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    octopus brain

    I’m currently kind of obsessed with octopuses.

    I look at an octopus and see my brain. Tentacles all moving of their own accord, one head-brain plus eight arm-brains, suckered synapses touching and processing everything.

    I’ve mentioned before that I’ve self-diagnosed myself as both autistic and ADHD. I’ve kind of figured out how to make them both work. My ADHD brain wants to touch and do literally everything. My autistic brain wants to sit down and work on something and not be interrupted.

    The ADHD brain runs the show most of the time. I train it by setting 10-15 minute timers so that I have time to touch everything and then a trigger to move me onto the next thing. When I find something that’s truly worthy of my full attention, I let the obsessive autistic brain take over and prod at the problem until it’s solved.

    Octopuses are incredible problem solvers. They look like they’re meandering around, just your average sea creature searching for food, until you set them upon a problem. One video I watched from a research center who often put their octopus through challenges, said that he would poke and prod the puzzle first to get a feel for it, but then always take a few tentacle steps back to observe, process, and think for a few minutes. Then get back to work.

    Ally Brennan Photo Illustration Author Website Essay Writing Octopus Drawing Blog Post Newsletter Comic 2023 Nevada
    Drawing by me. September 1, 2023.

    Ethan and I watched the documentary “My Octopus Teacher” earlier this year. I ate a mushroom chocolate before the viewing and was kind of freaking out at the underwater visuals, but I was still extremely emotional towards the connection the filmographer and the octopus shared over the course of one year.

    I now know that anything involving an octopus main character is probably going to be a tearjerker. Because I also just finished reading a book where one of the main characters is an octopus in an aquarium, Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. It’s tinged with sadness. It’s the kind of slow literary novel where there’s multiple perspective characters and you slowly see their stories tie together and you fear your heart is going to be shattered somehow by the end of it. It’s a slow, graceful train wreck of emotions.

    The reason for sadness in octopus stories is because they have incredibly short lifespans. The Giant Pacific Octopus, the species featured in Remarkably Bright Creatures, can live up to five years (only if it doesn’t mate), but the Common Octopus, the species featured in “My Octopus Teacher,” has a lifespan of just 1-2 years. Octopuses are easy characters if you want a heartbreak story, easy money.

    It seems like people associate octopuses with sadness or depth of emotion or ability to carry the weight of existence, because I looked up more octopus books to read, and the plots descriptions were all “death,” “cancer,” “for fans of the art of racing in the rain,” and “keep tissues on hand.”

    Octopuses invoke a depth of soul, of emotions, of meaning. They invoke thoughts of death.

    These are such incredible curious intelligent, even affectionate, otherworldly creatures, and it feels unfair that they live such short lives.

    I saw glimpses during my rabbit hole octopus browsing that scientists are bewildered by their DNA. It’s like nothing they’ve seen before. “Aliens,” some of the articles whisper.

    I’ve never before wished for the existence of aliens. Life on earth seemed too overwhelming and magical to think of anything outside the planet.

    But now that I love octopuses, I wish it to be true.

    I find myself hoping that they’re not just another wild and wacky animal species here on earth. The thought of them being aliens, sprouted from seeds of another planet, is comforting. “Tell me we’re not alone here,” I want to ask them.

    I never believed in ghosts either, until after my brother died. But I’d see flickers of things, in the early weeks and months following his death. I felt like I could see him out of the corner of my eye, in certain places like the hallway that runs between our bedrooms. Our two closed bedrooms doors and that hallway were the only things separating us that day when he died.

    Now, as almost two years have passed, I don’t really see him anymore, not when I’m awake. Maybe those types of hauntings are for the freshly bereaved. But he visits me in my dreams. He always seems physically solid, not like a ghost. But there’s always a look in his eye that feels ghostly, like he knows what’s coming. Or that it already happened and we’re just briefly hanging out in an alternate timeline.

    They don’t feel like dreams. They feel like visits.

    And it’s comforting to be with him. Because he has this energy of like, “Yeah yeah, we both know I died and it really sucked. But can we please just get on with hanging out?” We both already have this knowledge and heartbreak of what happened, so there’s no blustering and blubbering. And it’s nice.

    It’s like hanging out with someone who has been on a life altering journey, and they come back wiser and more assured. Or being with someone like the Doctor from Doctor Who. He’s been everywhere in time and space. He’s the person you want with you on a journey. People like that, they get confronted with new experiences and new ideas, and they don’t shut down or turn into sheep and look away. They face the gritty reality, they open up and expand.

