I will start out this post by saying I have yet to figure this out. It is a problem that I have wrestled with for years, especially the years since I have become a mother. It is a problem that seems to grow with each child we add to this family. And even though it isn’t life or death, when I stop and think about it, the problem has weighty implications. It will affect the way my children look back on their growing up years. It will have a lasting impact on the way I view, experience, and share the most important events of my children’s lives. It can eat me up if I let it.
I can’t remember everything.
It is such a painful, bittersweet realization that every moment of this life is passing, like pages in a book that can never be reread. We can only remember the gist of certain chapters. Maybe a phrase or two that was particularly beautiful or life-changing. The ever-changing voices of children, their little bodies that start out so round and warm and soft like a ball of rising dough. Their laughter, their inexplicable delight at the smallest wonders: an leaf-green inchworm, the sudden, sharp surprise of honeysuckle, the moon, the perfection of a seashell. God, I don’t want all of this to end. And I don’t want to forget.
When I was in college, I responded to this problem by carrying my 35mm SLR camera around with me everywhere I went. I took it upon myself to record the light off of every beautiful thing I saw and wanted to remember. The transience of each day was achingly beautiful to me. I was transfixed by the shadows of leaves on the side of a house in the glow of the late afternoon sunlight. I spent hours in the darkroom, sealing up those moments in silver, fixing them on paper and in my memory forever.
I finished school, got married, and we had our first child. Randy photographed her every move. I was too deep in the throes of life with a first baby, nursing constantly, trying to recover lost sleep, arms full all the time. Between the baby and the diaper bag, I had no hands free for taking photographs. Randy documented her every expression, every nuance of her body language, every first moment of her life. We have thousands of photographs of this little baby. We had a second child. Now we both had arms full, and less photographs were made. Our third, fourth, fifth, and sixth children have come along, and you can imagine how the pattern has continued.
Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by all that I can’t remember. These last ten years of having children has been, in so many ways, a blur.
But I am coming to a deeper appreciation and gratitude for the soft, malleable nature of memory. And though I am profoundly grateful for the photographs and videos of my children, I am also increasingly thankful that I (and they) are not weighted down by the burden of millions of photographs of every moment of their lives. It is impossible for me to record every significant event that happens. I just don’t have enough hands. And though I am sometimes sad by all the memories I failed to jot down or capture on film, I have come to see this hands-full impossibility as a blessing and a gift.
And this is why:
I think that we, as a culture, have forgotten how to simply let life unfold and enjoy an experience for the sake of the experience in itself. Instead, we are consumed with digitizing our lives into neat little shareable packages. We are more focused on trying to gift-wrap the memory in a perfect little box so that we can open it over and over again to relive it. The only problem is, we never really lived it. We were too focused on getting it right so that we could remember it. A video that is not too short or too long. Where no one said something inappropriate. Where it looks like we are good parents. Where the lighting is better. We are too focused on uploading photos on social media with a tagline about what a great time we are having.
We have become a culture that lives for the future memory of the present experience.
We will sacrifice the beauty of a moment so that we can “experience” it over and over on our smartphones or share it with the virtual world in the future.
But did we really experience that moment???
Christmas is coming. We are going to be spending lots of time with our loved ones. I know we need to make photographs. I know that it is important. I know I will treasure these images made and they will help us remember and connect with one another in years to come. But, can we also make an effort to just be in the moment with our families? Not spending hours of our treasured time deleting videos off the phone to make room for anything share-worthy that might happen. Not stopping the little children who are dancing or singing or being charming so that we can put them in better lighting, tell them to smile, and ask them to recreate the moment. Not being disappointed when something beautiful happens because we didn’t capture it on film. Not translating every moment into something other than what it is–a chance to be there with those we love. Not leaving the special moment so we can snatch it up in an image and post it to Facebook to prove that it happened. Yes, it happened. Yes, I preserved it for the future. Yes, I can watch it over and over again after everyone is gone. But did I miss out on the heart of the experience???
I am guilty. I am saying this to myself and to anyone else who senses a seed of truth here. These are the questions I wrestle with as a mother.
How can we really be there?
How can we find a balance of living life day by day, moment by moment, making memories, sharing experiences, and keeping meaningful records of our lives? Can we free ourselves just a little bit from the weight of remembering everything this Christmas season? Can we let ourselves create memories that are not only visual in nature but are felt in the heart? The memory of a conversation. The warmth of a little child’s hand. Making a true and lasting connection.
Our problem is also a gift. We can’t remember everything. But we aren’t meant to. It would be too painful to hold onto every joy and every sorrow. Our memories are soft and malleable and able to take in and let go. We are allowed to remember. We are allowed to forget. But we can’t hold on to everything. This is the human blessing and the human struggle of being confined to linear time.
This is the moment where our lives can touch the lives of others. The past is over. It will always be a part of us. The future is uncertain. This moment is the moment to live. To embrace the transience of experience. To live in the present without the burden of pre-preserving every detail for future recall.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But there is a word that I believe is worth a thousand well-crafted photographs.
I want to experience life with my children more than I want to document it for the future. I long to be present in. this. moment.
This life is sacred. Our lives touch intimately and deeply. Can we, as a culture, learn to lean into that a little bit more? Can we live, this holiday season, a little more in the present experience with our loved ones? Can we let the memories come after instead of planning them all out before-hand? Can our memories be more deeply rooted in the joy of remembering that we were together and we were attentive and we were as present as we could be?
There is a gift we can all give. And it has the power to make memories that are long-lasting and truly life-changing.
Experience. This is the word that is worth a thousand pictures.