Kate here – with a few words of thanks and a personal “Aha”…

Coming home to Olympia was lovely. We are happy in our new chapter and are grateful that we get to do this work in music, art and writing together. We are walking and cycling. We are also enjoying Mother Nature with renewed awe as we watch the water ebb and flow in Budd Bay as the season turns. Getting small is a big deal.

Thank you for coming to our concerts, buying our books and music, telling your friends and family members about us and letting us know it helps, spreading the good word. Seeing you at the gigs makes us feel at home no matter where we are and that’s a gift. Thank you, friends.

Mya-Moe at the creek in WoodstockSteve took this lovely picture of his Mya-Moe tenor ukulele overlooking the creek at his sister’s house in Woodstock. This is where we cooled off on hot days with Homespun recording Ukalaliens DVDs with us during the day. Pretty sweet. Today kicks off the Woodstock Film Festival and if we were there, that’s where we’d be…

Speaking of thanks, I came across a really interesting article recently in the New Yorker by Oliver Sacks. Reading it was a personal revelation for me. I’d like share it with you.

On March 30, 1998, I had unexpected brain surgery by the best of neurosurgeons for an unruptured brain aneurysm at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Two of my sisters underwent the same surgery around the same time. Yes, it might be genetic and we made it to the New England Journal of Medicine for the coincidence. It was a scary time for all the obvious reasons, only weeks after Steve and I had married and Odetta has graced our hall the night before I found out. We all turned out in pretty good shape. Some post-honeymoon chapter. I’m guessing some of you remember this time with me and my gratitude goes to you for the cards, the prayers, the aka. Your good wishes still remain close to my memory of this time in my heart.

What I haven’t shared or said out loud much is a condition I’ve been dealing with ever since that fateful time. A little dyslexia was one thing; this was another. Until I read this article in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, I never knew that what I was experiencing had a name. Now I do and it does and I’m inclined to let you in on it.

I know for a fact that there are many of you I have confused by forgetting your name and appearing as though we were strangers. Maybe you came into the store or to a show. Maybe I taught you how to play an instrument or how to sing. Maybe we had even shared a meal but the next time we met recognition was absent from the light in my eyes? Yes. I know. There’s a reason.

From all appearances, my healing from that nine-hour surgery was complete and I returned to work at Artichoke Music all those years ago intact. For a while there was some aphasia that left the names of words I was trying to say on the tip of my tongue but that improved in the months and years that followed.

What didn’t seem to get better was a gap I found myself in not recognizing people I clearly should know; regular customers, friends and acquaintances. It became a default that I might ask “for the fiftieth time” a person’s name, struggling quietly for context and making mental notes to try to remember people. All kinds of tricks I tried, asking Steve to give me cues when he could tell I was mid-conversation with someone in the dark as to who they were and why I knew them. Sometimes I even tried speaking out the name I thought a person was, only to be caught wrong most of the time. People looked at me oddly and I saw hurt and indignant expressions cross countless faces as they realized I did not register their names or recognize their faces. Most were people I care about or had thoughtful discourse with and would have by normal standards remembered who they were. I was even at a loss for names of my children’s friends who were regulars around the house for years. They were the kindest about it, I could see it in their faces.

It’s been a sporadic deficit with no name. Now it does. Except for my husband, nobody knew that it could take days for me to have my “Aha!” moment of recognition and context. It was hard work to discover who it was I didn’t know that I knew I should. I was pretty quick in so many other ways but this disconnect kept showing up.

The condition is called “prosopagnosia”, it’s a kind of face-blindness. It can be genetic or caused by damage to a delicate area in the brain behind the left eye. The exact location of my surgery. Dang. It doesn’t take much to effect a change in neuro-central.

A couple of years ago, the eye doctor discovered I had a blind spot resulting from the same surgery. It explained and accounted for a number of minor but clumsy accidents I’d tripped into on my right side. Knowing about the slight blindness has helped me to be more careful and adapt without too much distress.

I never had a name for this face-blindness before. Embarrassed by my inability to recognize and remember people I should know, I eventually accepted it about myself for the most part. I didn’t seem to be able to change it as much as I tried.

People my age fear forgetfulness with altzheimer’s rampantly looming everywhere but my memory seemed sharper than ever in most every other way.

Now I had a word that explained this unique gap in my perception. Not ubiquitous. Not conditional. Like the dyslexia that came with it. It’s not because so many people have crossed my path at the shop, concerts, workshops and the stress of life. It’s not because nobody else can remember names either. It’s a neurological anomaly, a disconnect that makes it uncertain if faces will tie to the times I’ve seen them before, at least at first. It’s a curious discovery.

It’s not clear to me yet why I can remember one person’s face and context and not another but it happens consistently enough that it seems that this oddball condition has been trying to reveal itself ever since Boston in 1998.

I can spend hours with a person in the close quarters of a teaching room and not recognize them at all when I see them the next day. Yet, I can remember the words to hundreds of songs learned over a lifetime and complex chord changes on multiple instruments and different tunings. It’s an uncanny trick of the mind.

People like Oliver Sacks, Jane Goodall and Chuck Close have this same condition. It’s a fascinating challenge. Jane Goodall recognized her gorillas, whose faces looked so similar, by the things that made them unusual and different from each other, body gestures and quirky characteristics. I guess that’s similar to what helps me. I zero in and try to find the aspect that will trigger my “Aha!”

Now that I know what I’m dealing with, this mild case of random prosopagnosia, maybe I’ll be able to get a better angle on its innocent confusion. Or maybe I’ll just have to design a sign that asks everybody to tell me their name, even if they think I should know it. Sigh.

Meanwhile, if you are one of the countless people who know me and have been unrecognized by me – once or regularly – over the past twelve years, please accept my apology. I’ll keep trying to remember names and faces but if I don’t succeed, just jump in and fill in the blank so we can get on with our conversation. Maybe it’ll sink in this time.

Thank you for your kind patience and understanding. I really do want to be friends. I’m not shining you on. I don’t mean to be rude. I may just not know who you are until I do. So feel free to remind me and please accept my thanks in advance for telling me your name. There’s a song in there somewhere.

As ever,
– Kate

[Based on the article in The New Yorker, Face-Blind by Oliver Sacks, August 30, 2010]