“I just do not understand why this moment needs to be Memorexed.”

16 Dec

One swelteringly grey day this past August my friend Nathan and I took the ferry to the Toronto Islands for a picnic. After we’d spread his blanket out on the sand and set up the food and wine, I asked him if I could take a picture.

“Yeah, sure, why not?”

Then he did a double take and frowned at my phone.

“Wait. Why are you asking me if you can take a picture of the baguette and cheese you just bought?”

“Because I want to take a picture of you with the food.”

“Uh, sure? I guess? But don’t post it on Facebook.”

He knew, of course, that that was exactly what I wanted to do. Posting inane shit on social media is my jam. Still, I went along with it and pretended that the thought had never crossed my mind. I snapped the picture and immediately put my phone away, as if Facebook wasn’t even a thing I knew about. The photograph is still on my phone, in fact —I checked today while I was writing this. In it, Nathan is holding a paper cup of wine smirking his I-fucking-hate-having-my-picture-taken smirk. I can tell that he doesn’t understand why I feel the need to take or share this picture.

Later, when we were lying on the blanket staring across the water at the Toronto skyline, I snapped another picture. It’s sort of crooked, because I was trying to be stealthy about it. In it, along with one of my feet, a broad expanse of sky and the distant shore, you can see Nathan in profile.

“Can I post this one to Facebook?” I asked, handing him my phone.

“Oh fiiiiiiine,” he said (you have to imagine this exhaled in a long-suffering sigh — Nathan is very long-suffering). “You can’t see my face, so whatever. Knock yourself out.”

I posted it with the caption, “Weekday afternoon island picnic with Nathan, AKA I am spoiled.”

It’s one of hundreds of pictures on my Facebook profile — documenting and sharing my life is a thing that I do almost reflexively now, as do most of my peers. I post selfies, most of them artsy and pretentious. I post pictures of my kid, my husband, my friends, pictures of pretty places and pictures of trees that I find to be exceptionally lovely. When my sister and I met Jane Goodall I posted a picture of the three of us together, when we saw Chris Hadfield speak at a local bookstore, I snapped and posted a picture of him, too. I don’t post pictures of my food, but that’s only because I’m a terrible cook and most of what I produce is incredibly unappetizing. It’s not just photographs either — I chronicle my daily life in all kinds of ways, from short, pithy tweets to long, emotional journal entries picking apart all of my feelings in excruciating detail. I sometimes feel as if I spend half my life living it, and the other half documenting it as if something incredibly important depends on my ability to perfectly describe the exact shade of my friend Audra’s lipstick as we lounge one late-summer afternoon on the patio at Hurricane’s.

Why, though? I mean, why do any of this in general, and why take and subsequently post that picnic photograph in particular? Was I trying to make people jealous of the fact that my odd-ball work schedule means that I can take off in the middle of the day for an island adventure with a good-looking dude? Did I feel like my friends would be legitimately interested in this little slice-of-life? Was I trying to create a strange sort of public memory for myself?

Probably a bit of all three, if I’m being honest with myself, though the memory part is what stands out the most to me now. Looking at that photograph I remember how Nathan was in a bad mood that day, and how I was hoping the picnic would cheer him up. I remember how it started raining almost as soon as we disembarked from the ferry, and we ended up sitting under a tree drinking warm white wine while waiting for the storm to pass. I remember being upset about the rain, because I felt as if there was so much riding on the day beingperfect; I remember Nathan reassuring me that yes, he was having a very nice time in spite of the rain, and would I please stop worrying and try to enjoy the day as it was, rain and all. I remember that after the sky cleared we bushwhacked our way through the undergrowth on tiny Snake Island to get to my favourite beach, which we had all to ourselves that day. I remember the fire ants biting my legs, and I remember thinking that it was worth a few ant bites just to be lying there in hot sun with one of my favourite people. I remember drifting off to sleep listening to kids yelling and splashing in distant canoes. I remember the dreamy sound of the lake approaching and then retreating across the damp sand.

