands, eat, drink, and sleep. Our bodily gestures and mannerisms are well-practiced ones, honed by hours, days, weeks, months of persistent, hands-on movements. Sometimes the external evocations go away–as they did in my case when I had no occasion to unlock my office door–and then, like today, they return. When they do, we suddenly come into contact with a past self, one wrapped up in my corporeal layers, ready to spring into action. Anyone riding a long-ago-learned bike after an extended hiatus is familiar with this sensation in the most visceral of ways.
We are not disembodied minds, but embodied ones.