Years ago, when I was younger and more innocent and naive and sweet and firmer and perhaps an all around better person (i.e. a child) than I am today, I was the youngest writer in my MFA program and I stood before my colleagues in May in a hot stuffy classroom to defend my thesis. Several of my students attended, which made me feel both so loved and unworthy.
The thesis itself, the novel, was a messy disaster; I still can’t bear to look at it. But I did have a great thesis defense. I know that. At the time, I was obsessed with the millennial impulse to engage in social media. I was obsessed with photographs, with the compulsion to take them both artfully and artlessly. I was obsessed with the meaning. Why do we take pictures? What are we looking for? What do we want?
I was obsessed with the fact that we not only record multiple moments of our lives every single day, but that we also share them, too. We post our thoughts, our deepest wishes and alleged, passing pains and most private events (marriage, birth, death, meals) on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I loved that we could take pictures of present and put filters on them to give the appeal of a nostalgic past–not other eras in history, but the feeling that something was being cataloged into particular, specific, meaningful eras of our lives and that we gave ourselves permission to feel that nostalgia. Why not?
At the time, GIFs had just come out. These, too, I thought were amazing. People were recording frame-by-frame moments in the moment and then sharing them while they were still within the moment. I thought SnapChat was incredible, its popularity, the appeal of creating and sharing photographs only to instantly allow them to disappear.
I was obsessed with our digital footprints. In digital culture, there is no such thing as death and we cannot disappear. My thesis adviser called it “nostalgia for the present.” I can buy that. I was young enough to know with painful intimacy the preciousness of ordinary moments, that they pass and never return to us again. Photographs extend the illusion of staying there longer, they allow us to linger, perhaps forever.
And then I graduated and went on with ordinary life.
Nobody cared anymore what I thought about digital media. And that was okay. I was so deliriously in love at the time, and lucky enough to love a man who was also deliriously in love with me, that any other concern couldn’t reach me.
And then, of course, it faded. It always does. That’s okay, too, I suppose, though I mourn it. Deeply.
The picture above, that’s me, a long time ago, taken by a person I used to love and who used to love me, maybe still does. I don’t know. I remember when I left him someone said to me, “But you look so happy on Facebook.” Ah, of course! The false narrative! I dismissed it. I went on. Fell in love with someone else and settled down(ish).
But then this past weekend, I attended a scrapbooking convention as a photo vendor and watched, in amazement, as women stitched together non-digital versions of lives captured by photographs. I could write a whole other piece about the observations and conclusions I came away with after three days of watching women puttering about with ribbons and glue, but my main concern is this:
None of those stories are true.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are not true.
I would love to see the person whose scrapbook catalogs a page that says: And this is the day I was a piece of shit and cheated on my husband and I’m still not sure whether or not I feel guilty; This is the day I chose to stay even after my husband threw a dining table at me; This is the day that I was so frustrated and exhausted by tending three babies under three with my husband working all the time that, for a moment, I honestly wished they were dead; This is the day that I was glad when my mother died of her long-term terminal illness because it was such a relief. This is a day that I suffered.
I have a feeling that people/women who admit to these thoughts are not the sort who put together scrapbooks. If anything, they contain only an eerie omission. Pages and pages of children but none of smiling parents. And so on.
But you look so happy on Facebook.
When we choose to take photos and collect them and stand them up as some testimony of our lives, we limit ourselves to just one narrative. My memory is a disintegrating scrapheap. Hence, the appeal of photographs. The only thing I am good at remembering is conversation. When I look back at the photos that my ex took of that day when we walked together down a rocky creek with a camera in hand, we do look happy, we look so terribly happy it breaks my heart. It takes quite a bit of excavating for me to remember everything else, all the ugliness, all the unspeakable ways that we hurt each other in all the moments between the camera shutter. It’s a lie, a beautiful lie. I can hear him sighing, all over again, at my melancholy. I always exhaust the men who love me. That’s true even today. I can’t help myself. Joan Didion had the same problem.
I recently had a large collection of photographs assembled into one of those beautiful high-quality coffee table books for our house. I was flipping through it this morning, struck by the vibrance and beauty of every image. No sorrow. No loneliness. No frustration. And those are all things that we felt, too, right alongside elation and gratitude and love and desire. All worthy experiences. All worth remembering.
What makes a life?
I thought I knew, back then. That was the point of my defense. I can’t even remember. Perhaps I was too cowardly and energetic to have a point. Perhaps the point was to show me, later, that I was wrong.
“There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you’re living and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, that other we long to see.” –James Salter
I still take photographs. I have a very nice camera and a nice assortment of lenses. I still want my photographs to be beautiful. But I no longer care about capturing the essence of a particular moment. That somehow fell away a very long time ago. I rarely Instagram my personal life anymore. When I raise the camera to my eye, it seems I’m trying to capture some invisible chasm, all the things beyond the frame, all the things we can’t contain and hold onto.
Life is everything that happens between photographs. Life is everything we don’t remember, all the things that slip away. We allow it. We must. We have no other choice.