OTHER WAYS OF REMEMBERING - Elisabeth Ivey
There are times the body demands movement and the mind must listen. Like when the pitter patter of someone’s palms slapping a drum send an invitation to the joints and muscles that know the language of rhythm. One afternoon in Thailand, my body stirred me outdoors and onto a bike. After a full day of academic lectures, muscles coiling tighter with each hour we spent just sitting, setting my feet on pedals felt like the physical trigger that would release my mental tension. I spoke to no one as I flew from the class room, feet crunching on the pebbles while I walked towards the stairs and up to the fourth floor to change my clothes. I notified no one of my plan as though the release of whatever was inside me couldn’t be wasted on spare words. Descending, I surveyed the row of bikes clustered by the staircase, each standing upright but not looking much more promising than that. Tires wilted, cobwebs clinging to the handlebars, they were a motley crew from among which I selected the strongest. Grabbing it, I mounted and rode away as that tension unwound from me in the wind I left in my wake.
All that day, the sun had waged against us, a small group of students and our lecturers sequestered in a classroom. Even in our shelter of the house, the heat found ways to saturate me in a way that enticed sweat from my pores before I fully noticed the scorching air around me. Even with the barest of movements – an arm drifting back and forth as my hands inscribed notes – by the end of class, I still felt like I’d emerged from an intense workout. Yet, when I actually moved my body, urging my legs to pump the bike forward, the sun could not daunt me. More exposed than I’d been before, I basked in the freedom of the Thai countryside even if it also meant the sweat poured from me more freely.
I pushed my way up the winding inlet and out onto the street, making a turn right before the corner store and down a country road that always framed the setting sun at the end of the day. It didn’t take long before I came upon a field. The road narrowed into a bridge that had looked out upon dirt in the beginning of the semester. Now, I looked out on grass that I could guess contained rice. I slowed and pulled to the shoulder. In response to these glimpses of beauty I saw, my fingers wanted to reach for my phone without any conscious prompting. As I passed houses or people on the road who would acknowledge me with a smile or head nod or some such gesture, I wished for a camera. And I dwelled again on what I’d been noticing since the beginning of my trip to Thailand: that there was an instinct in me to capture what I found interesting, intriguing, beautiful.
This tendency wasn’t new. I grew up coaxing the curious creatures, roly-polies, into containers of dirt I’d constructed for them. Once, I even caught a worm and made it my pet. When I see someone whose outfit I admire, I’m likely to ask where the person got it as if I can bound off and procure one of my own. Just as it is not new, the yearning to feel, to know, and to hold what intrigues isn’t limited to me but is as universal as a baby whose tiny fists open and close to grasp a shiny toy held in front of their faces. As I pedaled on and came to a field of sunflowers, I knew the vibrant petals with their dark faces were no mere shiny toy. But I found some part of me reaching out and grasping just as if I had been a baby, perplexed by the unknown, yet wanting to hold it with me forever.
I suppose that’s why I wanted my camera. Because with an adequate lens and a couple gigabytes, we can contain the mysteries our minds cannot solve or hold firmly in the moment. The camera yields a concrete mold into which we pour our abstract emotions. The close portrait of a face reveals the pores and wrinkles of humanity that traipse across the skin of every person. The head thrown back in laughter reminds us that joy still exists. The tears that gather in the eyes of a groom when he first catches a glimpse of his love, provide the same reminder about love. And perhaps awe. I knew this as I passed an alleyway down which I could see children dancing around and laughing. I recall that moment with uncertainty, though, because I refused to take a photo to remember the joy I witnessed. With a resolve I have yet to decide is self-righteous or pure, I did not want to take any photos that day. I did not want to pluck a bit of life from the world and set it alongside the other treasures I kept in my phone’s memory space. I wanted to revert to the lenses I already had and train my mind to inscribe the photo and feeling into my own memory. Yet as I write, I cannot picture how many children played around. I cannot hear any of their laughter. I find myself questioning every detail like the countless times I wonder if what exists in my mind comes from dream or memory.
And that, I imagine, is why we have cameras. Because the strain of remembering negates the fulfillment of what the memory is supposed to provide: re-experience. Long before the brain begins deteriorating with old age, most of us will find ourselves questioning where we just laid the keys a moment ago or if we responded to that message. How, then, can we be trusted to document that moment when a child blows out the candles of her first birthday cake or when she dances in her last recital? No wonder photographers get paid so much for the wedding gigs because on what’s claimed to be a couple’s happiest day, the brain should not receive the highest responsibility of reserving evidence of happiness to be inspected later.
And so, we take selfies. We post about the first bowl of spaghetti made in the new apartment on August 31, 2016. But we don’t document only for ourselves. We make comments about how we’ve lost the ability to enjoy what’s happening in the moment even as we send snaps of a concert to our friends. Perhaps that sentiment is true.
I grappled with the thought as I urged my bike onward, taking a turn past a church and riding beneath a row of trees that lined the road. Perhaps I had gotten so caught up in conveying my trip to others, when I could use that energy to heighten my senses as I took everything in around me. I suppose the ride that day was as much to ease my tension as it was to test a theory. In part, it worked. I can still recall that this bike ride happened, some several weeks after it did, but my brain cannot recall the minutiae that could recreate the experience for me like a photo could.
We have forgotten that there are other ways to remember. Of course, that’s a romantic notion. I can train my eyes on the trees in the field, counting how many ovular papaya fruits dangle beneath its leaves, yet forget it the moment the wheels of my bike keep moving. I can learn about Marxism many times, as indeed I have, yet forget exactly what it means, as again I have done. Even if I could recall facts and details about what I’d seen and learned, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t come out as much more than trivia. I remember meeting a woman in Thailand whose face had high cheekbones. She smiled widely, and her hair had been pulled up out of her face. But in that recollection, I revealed nothing of the pure joy that emanated from her as she welcomed our group into her home. No wonder, then, that we rely on our cameras to capture what our minds no longer can.
Still, I wonder if even the camera can satisfy that craving within us. As much as a picture can help us recall the feelings of a moment, we are bound to time and thus doomed to never fully re-experience it. We take selfies, anyway. Because a resilience or stubbornness pushes us to persist in capturing what we feel to store up for later times. The camera has aided our efforts. There are more we could try, though. When grappling with the dilemma between taking photos of people or not out of respect, one of my professors shared insight with me. She told me that I could paint portraits with my writing in the times that snapping a photo would be inappropriate. Words enabled me to describe the serene planes of a man’s face when I didn’t want to make him feel like a tourist attraction.
We can write. We can paint. We can speak to each other of the experiences in our lives that will cling to us even as we move on and have more. These methods and more may require greater focus and time than we possess or are willing to spare. And in the end, they may create a depiction even hazier than the photo we can snap in an instant.
We know that these approaches have their shortcomings, yet we can use them all to piece together a depiction of the human life akin to the blended, blurred, yet brilliant images of the Impressionism movement. These paintings lack sharpness. The lines are less clear. The images, missing the edges of a more defined replica, are the visual equivalent of memory, creating an entirely new entity, one imbued with the essence and emotion of the original image. To remember in a similar way requires labor and trust. It requires that we slow down and focus, acknowledging the beauty in life without clinging to it, trusting that we’ll encounter it again.
Elisabeth Ivey has contributed to The Odyssey and Messiah College’s The Swinging Bridge as well as presented research on representation in youth literature at the PA NAME and IMAGINE Social Good conferences. When she’s not writing, Elisabeth can be found daydreaming or reading another YA novel, which she will never outgrow. https://elisadawnivey.wordpress.com/