There’s been a lot of brouhaha over the past few years about how technology has changed our lives for the worse; I’ve heard more than a few whining complaints about selfies and pictures of food on Instagram all swaddled up in a that comfortably familiar blanket of worries about Kids These Days. Kids these days, with their inability to understand consequence and their disdain of privacy and their purported inability to make real-life connections with other people. There was yet another opinion piece on this subject in yesterday’s New York Times, this one specifically about pictures and social media and all the little ways we put our lives on hold in order to document them. In it, the author, Sherry Turkle, frets that we’re losing the ability to be in the moment and sit with our own thoughts — times of what she calls “uninterrupted reverie.” And, it’s like, she’s not wrong, you know? We do pause our lives to in order to record them, and we do share those recorded images or thoughts with the world at large. But this isn’t anything new — it’s part of what it means to be human, and it’s been happening for as long as there have been people, in one way or another.

We document our lives for all kinds of different reasons — because we find ourselves fascinating, because we’re trying to make sense of what’s happening to us, because we want to reach out to other people and ask them to tell us that we’re not, in the end, alone. We want to capture experiences that are by their very nature fleeting and somehow turn them into something permanent. We want some kind of touchstone that represents all the moments we’ll never have again, because by our very natures we are wanting, grasping creatures who can’t seem to accept that there are certain things that we can’t hold or keep. So we started painting on cave walls. We carved gorgeous bas-relief scenes into ancient monuments depicting mundane moments from every day life. We wrote about ourselves anywhere we could, using whatever materials were at hand. We tried to make sense of our short lives through images and words, because that’s what we do. That’s what people do.

That’s what I do, too. In fact, I sometimes I wonder if I don’t enjoy the memories of experiences more than the experiences themselves, and if that’s part of why I obsessively write, photograph and share the things, important or otherwise, that happen to me. It’s rare for me to completely lose myself in a moment; I’m always wondering what comes next, how things will end, whether the outcome of this seemingly-happy moment will, finally, be judged to be good or bad. I’m always picturing the scene through the camera’s lens, watching my hair tangle in the wind and the authentic-looking smile light up my face, as if comparing my life to a movie might help me figure out which direction it’s going to take. It’s only later, when viewed as a completed story, that the happiness of the situation becomes certain, no longer tainted by my doubt or anxiety. It’s only then that I breathe a sigh of relief and let myself feel wholly, perfectly good.

Or else sometimes an event is too big, too overwhelming as it’s happening, to allow me to feel anything as uncomplicated as happiness. Take, for example, the week-long trip to Paris that Matt and I took for our honeymoon. The we spent there wasn’t happy for me, exactly — it was too much a whirlwind of sights, sounds and smells that I was trying frantically to process and understand to be called anything as easy as happy or fun. To quote my friend Susan, everything in Paris is either delicious or beautiful or both, and I was desperate to see and eat as much of it as I possibly could in that short time. The main emotion that I remember from that trip is awe — awe and wonder at almost everything we saw and did, from standing atop the Eiffel Tower and looking out across the orderly jumble of grey buildings to using the funny toilet with the rotating, self-cleaning seat that we found in the little English tea house. Everything seemed incredible. It was only later, after our plane had touched down in Montreal and I’d given my mother and sisters the gifts I’d brought back for them and told the story of our trip over and over, that I was finally able process everything that had happened. It was only then that I had the chance to sit down, sort through the pictures I’d taken, and savour how very good the trip had been.

The photographs I took in Paris — even the photographs that I’d taken while feeling overwhelmed and anxious — helped shape the narrative of a storybook honeymoon. And while my memory tells me that this narrative may not be entirely accurate, it’s the one that I prefer to present to both myself and others as the truth. I also can’t help wondering if perhaps accuracy and truth aren’t really the same thing, after all — because while it’s accurate to say that I experienced moments of dismay, frustration, anger and fear during my honeymoon, I’m also speaking the truth when I say that it was perfect. Pictures that were taken under one set of circumstances might ultimately convey a different meaning, and somehow both ways of looking at the photograph are simultaneously correct. Images like the one below, taken from the top of Notre Dame, seem peaceful and romantic, even though at the time the height was making me dizzy, I was worried that they were suddenly going to start ringing the enormous thirteen-ton bell, and I felt shaken up after climbing the circular tower staircase, slippery after eight hundred years of use, behind an old Polish man with a bad limp who seemed likely to fall on Matt and I at any moment.

But when I see this picture I know that this moment, as frightening as it might have seemed at the time, was also unbelievably wonderful. And even if I didn’t feel particularly peaceful or romantic, the image itself is undoubtedly so. Both ways of looking at that picture are true.

