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I am not My Procedural Memory


April 2022, Issue 6 "So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg


The Smelling Red Series is the neuroscience component of Shonkinite Sketches.


By Harper Klay, Shonkinite Founder

6 minute read

Smelling Red Series is birthed from the Founder’s personal journey recovering from a Traumatic Brain Injury.

Survivalist fears lingered as I settled into my project housing apartment in Washington D.C.

Even though I had a brand new one-bedroom apartment, I had no furniture and no plan of action to figure out how to acquire furniture. A speech teacher gave me a mattress pad and a friend loaned me a sleeping bag, and that was my bed for the next seven months.

I had done this to myself I thought, it was all my fault, and I deserved it. But as the months passed, and help arrived in various ways, the fog lifted. I was able to hone in on the areas of my brain that were damaged, and better understand myself.

The friends I made through the global Argentine tango community became a bright light in my life. I cherished the deepening friendships with research scientists and Ph.D. students who danced. I loved their sense of curiosity, inquiry, and detached observation about my condition. I felt ‘normal’ around my science friends. As wacky as my head and internal world was, they wanted to spend time in my company! Their acceptance and inclusion is something I savor to this day.

I became aware of patterns and practices in my daily routine, aware of when I lost awareness. Getting ready to leave the house went from hours of lost time to an ordered system of shower, dress, depart. I would wake and shower, wash my hair and body, dress and gather my belongings for my day out, often to sit and write in a Smithsonian or library.

One morning I stood waiting at the Chinatown metro station and felt my wet hair. I loved drenching my hair in the shower, the sensation of water on my head centered me and calmed my nervous system. I hate the hairdryer and let my hair air dry even in the dead of winter, embracing all sensations and exposure. But as I ran my fingers through my hair, it felt sticky, and my skin scratchy. My discomfort and awareness became acute, I scanned my body from top to bottom and realized that, yet again, I forgot to wash the conditioner out of my hair and soap off my body. The train arrived, I didn’t get on. I walked home, putting one foot in front of the other, managing the rising groundswell of tears. How often had I done this? Often enough. Too often. Repetitive, a pattern.

As if a tango friend knew, she offered to bring me dinner that night. Jackie was about to start a Ph.D. program in neuroscience at John Hopkins. I opened the door to bags from Whole Foods and an open-hearted friend. I cried to her about my shower habit. How could I remember to put the soap on but not take it off? How could I get dressed and leave my apartment and not notice?

In Jackie’s simple wise way she said “ah, that’s procedural memory.” I had never heard that term before, but I knew instantly that her statement answered my question, both existentially and practically. This is why I could no longer figure out how to hang a picture, follow instructions to put a simple piece of furniture together or identify and create the steps to turn an idea into reality.

Over time I wandered thrift stores and Facebook Marketplace, slowly filling my apartment with beautiful things. Often a picture would lie on the floor for weeks as I mustered up the courage to ask a friend or handyman for help.

Exploring procedural memory is a practice I return to occasionally. Ten years later I am in an empty apartment starting over yet again. Some things have changed. I am exactly where I want to be, in an apartment that I love, and in a place that feels like home. But I am admitting to myself that procedural memory may be something that I ask others for help with. Whether it be asking a friend’s husband to assemble my furniture, or asking my team for extra help with the project management tool and tech. God damn Confluence, Jira, and Trello! And God Bless Allan and Gabby.

As I continue to stretch, climb, create a career and build an empire, I hold on to something Allan, my tech adviser, said to me, “Harper, your leadership will not look like leadership in the traditional sense, but it will still be leadership.” As I apply this message and bring my vision into this concrete reality, I also realize that I am not my procedural memory. That in this human experience I do not need to learn and relearn everything in order to function successfully.

I wish everyone could have scientists in their life the way I do. I wouldn’t wish a Traumatic Brain Injury on anyone, but the lessons my neurodivergence teaches me, and the relationships that deepen because of my disability is wealth I savor. Not only do my friends teach me about myself, but they teach humanity about life. And as Jackie reminded me this week: “You are not your procedural memory.”

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