From the top: Saint Brendan the Navigator, my grandmother and first generation American Mary Landers Crowley, me with #UKSA2016 friends Dyedra Just and Candita Wager, presenting my poster at #UKSA2016, and me, center, at the Irish Potato Famine memorial alongside the Liffey River, Dublin.
I’m a child of the diaspora; all four of my mother’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland in the early 1900’s, trading poverty and religious persecution in their homeland for the promise of prosperity in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m ever aware of the sacrifices my ancestors made to launch their version of the American dream, and I’m grateful their arduous journeys fostered opportunity for my family in the United States. For this, I will always feel the pull of an Irish-American identity.
My maternal grandmother Mary Landers Crowley and her family hail from County Kerry, where Brendan the Navigator is revered. Like many of the other Irish saints, Brendan’s narrative isn’t a story of passive and contemplative religious piety, but one of fierce adventure in the name of belief. In the early 6th century AD, Brendan plied the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in a currach, a small, keel-less boat. Currachs were made from animal skins stretched over a wooden frame, which was then tarred for water resistance. In this simple vessel, Brendan and his fellow pilgrims are said to have sailed from the Kerry coast to North America, probably making landfall at Newfoundland; their journey and return to Ireland took 7 years. While the Brendan legend is likely a myth that follows the narrative of other immrams (Irish navigational sagas), his excursion was replicated in 1976 by explorer Tim Severin, which demonstrated that a small currach ably navigated could indeed cross the ocean.
I’m just returned from my own ocean crossing (via modern technology) to Dublin where I attended the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association’s annual symposium. Over two days, I listened to neuroscientists, psychologists, and designers reveal their explorations into the world of synaesthesia and cross-modal perceptions. Highlights from the conference include the keynote lecture on Thursday April 21st, with Dr. Amir Amedi, an expert in the field of SSD’s, or “sensory substitution devices”. Dr. Amedi taught the entire audience to read a simple word using sound to depict the shape of letters. The next morning, Jennifer Mankin, of the School of Psychology, University of Sussex, presented her research on the topic of associative learning, synaesthesia, and trends in letter-colour pairs. And on Saturday, our host Kevin Mitchell gave an impromptu lecture titled Synaesthesia: More or Different?. Remarkable poster presentations included those from Amanda Tilot (Decoding the Genetics of Synaesthesia) Gwilym Lockwood (Synaesthesia and Sound Symbolism) and Giles Hamilton-Fletcher (Synaestheatre: Using synaesthesia to optimise the design of SSD’s).
There were too many other fascinating presentations and posters to list in this short blog post. But what they all had in common is a rigorous sense of scientific exploration. And while I recognize the motives of a 6th century monastic Christian and contemporary scientists couldn’t be more disparate, I can’t help but think of the researchers and academics I met in Dublin as the equivalent of modern day saints. The link between science and sainthood isn’t much of a stretch when one considers the prodigious intellect of polymath Hildegard of Bingen, or the universal thinking of physicist, botanist, and philosopher Albert Magnus. And, the navigational expertise of Brendan of Clonfert, crossing uncharted waters in a small wooden boat, is a sophisticated feat for a Dark Ages sailor. I have plenty of problems with what I like to call “the management team” of the Catholic Church, and the horrendous misdeeds enacted under their direction. But, I’m going to offer poetic license as defense for the equation of scientists and saints and leave it at that.
I’m verbicidal by nature, so I like to call people with synaesthesia “synners”. We were well represented at #USKA2016. Svetlana Rudenko, a pianist and sound to texture/color/space synaesthete who is also a PhD. candidate at the Royal Irish Academy of Music charmed us at a recital Friday night. I too had the opportunity to present in the poster sessions, on the topic of mirror-touch synaesthesia in the practice of manual therapy. I also had the pleasure of meeting Candita Wager, who was profiled by my friend and fellow synesthete Maureen Seaberg in an article for Psychology Today. Candy is one of the brightest young women I’ve ever met, a synesthete, scholar, and vocalist. She gave a brave presentation Saturday morning on the missing link between mood disorders and synaesthesia, then celebrated the close of the conference with her brother Jacob Wager and a delightful group of conference attendees, including Richard Roche and students from Maynooth University. We talked for hours at The Ginger Man Pub over pints of Guinness, an evening I’ll never forget. This synner is forever grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a deeply engaging community.
