Have you ever imagined what it would be like to explode? To let all the things inside you erupt and shrivel into nothing? Let your baggage—painful and otherwise—be swept into a dustpan like the edges of a shattered snow globe? It is a way, maybe, of becoming new again, of becoming as close as you can to freshly-fallen snow before time and circumstances wreck it.
This idea has occupied an uncomfortable corner of my imagination for as long as I can remember, though not entirely by choice. The corrupting influence was a 10-minute long Canadian cartoon called “To Be,” which was broadcast as part of a programming block on Cartoon Network in the late ’90s. Pre-dating “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” the creepy (yet somehow cheerful) animation was the stuff of my early nightmares.
The basic synopsis is as follows: a visibly depressed woman receives an invitation to attend the unveiling of an eminent scientist’s newest experiment: a teleportation machine. As the scientist explains, the participant enters a chamber in which their molecular blueprint is copied and sent to a second chamber via radio waves. The matter in the second chamber is reassembled according to the exact pattern of the original. Lo and behold, exiting the second chamber is the participant, physically indistinguishable with memories intact. A small explosion goes off in the first chamber. The door opens to reveal smoke and—gasp!—the chamber is empty. The scientist explains how the copy, which has materialized in the desired location, is just as complete as the original, who has yet to move an inch. To the irreconcilable dilemma of having multiple copies of the same person running around, the scientist destroys the original.
The cartoon deals with an ontological thought experiment known as the “teletransport paradox.” The “Star Trek”-inspired technology begs the question of what constitutes identity—is it the body, which carries the physical memory of experience, or is it some coded sequence of memory that, like a blueprint, can be carbon copied onto a “blank disc” of matter? This paradox questions the morality of “terminating” what has, in the scientist’s mind, become a useless original. In the cartoon, the woman is aghast at the apparent act of murder. The scientist tries to explain the ethics of his device, divulging that he has used it on himself dozens of times and is still the same as he has always been, though his efforts at persuasion are largely in vain.
The woman suggests that if the scientist is so sure the copy is identical, why not delay destroying the original for five minutes to conduct a side-by-side appraisal (for science)? The scientist agrees and, suddenly, there are two of them, comparing each other’s birthmarks, likes and dislikes, library cards, and so forth. The warm mood is shattered, however, when the woman gives the all-too-real reminder, “Five minutes is up. Who is the original, who is the copy?” Panicked, the identical scientists argue over who has to die.
Chess is deemed the appropriate contest. The winner, they say (on totally arbitrary grounds) must be the original who, as the woman reminds the scientists by the end of the game, is ostensibly “useless.” The original must be destroyed. Screaming “I want to live,” one scientist pushes the other into the chamber and the cartoonishly stylized, blender death-machine is set to “pulverize.” Boom. Puff. The “original” scientist is dead. The copy, with sweat dripping down his brow, says he has to go. He runs away from his machines, his research, and his former self that he, just a moment ago, literally tore to shreds. The woman looks at the wreckage of the chess game. She picks up the losing king from the floor and sees the evil within herself. A murderer, she can’t go on. With a tear, she enters the first chamber. Her replica exits just in time to hear the anticipated explosion. Befuddled and having just entered the world, new and pure, “a guiltless copy,” the woman (version two) goes outside and sings a song about how wonderful it is to be. Songbirds circle her head and perch on her shoulder, singing:
Brand new me,
brand new day!
No more last month’s bills to pay.
They were owed by another me
and she has ceased to be!
Bluebird sitting on my head,
Aren't you glad my old one's dead?
Hello, brook! Good morning, tree!
I've just begun to be!
What’s this body I am using?
When I die will I be losing,
everything that I’m now choosing
to be, or not to be!
A simple fact, sad but true,
nothing’s fun unless it’s new.
That’s why we take turns to see,
what’s it like to be.
Like a fire that clears away oppressive undergrowth, conscientious self-destruction is a vehicle with which to create new life, a life without history. To live outside the shadow of all the bad you have ever done sounds appealing. The woman in the cartoon made the choice to become new again. I pause. I say the phrase out loud. “Becoming new again.”
