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Sirenland stories: Sirenuse Synesthesia by Nancy Freund

28.04.2015. Le Sirenuse

Over the coming year, the Sirenuse Journal will be publishing a series of short texts written by some of the participants at the 2015 Sirenland writer's workshop. The only requirement: that they should be inspired by some aspect of Positano or the surrounding region. This is the first.

Wednesday’s yellow, but that’s it.  Actually, Thursday’s yellow too, but a different shade and shape.  “B” ought to be purple, but that doesn’t make me a synesthete, much as I might wish it did.  I’m always on the lookout for peripheral shimmers, wisps of smoke, smells and song and sense of color.  My debut novel ‘Rapeseed’ features a classic synesthete with cross-wired senses, but me -- I’m just a variant.  In neurological terms, an also-ran.  But during the ten years it took me to write ‘Rapeseed,’ the neuroscience of synesthesia developed enormously, and the variations expanded too.  Today I accept my status as a variant synesthete, but I still like to find proof.  In science, a thing is only true if proved by evidence, repeatedly.  In Positano, in the spa at Le Sirenuse, I got proof.  Twice.

Let me back up.  A classic synesthete, known in neurology for many decades now, is a person who sees their letters and numbers in color.  Their days of the week and months of the year may be arranged graphically – sometimes flat, sometimes 3D.  They may experience certain colors when they taste particular foods or hear music in visual arts.  It’s believed that all babies are synesthetes, and as they develop, their senses separate and compartmentalize.  Synesthetes’ brains don’t fully compartmentalize, and they end up with blended senses that can enhance or disrupt daily experience.  Many artists are synesthetes: Vladimir Nabokov, Vincent Van Gogh, Wasily Kandinsky, Marilyn Monroe, Stevie Wonder, Pharell Williams, Lady Gaga.  Carolann Cooper in my novel ‘Rapeseed’ is a classic synesthete too, but it’s a variation of her synesthesia that I share and that I wanted to explore in the novel... that is the association between color, texture, and memory. 

For me, Kansas City bar-b-que with its dark rich sauce (think brown sugar, maple syrup, black pepper) sounds like saxophone.  But anyone might say that.  I can taste and hear it in my memory.  Gates...  Arthur Bryant’s...  I retain my sense of home through good smells of burnt ends and pulled pork.  Carolann leaves small town Kansas and lands in London, jarred by displacement and newly aware of her identity – as a synesthete and a woman.  Hers is a fictional story of self-discovery.  Mine is a story that isn’t fiction but has refused to be fact.  Do I really see the number 8 as whitish- gray, floating like a jellyfish?  Sure, but so what? 

A year ago I was a fortunate attendee at the Sirenland Writers Conference at Le Sirenuse -- an intense week of workshopping my new novel with Andre Dubus III.  On the penultimate day, I went for the signature Sirenuse massage in the spa.  I’ve had a few massages in my life, and I can tell good from great.  The spa at Le Sirenuse ranks even better than great.  Dimly lit room, soothing music, clean cotton sheet on a padded table, strategically placed towels for privacy and comfort. The primary difference with this massage is a warm water-filled pad on the table, allowing gentle movement of the body as Augustino the masseur kneads away tensions and carefully manipulates the limbs.  Deeply relaxing.  I’m sure some people fall asleep dreaming of Prosecco, their own writing perhaps, bougainvillea, the soothing sounds of waves and rocky beach below the hotel, the candle-lit chandeliers in the dining room.  For me, though, during this massage I saw colors.  I was very awake.

I’ve been told this sometimes happens with Reiki massage, but I’d never experienced it.  This time though, it was undeniable.  Augustino massaged my left leg and brought a moving multi-color palette, like “scribble art” my brother and I made as children, with a black marker all over a page, and then each little misshapen window gets a different color filled in: orange, red, green, yellow.  Subtle movement to the whole image, plain as day. 

Augustino moved away from my left leg, and the image receded.  He began on my right leg and I saw teal.  Barely-there swirls of brown, olive green, and turquoise lit like yellow.  Again, irrefutable.  If Augustino could have seen my eyes under my eye patch, they’d have been wide with wonder.  Synesthesia?  No idea.  But those two visual images have come to mind many times in the year since.

This spring, I returned to the Sirenland Conference, this time with outstanding author, Anthony Doerr, whose work often features stunning descriptions of color, music, and mood.  Primed and hopeful but unsure whether to expect another synesthetic experience, I went for another massage with Augustino.  This time the magic of it, the vibrant visual images surpassed my previous year’s experience and began almost instantly.  An array of colored reflections on white, with movement, texture, and near-silent sound.  Years ago at sundown, I strolled from a Swiss mountain chalet to the center of Verbier, and the fresh snow palette shifted as I walked, as the sun descended and the moonlight grew brighter, streetlamps, cars’ headlights , store fronts and restaurants signage lit up, skis and snowboards all made their reflections in snow.  This new hour on the Sirenuse massage table in Positano replicated the colors and contrasts of that walk.  Lilac, pearl, purple, silver-white, shadows of gray, navy blue, whitest-white, white-with-gold.  A pulsing parade, it danced in front of my eyes. 

There’s neuroscience, no doubt, to explain what the brain’s doing, but it feels like enchantment.  It has happened now twice.  Proof.  Repeated.  I now know what I know – not just a belief but a knowing.  That’s what the Sirenland Writers Conference is all about – capturing and claiming what we know – and it’s what this divine hotel delivers too.  New memories of color, taste, texture, and sound, and sincere hopes to return.

Nancy Freund is the author of ‘Rapeseed,’ (Gobreau Press, 2013) and ‘Mailbox: A Scattershot Novel of Racing, Dares and Danger, Occasional Nakedness, and Faith’ (2015).  She lives in Lausanne, Switzerland.  www.nancyfreund.com

Pictures: © Roberto Salomone

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