Community is the perfect word to describe #UKSA2106. I was impressed by the level of collaboration and camraderie between the various scientists, designers, and synaesthetes. The global collective of synaesthesia and cross-modal perception researchers is small, and it seemed to me that there was plenty of encouragement and cooperation among the conference attendees, with a good dose of competition and critique thrown into the mix. I feel fortunate that I gathered new connections and friends by attending the event, and I’m thankful to have been included.
Go raibh maith agaibh!
Various depictions of “The Fool” from the tarot
It only seems appropriate that on April Fool’s Day I write a post that is no joke. I’m a neuroweirdo who’s never quite normal, (whatever one considers normal in this oddly beautiful world) and I’ve had numerous instances where my friends have assumed I’m kidding when I’ve revealed the truth that is my sensorial world. So, on this day of hoaxes and pranks and inverted expectations, I’m writing with honesty.
In just a few weeks, I’m presenting at the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association Symposium in Dublin Ireland. I will be speaking about my career as a Certified Massage Therapist, and how I utilize the cross-modal perceptions of mirror-touch synesthesia in the practice of manual therapy. I’ve looked at the draft program for the event, and I am one of very few presenters without an affiliation with a major research university. And, although I have a background in theater that has helped me overcome my natural introvert tendencies and comfortably speak in public, I’ve never made a presentation of this nature.
A friend asked me the other day if I’m nervous, and I said no. I’m not nervous; I’m actually quite excited. I’m looking forward to returning to Dublin as I’ve not been there in 15 years, and I’m charmed by Trinity College, the institution hosting the UK Synesthesia Symposium (I can’t wait to gaze upon the Book of Kells!). I’m curious about the experience of participating in an academic conference. Also, I’m intrigued by the fascinating research on synesthesia that will be explored at this conference. I feel quite fortunate to have the opportunity to witness presentations from the world’s leading experts in the field. I’m enthusiastic, and a little elated, but I have no trepidation.
My emotional disposition toward the UK Synaesthesia Symposium reminds me of The Fool card in the tarot. Typically, The Fool is depicted as a merry wanderer, optimistic and carefree, blithely stepping off a cliff to willingly place herself at the whims of the universe. It is card number 0, neither the beginning, nor the end, the eternal return. Even though traditional illustrations of The Fool capture a quality of obliviousness, she is almost always depicted as prepared for the journey, with a rucksack, a walking stick and a companion, typically a small white dog at her side.
My own small white dog will stay at home in San Francisco while I make my way to the motherland. I probably should be more jittery than I am, what, with speaking at the most prestigious university in Ireland to a cohort of highly accomplished academics. But, I know I have the right tools for the journey. I have a lifetime of first hand experience with synesthesia, and I’m working diligently to create an engaging poster that represents my cross-modal perceptions. I’m lucky to have friends employed by the University of California, a pair of brilliant knot theorists who can help me pull my presentation together. And, I think I’m just far too inexperienced in this arena to feel the nervousness that would be a natural response to the amplitude of it all. I’m feeling a bit of The Fool these days, in a tarot sort of way, optimistic and eager. But there’s no April Fools in that.
Spring Ensemble gown and hat portrait photographed by Valentina Sadiul
There’s been lively discussions this month on the Synesthesia List focused on cross modal perception and color. Several threads on the topic of grapheme-color synesthesia have been quite active, with much mention of childhood associations that inform one’s colored letters. While I wrote about my own chromatic alphabet in a recent post, I want to briefly revisit colored letters. I also want to take a quick look at color in regard to my spatial-sequential synesthesia and its association with the vernal equinox.
I have a brightly hued synaesthetic association with the concept of Spring. I see the vernal season as matching Crayola spring green, which, in my youth, was my favorite shade in the jumbo 64 crayon pack. That pale verdant color overlays my concept of the months of March, April and May, although in my spatial-sequential synesthesia I still see the months distinctly in their individual hues. While I don’t feel that my grapheme-color synesthesia was deeply informed by the colored letter toys of my childhood, such as blocks and alphabet magnets, I do feel certain that the spring green Crayola has influenced my spatial-sequential synesthetic perception of the Spring season, draping my senses in a soft haze of chartreuse.