For whatever reason, I think of snow; the radiant glare of inches-thick, fresh white that makes you feel like anything is possible. It’s like the world is new again, without stains, scars, or imperfections. You forget the potholes, nicks, and scratches. You forget you even have a car, let alone the dent in your left rear bumper, because it’s a relic from another world, from before the snow came. Gaseous vapor metamorphosizes into a liquid that hangs in the air, until cold and pressure transform it into a solid that, for now and eternity, exists in perpetual freefall, casting the sky in an opaque off-white.
The world stops and ends here, but could just as well go on forever—it makes no difference. Just as water and baptism symbolize new beginnings, snow creates a kind of blank slate. But the snow, in a strange contradiction, also helps me remember. It happens every year (fingers crossed on climate change) and falls in similar places. There is a kind of unchanging universality to the winter landscape. Just as much as a blizzard creates a fresh canvas, it is a scene remarkably similar to seasons past. It becomes a liminal space between worlds, a connection to places that we can no longer visit. The seeming incongruousness of snow, a tool to both remember and forget, opens the door to a series of questions. To what degree is the psychic dismantling of self and attachment to past experience possible? Are our identities a constant, comprised of the things that live only inside our heads? Or does the advancement of time transform our minds and bodies in an irreconcilable manner, changing who we are regardless of memory?
A few Sundays ago, I took my beaten-up Prius to my favorite spot on Gold Camp Road to check out the first big snowfall of the year. It’s a place where I’ve brought friends, cried, made love, tripped acid, and debated the existential tumult of personhood. A tree hangs over the side of the cliff, beaten into a sharp angle by the wind. I used to climb that tree and sit up top, trembling under the force of occasional gusts. For a while, there was a porcelain plaque underneath the tree memorializing “Bud,” who I’ve always assumed was someone’s dog. Since then, a few too many branches have fallen, making it risky to climb, and the burial stone has long since gone missing. The landscape has otherwise stayed the same. However, the body that occupies the space—the one sometimes called “Nathan”—has changed dramatically.
Sometimes I think of my child-self. I imagine my body as an old-fashioned Russian nesting doll, and each layer removed reveals a slightly smaller version inside. Digging closer to the center, I find the little three-year-old boy in blue overalls clutching an ever-smiling Buzz Lightyear toy, crying for his mother. The memory is from the first time I was taken away by the Chicago Department of Children and Family Services. Little child-me didn’t know where I was or why I was brought there. The Buzz Lightyear was my only friend when I was taken away, and it still sits on my dresser today. It is less a reminder of trauma, and more a way of bridging past and present, a physical manifestation of who I once was. I hold Buzz close to my chest, and I feel as if I can hold my child-self just a little bit closer, and tell him that everything is going to be OK. I envision calling out to my child-self, being transported across the linear chasm of time. I know for a fact, that I (as my present self) would be as unrecognizable as a stranger to that child.
Places and things bring back memories, but so too does the snow. “Mood-congruent memory” is a term in psychology that describes the phenomenon in which similar surroundings induce past feelings and memory (for instance, taking an exam in the same seat empirically improves test performance). It comes to mind when I walk through the student housing neighborhood east of Nevada. Surrounded by the ghosts of people I once knew, sitting on porches, drinking beer, laughing for a second, and very often doing nothing. I am shocked, and in many ways hurt, to remember that these ghosts feel all too real to be merely memories; time and my associations to space have become at odds.
Returning to Gold Camp Road, I begin my descent into a landscape that is a playful mixture of past and present. Joys and tragedies alike are recycled here. But the feeling, in the end, is mostly sad. My vision sweeps across the familiar milieu, as my mind’s eye inevitably journeys into the past. The voyage is bittersweet. Though it is the middle of the afternoon, I am shuttled back to a night in December 2016. The effervescence of stars lit the path ahead. I thought I was in love. We decided to stay up all night and forget about the next day and the day after. It almost worked.
I think back to the nesting dolls inside my body. Encapsulated by snow, they seem almost real. Each doll a person, a smaller version of me, whose thoughts and yearnings come through with a vibrancy that belies their age. But each one of them is dead.
