Callum’s Story

CALLUM: The sensory is the foundation of experience and memory and you cannot talk yourself out of that.

I realize my own long- buried experience of sensory awareness in a non-verbal body memory.


Why should there be thoughts?

Dressed always in khaki, the colour of his hair, I can see Callum as part of the Mexican sand (where he and Claudia taught in the winter) in the same way that he merges with the colour of the island’s dirt road as he makes his way to the post office or grocery store — sites of forgetting — or accompanies Claudia, holding her arm, head tilted to the right in conversation. Slim and short, he moves economically, and his wide blue eyes meet mine directly when we speak, often with a mischievous twinkle when he thinks we are “getting too solemn about serious topics.” I sense consideration and immediacy and will always have an image of vitality and spareness when I think about him.

I had been in their sensory awareness classes for three summers exploring what happens in the simplest of activities, such as breathing, sitting, standing, and walking. The work had alerted me to what I had been calling “body memory,” as some of the psychotherapy literature did. Callum agreed to an interview, and for several afternoons we met on the verandah, or in the sunny front room of their summer home overlooking the harbour, the gulls wheeling around the fishing boats as they returned with the day’s catch.

I was particularly interested to hear his views about the physical sensations that often evoked unnamed emotions and unfamiliar thoughts for me in their classes. He began “at the beginning” with direct sensory experience: “simply the function of being awake and paying attention. It is not about anything, it has nothing to do with thoughts or words. It is immediate sensation,” which in itself has nothing to do with memory, but is the foundation of all memory.

Next he explained that sensory experience becomes a memory “in the moment,” when it has enough emotional or sensory value to make an immediate impression, like the pleasure of walking on grass in his bare feet, quite different from “sentimental or contrived emotion — that is, thinking about how you ought to feel.”

The process of remembering sensory experience also involves sensations and feelings: “I remember walking on grass — I can’t help but recognize it — and feel now I am not, and it would be more enjoyable if I were.”

I ask him if he means that the body remembers in a non-verbal kind of way, and he looks at me quizzically, and asks me why I refer to the body. “I remember pleasure and pain. I don’t think my body is remembering feeling pleasure or pain. I am.”

“You won’t feel the rock or the grass and think, ‘I am walking on grass, I like it’”?

“No, it’s here and now. Why should there be thoughts? I think that’s what Allan Watts called trying ‘to put legs on a snake.’”

He wouldn’t think. For me, no-thoughts hover on the verge of no-reality, having been brought up with ‘cogito ergo sum.’ I ask him, “Who then is the ‘I’?” and he replies, “Ah, that is the great unknowable mystery.”

I persisted, “I understand that we are more than our bodies, but when I recall the sensory, isn’t that my body remembering?”

“No, I don’t think I am more than my body. We are getting into semantics, but we cannot avoid it.”

“In the sense that you cannot separate body, mind, and soul?”

“Then why do you speak of memory in the body?” asks Callum.

“I suppose because I haven’t found a way of talking about it that gets at non-verbal ways of remembering,” I reply.

“When you speak to me that way, you identify yourself with your thought processes. Perhaps it’s your university that wants you to encapsulate, perhaps it can’t be explained, but do you want to?”

“Oh, yes, very much.”

“Why else then?” said Callum.

Expressing sensory memories and remembering them is difficult. To name or explain them in what (for Callum’s friend Robert) is the “usual way” — that is, logically and rationally (although, as Callum pointed out, neurologists have their theories) is another matter. However, Callum believed that we can intuitively share sensory experiences without needing to talk about them, although we may not be aware that we’re doing so.

“I think we can intuitively feel what I’m getting across, a sense of moving together, when it’s really matching, like dance [calypso dance and percussion are lifelong interests] or like all intimate relations when they are functioning freely — but how often is that?” (Shades of Mort.)

Music and painting, he tells me, express the sensory when they too are “functioning freely” — that is, when they are “felt through,” and communicate the artist’s sensory and emotional consciousness and experiences. It is not essential to describe an experience in order to have the memory of it — consciousness isn’t necessarily verbal. “Only if you are a writer and want to communicate in that way are words necessary,” and when it comes to words, Callum thought that only poets truly express sensory experience. Even then, all words are merely symbols, abstract and removed from experience; “the great unknowable mystery” can’t really be put into words.

“I reject a great many words,” he states firmly.

“But words are so ever-present in our lives,” I blurt out. “It’s hard to do without them.”

“How pervasive is the value placed on words. I doubt my very existence when I have no words for her, remember my mother telling me to ‘use my words,’ that only when I could express myself in words could I be understood. I keep on insisting that somehow my body should BE words, that memories be located in mind-words.” (My Grandmother’s Hair, p. 155)

He knew this. As if reading my mind, he adds, “I feel that the enemy of direct experience is our tendency to verbalize, which occupies consciousness, which is therefore not open to the message of the sensory. People haven’t grown up being fully aware of their own experience, and often haven’t been permitted to speak about their experiences. We are not interested in the real child.”

And I wonder, with Callum, whether it’s possible to become fully aware of sensory experience as an adult if you’ve not been allowed to be fully aware of your physical and emotional being as a child.

Callum and I both grew up with a literary parent, steeped in academia, although my childhood was private and homebound, his public and well travelled. Charlotte thought that explanations of the sensory distracted from an awareness of that world, and it was Callum who understood my need to think about and find words to describe my awakening, and often troubling, sensory experiences.

His insistent and frequent questions “Why should there be thoughts?” and “Why should there be words?” and his emphasis on how our culture overvalues the “monkey mind” and words, introduced me to depths of sensory awareness I had never before experienced, let alone thought of. Ever since then, my explorations of the sensory in daily life, in the worlds of art, music, dance, and literature, and especially in my own writing, have been constant, often deeply disturbing, and immensely rewarding. He taught me — and his quiet voice keeps reminding me — that “thinking in the usual way” (cognitively) and expressing oneself in words are often not necessary, are never sufficient, and constitute a kind of consciousness, learning, and memory that differs from the consciousness emerging from sensory experience, sensory memory, and experiential learning.

My conversations with Callum, in person and through his writings, about his desire to overcome some of the sensory memories he lived with, and his resignation because he could not do this, brought me to new understandings. I came to see that whether or not one is aware of it cognitively, emotionally, physically, or spiritually, the sensory is fundamental to all of our thoughts and actions.

In telling me his story he allowed me to see that “the good aspects of childhood” and the “real” child’s conditions of conflict, anxiety, and pain are in the past and are also part of his present “way of living.” He cannot forget them simply by telling himself the story of how they no longer prevail. Cannot “talk himself out of them.”

None of us can do that.

Where is the line — is there a line? — between direct experience and the story of our existence?