The word “spring” is a medium blue, tinged by the almost sapphire hue of the letter “S”. Like many other synesthetes with grapheme-color synesthesia, the first letter of any word tells me the color of that word. With the word spring, it doesn’t matter which definition of I’m thinking of; all of the nouns and verbs “spring” are a beautiful blue. So too is the proper noun Spring that denotes the season.
I call the hat and gown in the photograph above my “Spring Ensemble”. The combination of the sapphire blue embroidery on the gown and the pale green tulle on the hat really captures my cross-modal multi-sensory experience of the prima vera.
My chromatic alphabet from A to Z.
I recently read Maggie Koerth-Baker’s insightful article Magnetic Letters Taught Us More Than How to Spell, which is available online at National Geographic. It’s a fascinating read for people interested in grapheme-color synesthesia, as well those interested in how we learn, and how culture shapes that learning. Ms. Koerth-Baker’s reportage is focused on those brightly colored alphabet magnets that Gen-Xers and Millenials know so well. These magnetic toys were designed by Victor Reiling and first produced by Fischer-Price as part of the “School Days Desk” play-set. The letters came in a rainbow pallet of 6 hues that repeated the spectrum from red to violet. Currently, they’ve gone through many changes, including dozens of manufacturers each creating their own designs, and color ranges that are influenced by prevailing trends. In the image that accompanies Ms. Koerth-Baker’s article, an art-car is decked out with thousands of magnet letters in various fonts and hues. You can find that photograph here.
I was in grade school in 1972 when the Fischer-Price magnetic letters first hit the marketplace, and while I didn’t play with them in my early childhood, they were popular with my younger sister Barbara and her friends. Alphabet magnets were ubiquitous, at least in my community; almost every family with a school-aged child had a set of them stuck to metallic surfaces in their home. I saw them a lot in my teen years too, when I was in demand for my mad babysitting skills. After my charges had gone to bed and there was nothing for me to do but homework, I would write terse and angst-ridden poetry on the door of a harvest gold Frigidaire, carefully deranging the letters before my employers came home.
In the last few years, I’ve had several conversations with non-synesthetes about my experiences with grapheme-color synesthesia, with most of them suggesting I learned synesthetic perception from these magnetic letters or other learning toys. I’ve never felt that this is the case for me in regard to my own grapheme-color, although I do believe that ideas may inform the experience of cross-modal perception. There are three specific reasons why I don’t feel my grapheme-color synesthesia is rooted in magnetic alphabet toys.
The colors I associate with my letters aren’t the primary and secondary hues included in the original play-set. When I look at my alphabet as a whole, my letters seem tinged by the mid-century pallet that influenced design in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For example, my mother had a taffeta bridesmaid’s dress from the late 50’s that is the exact shade of my letter “A”. And that weird sage green that I associate with “Z” is almost the color of the sofa in the living room of my childhood home. It seems more likely to me that my grapheme-color was informed by multiple objects in my environment, and not just toys.
Additionally, those magnetic toy letters weren’t around in my early childhood. I learned to read at a ridiculously early age, mostly due to the efforts of my older sister Elizabeth. When the first School Days Desk play-sets were produced in 1972, I had been reading for 5 years; my colored letters were already formed. I have an early recollection of my colored letters and colored words from 1969, with my first experience at school. I felt a strong connection to my preschool teacher Mrs. Clark in part because she was lovely, and kind, and in all ways wonderful, but also because the color of her last name (Clark) matched the color of my first name (Carolyn). I already knew that “C” was medium blue long before magnetic letters appeared in toy stores. And, in those first play-sets, the “C” was primary yellow.
