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My Comfort Cats
The size of two thumbs entwined, the bland, blond wood jigsaw puzzle object looks innocent enough. But it was a clandestine gift. It had to be small enough to be concealed in a pocket, inconspicuously, to arrive into my hands. The sentiment was and is unmistakable. An image of affectionate care, intimate connection, physical bonding it speaks volumes in spite of its complicity with a kind of formulaic cuteness. One of the hazards of owning cats, of course, is that people give you cat-themed gifts—soap dispensers, dishes, socks, vintage vases, and salt and pepper shakers–of which an infinite series seems to exist in this world.
This item bears a weight disproportionate to its small size. The person from whom it came was someone with whom I exchanged almost no gifts. We avoided all outward or visible signs of our connection for the years of our intense friendship. When I think about it, my gifting patterns have largely been limited to family and to that small circle of women friends for whom earrings, scarves, and strings of beads are the currency of exchange. Small items from a trip abroad, a shot glass with an image of a famous poet, or a coffee mug with a work by a woman artist finally getting recognition years after her death—these are the things that we trade among ourselves as part of a shared vocabulary of value. But gifts exchanged with others, particularly loves, have been largely limited to copies of our books, inscribed with the brevity designed of personal codes—initials and other signs of familiarity.
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The cat jigsaw, cut with precision as a multiple, mass produced, carries no associations beyond the obvious expression of affection. The wood is bland, blond, and the production adequate but not inflected with any special quality or individual attention. That lack of individuation, the generic-ness of the piece, is perhaps its most striking quality, almost cancelling the expression of tenderness it was meant to embody.
So where, then, does sentiment and affect reside in an object? No field of energy trails, no captions in space, no file of metadata lives with the thing. The evocation of comfort in this instance is (almost paradoxically) locked into its banal curves and the tight embrace of the two carved animals. The association has been imprinted with that form, with the fit of the cats, head to head, paw to paw.
But where the personal information about the object and the emotion it provokes are stored is less evident. Much work is done on the status of memory. The topic has a massive bibliography to it, of course. The sort story of the physiology is told in terms of brain real estate, with a sense that various units attend to different kinds of tasks, just as if this were a huge corporation. In one place, motor memory, in another, working memory, the short-term transient information that responds to immediate stimuli. But the storage of personal experience requires three different areas of engagement. Three distinct committees are always working together, organizing and coordinating in a massively complex set of interconnected tasks. The descriptions of these operations at a high level are fairly unsatisfying. Again, the analogy to a huge bureaucracy seems appropriate. One knows nothing, for instance, about life in a classroom by imagining the workings of the United States Department of Education. But the basic outline is that three parts of the brain—hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala each handle different aspects of memory. The emotions, all of the feelings triggered by my little comfort cats, are handled by the team in the amygdala. Sort of. Seems cooperation among all three areas is essential, and one can only imagine the morning switchboard or brain traffic control involved.
As interviewing these various units is hardly an option, I could of course follow the literature deeper and deeper until the biochemistry of storage would reveal itself, perhaps, in organic compounds each changed in some small regard by some shift of one bit of some carbon molecule or other. Because of this, I have the ability to recollect the moment of the gift, the person involved, the circumstances of our intersection. “Inscribed in memory,” the phrase resonates with bio-compounds.
Theories of memory long involved spatial schemes. The famous memory theater of Giulio Camillo most famously embodies the idea that an architectural form can be used to “place” information, deliberately, for later recovery. The idea is older than the Renaissance humanist, but it was his vision that inspired generations ahead. The Art of Memory (1966), by Frances Yates, enshrined the concept in art history and cultural studies. For decades, the notion of a “memory palace” was taken literally by all kinds of people, including the Sherlock character as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Yates believed the practice depended on having a fixed structure in mind and then placing mnemonic objects within it. She cited many instances of such structures and of the symbolic objects used to prompt recollection.
Three decades later, Mary Carruthers offered a corrective to the canonical work of Yates, suggesting that the process of recollection was cognitive and process-based. The Book of Memory (1990) offered a very different understanding. Carruthers suggested that memory was triggered by encounters, through a sequence of events, rather than being held in mind in a static or permanent condition. The example she used was of religious processions in which each milestone or significant point in a route served to prompt a ritual behavior. The participant did not need to know the entire service in order in its entirety, simply know how to respond when they reached a particular point.
The difference between these two approaches matches the difference in our cognitive grasp of space from an overview vs. movement. A map is a birds-eye view, a fixed schema that most of us do not carry in our minds as we go from place to place. By contrast, wayfinding when we are moving through a space, is landmark driven—we remember to turn left at the Chevron station or right when we see a certain house or tree. We don’t need the full schema that a map provides—unless we get lost and need to find our location in a larger frame. I think of my drawers and closets, and how easily, quickly, I can locate any item within them—without benefit of astrological signs or mythological characters. Am I searching within a fixed structure? Or wayfinding by way of landmarks? Do I have the organization of my clothing chest in mind or do I simply know to look in the bottom of my closet for shoes?
Both overview and wayfinding are spatial in the way they organize our behavior. These modes might work for recollection of the parts of an argument, or of belongings and things. But what of memories of personal events, relationships, and emotional experiences? While I locate my experience within various time frames, I don’t perceive it as a objective, pre-existing container. Temporal schemes are variable. Some days go quickly. Some minutes last forever. Periods overlap. Some events float vaguely, without clear anchor points to any specific moment, and belong to an emotional era and its events. I do not hold a memory scheme in mind as if it were complete, but find my way among the many inflected zones of emotional landscapes using with landmarks of loss and pleasure, grief and relief, love and its remains.
I come back to my comfort cats here, interlocked in their affectionate embrace. The overarching frame of a calendar-based time in which they arrived in my hands is gone, but the tone of the transaction and its emotional force remain. They were part of a tender time, the gift significant because it was a gift, acquired with intention, deliberately carried and carefully received. Where is the affect stored? Is the neocortex actively drawing on the biochemistry of the amygdala to reinforce the feeling this small object provokes? What and how is the “information” stored and retrieved that links such an apparently insignificant item to feelings? How can it be that every item I possess—from socks bought to guard against the cold in New Haven to a ring from an early sweetheart to a random dish in the closet—gets space in that vast inscriptional library of the corporate bureaucracy of interrelated components that is my brain?
Access to the past feels so easy by contrast to imagining the physiological systems on which it is based. I hold the comfort cats in my hand, slide the two jigsaw pieces into their well-fitting embrace. The affective connection remains, intimate and undiminished.
 Queensland Brain Institute, https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/memory/where-are-memories-stored
 Laura Miller, “Remembering Frances Yates,” SLATE (November 23, 2015). https://slate.com/culture/2015/11/the-art-of-memory-by-frances-yates-the-historian-who-recovered-the-story-of-simonides-memory-palace.html
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