You’re probably familiar with the vintage idiom, “losing one’s marbles,” and may have used it on occasion in a playful manner, either to mock oneself, or to chide your friends, family, and colleagues during moments of forgetfulness, anxiety, or despair. My grandmother, Banny, taught us how to play marbles back in the 1970s, and I craved the weight of the felt bag, holding what I envisioned were little glass eyeballs, before the lucky sibling or cousin was allowed to carefully release the marbles into the circle to begin the competition. The solid clank of glass spheres was a satisfying sound to my sensitive ears, and lining up the perfect shot to knock an opponent’s marble out of boundaries fulfilled my brain’s attraction to both geometry and chaos.
There are scads of theories on the origin of this phrase, and the most compelling I came across involved The Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures that were scrupulously removed from Greek ruins and relocated to London. While I’d like to examine the pilfering of ancient artifacts as related to cultural property, I’ll let the audience peruse the debate over the collection of alluring metopes on their own time. There’s little evidence that the idiom in question relates to The Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles. “It’s more likely that marbles was coined as a slang term meaning wits/common sense, as a reference to the marbles that youngsters play with” (Martin, n.d.) Indeed, my trusted Webster’s dictionary, circa 1983, has a sub-listing for marble as:
marbles. [pl.] brains; good sense; as to lose one’s marbles [slang].
I’ve had a collection of those once trendy word magnets shuffling around my kitchen for several years, and during bouts of writer’s block, I randomly grab a handful of the small rectangles and throw them on the table, hoping that a brilliant idea will arise from the pile. I now realize that I must have been channeling Tristan Tzara’s “To Make a Dadaist Poem” from 1920:
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
My children often join in the scrambling, and one morning, my eldest child, who is now a teenager with an aptitude for linguistics, waltzed in the room and said, “Mom, you should always celebrate marbles.” He understood, at the ripe age of seven, that words, in their wildly awkward glory, could be rearranged and synchronized into newfangled nonsense.
Indeed, our lives are often collages formed by absurdity and disarray. I have ongoing discussion with a friend about the idea of a technological memoir- what if our brains were to produce a digital report of every word we’ve ever muttered? Of every thought that’s traversed our minds, the parade of recurring images that haunt us, or the colors that frequent our dreams? Would there be white space galore, or would it be colorful, chaotic glitch art? Horizontal bands of memories stretched across the screen of our programmed existence? What if we could edit the cache of our recollections, splicing the frustrating and debilitating episodes of lost marbles with the energizing discoveries of finding ourselves intact after a breakdown?
To lose one’s marbles is a kindhearted euphemism for darker connotations; the history of language centered on mental illness is a wide and misconstrued maze. There’s a tangled thread of nuance associated with being deficient of good sense; we could pick a random strand of words synonymous with crazy, analyzing their etymological roots until our glassy eyes start rolling around on the linoleum floor, escaping the circumference of conventional wisdom.
That’s what celebrating marbles is about. It’s about capturing the moments when our wits are slipping through the crevices. It’s about revising our chronic need to appear strong, and allowing ourselves to move forward even when we aren’t entirely whole. It’s about lauding the imperfections of our brains. It’s about commending our friends, family, and colleagues for embracing vulnerability.
When we’re the most open to being criticized, we have the chance to look at ourselves through the lens of another human. Perhaps it’s a social microscope, or an emotional intelligence barometer that allows a certain transhumanist telepathy to develop.
You’re very emotional = I am capable of expressing myself in terms I am comfortable with.
You’re so sensitive = I value my empathy as it contributes to a creative consciousness.
You’re too aggressive = I have the right to know what I want and what I don’t want.
That spell of insomnia you had last night- were you ruminating over an unpleasant or hurtful incident that transpired two years ago? I was. I often lose my marbles precisely between 2:47 am and 3:54 am, while the clicking of the water heater sounds like a phantom typing out morse code. As I piece together the information that was delivered through a lucid dream, distracted by kaleidoscope migraines, I contemplate if I am morphing into a breathing analog, processing bits of reality with snippets of the fleeting transcendence that is most prevalent after my brain has settled down. Once morning arrives, I sit in silence and count my marbles. I rearrange them until I am breathing in, breathing out. I remember that losing one’s marbles is just fine, because when we are able to gather them up, we will remember to be more conscious of their weight on this world.
“Half my life is an act of revision.”