It’s Dark at the End: The Precision of Memory

I missed the crash, heard no squeal of tires, smelled no burning rubber—but I saw the scene, pink entrails spilling from the little brown body, blood splattered across the road. I witnessed it all from the angle of a curious child who’d looked out her car window at precisely the right (or wrong) moment. It was a horrific thing to have witnessed firsthand . . . except I hadn’t. After hearing about the neighbor’s beagle’s death, I had imagined the scene so vividly that the line between thought and memory blurred—and then snapped to, lying in the wrong direction. For several years, I believed I had seen it with my own eyes. Then, one day, I remembered something else: I remembered, vaguely, crafting the image, forming the memory. I began to doubt, and I questioned my family, who’d long since forgotten the neighbor’s dog. My sister, after long deliberation, finally recalled the truth. My memory, once so clear and certain, was ultimately false. I no longer trust memories; they are too malleable for my liking.

Yet memories—long and bitter, short and sweet—inform who we are. We remember reactions to our actions, influencing whether we shall do such acts again. We remember moments and feelings, influencing how we think about people and places and things. We remember and we forget, entire sections of our lives laid by the wayside while others remain fresh and potent—all based on chance as much as deliberate review. The more we remember them, the more they change, neural pathways shifting ever so slightly with each new iteration of electrical exchange.

It is no coincidence that we so often compare the human mind to a computer, speaking of our brains being “hardwired” and “programmed” with nary a thought to the metaphor (Wegner 319). Furthermore, the interactions between people mirror some of the ways in which computers interact; each person, for example, has their own memory bank, and information is drawn from it and passed to the memory banks of others (322-323). We do this through writing, speaking, gesturing, and myriad other connections, all of which require some level of involvement by all parties—the writing and reading, the speaking and listening, the gesturing and interpreting. The communicative processors must devote time to each other, must absorb the information that each provide, and may fumble or fail to gain all of the information in the intended manner.

And sometimes, we interact with computers, and we wish the communication were that easy.

The word became a chant: “No, no, no,” spiraling into oblivion. Surely there was something I could do, some way to fix it, some solution I hadn’t tried. The screen shined implacably into the still, Spartan room, its silent cerulean surface baiting me, daring me as I sat cross-legged on the bed. “No, no, no.” The words held aeons of meaning: The paper is due tomorrow. My student rèsumè hasn’t been backed up since high school. I can’t afford to not have a computer; I need it for class . . . The bare walls never looked so bare, nor so taupe. Taupe is not a color of life; even the withering blue before me held more of life within it. There was no movement, even in the fan hanging limp from the ceiling; no drift of aberrant melody from any room within hearing range; no vibrance to the yellowed light of the lamp on the desk. In my lap, my phone sat complacently. It was my refuge, lying there, sucking from the dregs of hope as it walked me through the BIOS and focused my panic into purpose. But there was no light at the end of the tunnel—save that of the Blue Screen of Death.

bsod
Disclaimer: Setting your computer on fire will not resolve a BSoD. Probably.

“Your PC ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle, and now it needs to restart,” Spiffy berated me; my chant broke and reformed as I curled into myself.

“Why, why, why?”

The computer wheezed a laugh with his fan, its blades tired from running on high so many nights. “Because you grew too proud. You thought I was invincible; you used me, you kept me on all night with defragmentations, you had me on during class for notes, and you hardly allowed me a wink of sleep during your customary summer-long Skyrim binge.”

“I’m sorry.” My heart and my throat grew dry, cracked, and breaking. “I didn’t know what else to do. You’d frozen; I’d done hard restarts on you before when that happened. I didn’t realize. I didn’t know.”

“You knew well enough, he sneered, the pain of his broken USB drive cracking in his words, reminding her of her deficits as an owner. “You knew the dangers of a hard restart. You just didn’t think I’d ever fall victim to them.”

“I . . .” But the words caught in my throat. I packed up Spiffy, caressing his black lid, putting him gently into the backpack. Beneath the shine of his surface and the smoothness of his uncracked case, he was old, and jaded, and world-weary; though his body was almost whole, he needed a fresh soul through which to experience the world. A new hard drive. His old memories would be wiped away, his hardships and pain no longer to plague him; I would give him a fresh slate, and we could save new, brighter memories to it, together. I could at least give him that. It was more than I could do for myself.

Memories of computers and people are finite; as we add more information to the stockpile, some older, less-used information must be deleted, forgotten. Yet, for people, this is not a choice we make; we forget things we wish desperately to keep. “[Memory] can be characterized as vulnerable because it is known to be especially susceptible to impairment by neurological disorders, drugs, or simply aging” (Estes 62). We rely upon our the connections we build through writing and reading, speaking and listening, gesturing and interpreting, to remind us and help us hold onto those memories we don’t want to degrade.

But we also keep things we wish desperately to forget. We build connections to them accidentally, by reliving them in our minds. And though we may admit to growing from our experiences, those moments of sadness, pain, and shame are not so easily deleted as we desire.