Also, color distribution among the letters of the alphabet as experienced by grapheme-color synesthetes is one of the most frequently researched synesthetic phenomenon. While many of my grapheme-color experiences are quite unusual (for example, my bright pink “F” and my purple “J”), others are very common, including my colorless vowels. For me, the vowels “I”, “O”, and “U” are white. But, none of the magnet letter toys, including those produced by manufacturers other than Fischer-Price have white letters. However, many synesthetes do tend to have white vowels, and it seems possible that the frequency of color distribution among specific letters in grapheme-color synesthetes has a cultural or learned aspect.
I’m not certain how my grapheme-color synesthesia formed, although I’m positive that colored magnets had little or no influence on the origin of my cross-modal perception. However, those colored magnets do indeed seem to have some impact on synesthetes younger than me. You can learn more about that in Ms. Koerth-Baker’s article. Also, grapheme-color is one of the most common forms of synesthesia. If you’d like to assess your own synesthetic tendencies, specifically in regard to grapheme-color, I highly recommend taking the Synesthesia Battery. It’s one of the few ways to test for synesthesia online. You can find the Synesthesia Battery here.
On Leap Day, I’m leaping into new opportunities….
I have a vibrant synesthetic experience with the concept of Leap Day. In my spatial-sequential synesthesia, Leap Day appears radiant, a luminous orange glow amid the ever spiraling cycle of late winter days. There’s something hopeful about Leap Day too; it’s a lagniappe, a little bit extra. It feels full of promise, not only for wishful spinsters, but for anyone hoping to upend conventions and leap into new opportunities.
I’m making my own big leap today; this is my last day working for TwitterHQ in their health and wellness program FitterTwitter. I have loved my career at Twitter, and I’m terribly sad that it’s ending. But the company continues to cut expenses, and my program was eliminated along with some other employee perks. Despite the end of my career with Twitter, I’m still very fond of the Twitter social media platform as a means of creating connection and fostering community. It’s been a fantastic means for interacting with other synesthetes across the globe. If you’d like to follow me, you can find my Vox Synaesthetica (@voxsyn) account here.
As I jump from the nest at TwitterHQ I’m also diving into more creative possibility. With a new schedule and fewer extra-early starts to my workday, I’m recommitting to my writing; it’s been a decade since I began my MFA studies, and it’s high time I made my craft a priority. I have several essays about the synesthetic experience in the works, along with others about being neuroqueer in a neuronormative world. I’m hoping to participate in some advocacy work for neurodiversity. I also hope to leap into new adventures too precious and nascent to name.
Ready. Set. Leap!
Valentine’s Day has long been one of my favorite celebrations. I adore its pink and red color scheme (even though I see the word “valentine” in green) and I’m quite fond of its emphasis on love and friendship. When I was a child, my sisters and I would sit at the kitchen table on the evening of February 13th signing cards for our classmates. Our parents helped us spell difficult names and made certain we completed a card for each of our peers. The next day, we’d deliver our valentines at parties in classrooms adorned with lace doilies and crepe streamers, a paper sack hanging from each kid’s desk to collect goodies. These bags, decorated with hearts and flowers and occasionally an oddly zoomorphic rendition of Cupid, were the receptacles for cards, candy, and possibly (fingers crossed!) cryptic notes from secret admirers. We children would mill around the room, dropping our offerings at each other’s desks, maybe slipping in a lollypop or red foil wrapped Hershey’s kisses, or best of all, conversation hearts.
Later that afternoon, when I had returned home and had a moment of quiet, I’d open my cards one by one, giggling at their punny messages. A card with a puppy motif, “You’re doggone nice!” written in curling script. An image of a fawn, looking much like Disney’s Bambi, proclaiming “You’re Dear, Valentine!”. Two kids decked out in astronaut helmets, their message suitable for children of the space-age: “Valentine, you’re way out!”. I’d keep my cards at least for a month or so, taped to my bookcase, until the edges began to curl and fray in the humidity that came with California’s spring rains. By the time Easter arrived, my valentines were tossed into the trash, or perhaps on a bed of embers if March was chilly enough for a fire at the hearth.
Somewhere along my way through middle school these festive gatherings vanished, along with their droll little cards. And now, with my school days so long behind me, it seems Valentine’s Day in its grown-up incarnation is solely a lover’s holiday, with cards and other tokens of affection shared only between sweethearts. Gone are the winsome, heartfelt, and funny greetings exchanged between friends.
