I saw Venus rising for the first time when I was in second or third grade – I cannot remember which, but, we were living in Hawaii. I tend to date things in my life growing up by where we lived when something happened. Living in Hawaii might seem like a really cool place for a kid to live, what with all the water and surfing and sun and stuff.
But, we lived in-land. First, in a Japanese community in the midst of sugar-cane fields, which have now been razed for half-a million and up dollar condominiums; and while I can locate the old school, nothing looks anything like I then knew it. The second house was on top of a mountain and finally we lived in base housing on Hickham. None were close to the water from the Hawaiian point of view, which is admittedly different than that of a Kansan. Yeah and sure, we did get to the water a few times – I remember Waikiki and a beach between Hickham and the adjacent Navy Base, but I have no recall of visiting Hanauma Bay or Shark’s Cove.
I remember stealing papayas and mangoes from the neighbors’ trees and that we never really wore shoes. We used to take long drives around the island of Oahu sometimes.
One morning, really early, my father woke me and I think a couple of my brothers and we headed out to the shore to watch the sunrise and the morning star of Venus. I was tired and excited.
In the summer before sixth grade, we moved from a small town in northern Minnesota to Anchorage, Alaska. This would have been the summer so many people just a few years older than me gathered in San Francisco to oxymoronically, it always seems to me later, to celebrate love in the midst of the Vietnam war protests. At the time, I knew nothing about San Francisco except that is where the plane landed when we left Hawaii for Minnesota in winter of 1965-66.
Alaska was a paradise for us kids, at least life outside the house was. It is there we got into the Boy Scouts and learned to camp. We chased and threw snowballs at moose and fished for salmon and generally ran wild until sundown in the summer, which was really, really late. I remember one time in a small Cessna, on the way to a camping trip, I caught a glimpse of was then called Mount McKinley by everyone I knew – now it is called Denali, in recognition of the local native tongue, although the federal and state governments disagree about the name.
But, even though we lived there three years, three winters, I do not recall ever seeing the Northern Lights.
When we moved there, the city still showed signs of the March 27, 1964 earthquake, which was about the day I was looking at Venus rise, I thought. I do remember the day of the quake, so I know it was not the same day and I later learned that the peculiar celestial alignment, which quasi-science postulates in a Daubert-worthy effort is actually the cause of quakes, was of the Sun, Earth, Moon and Pluto. But that is not the reason I have memories of it. I remember it because the island – or at least my mother – was worried about the on-coming tidal wave. And while what we later began to call a Tsunami caused significant damage in British Columbia and parts of California, it never reached Hawaii.
I remember feeling strangeness about having lived in both places, even if I am not sure of all the memories.
There are two movies dealing with memories germane to this post.
The first, “Total Recall,” based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” deals with the concept of implanting memories in such a wasy so as to give the impression of having been on a vacation or an adventure without having to spend all the time and money and without incurring any risk other than someone mucking around in your brain. In it Arnold Schwarzenegger is either a victim of a botched implant or a freedom fighter on the Mars Colony. (If you think the movie’s twists leave you wondering what just happened, try reading the story.)
The other movie is the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which I thought was worth watching for the title, if nothing else, which is taken from an Alexander Pope poem). In it, Jim Carey and Kate Winslet independently have memories of each other removed from their brains, with the result being – no, go watch the movie. My son calls this Total Recall in reverse.
Both are interesting intellectual exercises in addition to being just pretty good diversions for a couple of hours.
The issue is one of experience, or memory, of what makes us who we are.
There is a theory that twists me up whenever I think on it too much, that of instant creation. It goes something like this: the universe and everything in it was created out of whole cloth instantly with the stroke of a hand or wink of an eye, or as in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” when the Magratheans, having sculpted the Norwegian Fiords and gotten everything into place, just the threw a switch and started up the life processes, with everything in full motion – which would include a full complement of memories. Cannot be dis-proven. Whatever evidence one finds to the contrary is just part of what was put into place and action who whomever or whatever started the whole thing.
But more than that, some of my memories, ones I feel are, without any doubt, true, end up, in the final analysis, being false. Probably there are more there, but even if I could figure it all out, I do not want to. Doesn’t it seem right that Sherlock Holmes is a real person? So what if he was just the workings of Conan-Doyle’s mind? He has had more impact of the workings of the real world than many people who have in fact lived.
These false memories reside in us and form us much more so than those things we have forgotten about completely. Either I did or did not see Venus that early morning in Hawaii (I think I did then and have numerous times since) and I either did or did not see the Northern Lights (while there is no doubt I should have, there is no recall), so the Venus experience is a part of me while the experience of seeing the Northern Lights is not. The attempt to see the the Northern Lights is real to me because I can remember them. The last time I remember searching for the Northern Lights was one January night when my son was about ten here in Oklahoma. Some anomaly made them visible if you got far enough out of town in this latitude, and I woke him up and we drove for about an hour into the darkest area I could find. Nope.
When people forget things, those things stop being a part of their internal lives. This scares me. I don’t want to forget, even though there are a hundred or a thousand or a million things I wish were not rumbling around in my head, it is those things, and all those other things I remember routinely or warmly, and all the experiences of every stripe I have had or think I have had, that make me who I am.
Did I swim in Hanuma Bay as a kid or fly in Cessna or see Denali or the Northern Lights?
If I forget too much, do I cease? This, I think, scares me more than dying.