    I suppose this is why I’ve started obsessing over octopuses. Because they remind me of death and they make me think there’s more out there. It brings me comfort in ways that I never needed before.

    She drifts into a strange world. A dream, it must be, but she’s not entirely sure, for it feels so mundane. In the dream she’s lying right here on her firm bed cradled in her own arms, then the arms start to grow, weaving around her like a baby’s swaddle. The arms have suckers, a million tiny suckers, each one pulling at her skin, and the tentacles grow longer until they’ve created a cocoon and everything is dark and silent. A powerful feeling washes over her, and after a moment Tova recognizes the feeling as relief. The cocoon is warm and soft, and she is alone, blissfully alone. Finally, she succumbs to sleep.

    —Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures • (bookshop + amazon)

    Part of me wishes there was something tangible and wise guiding us bumbling humans. I believe in God and souls and intuition and higher selves guiding us. But the thought of a real being standing in front of me hits different.

    I used to daydream about the Doctor showing up in his TARDIS and rescuing me from a meaningless life. It was during a time in my life where I felt very lost, where I couldn’t make anything stick. I felt very powerless and panicked, like if I didn’t figure life out, I would be slowly, excruciatingly shuttled into one of those cardboard cutout Life Scripts that most people seemed to end up in. So I wasn’t just daydreaming about the Doctor. I was crying and praying for something to happen.

    My sister didn’t know about my ongoing prayers to the Doctor when she sent me this email in 2017:

    Ally Brennan Website Author Newsletter Essay Blog Post Doctor Who Graphic Word Art Procreate Octopus Brain 2023

    Most of me has begrudgingly come to accept that the Doctor isn’t coming to get me, but I still find myself wanting to be worthy of being his companion. Because it’s not just that.

    It’s because now I understand when people ask with concern or even fear in their voices, “Are we really alone in the universe?”

    I want to keep my mind expanded. I want to be on the lookout for wondrous new perspectives. Because I feel like the more someone expands their soul, the less alone people feel around them.

    And until we find out for sure if time lords will come visit or if octopuses are aliens, or other proof of intelligent life outside of earth, we need to make sure we grow into people who make others feel less alone.

    Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.

    —Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures • (bookshop + amazon)

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  • Remarkably Bright Creatures

    Title: Remarkably Bright Creatures

    Author: Shelby Van Pelt

    Read In: 2023

    Quoted In: Octopus brain


    Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

    Favorite Quotes:


    Tova has always felt more than a bit of empathy for the sharks, with their never-ending laps around the tank. She understands what it means to never be able to stop moving, lest you find yourself unable to breathe.

    These women have always worn motherhood big and loud on their chests, but Tova keeps hers inside, sunk deep in her guts like an old bullet. Private.

    Tova wonders sometimes if it’s better that way, to have one’s tragedies clustered together, to make good use of the existing rawness. Get it over with in one shot. Tova knew there was a bottom to those depths of despair. Once your soul was soaked through with grief, any more simply ran off, overflowed, the way maple syrup on Saturday-morning pancakes always cascaded onto the table whenever Erik was allowed to pour it himself.

    Secrets are everywhere. Some humans are crammed full of them. How do they not explode? It seems to be a hallmark of the human species: abysmal communication skills. Not that any other species are much better, mind you, but even a herring can tell which way the school it belongs to is turning and follow accordingly. Why can humans not use their millions of words to simply tell one another what they desire?

    Humans have few redeeming qualities, but their fingerprints are miniature works of art.

    You know I have three hearts, yes? This must seem strange, considering that humans, and most other species, have only one. I wish I could claim a higher level of spiritual being on account of my multiple vascular chambers, but alas, two of my hearts basically control my lungs and gills. The other is called my organ heart, and it powers everything else.

    She drifts into a strange world. A dream, it must be, but she’s not entirely sure, for it feels so mundane. In the dream she’s lying right here on her firm bed cradled in her own arms, then the arms start to grow, weaving around her like a baby’s swaddle. The arms have suckers, a million tiny suckers, each one pulling at her skin, and the tentacles grow longer until they’ve created a cocoon and everything is dark and silent. A powerful feeling washes over her, and after a moment Tova recognizes the feeling as relief. The cocoon is warm and soft, and she is alone, blissfully alone. Finally, she succumbs to sleep.

