12 March, 2016

My First Memory

My roommate (slash effective "life partner") has a subscription to National Geographic (I find it humorously ironic that I'm the one with a physics degree, and she subscribes to magazines like Nat Geo and Popular Science, while I subscribe (occasionally) to magazines like Seventeen and Teen Vogue), and they periodically send out trip advisor catalogs. They're always fun to look through - I especially like the photography. I was never huge on geography as a school subject, but ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated with the natural (and to a lesser extent, man-made) wonders of the world. So it's neat to fantasize about taking trips to, e.g., the Amazon Rainforest, or the Saharan Desert, or the Himalayas. (It also serves as great inspiration fodder for some of the locations and terrains I want to include in that RPG I'm developing). People say, "quit making excuses and just get out there and travel," but it's not so simple to drop a few thousand bucks on a vacation when you're living paycheck to paycheck, and you don't even have enough money to buy a new used car when the one you have starts threatening to break down, despite the fact that you depend on that car for your income...

One of my own pictures from my family trip to Niagara Falls in 2001

But enough about that. I was looking through the most recent catalog, and found myself marveling at all the magnificent waterfalls on display - in particular, Victoria Falls in southern Africa, Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia, and Iguazu Falls between Argentina and Brazil. Beside their natural splendor, the Niagara Falls (which I've actually been to) seem rather urbane in comparison. However, one must not take the magnificent splendor of the Niagara Falls for granted - they are still quite spectacular. So, I was looking through Google images at all these wonderful pictures of waterfalls (I recommend it!), and I eventually found myself hunting down the image in my head that's been haunting me for longer than I can remember - a representation of the mind's eye view of what I've come to believe was my first memory as an infant. I had assumed it was a dream for much of my childhood, until I revisited Niagara Falls in 2001 (while I was in high school), and learned that I had been there once before, as a baby.

This. This right here is my personal vision of Hell. Not fire and brimstone, but wind and water. Do you know what lies beyond the threshold of this howling, dripping orifice? Rushing water. Open space in effectively all directions (especially down). And certain death. Imagine the inevitability of approaching this gateway, knowing what lies beyond, and having no choice but to advance. (One is reminded of the sky cells of the Eyrie in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, but with as much water as air. I've also been similarly haunted by the climax to The Neverending Story II, in which the main protagonist must overcome his fear of diving from the highboard. That's probably why that movie resonated so much with me - even more so than the excellent original movie, I had watched the sequel so many times that I could recite every line from start to finish).

Of course, nobody's actually pushing you forward. That's just a vision conjured by my self-destructive imagination. Did I mention that this was part of my first memory ever? I had originally believed it to be a dream, since I saw it in my head in third-person perspective (but that doesn't change the fact that this place really exists, and that I had been there before I had even known it). I was a baby, being carried in someone else's arms. There were people around me, and they were all wearing yellow ponchos. I remember the tunnel, and the opening, and coming out onto a sort of balcony, and seeing - well, this:

Literally, the world crashing down around me in a deafening roar of thunder. Is it any wonder that the defining emotion in my life is fear, and that I suffer from crippling anxiety? I mean, it would be a bit overly simplistic to blame my affliction on a single experience in my infancy - my own natural predilection for anxiety is probably as much to blame for my reaction to the falls as is their undeniably terrible majesty. But isn't it one hell of a coincidence, that the earliest memory I have from my life is an experience so absolutely earth-shattering? I might just as well have crawled out of the womb and opened my eyes to witness the Apocalypse! (Another subject, incidentally, that profoundly fascinates me).


  1. This is some very deep stuff. It reminds me of Daenerys's earliest memory of a house with a red door and a lemon tree, which is expected to have some significance eventually (many speculate that she wasn't, in fact, raised in Pentos as she has been told).

    I'm very wary of the psychotherapy inclination to tie everything we experience to early formative influences. It seems to me like confirmation bias. We start here, today, with the problems we already have. And then we look for impetuses from the past, or we look at events from the past and assign them to where we went next and where we are today. It's no wonder that things appear to line up, when we already know where the endpoint is supposed to be. I'd probably posit that what if your experience at the falls has stayed with you because of your fear and anxiety, rather than it being a formative influence?

    Like, as a baby, everything is crazy and exciting and terrifying, it probably wasn't a big deal to you then. When you were young and you had more memories, it probably would have just been one in many. But perhaps it became your last lingering memory specifically *because* as you got older the pain and fear became the most defining aspect of life, so that memory had a weightier presence. Not trying to contradict you, just bouncing ideas off of you. I feel like... we have enough to worry about during the period where we're sentient, I have a vested interest in denying the notion that we've been doomed even since before we could talk!

    That being said, it's still hard not to look at the past and see the connections. They flutter behind you, your possible pasts... some bright-eyed and crazy, some frightened and lost. I'm definitely guilty of connecting the dots sometimes.

    Speaking of Hell, have you seen the new Doom game? I don't think it's out yet but it looks pretty great.

    As for my own first memory (not that you asked), I certainly couldn't tell you. My memory in general is astoundingly poor, and has always been. I can barely remember snippets of High School. I mostly remember feelings and ideas from the past. Most of my concrete memories from the past are highly negative experiences. But the feelings I remember are good ones, not necessarily of things that happened per se' but of times when I was filled with hope, and the night was crisp, and there was magic in the air, and it just seemed like good things were on the horizon. Deep Creek, Saturday nights, snowdays.

  2. "Like, as a baby, everything is crazy and exciting and terrifying, it probably wasn't a big deal to you then."

    Or, knowing me, maybe /everything/ was as big a deal to me then. (I was just rereading my "Every Fight Is A Fight With Freezer" post the other day). I mean, I have other memories, too - like the absolute nightmare that was pre-preschool daycare (and things only continued to get worse from there).

    I've summed up my feelings on the psychotherapy angle pretty well in the last paragraph of the original post - I probably wouldn't have even mentioned it if it weren't such a perfectly evocative coincidence (I love it when things "fall into place" - it gives me the comforting illusion that there *is* order in this chaotic universe). I'm as dubious of the "blame everything on your childhood" angle as you, with the caveat that, like religion, sometimes finding meaning in things can actually help you, even when it's not really there - although one must be careful of the potential fallout (see the Crusades, or that dreadful period of psychiatry where practitioners assumed that /everybody/ had been sexually abused in their childhood).

    On the other hand, I don't doubt that one's experiences in childhood can't make a particularly strong impression - for the same reason that babies learn things (like new languages) faster than adults. But in the end, I subscribe to the nature PLUS nurture hypothesis. And my anxiety is so ingrained - to the point that psychiatrists don't know how to deal with it, because most people's anxiety is caused by an identifiable trigger, and is only temporary, apparently not chronic like mine - that even as world-shattering an experience as Niagara Falls being my first memory doesn't seem like enough to completely change the structure of my brain. Then again, we still know very little about the human brain. I think we should dedicate as much if not more effort to probing the deepest reaches of our gray matter as we do to the Space Program.

    "Speaking of Hell, have you seen the new Doom game? I don't think it's out yet but it looks pretty great."

    Heard something about it. Don't recall if I saw any images from it. After Doom 3, I'm skeptical. I'd rather they just release an official level editor for the original Doom (and Doom II).