Monday, July 26, 2010

Though summer turns to winter

At the end of A Natural History of Love, Diane Ackerman draws an analogy between the collections of the Natural History Museum in New York, especially an exhibit of glass models of microscopic organisms, and the heart. She writes: "The heart is a living museum. In each of its galleries, no matter how narrow or dimly lit, preserved forever like wondrous diatoms, are our moments of loving and being loved."

And it's true. The memories that are most reliably preserved in my own fading recollections are those related to affairs of the heart. A touch. A smile. A glance across a crowded room. A whispered endearment.

And heartache and heart break, too.

Of course, it has nothing to do with the heart. The heart is down there in the museum basement, with the lungs, stomach and the rest of the machinery -- pumping, burning, keeping the museum warm. The collection galleries are upstairs in the brain, those infinitely mazy corridors, the myriad tendrils reaching out, almost touching, sparks leaping from axon to axon like that archetypical synapse between the fingers of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I have only the haziest memories of some of the biggest events in my life, but I can remember as if they were preserved in unbreakable glass a first kiss, a glimpse of flesh, a forbidden touch.

Why is that? Is it because the original potentiations of the synaptic connections were stronger? Are memories of the heart preserved in more nonvolatile sectors of the brain? Is there a capacity of the brain assigned to the refurbishment of those memories that assure us we are not alone?

"Ransack the museum of your heart for love-sappiness," says Ackerman, "and you'll find it for sure." And there they are, shelf after shelf of the seemingly inconsequential memorabilia of love.