    Quoted In: Octopus brain

    She kneels on the grass and traces along the engraving on his stone. The smooth, polished rock is warm under her fingers, basking in the hot July sun. WILLIAM PATRICK SULLIVAN: 1938-2017. HUSBAND, FATHER, FRIEND.

    When she’d submitted the epitaph to Fairview Memorial Park’s coordinator, the woman had the nerve to ask if she was sure she didn’t want to add more. The package included up to 120 characters, she explained, and Tova had only used half. But sometimes less is more. Will was a simple man.

    Sea creatures are masters of deceit. I am sure you are familiar with the anglerfish, which lurks in dark waters behind a luminescent lure that attracts prey right into its maw. We do not have anglerfish here (and I cannot say I am sorry for that), but there was once a fascinating display poster about them in the lobby.

    We all lie to obtain what we need. The seahorse, who impersonates a strand of kelp. The blenny, who poses as a cleaner fish, biding its time to take a bite of its gracious host. Even my own ability to change colors, my camouflage, is a falsehood at its core. A lie that’s on its last legs, I am afraid, as I find it ever more difficult to shift to my surroundings.

    Humans are the only species who subvert truth for their own entertainment. They call them jokes. Sometimes puns. Say one thing when you mean another. Laugh, or feign laughter out of politeness.

    I cannot laugh.

    “You’re working very hard here.”

    “I guess I am.” The words seep through him, slow and warm like hot chicken broth on a cold day. It might be the nicest compliment anyone has ever given him.

    All of these things had been stored away for her to pass along someday, relics to be carried up the branches of the family tree. But the family tree stopped growing long ago, its canopy thinned and frayed, not a single sap springing from the old rotting trunk. Some trees aren’t meant to sprout tender new branches, but to stand stoically on the forest floor, silently decaying.

    “Not my fault I was dealt a shitty hand.”

    “No, the deal is never anyone’s fault. But you control the way you play.”

    Entering someone’s home is always an intimate act. She looks around for photos, but there are none. Instead, the walls are decorated with beautifully framed concert posters: Grateful Dead, Hendrix, the Rolling Stones. The style should befit a teenager’s room, yet somehow, it seems to match Ethan perfectly.

    She closes her eyes and takes a grounding breath. For now, she ought to focus on the dishes.

    “You haven’t heard from her? Not even a birthday card?”

    The words twist like a knife in his gut. How many times has he thought the same thing to himself? Aunt Jeanne always insisted his mother loved him. That she left because that’s what was best for him. That maybe someday she’d conquer her demons and be ready for a relationship. But what demons are so powerful they prevent someone from buying a ninety-nine-cent birthday card and slapping a stamp on it? How often has he convinced himself she’s actually dead, because that hurts less than believing she could care about him so little?

    It’s a crappy, fitful nap, but it’s better than nothing. Aunt Jeanne always said, when shit starts to go sideways first thing in the morning, go back to bed and start over.

    “You knew, didn’t you?” she says to Marcellus in the bucket. “Of course you did.” She leans down and touches his mantle again. “You’re so much more intelligent than we humans give you credit for.”

    Cameron’s lips part, soundless. Tova waits. She can almost see the wheels turning in his head. Erik was just like that, how it showed on his face when the gears were grinding in his brain, which they always were.

    Erik’s old bedroom had been the most difficult to clean. Three decades, it sat empty. She swept the room regularly over the years, and even changed the linens on his bed occasionally, but after the men from the secondhand shop hauled the furniture away, she found herself balking at the ancient dust bunnies gathered in the corners. As if one of them might contain some fragment of him, still.

    Tova has begun to retreat from the room to give him a measure of privacy when he says, “I wish I’d met him.”

    She steps back in, placing a hand on his elbow. “I wish you had, too.”

    “How did you, like, go on?” He looks down at her and swallows hard. “I mean, he was here one day and gone the next. How do you recover from something like that?”

    Tova hesitates. “You don’t recover. Not all the way. But you do move on. You have to.”

    At first, I sink like a cold bundle of flesh. My arms no longer function. I am a chunk of jetsam flung into the sea on a comatose journey toward the seafloor.

    Then, with a twitch, my limbs awaken, and I am alive again.

    I do not say this to give you false hope. My death is imminent. But I am not dead yet. I have time enough to bask in the vastness of the sea. A day or two, perhaps, to revel in darkness. Dark, like the bottom of the seafloor.

    Darkness suits me.

    Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.

    Quoted In: Octopus brain