It’s Sunday, so I’ll lead with a Calvin Kasulke story. One time in college, before Calvin transitioned but after he got tall, he was in a dorm common room and became aware of a young man and woman with their heads bent together. The man was drawing something with crayons; the woman was watching him with interest. When he asked what the man was doing, the man said, “I’m drawing how I see the alphabet.”
These days, Calvin has placed a derrick over his bottomless reservoir of anger, and uses it for socialist agitation and helping his friends decode what bothers us about an article. Back then, though, he was pretty much just mad, and mad specifically that this stranger was getting a woman’s attention by the normal act of seeing the alphabet, which anyone could do. Even Calvin could see the damn alphabet. He retreated into a corner, where he began privately making notes on what colors his letters were. Later, he Googled it. Synesthesia: the mashing-together of senses; for example, the perception of words or music as having color. About four percent of people have it, and as the glowering Calvin learned that day, all of us are sexually irresistible.
Synesthesia always invites mysticism, and I must speak to it about this, because mysticism is not my favorite guest. There are some aspects of mysticism that I trust — tarot, Shabbat candle-lighting, the part of a yoga video where the instructor tells me to “reach out from the heart through the fingertips” — but I don’t care to attach it to my synesthesia, which I have as well (no, I’m not the dude in Calvin’s story; at the time this happened, I was busy extricating myself from a graduate program in Eugene, and from a roommate arrangement involving a nonconsensual brother-in-law and a mastiff with an anxiety disorder). It doesn’t seem right to be mystical about something that to me is normal, inherent, and implicit. It’s a component of my personality, and it fits into its own precise boomerang-shaped slot. What it does is not obvious, but if you take it out, the rest spills out with it.
I also avoid romanticizing my synesthesia because I’m afraid of being thought precious. Years ago, my then-husband pointed out that I’d probably said the trash smelled red because it had red curry in it, and the subtext of this — Isaac says the twash is wed, the darling! — was sufficiently withering that I kind of gave up on talking about synesthesia for a while. Throughout my teens, twenties, and an unfortunate percentage of my thirties, I was sensitive that way. I didn’t want to need anyone to tell me something twice.
Because, I mean, synesthesia isn’t actually magic. Of course it can take on input from the real world. I probably did get that red shade from the curry, and I’m sure my sense that the letter E is pale orange has some origin in the works of Richard Scarry. I might well tie together synesthesia with the texture slick, and the image little rainbows — this is a bit from The Breath of the Sun, where Lamat is being transparently shitty about people who talk a lot about how they need reading — because, as a kid, I saw a puddle of oil once.
But synesthesia doesn’t stop at linking memories. It evokes, it pricks, it embroiders, and it yanks together connections that in most brains are far apart. The way I’d describe it is a constant rhyming. This is kind of funny in a person who’s so memorably bad at the board game Set, but the way I think, the way I write, is all about the recognition that a character’s name is green, or an idea is blue and tuberous, or a word — rhyme, let’s say — is red-gold and sticklike. Electric guitar music and saxophone music are both a burnished and fragmentary brown-gold, and so it took me a long time to learn to tell them apart. Acoustic music never moved me in my twenties until I found Elliott Smith, whose brisk, brushing, white-and-orange voice was enough to activate the visualizer in my brain. Smith’s harshly used guitar didn’t need electricity to do that, the way most guitars or keyboards did.
I write for three reasons:
- I’m good at it and I hate waste. (This is what sits me down.)
- Ceaseless thirst for bodies and embodiment. (This is what starts the fingers moving.)
- The pleasures of describing synesthesia, creating new synesthetic shapes, sticking my tongue in the exact spot that will make my plot into the right bulbous form; that will slot tooth into tooth; that will make me see a revolving wheel of light; that will make clicks and violins. (This is what gets me past 500 words.)
I love that Calvin story because it cuts through the magical overtones of synesthesia, the sense that when I proclaim myself “a synesthete,” I am claiming to be closer to God or Nabokov. Synesthetes can write bad books, too. Those books are often the ones where we get too caught up in trying to paint with all the colors of the wind. (I think Nabokov is most guilty of this in Invitation to a Beheading.) Still, my unusual, harmless condition is central to everything I do — even more than my OCD, which is always anticipatory or retroactive, and by definition can’t happen in the flow of the moment.
I can’t prepare an archival finding aid without figuring out what colors the collection has. I can’t pick out a rug or a lamp for my room without isolating the shape of it in my head, and the ways it would affect the shape of the room. My favorite tarot deck, the Spolia deck by Jessa Crispin and Jen May, isn’t my favorite because of its collaged style or its sticky web of references; it’s because the colors are deeply weird, in a way that doesn’t clash with my internal sense of the cards’ meaning. In fact, I think I like Spolia because it’s out of key with my synesthesia, so that I don’t just make connections automatically, but have to think about them. If I want to vibe gently on a set of images that make intuitive sense to me, I can google “Diego Velázquez.” I read tarot to be battered by information from the outside.
The specific color, sound, or shape isn’t the point. It’s just that synesthesia is the only way that I can grasp information. It’s the mechanism of me. I don’t understand those of you who think in words.