Monday, June 22, 2009

The Cruel Shutter

The more time goes by, the more I realize that memory might not be all I think it is.

Memory is supposed to be a recording, sortof, of things that a person has experienced in the past. But memory it tricky. People remember smells and sounds better than sights or events. I have an excellent memory, but I have come to realize that I have "remembered" things that didn't happen. How can that be?

If it is a very old memory, usually it's the memory of a physical place. I like to walk in the houses of my childhood in my memory, and also in my dreams. Schools, paths, buildings, I walk in my mind's eye. I try to remember the little details: weeds growing along the train tracks, items on a table or desk. I try to perfectly reproduce a place in my mind. Of course, in a dream, the proportions, layout and other important details are often altered or even completely different altogether. Yet I know that place. I am rememorizing the places, perhaps, in an attemt to keep them.

So why should I be surprised that my memory of my own face should be any different? We live in what we know, not what we see. I first noticed this when taking a dance class a few years ago. At one point, I looked up and couldn't pick myself out of all the dancers in the mirror. I was for a moment confused, and then realized that it wasn't that I wasn't there, I simply didn't look as I expected myself to look. In this case, I was surprised and quite disappointed in what I saw there.

Age changes everyone. Everyone gets their own special set of "old" gifts. In the case above, what had changed was not only my size, but the way I moved. I was disappointed to find that I was not as graceful or muscular as I'd imagined. As my memory had led me to believe. Was I ever? Was the dancer I remembered from days-gone-by real or imagined?

There is a festival I attend every year in Davis, California, The Whole Earth Festival. It's been amazingly great some years, merely a way to pass the weekend in other years. But increasingly, it's become the time and place to meet old friends long lost. I never know what faces from the past I will see, but there are many I expect to find.

This past year, I saw an old friend who is usually there. He and I had recently become "friends" on Facebook. He remarked that he was very glad to see that I looked better than my profile picture. He recommended that I take it down, calling it "unflattering." He really didn't like that picture at all! In particular, it sounded like he thought it made me look fatter than I really am. I dunno, I think it makes me look exactly as fat as I am. In fact, I thought I looked pretty good that day. But it's a profile picture. It really shows the shape my face is becoming as I age. Our profiles change dramatically as our faces succumb to gravity.

My friend has known me since I was 15 years old. In his memory, I may still be 15. Though he has seen me many times since, and even fairly recently, perhaps he was disappointed that I had changed. I wasn't in any way insulted by his comment - in fact, it felt good to know that he remembered me better than that picture. He felt that, even as I stood there in front of him, I looked better than that picture.

A photograph is an instant in time. That split-second when the shutter opens and captures whatever is there for it to see. In motion, animated and alive, people are different than their pictures. In a painting, the artist may imbue the picture with feeling, color and shape that he imagines. The artist may paint the whole picture if he is skilled. But the shutter is cruel. It takes only a slice. Sometimes what we receive is a remarkably good slice. We can even make it better by manipulating the photograph afterward, if we wish. Sometimes, the slice we receive is a remarkably bad slice - even looking nothing like the subject. Or we perceive it as looking nothing like the subject.

For how can the camera lie?

Like our memory, it doesn't tell the whole story. It's only a slice, not the multilayered reality of that moment. People are living, moving, breathing things, and our shapes change as we pass in and out of moments.

I've noticed that, since I had children, most of the pictures are of them. Since I, like most mothers, am holding the camera, there are few pictures of me. Additionally, if the pictures are unflattering (as they increasingly are!), then I'm less tempted to put them where they will be seen, preferring to offer photographs of my darling children instead. Youth is nearly always beautiful.

But will mothers be erased? Will the record of our lives skip from college party to obituary? Should we hide the true selves that we are - old, flawed, overweight, grey? At what point did we decide that those things are too ugly to photograph? I have the ability to erase every wrinkle from every photo before I show it to anyone. But that isn't genuine. Shouldn't there be a record of our genuine selves? Or are we hoping that the memories of us will remain youthful and those who love us remember us as we were? Can we overcome our fear of seeing ourselves as we truly are?

Someone told me once that the older we get, the more important it is to have those people around us who remember us when we were young. We treasure our siblings, for our shared memories. We treasure our high school and college friends - for they remember us as we remember ourselves. Young, vibrant, smart, strong. My dear friend has also changed with time. But when I look at him, of course I see the younger version. He's a good-looking man, even the older version. But he looks different. Not the way I remember. I am grateful for his memory of me as better-looking than Medusa up there. ("Was it the hair?" I asked.)

Photographs don't lie. Memories do. But I like my memories. I live in my memories.

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