Day 47: Autonomic

WP_20151030_19_01_14_ProWhen Dylan was young I started to use table mats as I thought these might help him to develop appropriate behaviour at meal times. A mat marked out a space for Dylan, physically, and established a routine around preparing for meals and the behaviour expected at the dining table. In time Dylan made a positive association between table mats and food (which he enjoys) and started to get involved in setting the table while I cooked. Eventually Dylan became so familiar with this routine he developed the confidence to initiate setting the table and is now able to do it independently.

Because he is left-handed, at first Dylan would transpose the knives and forks when he set the table for a meal. I recognised this as a natural error as my daughter, who is also left-handed, had done the same when she was younger. As Dylan has good visual skills I decided he could probably also learn to set cutlery and, after years of encouragement, Dylan now puts knives and forks in the correct place automatically.

I’m interested in learning which becomes embedded in this way. Tasks and physical activities which we do habitually, like climbing a staircase, become so well established in our bodies that we do them without thinking. A minor alteration to the task, however, can cause us to stumble; if I replaced my carpet with one which has a thicker pile, or if I raised just one of the stairs by a half inch, I would have to re-learn the process of climbing my staircase.

Such ‘autonomic learning’ is often carried by our hands and feet; when I play certain pieces on the piano the memory of them is in my hands, for example, and the sequences of letters you are reading now were recalled by my fingers. Some of the memories which we store in our body are deeply embedded in the past. One of my poems recounts how I reached out for a manual choke when I couldn’t start my car one winter morning, although they hadn’t been fitted in vehicles for years. In the poem I represent my body as remembering my father through this autonomic act.


My new car stutters up a 1:3 hill
and instinctively I fumble for it
at the right hand side of the wheel.
It’s automatic of course: as beyond control
as my right arm responding mechanically
to a spark of memory. Give it some welly lass
he’d command as his Allegro rasped, adagio,
up the hill. Kangarooing, he called it,
when I’d jolt us to a halt. Now try again.
Without him to tell me I’ve flooded it
or reprimand push that darned choke in,
there is only my foot hard and blunt on the gas.
And it’s his judgement I miss; how to coax
a throttle open and when to ease it in.

This evening, while preparing my meal, I experienced the same phenomenon in relation to Dylan; automatically, without thinking, I set two mats out on the table. It will take me years to unlearn some of our routines.


‘Choke’ is from a new manuscript of poems. A version of it has been published in Dreamcatcher Magazine.

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