We take pictures and write status updates and scrawl out journal entries because we’re trying to put together some kind of lasting story about our lives. And as much as these things might seem pointless or self-indulgent now, I suspect that someday, someone will be grateful for these records. In the same way that I love poring over old photographs, enjoying the ephemera in the background almost as much as the figures in the foreground, I’m sure that someday someone will squeal over the quaint adorableness of pictures of iPhones and Kindles. We make fun of people who Instagram their food, but I would give my eyeteeth to have similar photographs of meals from 50 or 60 years ago. Posterity of the mundane always seems slightly ridiculous at the time, but I’m willing to bet that our grandkids and great-grandkids won’t be disappointed that we took the time to pause our lives in order to document them.

It seems hardly fair, anyway, to think of it as “pausing” our lives, when the documentation itself has always been so much a part of how we live.

14 Responses to ““I just do not understand why this moment needs to be Memorexed.””

  1. Lawrence Grodecki December 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm #

    To each his or her own I suppose. For me it depends on the occasion. For example, when my daughters were young their passion was dance. I’d only get to see them in recitals and festivals a few times a year. Taking pictures, and especially videos, really did take away from the moment, and I quickly stopped doing that.

    I still have memories, though not as many as I’d like to have . . . there were so many precious moments. As nice as it would be to have a lot more pictures now, I’m still glad I didn’t detract from those times . . . and I’m sure the memories of the experience wouldn’t be the same because of the distractions.

    In terms of social media, I only post personal pictures sparsely. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but to me the pictures are very personal, and they can’t possibly mean as much to a stranger a they do to me.

  2. gabrieleneumann December 16, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

    Our parents and grandparents assembled photo albums to preserve memories, and so do we…we just share them online instead of only with people who come to visit the house. I’m always driving people nuts by insisting on taking a million pictures of everything, but I love looking back on them and remembering the experience, even the things that aren’t in the frame, but are anchored in the memories embedded in the photo.

  3. Jennie Worden December 16, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

    I’m going to reiterate what I said on FB, here, with some further thoughts

    Turkle is famous for excoriating the way tech is changing how we interact, in a kind of pearl-clutching alarmist way. And I think technology does, in fact, enable some less than perfectly social behaviours. But really, it exacerbates tendencies that existed long before the present level of technology. And it enables us in other ways.

    From my earliest memories, my mom has photographed every family moment, every family gathering. Because this was in the days of film cameras and she wasn’t a specialist photographer, this passion for documenting translated into endless moments posed for the camera, red dots in front of our eyes, trying to stand still yet still capture a specific moment. These tedious posing sessions happened at every family gathering: birthdays, weddings, even funerals. I posed with my date for my first semi-formal. I posed for my First Communion. I posed when I went away to university, and when I left on my travelling year.

    There are very few photos of my actual university years other than those posed photos, because I couldn’t bear asking people to pose, and film and processing were to expensive to waste trying to learn to get good candid shots.

    Now, people document on the fly. They take as many shots as they need to get the one they think will capture the moment. But they also take casual shots. They don’t have to stop the action to get a shot. They can take pictures of themselves easily.

    At the same time, we’ve developed the ability not only to take the photos but also to share them, and our thoughts. immediately. When I travelled through Europe, pre-smartphone, if I wanted to remember a moment, I had to stop and journal it right away, or wait until I got someplace I could sit down, then write it all out, as you say, Anne, constructing a narrative. Then, I’d get to an computer, type it up, and e-mail the experience to friends and family, because that was hella faster than writing 15 postcards.

    The impulse to document and to share pre-dates the technology, for sure. And it could be just as disruptive, but we’re used to the old disruptions. People were used to dropping everything at home because the telephone rang. Now we don’t, always, because the call can go to voicemail, or if it’s important, they’ll text. People were used to expect other people to drop what they were doing, and answer the phone, and write down messages for other people. Now they don’t, generally. People used to ask others to sit for long posing sessions. That’s changed. I used to spend a lot of time journalling. Now I mostly Tweet or FB, and write the odd long-form blog post. Sometimes I journal private stuff, but I don’t withdraw from company to create narratives of my life the way I used to.

