Memory is an interesting thing. Like a fine potter's clay, it's very easy to record information with remarkable detail. Slap a good pile of clay with an open hand, and you'll find every line and attribute of your hand imprinted in that malleable surface. Leave the clay on the table in a warm room untouched for an extended period of time and you'll come back to find that many of the finer details have become less prevalent. Not happy with the hand print? That's okay, we can stretch and mould the clay into something else entirely … just like we can with our own memories. That said, some memories do not come with the same degree of plasticity as others. Some are etched into our minds so well that they provide an everlasting glimpse into our past into a time that no longer exists. My first cohesive memory is like this. I remember every detail. Every sight. Every sound. Every thought. I also remember the date: June 18, 1982. A Friday. I was three years old. And I had my first nightmare.
My father has been a Star Trek fan for most of his life and his fascination with space travel naturally rubbed off on me. We would watch TV shows where humans would go gallivanting across the galaxy in any manner of vessel, saving the day along the way. As any young child with a huge imagination might do, I would pretend that I was a member of these crews and contribute in some way to the success of a mission. This was often the situation that I would enjoy with my toys. They would join me in space.
At this point in my childhood my parents were often quite angry at each other. I was far too young to understand the details of the argument, but I knew that my father could get upset very quickly if anything unexpected happened. This was something I paid very close attention to whenever he was home, and I still remember watching and listening to him from the top of the stairs before deciding whether I should go down or not. On this particular day I decided to stay in my bedroom after my father came home, having already been tucked into bed1.
From The Earth To The Moon
I remember waking up in my bed, my summer sheets were tangled in a mess by my feet and a very bright moon hung low in the sky outside my window. Waking up as a child is very different than it is as an adult. At the age of three there are no cobwebs that cloud our vision or ability to think upon reaching consciousness. Nothing impedes us from getting out of bed and being a barely contained supernova of youthful energy after a good night's sleep. This is exactly how I felt when I woke up, so going back to sleep was not an option. There was no clock in my room, but it must have been the dead of night for all the silence and the colour of the night sky.
I slid out of bed as quiet as I could, so not to wake my father, and walked to the window. There was a huge cardboard box from a refrigerator on the far side of my room beside the window. My parents had helped me turn it into a spaceship and I spent many happy hours in that box2. I didn't go there, though. Instead I went to the window and looked up at the moon; it's brightness seemed surreal … I had to see why.
The window sill was at just the right height for me to use it as a standing desk, and I would often pretend that it was a control panel like we would see on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The white, lead-based paint still had the strong smell of metal tinged with plastic that you would expect from a recently-painted home in the early 80s, but I didn't care. For me, it was a control panel, and the window was my view screen.
My fingers flew across the imaginary controls as I plotted a course for the moon. I would go up there to see why it was so bright. How could a moon be this bright? I wondered. My space books always showed it as a dusty place … or made of cheese. Neither dust nor cheese looks like this. There must be something more to it.
clunk ka-chunk clunk-clunk
Docking clamps were disengaging. I recognised the sound. This is the same sound that the Enterprise made when it was leaving space dock …
An engine could be heard coming to life and building in intensity. None of these things were quiet at all. They were loud! My father would come in any minute now and start shouting!
I was terrified.
Looking out the window I saw the Moon getting closer and the trees in the neighbourhood disappearing out of my sight below. My room was going up to the Moon, and there was nothing I could do to stop it!
Not knowing what else to do I jumped into my bed and wrapped myself in the discarded blankets as tight as I could. Maybe by hiding I could avoid getting in trouble. What other solution could a three year old child be expected to come up with.
I don't remember waking up. I don't remember whether I watched Saturday morning cartoons or went outside to play in the yard after breakfast. I don't even remember realising that the sun was up and I was most certainly not on the Moon. One thing I do remember, though, is that I was so terrified of touching the window sill from that point on that I never used it as a control panel ever again.
The dream I had on that warm summer day was quite tame compared to some of the other nightmares that have occurred since3 but it's stayed with me for over three decades and is, I believe, my very first coherent memory. It was also at this point that I started to have a keen awareness of the concepts of cause and effect, as well as time.
Psychology books often state that we don't remember our dreams for more than a few minutes after waking, but this is not the case with me. I remember my dreams as well as I remember my waking moments. I can tell you what I dreamt last night, last week, last year, and even back when I was in high school. Memories of dreams for me are a natural part of life, and this comes with a number of advantages. Whenever I have a difficult programming problem to solve, the answer is often found in a dream and the appropriate code is (re)written upon waking. Whenever I have a stressful day, I can drift off into a world that has very little connection with the real universe and wake up feeling rested because, according to my sense of time, I've been away from reality for days … sometimes weeks. Once, while under a particularly severe amount of stress in Vancouver, I woke up feeling like I had lived for the better part of a year in another life. I had to look at my calendar to see what day it was, and where I worked.
This can also be seen as a disadvantage. Remembering so many events, real and imagined, can lead a person to confuse one world with another. This can lead to conversations with people that look a little bit like this:
Me: You remember that song we heard while shopping in Edmonton? What was the name of it?
Them: Edmonton? I've never been there.
Me: We went there last spring. We flew there together. Don't you remember?
Them: Umm … no. I think I would remember something like that.
Me: Don't tell me it was just a dream …
I would later check my passport in search of the proof that I did indeed leave the country … but the other person would be correct, leaving me to wonder just how many of my memories are real and how many are imagined.
People often say that we are the sum of our experiences. If this is true, I wonder how much of my persona comes from real world actions and how many from the imaginary constructs of my psyche. Could such a delineation ever be made, and would it even matter in the end? I spend a great deal of time up in my head; consciousness notwithstanding.