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Fiction

Returning

The Third Component: Part III, Chapter 37

Alison Christy 5 July 2009

www.lablit.com/article/522

With her left-hemisphere interpreter interpreting things the way it chose, how could she know how she really felt?

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 37

Late-Stage Plasticity and the Left-Hemisphere Interpreter: A Case Study

She didn’t really think he’d leave; he had always been there, the frog in the moss. But then he was standing there by the water again with his guitar slung over his shoulder, waiting for her to decide. She stood on the bank, sinking into the mud in large rubber boots she was wearing on the wrong feet. There was so much to think about: Alexei Perch, corrupt police officers, exploding subways, Laima, Milda, Corey, John, the rest of her life.

There is an area on the left side of the brain responsible for assimilating information from the environment – my bus is on time – and interpreting it in the context of other observed information – I’m wearing my lucky socks.

Experiments with this phenomenon of interpretation have involved split-brain patients, who have had the connections between their two brain hemispheres surgically severed, usually to prevent the spread of epileptic activity. These patients will laugh when a funny cartoon is presented to the right side of the brain, but because language is located on the left side of the brain they will be unable to articulate why they are laughing; so the left-hemisphere interpreter will simply make something up when asked: you made a strange face or I put on the wrong tie this morning or I was just thinking about something funny my friend said yesterday. And the patient believes that this explanation is really why he or she is laughing, even though the funny cartoon is clearly the trigger.

Anna thought about this phenomenon about once a month, when she found herself weeping silently over the dirty dishes or the clothes in her closet. She always found a reason for her tears; but a day or two would go by, and she’d realize that her crying was entirely due to an imbalance of hormones in her brain preceding her monthly menstruation, and that faced with this sensation of unbearable misery, her interpreter was simply reaching out to find something she could logically be upset about.

And then there was Frank, and the tumultuous flood of hormones that follow a new sexual relationship. How could she be scientific, and look at anything rationally? With her left-hemisphere interpreter interpreting things the way it chose, how could she know how she really felt?

If she could have spoken to Marina right then, she would have asked her if she was afraid, because Michael Perch had said once that everyone in Moscow was afraid. But she is Marina’s rival, now – or she would be, and Marina would have no reason to talk to her or to help her understand anything.

You need controls, she thought. There are too many variables and not enough controls.

And then he got on the boat and left.

**********

So this is how it ends: Anna, alone, on a tiny island in the middle of Siberia, feeling the first chill of fall creep into the air, living the thin, subsistence life she had dreamed about back when she and Milda played in the backyard, dreading the inevitable return to America, to her boxes in her parents’ basement, to the future that is waiting for her.

They made bread yesterday, with flour, salt, sugar and yeast from Dima’s store and water they saved from boiling potatoes. Laima took the dough from Anna and kneaded it calmly, quickly, with a more practiced turn and roll than Anna had ever achieved, while Anna watched her and scraped the sticky dough off the palms of her own hands.

The oven was too cool and the bread’s crust was thick and chewy, but Laima just ate it serenely, with a thin cabbage soup. Nothing surprises Laima, not the bread, nor Anna’s presence in her kitchen and on her couch. Maybe today they can make blini, Anna thinks. She has Marina’s grandmother’s recipe tucked away in her duffel bag.

The sun has passed over her head by the time Laima comes in the room and runs her weathered hands through Anna’s hair. “Labrit,” she says, good morning, and then she sings a little song that is virtually unintelligible, and Anna hugs her and follows her to the kitchen for bread and fish.

As they are eating their breakfast Dima comes to the door and tells Anna that he is taking the boat to Kolpashevo again, and is just stopping by to see if she wants to go with them.

And Anna says yes, she does.

Yes, let’s go.

She is a little amazed at herself. She felt only minutes before that it would take something dramatic, something overwhelming, to break the murky inertia surrounding her and bring her away from Krolosk and back to America: the sudden arrival of Michael Perch, the death of Laima, or even an intense personal revelation. But Dima asks so simply and it is suddenly so easy to say yes, to leave the unsurprised Laima, to simply move on.

**********

The end of the hero’s quest is, of course, the return. The hero goes out, following his call; he becomes initiated and gains the ultimate boon; but as Campbell points out, his quest means nothing until he returns and brings his boon back to change and enhance the rest of the world.

As a travel journalist, it seems like my “return” is simply in my writing, my articles being the boon that I share. But I am constantly plagued by the feeling that these articles I write give little to the world beyond a few moments of entertainment or distraction. Who remembers them, a year after publication? Who is changed by the things I show them? Is anything in the world ever altered by my observation or outrage? Or do people read my articles, think “that’s sad/funny/interesting/horrible,” and then go on with their lives, forgetting every single word? Is it true that journalism, like poetry, makes nothing happen?

More importantly, I am a traveler by profession, and as such have nowhere to return to. I have lived in Berlin, in Moscow, in Paris; I still have family in Maryland and Arizona. But none of these places are “home” anymore: and without a home, without a final place to stay, the traveler is always traveling, and can never really finish the quest.

So I always wonder, on each new quest, whether I will encounter something more, some greater boon to be gained than simple experience and funny stories. Something transcendent. Something earth-shattering. A real return: what Campbell calls the Freedom to Live, the ability to exist without anticipating the future or regretting the past.

If I find it, I’ll let you know.

– from Michael Perch, “A Lifelong Quest: Becoming a Travel Writer,” reprinted in Turn Left at the Yak in the Road: A Life of Travel, Transit Press, 2000.

{Concludes next week}