Looping

Finally this afternoon it came to me, what it reminded me of, the counting.

“1-2-3-4-5 . . . Let it go.”

“1-2-3-4-5 . . .”

“1-2-3-4-5 . . .”

“1-2-3-4-5 . . . Let it go.”

I knew it was a kind of self-soothing. A kind of self-regulation, maybe. The thing she says, again and again. To herself; perhaps to whomever is with her. Narration. Self-expression. For several months, now, whenever I visit, whether we are sitting at the doctor’s office or in the drive-through lane at Starbucks, or just walking slowly together in the sunshine.

I learned it’s called looping, when people with dementia repeat words or stories or physical movements, like walking the same circuit around a space.

Sometimes she counts to 7 or 8 or 12 or 14. But mostly to 5. Tapping rhythmically with a flat hand or foot, or the fingers of her right hand.

Often, after a count of 5, she’ll sweep her right palm down and away, saying, “Let it go.”

Sometimes, after a count of 7 or 8 she’ll do the same, then pulse the flat hand and slowly shake her head saying something like, “You never know what you’ll get.” Her eyes looking through and beyond you. Her eyes are blue-green now, instead of hazel green. Her voice is gentle, resigned, like a kid who didn’t expect to get the thing she wanted after all.

As I drove home from Texas the echoes stayed with me, as if they had been real conversations. I counted along with her sometimes. Sometimes tapping my face as she does, or tapping my foot, or opening my palm for her to tap.

In my Alzheimer’s family support groups no one has mentioned looping or counting or tapping. But I remember learning about tapping as a self-soothing technique back when I studied with Niroga, where some colleagues incorporated it into therapeutic yoga consultations or discussed practicing it themselves to reduce anxiety. Counting, too, is a technique I learned during my yoga apprenticeships back then, as an assist for people with Parkinson’s disease.

I wasn’t recollecting any of that during my 11 hours on the road; what I was processing then, and overnight, and this morning, was the rhythm of it. The counting. The communion of repetition. It felt familiar and important.

Today I realized that in the back of my mind I was also hearing fragments of Knee Play 5 from Einstein on the Beach, the passage that includes the train driver saying “a soothing story is needed.” I hadn’t listened to the opera for quite a while, but it’s always been important. It was in heavy rotation during my divorce. And I remember early in a romantic relationship putting the Trilogy excerpt of Knee 5 on a mixtape of 5 Songs You Need to Know about Me–and then never delivering the mixtape, partly because I realized the dude wouldn’t really get the opera–he’d just see the title and think I was calling myself a genius, or that I liked beaches.

Screen capture close-up of hand gesture during Knee 5 intermezzo of Einstein on the Beach opera.
Hand gesture choreography of the Knee 5 intermezzo of Einstein on the Beach.

As I am coming to understand it, Glass and Wilson composed Einstein as a series of portraits with an intentionally non-narrative libretto exploring, among other things, Time, and the complexity of communicating insight–how it arises through patterns of expression–numbers, words, phrases, fragments, movement. The libretto draws extensively upon the neurodivergent poetics of 13-year-old Christopher Knowles. To me, it has also somehow always been about bureaucracy and yearning. As most things tend to be.

Today I listen to this intermezzo and inside the yearning I find myself groping to connect to a pattern of meaning just out of reach.

I don’t know what my mother and I are saying to one another when we tap and count together. But then again, of course I do.

“I-2-3-4-5.”

“Let it go.”