My eyes are closed and the cold wind against my shoulders reminds me of that Thanksgiving at Standing Rock. I shudder and look down, realizing I’m still wearing the same jacket as I was then. My gut sinks in labored nostalgia. I regret everything.
White fluff becomes brown as slush meets mud. It freezes overnight and yellow streaks appear from where some drunk kid tried to spell his name.
Falling backwards, I am buried under the weight of snow. The freshly-fallen powder creates a deceptive warmth not unlike that morning after the blizzard. It was the day I rediscovered the childlike person sitting in my heart and watched, with wonder and amazement, as small drops of snow fell off the barren limbs of an overhead tree and onto my cheek. The snow soon dissolved and became translucent, dripping down my face like tears I had forgotten to cry. The sky was clear. I was 17, and it was the first time I knew peace.
I crush some snow in my hand. It is already hard-packed. Sometimes, I wish I could crush little parts of myself and let them be carried into nothing, like dust off a funeral pyre. I think back to that classic scene from “Citizen Kane,” of the dying mogul who, with his last words, whispers “Rosebud” and drops a snow globe, the last remaining token of his childhood. The audience watches as the world inside explodes.
Questions of my own identity come to mind often. I ask myself, “Am I who I was a year ago?” Sometimes, in moments of nostalgia, I try to become that person again, with all the loves, tribulations, successes, and defeats. As much as I resemble that person on the outside, I feel different. It is as though I entered the teleportation machine in a dream, and the copied-over body has become my new, similar-yet-distinct reality. It is an impossible task, to recreate the past in the present body. In the destructive impulses that seek to dismember those parts of ourselves that are no longer wanted, the teletransport paradox is a blessing and a curse. Wonderful yet terrifying, it gives light to the tug-of-war between continuity and change that is an inherent struggle of the human condition.
We see the dynamic play out in various facets and through a variety of mediums. The film “Another Earth” comes to mind. The heroine gets in a car crash that kills a mother and her young child, while the father in the car survives and is broken by grief. Responsible for their deaths, the heroine is ravaged by guilt until she discovers Another Earth, one that is identical in almost every way to the one she was inhabiting. This Other Earth is floating just outside orbit and is recognizable yet distinct; an alternate reality home to millions of forks in the road that lead to new futures.
In the movie, there’s a lottery in which the winner gets to take off in a spaceship and travel to the Other Earth. Against all odds, the heroine lands a ticket. She hopes, desperate beyond all measure, that she will find a world on the other end with the family she killed still intact. Traveling to Another Earth seems to be a way of leaving one’s history behind, a deliberate act of destruction that is also a kind of rebirth. Her hope to take off and escape the planet reminds me of the protagonist from “To Be,” entering the chamber and hoping to exit back into the world as something new, changed, and purified.
The heroine in the film, however, opts out and gives her ticket to the man whose life she helped destroy, thinking it is the best way to right her wrong. She smiles as she looks out the window at the other Earth, imagining a better world. Our bad deeds, however, are harder to escape than we think. The heroine returns home to find an identical copy of herself, staring from across the driveway. This copy is from the other Earth. The only difference between the worlds is that, in this one, the woman took the ticket instead of giving it away. There is no way to escape what she has done. The accident is for real. As much as she tries to shed her past, to hit the self-destruct key and run, she is ultimately forced to face herself. It’s like the scene from the cartoon when the two versions of the scientist examine each other. Staring into the eyes of a mirror image, their pupils leave a gaping hole and, lost, they fall.
When we die, or figuratively self-destruct, our memories wash away like tears in the shower. The water running over us signifies a kind of new becoming. As much as we either crave or despair the disassembly of physical and emotional memory, we are really left with very few choices. Apart from rare medical episodes, to metaphysically die and be rid of the past exists mostly as a thought experiment. As much as the concept intrigues us, we must be reminded that “teletransport” is unreal and likely impossible. We cannot simply press a “reset” button and be reborn. Even media around the sci-fi concept of memory erasure, like the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” problematizes the idea. Whether it be through seeing an old lover seen on a train or feeling a thought creeping and nagging in the back of the mind, our past and who we were yesterday will find us eventually. We cannot simply gut ourselves of the nesting dolls inside our body and be done with it all. Regardless of our inclinations, they are the building blocks of who we are today. It is our burden, perhaps, to find ways of remembering a past self, while still letting the present evolve and become new, again and again.