This year, I’m reclaiming the Valentine’s Day of my childhood by celebrating the online friendships and acquaintances I’ve cultivated in the international synesthesia community. There is a lovely kindred (and perhaps genetic?) affinity between the synesthetes I’ve met via the Internet. Additionally, I’ve connected with several neuroscientists who study synesthesia. They have been incredibly gracious with their knowledge and insight; I’m celebrating them as well.
Sean A Day: Scientist and synesthete Dr. Sean A Day manages the Synesthesia List which brings international synesthetes and researchers together in a lively online forum. I’ve learned more about my own synesthesias from following Dr. Day’s list, where I’ve also had the pleasure of engaging with an eclectic international community. The Synesthesia List is the heart and soul of the online synesthesia community, and I am ever so grateful for Dr. Day’s commitment to this project.
Maureen Seaberg: A sparkly unicorn who writes about other sparkly unicorns, Maureen Seaberg is a fascinating creature. Synesthete, genetic tetrachromat, author, southpaw, advocate, beauty….there is no end to the words I can use to describe this fascinating lady. Maureen’s star is really rising this year….if you aren’t familiar with her now, you will be soon!
Joanne Harris: I follow a number of authors on Twitter, and none of them are as generous with writer’s advice as Joanne Harris. Best known for her charming novel Chocolat, Joanne is a fierce advocate for her fellow authors. She’s also a synesthete, ridiculously smart, and can annihilate Internet trolls with impressive rapidity.
Richard Cytowic: I know I’ll cross paths with Richard Cytowic, MD at some point in the future. He’s my first “synesthesia hero”, a physician, scientist, and author whose book “Wednesday is Indigo Blue” (co-authored with Dr. David Eagleman) brought me home to my synesthete self. Richard also holds an MFA in Writing; his essays are just lovely.
Joel Salinas: Erika Hayasaki wrote a brilliant article about mirror-touch synesthesia for Pacific Standard. Although she interviewed me for the article, I knew that she was profiling another synesthete whose experience with mirror-touch was quite profound. That person is Dr. Joel Salinas, a brilliant young physician and researcher. Joel has been so kind and gracious in our conversations. I’m excited to see what the future holds for this remarkable man.
Leigh Erceg: I’m captivated by Leigh’s story; she acquired synesthesia, along with mad skills in mathematics, the visual arts and poetry, after a traumatic brain injury. I’ve enjoyed interacting with Leigh via social media, and I’m excited to see her story brought to life by the talented writer Maureen Seaberg.
Rodger Hoefel: Like Leigh Erceg, Rodger suffered a head injury in a motor vehicle accident that left him with lingering trauma…and gifts. He has become a champion for neurodiversity, revealing deeply human stories via his creative endeavor Like-Minded Magazine.
Bahar Gholipour: Neuroscientist and editor of braindecoder.com, Bahar Gholipour is an advocate for the beautiful and exquisite strangeness that is the human brain. Bookmark braindecoder.com and you’ll be continually delighted by its scintillating revelation of neuroscience and its impact on our lives and cultures.
Elinor Cleghorn: I met Elinor Cleghorn of the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University via the Synesthesia List, where her search for mirror-touch synesthetes lead to several long dialogues via email about synesthesia, the senses, and the visual arts. I’m looking forward to Elinor’s launch of Qualia, a literary journal that sits at the intersection of art and science.
Daria Martin: The only person on this list I’ve actually met in person, Daria is an academic, photographer, and filmmaker who is also affiliated with the Ruskin School of Art. Her films At the Threshold and Sensorium Tests are informed by her research on mirror-touch synesthesia.
Io the Jack Russell Terrier, my shining star.
It’s been a tough few months for me. I had the flu over the Christmas holiday, turning my 10 days of vacation into nothing but chicken soup and recuperation. My career as a massage therapist in the tech sector feels in peril while Twitter transits the “ugly adolescence” of corporate growth. And, a poem I’d hoped would be published in a literary journal got nixed by an editor who was once my writing mentor. This rejection is a small pothole in the very bumpy road that is the writer’s life, but still, it’s a bummer.
