The self-portrait I posted a few days ago got me thinking about memories and the instability of our memories. Those ideas coalesced into this short, semi-autobiographical essay.
Sitting crossed legged on the cold floor, I hunched over a stool with a black pencil in my left hand. My older sister sat next to me and watched my progress.
“Oct – o – pus.”
I pronounced each part of the word separately, delighted in both the sound and its presence on the page. That was the first word I wrote: spindly letters aligned to the blue line of the page. My infantile markings, produced with an unwavering attention to detail, covered several faded notebooks. My sister had drawn guidelines in the notebooks for me, allowing me to practice letter after letter until she deemed me ready to write full words.
Textbooks say that memory consolidation does not occur until a child turns three. But perhaps if an emotion is sufficiently strong, a moment in time will take hold sooner. I was two years old and my sister was eight but in my memory, she seems much older, much larger. In some ways, she is more like a blur, a presence of undying support that does not really have corporeal form. I know she is there and that is what matters. Of course, if I focus on her within the memory-space, I can conjure an image. This image, however, is an amalgam of the original memory blur, old photographs I recall, and my sister as she currently is. Trying to grasp a concrete version of my sister-in-memory is not an easy task and ultimately leaves me unsatisfied because I know something is missing. This inability to conjure a precise memory-image and my simultaneous acknowledgment of this, results in an uncanny valley within the memory.
The uncanny valley inside the memory does not limit itself to my sister but pervades all objects (animate or inanimate) within the memory-space. Even the most significant players of the memory are unable to withstand visual scrutiny. For example, the black pencil was most likely a thick crayon because two-year-olds do not have sufficient muscle-control to handle a pencil. Nevertheless, inside the memory, I am convinced the object I hold in my hand is a pencil. The memory collapses into the uncanny valley when I single out the pencil, a move which essentially transplants the pencil from the memory-space into a blank brain-space. I realize that the pencil is self-manufactured when it becomes a Staedtler art pencil, a brand I only discovered when I was in middle school. Knowing that the Staedtler pencil cannot possibly exist within my memory, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of discomfort and panic. The memory is corrupted and its pristine form is irrecoverable. Only by pulling away from objects and seeing the memory unfold in a gauzelike haze can I regain stability.
The memory exists as its own entity somewhat apart from the concrete logic of the present. In this way, memories are like dreams: they are outside of real-time, resist accurate recall, and invite revision and embellishment. The most precise aspects of memory-space and dream-space are the emotions.
This first memory has probably undergone massive revisions since the actual event occurred. It is a well-worn memory and its constant use has changed its surface. This is why my sister is never the same sister: she is always blended with a current version of herself. The pencil is whatever pencil I happen to be using for my artwork. The beauty of the memory-space is its seemingly inevitable convergence with the fictive dream-space.