I could show them this, I thought, cupping the keychain. Have I shown it before?  It’s familiar. I stared at the patterned, pigmented carpet, internally berating myself for forgetting, once again, to bring an item to Show and Tell. The Bulbasaur-shaped keychain from my backpack was a favorite item of mine; surely I’d shown it before. But I was running out of time to deliberate; the teacher—kind and plump, with deep brown hair that floated like her personality, the whole reminiscent of a young Mrs. Claus—drew near to announcing my turn. I needed to make a decision quickly; she was patient, and understanding, and somehow that made it worse, because I couldn’t bear to be rude to her by wasting any time. Should I admit to forgetting, or should I show the keychain?

bulbasaur
Baring the Bulbasaur Soul

The Show and Tell session passed uneventfully, at first. Then we were dispersed, and the students muttered. One came up to me. “Why do you keep showing that Bulbasaur? This is like the third time.” The student was faceless, nameless, as I kept my eyes on the patterned rug. The room—vibrant and filled by drawings and charts, helpfully depicting the names of colors and days of the week—fell away. There was only me and the student. I clipped the keychain back onto my backpack and murmured an excuse that I would not remember; perhaps I bluffed that it was a different keychain, or stated that it was my favorite and deserved to be shown again, or simply admitted that I couldn’t recall showing it before (the most unlikely scenario of the three, and yet closest to the truth). I turned in on myself, inadequate and small. I was not good enough.

“[T]he rules followed by a system . . . are often more important than the physical structure of which the system is constructed” (Norman 8). My own personal failures do not define me, nor do they define anyone. We are more than the experiences we have collected and the actions we have taken. Our rules—our moral guidelines, conscious habits, decisions, beliefs—define us.

I am an angel. I know it’s so, because that’s what Mama told me. The beige wallpaper behind Mama, swirling with smooth patterns in light brown, deepened the warm shadows that descended from her and covered me. Her form was so much larger than my own, so secure, designed to defend her young against all comers—but in my young mind, nothing in the world was dark enough to need defending against. My hair was just long enough to flow in the bathwater for the first time, and though I could not see it, I imagined the blonde strands appeared to be floating about my head like some divine messenger’s halo. I waved my head about and smiled up at Mama, her own head haloed by the soft yellow light from the fixture above. “Do I look like an angel?” I asked.

“You do look like an angel.” Mama’s wide, smile brightened her near-perpetually reddened face. Spying an opportunity for mischief, I shook my head quickly; though I had been attempting to cause a tangled mess in my hair, I accomplished more the splashing of water onto my mother and the worn carpet floor. “How about now?” I asked.

“You’re still my little angel,” Mama said.

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Innocence

The soft gold light muted the browns and beiges of the bathroom, filtering down into the tints and shades of a late summer afternoon. The clean, heavy scent of soap lingered faintly in the background. This bathroom was a safe place, unlike the stark, barren box of taupe that would become my college dorm room. The room was nice, certainly, and a definite step up from my room freshman year—a single cell of white cinder blocks with slits for windows and no personal bathroom. Yet it was in the taupe waste that I felt most alone. It was not loneliness, per se; it was not sadness, per se; it was not tiredness, though that is what I’d claim. It was a cottony existential crisis, muted by pessimism, held firm by resignation. I left my tauperoom and took a walk in the August heat, carrying a backpack made too weighty by binder, notebook, and laptop. I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t much care.

I didn’t expect to see a high school acquaintance out near the stadium. He seemed grateful for an excuse to take a break from work, whatever his work in that sports complex was. To me, however, he embodied all I couldn’t do: he was working while in college, handling two major parts of his life in tandem—while I had breakdowns sometimes when the homework piled up, despite not having any additional constraints on my time. He was intelligent, sharing space in my honors and AP classes; he was athletic and driven, playing soccer and volunteering for the National Honors Society. It seemed that nothing had changed for him. He asked how I was, and I lied through my teeth to tell him I was fine. I faked it expertly; it is the only lie I can tell with proficiency. I thanked him for the conversation, as it was a nice reprieve, but I needed to get back to my walk.

The hot blacktop beneath my feet was a wearying sight—made even more draining by the sight of the cars, all neatly parked, all varying shades of average—so instead I looked ahead to the dry, celadon-hued grass that lined the hill beyond the parking lot. As I made it across Alumni Drive, I saw crows gathered together on the hill, perching on fenceposts and flitting back and forth like starlings. There were almost a dozen of the proud, oily-black birds. I snapped pictures of them with my phone and sent them to my boyfriend, thinking of how he admires corvids. But there was no emotion to it. The sun beat down hard upon me, but still I couldn’t feel; I remained all cotton inside. I took a step, intending to continue walking into oblivion if need be—never inviting heat stroke, but not actively avoiding it, either. My phone began to ring.

“Hey, do you wanna go to the Rusty Scabbard, maybe get something from the King?” My boyfriend’s voice pulsed across the phone.

“Yeah, that sounds great.” I paused, the faintest regret finally pushing through the choking nothingness. “Can you pick me up? I went for a walk and I’m a bit far from my dorm . . .”

broken
I’m Still Here

Last year, I went for a walk, trying to care about whether I could manage to walk back. This year, I hold onto that memory, because it shows me where I’ve been, and that I’ve come back from it.

“[Memory] is not one system but many. The systems range in storage duration from fractions of a second up to a lifetime, and in storage capacity from tiny buffer stores to the long-term memory system that appears to far exceed in capacity and flexibility the largest available computer” (Baddeley 3). Though our memories may not be as permanent as a computer’s (assuming the system is not exposed to degradation), they are wide-reaching and profound and influential. The human mind maintains vast stores of information, but also feelings, hopes, and dreams.

Memories can be bright or dim, painful or fond—and some are more complex. But what truly matters is how we hold onto these memories, and how we allow them to shape us. I am not the girl I was last year, nor am I the girl who sees herself among the angels; and yet, both of these people were me, and both inform who I am now. Memories are powerful tools.

Use them with care.