I want to remember
The joy and necessity of taking photos.
As of today, my newsletter break is over. Just like that, six weeks have passed. And as I sat down to write this essay, I had an alarming thought: What did I do with all that time?
There were a few notable things. I dreamed up some essay ideas, painted my office, and lined up new work projects. I did fun things, too: like going on a road trip to visit family in Pittsburgh and trying my hand at estivation, the summer version of hibernation. I also got COVID. After two and a half years of bracing myself for the inevitable, my virus experience was, blessedly, not bad at all.
But that list didn’t seem like enough to fill 42 days. What else did I do? What was I forgetting?
I decided to jog my memory in a tried-and-true way—by scrolling through my phone’s camera roll. And there it was: proof of a life lived. There was the morning we went blueberry picking. The day I reunited with my childhood best friend. The cold beers on a hot patio. The goats and chickens at our dear friend’s farm.
And there were smaller moments. The mornings spent building block towers and afternoons reading books. The quiet evening with a decadent glass of wine. The stunning sunset that bathed our house in a perfect pink hue.
As I scrolled through these photos, my mind began to fill in the missing pieces—all of the moments I didn’t think or bother to capture with my camera. The neighborhood walks. The fight with Billy. The healing conversation the following day. The mornings and afternoons spent working. The heat. The thunderstorms. The mood swings. The time spent doing nothing much at all.
Looking at these photos, I started to feel better about my time away. I did things! Things that were camera-worthy, no less! I felt worse, though, about my ability to dredge up those memories on my own. If I hadn’t captured those experiences, would I have remembered them? And if I didn’t have photo proof of my summer hiatus, how would I have felt about the last six weeks?
The older we get, the more rapidly time seems to move. This phenomenon has been well documented by psychologists and average humans alike, but it was only a couple of years ago that we had a physical explanation for our changing perception of time. In 2019, mechanical engineering professor Adrian Bejan presented a peer-reviewed argument based on the physics of neural signal processing. Bejan hypothesized that, over time, the rate at which we process visual information slows down, which makes time seem to speed up as we age.
This tracks. Time feels especially slippery for me lately. Days with a toddler are simultaneously long and short. And the weeks, months, and years of pandemic life have been increasingly hard to wrap my head around. As writer Christine Speer Lejune described it, “Some memories from these pandemic years are sharply vivid; others feel as hazy as an old film reel, more like impressions of having done things than memories of actually doing them. Almost all of them are untethered from anything like chronology, just bobbing around together in a two-year-old pandemic stew.”
Time passes. Things happen. Days drag on and weeks zoom past. Before I know it, six weeks have gone by, and I’m left wondering what I did with all that time.
Thankfully, I have photos to rely on. Even if no one else sees them but me, my family, and a few random friends. My phone is full of big and small moments, captured so I don’t forget them.
The vast majority of the photos I take these days are of my daughter. I document her dutifully for a multitude of reasons: because she’s cute, because she grows so quickly, and because I know she’ll have few, if any, memories from this time.
I also take photos of her because she loves seeing them. “Pick-urs?” she asks, pointing to my phone. “Yes, we can look at pictures,” I reply.
She snuggles up in the crook of my arm as we scroll through the same old set of images. “Paint!” she shouts, seeing herself trying out watercolors for the first time. “Mama!” she says, pointing to a photo of me posing for the camera. “Beep beep!” she cheers, pushing her hand against an imaginary wheel, as she spots an image of herself in the grocery cart that’s shaped like a car.
She’s seen these photos a hundred times, and still, they bring joy.
These photos bring me joy, too. As counterintuitive as it may seem, taking photos helps me to stay in the present—signaling that this is a moment to remember. (Turns out, science backs this up.) Afterwards, looking through those photographs reminds me how beautiful everyday life can be.
Before I know it, my daughter’s memory will be sharper than mine. She’ll create long-lasting, life-shaping memories; remember moments with startling accuracy; and correct me when I recall things incorrectly. With time, she might get tired of looking at photos with me, or complain about how often I stop to document an experience.
But I’ll still do it. I hope to fill my camera roll for decades to come.
Over the past few years, I’ve become wary of my mind’s ability to remember things. So many parts of the pandemic have been a fog for me. And the pandemic, plus early parenthood? It’s a lot. When you add in the fact that this period was ushered in by postpartum psychosis, I feel especially unsure of my brain’s ability to recall things clearly. The fog can become so thick it obscures everything.
Sometimes, though, the fog clears. I see the world with a fresh perspective. I snuggle up to my little girl and revisit all the amazing things we’ve done together.
Life isn’t so bad after all. Photos remind me how beautiful it can be. Yes, there’s plenty to complain about. Yes, there’s always an opportunity to compare yourself to someone else and feel worse. But there’s just as much to celebrate about your own everyday experience. After all, we have books and blocks and beautiful places to walk. There are goats to feed, dinosaurs to learn about, and shopping carts that are shaped like cars.
Beep beep! These are the moments to remember. These are the things to celebrate. This is why we capture our lives.
p.s. Speaking of photos, My Sweet Dumb Brain is now on Instagram! Follow us for standout quotes from essays each week.
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