The first time I encountered woolgathering almost certainly would have been in an Agatha Christie novel. I had lots of word nerds around to ask about it. Even so, it’s unlikely that I asked anyone what the word meant; the context was always perfectly clear. The term was generally used to describe someone daydreaming. In a mystery novel, a jaunty character would say, “Sorry, Darling. Woolgathering.” The darling character would be exasperated and have some pithy aside to another companion about the unreliability of Reggie’s attention.
I thought woolgathering was the sort of daydreaming that has no helpful result, no epiphanies and no cogent story to pass along. One doesn’t woolgather and end up with a sweater, so I was actually correct on that one.
Woolgathering is wandering around collecting tufts of wool from bushes and branches. Apparently before television, people would do this, possibly just to get out of the hut and have an excuse to flail around in the bushes. If you needed a reason to be over by Reggie’s place you could always claim you were woolgathering–just an aimless and harmless pastime.
Back in the 1980s, when I was originally learning things about psychology, dissociation was very bad. Deeply crazy people dissociated. It was a sign of psychosis and something you didn’t want to experience while on LSD or whatever. In my early understanding, dissociating’s pal, losing time, meant the subject was letting some other personality take over.
Well understood by people who watched television, personality sharing was a rare and tragic disorder wherein a child who was made to eat too much cabbage (or some other antique horror) subsequently developed a protective cabbage-eating personality to protect herself. Once the child, let’s call her Sybil, had benefited from having a cabbage-eating personality, let’s call her Madge, Sybil would naturally develop other personalities to protect herself from unpleasant experiences. That way, if Sybil was bullied, she’d have a personality that dealt with bullies. We can call that one Marge. And so on. Over time, little Sybil develops and entire clown car of personalities for all occasions and at least two of them have an Irish accent–Maeve and Moira, if you must know.
This very bloated example is wholly unnecessary and I expect at least one person will lose time reading it. Oh well, at least you didn’t have bad cabbage like Madge.
Now, it seems, dissociating is pretty ordinary and even a regular coping mechanism for the less exotic neurotic. Well, okay!!
I never called my lapses dissociating, because I didn’t think my mental hiccups were nearly that interesting. The gaps themselves are not interesting. I don’t lose time in way that I wake up in a stranger’s garage with tools in my hands or regain awareness holding a duck in front a first grade classroom. I suppose that could be clinically interesting, at least to the duck.
Looking back now, what I see is the pattern of a whole lot of defense over a long period of time. I don’t remember years of my life or whole friendships. Apparently, I was in so much distress for the first half of my life that I was not entirely there for it.
I have never bothered with reunions for this reason. I don’t remember anyone or anything we did. Much. Sometimes I will be prompted to recall a snippet of my early life, but it’s generally not a good memory. The past is a dark field with a sprinkling of bright spots, like stars.
It’s unclear to me if anyone recognized that all my woolgathering was not strictly an airheaded trait. I certainly wasn’t going to explain it to them; I had no clue and I was too busy surviving. I seriously doubt that my soft-focus mode was recognized as a defense, instead it was considered to be my personality. I thought I was a poor listener, but that was just part of the same issue. It’s hard to listen to anyone when you’re out of your body and your ears are elsewhere.
Of all the possibilities, being a mental escape artist is not the worst thing. It is a little sad when you are expected to reminisce and come up empty. The gaps are not selective and they are not useful, I bet. I am glad I didn’t waste a ton of money getting an expensive education that couldn’t stick. I am glad I don’t know whatever happened to me that built this wall.
I suspect it was not cabbage.
Now when people say they met me before I always ask, “Was I there?”
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