But, my largest heartbreak this winter has been witnessing the plodding decline of “Io”, my elderly dog. I make no bones about it; I adore my Jack Russell Terrier. She’s been my stalwart companion for 16 years, the constant shadow at my side, my shining star when I’m sad or lonely. In mid December, Io had a seizure, her second in less than six months. We’ve spent the last few weeks consulting doggie neurologists, internists, and several other veterinary specialists. Io is stable for now, and although we don’t have a clear diagnosis, she seems okay for the moment; her appetite is as voracious as ever and she’s not in any obvious pain. But, even though she’s doing well, I cry a little almost every day. I’m worried that our time together is short. I’m fearful for what the coming months may hold, and reticent about the intense experience that will come with losing my beloved companion.
“Intense” is the perfect adjective to describe the ways in which synesthesia infiltrates my struggles with Io’s declining health. My synesthetic perception is ever present, it consistently informs each moment of my life and creates the weirdest frictions. For example, the canine neurologist asked about Io’s medications, specifically what we are using to control her seizures. I could see the medicine in my mind’s eye, the periwinkle colored pills that I coat in cream cheese to get my dog to swallow them. But I couldn’t find their name. In my grapheme-color lexicon, words are saturated by the tint of their first letter, and I don’t have a single letter that is this specific hue. So I trawled through my memory searching for the word, seeing a wide swath of light purplish-blue and feeling utterly confused. The nurse was on the verge of calling the critical care vet to get the name of the drug when it came to me. K. Kepra. Seafoam green.
While forgetting a word is a common human experience, the cognitive dissonance I felt in this situation seems aberrant. That disonant feeling is always with me, fed these days by a stream of constant low-level anxiety about my dog’s declining health, and magnified by the many ways in which my synesthesia fosters confusion. One of the procedures Io had recently was a biopsy of a tiny mass in her spleen. She tolerated the procedure easily, and appeared to have little pain. But even three weeks later, when I see the place where her belly was shaved, I get bolts of electricity that shoot from my hips to my heels. I don’t even need to view the tiny crimson spot where the needle entered her body; my synesthesia-for-pain is triggered continuosly by the rectangle of cropped fur. And, while her coat is slowly regrowing, my synesthetic pain is unchanged.
I’m fond of February 1st, in part because of its ties to Celtic cultures and the feast of St. Brigid, but also because here in California, the first hints of spring are typically on display. I really like the lovely blue-violet hue of the word “February”, and the way the pale color of “1” makes me feel. 1 is pure white on its own, and yellowy-white in pairs, full of promise and opportunity. On this February 1st, it’s sunny and bright in San Francisco, a hopeful omen for what looks like a difficult year ahead of me. I’m wishing for strength in these strange days so that I can take excellent care of my sweet Io. But I’m certain that my synesthesia will challenge me in ways that are both familiar and odd.
Very few people are synesthetes; researchers in the field of neuroscience estimate less than 4 percent of the population has some form of entwined senses. But, even though synesthesia is rare, interest in this neurological phenomenon is rapidly expanding. Currently, there are numerous scientific and creative endeavors that try to convey the experience of synesthesia for those who don’t have the condition.
I’m intrigued by the idea of helping non-synesthetes feel what it’s like to have conflated senses. My most recent writing project is an attempt to engage urban hikers in synesthetic perception as they explore one of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhoods. Syn City SF: The Haight Ashbury was created via the VoiceMap platform, which utilizes a mobile app for iPhone and Android devices. When the app is activated, VoiceMap uses one’s location to play an audio tour. VoiceMap journeys are created by writers, journalists, and passionate locals so that you can experience the selected walk from a uniquely informed perspective. VoiceMap is location aware, and coordinates with your phone’s GPS to play content automatically; it also includes helpful offline maps and additional resources. Just put on your headphones and you’re ready to explore!
I’m delighted to have the VoiceMap I created, Syn City SF: The Haight Ashbury, available via https://voicemap.me Take a hike!
Photo by Valentina Saduil
I’m glad that Halloween is over.