I like to keep mementos. They are inanimate objects that create a window into a dead past. Most often, they reflect mixed feelings and memories of experiences that have changed me. Buzz is a great example. The batteries are gone; the buttons don’t work. I also have a dog-eared note from a friend saying how much I scared him this one time and a hospital wristband from the time I drunkenly fell asleep in the snow. Tapestries and art hang from friends hang on the wall I no longer talk to but still love without reservation. They are symbols of lament, of a past that I, at another point, may have willed into oblivion. Resisting self-destruction, I let my past hang in front of me. I see all the bad that I have done, but it has less power now than when I keep it bottled. There is a level of acceptance, a tacit agreement formed between me and the ghosts that shroud my wall. It is as if I took all the nesting dolls buried in my body and exhumed them—I feel lighter, and a part of me inevitably smiles. My body has grown and will continue to grow. I can live on without having to watch myself explode.
Whatever happened to the vision of the unalienable, non-changing self? I think back to the Tralfamadorians, a fictional alien race that Kurt Vonnegut created. They exist in four dimensions and live through all time concurrently. “Now” is just a snapshot of a movie playing forwards and backwards on the same channel. Our world, however, is linear—we pass from one moment to the next. The past is irretrievable, and the future can only exist once the present is over. The illusion of memory is the closest we come to playing the role of fourth dimensional time travelers. The connection is mostly weak. Like lived experiences of snow on a mountain drive, it comes and goes with the time of day. Now and then, the connection is stronger; the phenomenon is viscerally tied to place. Sometimes, the connection can be to a person you never really knew.
My cousin Cebrin died of a heroin overdose. My uncle found her body in the closet. It was February 11th, 2002. I was too young to remember much, though I think of her whenever I visit that house. This time, I’m alone. There are bedrooms, but I choose to sleep on the greenhouse floor; the humidity is a nice juxtaposition to the dryness of the New Mexican desert. The room where she died is maybe 100 feet away. I am alone. I never knew her, yet here I am. I feel close, as if I can reach back into the chasm of time and transcend the 16-and-a-half years that separate our lives. We are connected through space and driven apart by time. She was so young. As I count back doing the math, I realize that she was 23. I am 23. Our lives suddenly seem like overlapping mesh, with little pieces clearing the abyss-like space in between. I never knew her, but little pieces of her have stuck with me, like this poem she wrote. My uncle posted it on her memorial page years ago.
Every once in a while, it hits you hard. You start thinking about all the things
that have happened, all the people and all the places. Everything’s changed
now, but you can still remember, you can still feel the way it was before.
There’s usually some song on that you listened to a lot at some point and
you just want some arms
to hold you so you can close your eyes and bury your head and drain
yourself. Your body’s held tightly and you could be anywhere at any time
and you let yourself go. You let the memories fly out and pain comes hitting
you hard inside your chest and stomach. Your muscles ache. Moans escape
your throat and leave you empty, and
you can feel the time that has slipped away.
Change is hard, and resisting it is harder. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are said to be five bardos, or liminal passages, that frame our existence and reoccur in cycles. They are intermediate states, for which change is constant and unavoidable. Of those, the moment of death is critical. It is not so much that we ought to live in order to die, but that we ought to live in such a way that we are ready to move onto the next state, whenever that may be.
Thinking about what’s to come, I remember the snow. Just as my body has run through its share of physical manifestations, so too does the snow melt with the coming of spring. It falls again, but it does so inevitably changed. Our ephemeral nature is but snow. Seasons come and go, and we may not be the same people we were before. The cycles remain unchanged.
As attractive as exploding may sometimes appear, it is not the only way to let go. We can allow the good and bad of the past to become like snow and melt on a sunny day. In the same way that liquid water is transformed by heat into vapor, the ephemeral current of my cousin’s life has been recycled into the slowly churning cosmos, of which I too am a part. We can let go, though the things that matter have a way of staying with us forever. “To infinity and beyond,” as a friend would say.
Bad Issue | December 2018