Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Living Life or Documenting It? Yes

One of my quirks is that I have a flat perception of time. I see things as they are now and forget that they were different before or may be different in the future. The season I'm in now will last forever. The age I am now is the age I've always been, and may or may not be my actual chronological age.

Of course that is a generalization. I know I wasn't always this age. I remember being a child, being single, having children in my house, all of those things. But all those times are still an integral part of me...I still am all those ages.

This is how it is, was, will be.

When I prepared to go to the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival a couple of weeks ago, I packed all the same rain ponchos that I have always packed and rarely needed. Rain was in the forecast.

On Friday at Stage 2, it began to rain. I had placed a rain poncho in my bag with Ben's name on it. Ben is 33. I got the poncho out of its bag and quickly realized that Ben owned this poncho when he was much much younger than 33. Maybe he owned it when he was eight. It was long enough that if I was sitting low to the ground on my Winfield chair I could just cover my knees with it. I could barely push my head through the neck opening. The tiny hood would definitely not fit. My straw hat took care of protecting my head.

How did I forget that an old rain poncho would likely have been purchased for a child?

For me the essence of Ben is the person I know now. He was always smart, thoughtful, funny, interested in details, a deep thinker. He still is. Size is peripheral in my perception of Ben. I can see it if I look for it, but I don't necessarily notice it. What I notice is that he is my son, that I enjoy him, that it would be fun to wear something he left behind. In some sense, when I am with Ben, I am with all the ages of Ben.

This evening I read a blog post from the On Being blog about capturing our lives in pictures for Facebook and Instagram. The writer talked about the value of having photographs of the memories. She wondered about the value of living out the experiences without withdrawing emotionally in order to snap and post pictures. What would happen if we chose to be completely present in the moment, and then let it pass without recording it?

It is a lot to think about.

If I want to remember what one of my children looked like at any given age, I have to remember a photograph that I have stored somewhere in a drawer or a hard drive. I don't need to see the photo. It is fixed in my memory. Laura at the age of six months is the sleepy baby just waking up with a smile, the warm yellow light from the morning sun on her face as she welcomed the day. Becca at one is reveling in a mud puddle as she escaped the grasp of my hand and quickly made for her favorite form of play that spring.  Ron at two is playing with a small red tractor on his high chair tray. James at five is wearing a new sweater and standing up straight in a Christmas program. Ben at four is holding a plastic snake and smiling a mischievous smile in a Colorado campground. Wes at two wears a navy shirt and smiles so hard it looks like it could hurt. Six or seven year old Tim flexes his biceps in front of my parents' house. Those are a few of the images.

I can't remember their faces without the photographs we took. I can remember words we spoke, feelings we experienced, the smell of my babies pressed up against my face, the feeling of small arms around my neck, the concern I felt when they were sick, the fear during emergency room visits, the wonder I experienced as I observed them develop skills and talents and interests.

That is true of Chuck as well. Sometimes I look at him and try to visualize what he looked like when we were dating. We have changed so much from 16 to 60. Except for the pictures we took, I would not be able to remember what he looked like when we were younger.

I can remember what my parents looked like even before I was born because of photographs. But my actual memories of them without photographs are primarily of conversations, emotions, events, locations. The faces are missing from the memories. What is most present to me is the essence of them, the reality of them, which comes from all of our relationship.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie, "Corina, Corina", about a father and a little girl coping with the death of their wife/mother. In the scene the little girl is frantic because she is losing the memory of what her mother looked like. Maybe that visual fades quickly for all of us, but we retain the essential memory of that person we love. In the movie, even at the end where they have moved beyond the depths of grief into joy again, they still retain the essence of the delight they had in their relationship with her.

So I wonder about this concern whether documenting our lives takes us too much out of the actual living of our lives.

Clearly the continuous documenting of our lives on facebook or instagram or twitter is a modern concept, but documenting our lives in other ways is not modern. There are prehistoric paintings in caves. As soon as there was written language, there were also historians. Before written language there were oral histories. It is human to document our lives, to believe in the significance of events, to hope to enjoy memories, and to strive to learn from mistakes.

Some people do most of their documenting through pictures. Scrapbooks also often add words and descriptions to fill out memories. I'm glad for the friends and relatives who do this. I'm so grateful for the photographs and memories.

Writing in my journals is probably my most common form of documenting life. If I open one from years ago, the intensity of the emotions of those days is instantly accessible. My writing is less a record of events and more an attempt to make sense of them. I don't know when it rained, or when we started harvest in any given year. I do know some of the things I pondered. My anger with God as well as my amazement at God are both well represented as I worked to understand God's workings in my life. Present also are more mundane and unworthy rants and drivel. My journals are proof of both my desire for God and my ability to fall so very short of who I wish to be.

Unfortunately, journals are much less shareable than photographs, because the content is so raw and personal. Ann Morrow Lindbergh chose to edit her journals and collections of correspondence so that they could be shared. I won't be doing that.

I think we are created with a need for our stories. We are created in the image of God, who also documented, or led people to document God's actions in the world, complete with stories and poetry and correspondence. Maybe documenting isn't stepping away from life as much as it is just another part of life.

The trick is to balance. We must live fully our parts of the story, and also document it in our own ways. There is no balance that is the same for everyone.