Once upon a time, it was my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, I’d spend weeks planning the perfect costume, trying to hit that sweet spot between spooky and beautiful. I would comb through my mother’s closet for dresses and accessories that could transform me into a ghost-bride, a vampire princess, or some other fantastical creature. I made crowns from cardboard covered in aluminum foil and created spots of fake blood from my mom’s Revlon Red lipstick. And, I’d decorate a plain paper grocery bag with witches and ghosts, hoping my illustrations would charm the neighbors into giving me extra treats.
Our doorstep was adorned each Halloween with three jack-o-lanterns. My parents would take me and my sisters to a local farm where the rule was this: I could pick any pumpkin I wanted as long as I could carry it by myself from the field to the car. I’d choose the biggest squash I could get my hands around and my father would cut it free from the vine with a Bowie knife. He’d use that same knife later to sculpt a face from the pumpkin’s flesh on the strictest orders to make my jack-o-lantern really really scary, with jagged teeth and wide angry eyes.
Yesterday, I carved a small pumpkin I could easily carry on the San Francisco MUNI train to these same specifications, even though I’ve lost interest in the contemporary celebration of All Hallows Eve. It’s become so laden with gore, so focused on blood and carnage as instigators of fright that it sends me into mirror-touch overload. My synesthesia-for-pain gets triggered by even the slightest hint of a wound or injury, and because of this, Halloween has always been a bit zingy for me. But the bloody mummies and neck-bolted Frankenstein monsters of the past have been replaced by zombies with entrails spilling from their abdomens, corpses with knives through their skulls and other loathsome monsters of this phantasmagoric ilk. The sheer verisimilitude of these costumes means I get zapped down my back by what feels like bolts of electricity almost constantly on Halloween.
I’m put off by the grossness and carnage. Perhaps it’s due to my synaesthesia, but I also think my own sense of aesthetics is to blame for my discontent with contemporary Halloween celebrations. I don’t like gore, I don’t find it thrilling or exciting, and I specifically dislike the way it triggers my synesthesia. What I do find interesting and attractive is the combination of allure and fear. I delight in the tension that comes when I am both captivated and a bit repulsed. Beautiful ruins. Lovely decay. I adore the frisson fomented by the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the hideous. I like to call this combination “phantasmagorgeous”. And I wish modern Halloween had more of it.
I’ve become enchanted with Dia de los Muertos, the traditional Mexican celebration held on November 2nd. This festival has its roots in Catholic customs honoring the dead on the feast of All Souls, combined with indigenous Aztec celebrations held in the name of the goddess Mictecacihuatl. San Francisco has a vibrant Latin American community in its Mission District including families and individuals from all regions in Mexico. On Dia de los Muertos, the Mission will teem with people decked out in colorful costumes and painted in beautiful, ghoulish “calavera” make-up. A candlelight procession will make its way through the community and past altars honoring the dead. These magnificent “ofrendas” are wonderfully adorned with marigolds and sugar skulls, votives and photographs. The celebration is both solemn and festive, and it has completely captured my heart.
I created my own ofrenda yesterday, honoring my late mother and father. At its center is a jack-o-lantern, which is not part of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations as I know them, but serves as a nod to my childhood traditions and the Irish roots of Halloween. Tomorrow night, I will walk through the Mission in a sumptuous black velvet gown, with my face painted like a bejeweled skull. And I will revel in this opportunity to experience a moment of the phantasmagorgeous.
My “ofrenda”, November 1st, 2015
I’m honored to have an interview published today, “A Strange and Wonderful Life”, which appears on the blog Sometimes Life Is… This fascinating project is edited by Rodger Hoefel, a writer, graphic designer, and art director who makes his home in Amsterdam.
Sometimeslifeis.com is a showcase of stories and conversations shared by those who have experienced life at its most unforgiving. This creative project is “based upon the insight that exposing your experience can initiate meaningful connection and exchange, with the likely goal that support and understanding can be found from others who have shared similar experiences”.
While many synesthetes would not consider their conflated senses “unforgiving” or a burden, my experiences with mirror-touch and its correlate, synesthesia-for-pain, have been full of frustration. I’m grateful to have my story included on Rodger’s thought-provoking blog.