  4. Muddy River Muse December 17, 2013 at 2:22 am #

    For years I was by default the family photographer. And then one day I realized that there weren’t many nice pictures of me– because I spent every event on the other side of the lens. I also tend to resist taking pictures at my kids’ concerts/theatrical performances because I want to enjoy watching them. I admit that I get somewhat annoyed with people who seem to be watching the whole show through the lens of a video camera. I often wonder if anyone actually watches those videos!

    All that aside, I really like what you’ve written here. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking, and may give me pause next time I find myself feeling irked at my shutter happy fellow concert-goers.

  5. silkpurseproductions December 17, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

    “We take pictures and write status updates and scrawl out journal entries because we’re trying to put together some kind of lasting story about our lives. And as much as these things might seem pointless or self-indulgent now, I suspect that someday, someone will be grateful for these records.” This is exactly why I blog. Among my family and friends I am the only one who does not have children. I often think that when I am gone, I will be gone. There is no legacy. This is why I blog. It is proof I was here. Someday maybe some long lost relative will read something I wrote and think, “I would have liked to have known her”.

  6. DeCaf December 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

    I like taking pictures of a lot more things than what I post to facebook. Most of the pictures that make it to facebook are of my puppy, and because that’s what my relatives like to see. I don’t really expect that to ever change much, I’m not fond of pictures of myself, my wife doesn’t like any pictures I take of her, and I find the idea of photographing food to be kind of silly (no offense).

  7. Amanda Martin (writermummy) December 17, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    For me this is spot on. I prefer the more informal ipad and facebook photos now, to me in the past with my big SLR between me and the world. I used to feel too removed, trying to get the perfect shot. Now I snap a few on the ipad (usually for the blog) and they have to be good enough. I do miss that we have no posed photos – I look at the family shots of my grandparents on the beach and they’re so beautiful – and I worry about the weight of photos dumped on my computer. But I love my daily blog from this year, it feels like a lovely diary of a year of my life. An amazing record for my children when they’re older that I certainly would never get from my parents (whose memories of my childhood are sketchy at best!)

  8. mymusepoint December 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    I love this article. It’s so honest and so true. I photograph everything. I have thousands of photos stored on my computer and I love to write articles on my blog that are simply anecdotes of my daily life. For me, I live with an impending sense of doom hanging over my youth. I know that before I know it, I’ll blink, and all of this, the here and the now, will be gone. Once that time comes, these little records of a time when I was young and carefree might serve to allow me to smile for a moment or two at the memory. I try not to post every little thing I do to facebook. I only really post an update if I think it will entertain, but I like to think of the internet as a small space of immortality. We’re the first generation who’ll be able to give our children a wholly accurate and complete portrayal of who we were when we were young. Could you imagine going onto the facebook of a parent now and being able to scroll back to 1978 and see what they posted on the 7th January? What more of an insight can you give? I don’t think that my life is so interesting that everyone will want to read about it all the time, and right now, these things I post are mundane, but for my family and friends, twenty-five years from now, I like to imagine looking back and being able to remember not just images, but thoughts and feelings. My status updates will reveal what the world meant to me in 2013. That’s kind of exciting to me. A really well-written and interesting article. Thanks!

  9. Hannah December 18, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    I love this.

    I think we do the same thing – trying to turn a chaotic swirl of thoughts, feelings and experience – into a coherent narrative – in personal relationships too; you tell people a story often enough, and a few years down the line, it’s all you can remember. You’d think that photos would have the same effect – remembering what it felt like to be in that picture, but nothing else that happened that day – but I find they’re more like a doorway into the whole experience of a time.

  10. Rudrapriya December 18, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    Great post.

    Unrelated: would love to read your thoughts on the Beyoncé/feminism debate…

  11. Karen J December 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    Interesting points, but what happens to the parts that we edit out when recording our experiences? Doesn’t that make the history that we are recording misleading to future generations?

  12. broadsideblog December 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

    I like this post and agree with much of it.

    But I weary of the in-your-face boasting that often dominates social media — the perfect exotic vacations, crowing over the latest accomplishment or that of your kids. In quieter and more private times, we kept our own journals and showed our photos or slide only in our homes to our intimates. The record was for us or for our families. Social media has made it possible to shove them into many faces — and bore the hell out of everyone with relentless narcissism.


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