We’ll collect the moments one by one
I guess that’s how the future’s done — Leslie Fiest
A while back a friend of mine who I hadn’t spoken to in quite a while rang me up. At some point we got to talking of age and memory and time. We were speaking of time passing, of the curious moment we both find ourselves in now — trying to adjust to what I at least can safely call the middle of my life — certainly no longer the beginning. And then my friend said, “remember me as I was when you met me.”
I laughed. Now the time my friend refers to, when we met, I would have been twenty-five or twenty-six. Personally I would just as soon forget nearly anything and everything I did when I was twenty-five as I’m sure it was largely ridiculous and immature. For that matter I should probably forget what I did yesterday as I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a whole lot better.
I don’t know if I’m just overly paranoid but when I call up memories in the dark hours of the Beaujolais-soaked pre-dawn, I get mainly a collection of mildly amusing, occasionally painful series of embarrassments, misunderstandings and general wrong-place wrong-time sort of moments.
Which isn’t to imply that my life is a British sitcom, just that I’m not in a hurry to re-live any of it. And I don’t think my friend is either. No my friend was not expressing a desire to rewind as it were, but rather acknowledging that since we rarely see each other these days we must necessarily exist mainly as memories.
There’s an inevitable sadness to that realization.
A few days later I was testing a piece of photo software for my day job at Wired and I happened to run across an image from roughly that time of my life. I don’t know for sure if it’s the oldest picture I have, but I’ve always thought of it as the first picture I took of my friend.
There was a strange disconnect though, as I stared at my friend’s image and my own frozen in pixels. For all we like to think that photograph’s record, they don’t. Kodak was wrong, photographs don’t capture memories they just provide thin little links to them; time passes and memory continues to add impressions and in the end what you have is just one piece of a collage of memories which, taken out of context, as a photograph must be, becomes a distortion, something you no longer recognize as your friend.
The image in question has a strange yellow glow, distorted toward orange by the blunt sensor of the old Canon, I know the lamb’s wool sweater my friend is wearing is pale minty green but in the picture it looks almost ochre, the walls seem to have been lifted from some smoke stained Parisian bar, my friend and I are slightly out of focus, my jittery arm extends away from my side, but our smiles are not forced.
Slowly, after staring at the picture for a while, my attention drifted away and other un-photographed moments arose, my own green sweater, darker than my friend’s, wet from dripping awnings as I walked in the rain one night in Vienna, the crystal chandelier in the cafe, sausage and purple cabbage on white china plates. And then to another memory driving across central Utah, the roads winding on narrow fluted mesa tops, the rough hewn wood planks of a tiny general store where I once bought steak and potatoes, the forest campground where the smell of steak sizzled over flames filled my lungs and in the fading light of a sun disappearing over the Wasatch mountains I took another photograph, which is on this very page, the eyeball in the tree that continues to haunt me.
At perhaps the simplest level remembering is merely reconstructing the past in the present, but there is no continuous motion of memory through time as there is in the present, we do not recall events in the order they happened, but rather by the things that link them. Memories stack up at crazy angles like a card house that topples before the pinnacle is reached, the final card laid, the final card lies forever out of reach, beyond tomorrow.
In many ways time has nothing to do with memory, save to act as a marker. Time is the space between memories, it lives in the shadows, runs down between and fills the cracks.
When we do try to introduce time into our memories we often have to stop and think — now when did that happen? The memory, the reconstruction of the past in the present happens unaided but it often bounces here and there joining with other memories linked by smell, taste, sound and more, but almost never by time. Placing a memory at a specific moment in time rarely comes as easily, we rely on context, the shirt you’re wearing, the hat your friend has on or maybe the length of your hair.
Perhaps we let time slip from memory because it isn’t necessary, perhaps time only matters in the present. But even then we do our best to ignore it. Our escape from time, the trick we use to ignore its passage on the average day is that it moves just slow enough that we don’t notice it except in larger chunks.
I recently came across someone who subverted that though. Imagine your life displayed in a time lapse film. The very thought of it is intimidating, almost unimaginable. Well have a look at Noah Kalina’s YouTube montage (embedded below). For six years Noah took a picture of himself every day. Personally I find Noah’s video collage to be one of the most beautiful and truly frightening things I’ve ever seen, which probably explains why it’s one of the most watched movies on YouTube.
Each photograph on its own is mundane, hardly worth comment, but in rapid succession they stitch together and form a thread of time moving through life, and even though we watch Noah pass through six years in three minutes, as you watch his face becomes after a while only a thin veil between our own reflection in the screen and time screaming past.
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