One swelteringly grey day this past August my friend Nathan and I took the ferry to the Toronto Islands for a picnic. After we’d spread his blanket out on the sand and set up the food and wine, I asked him if I could take a picture.
“Yeah, sure, why not?”
Then he did a double take and frowned at my phone.
“Wait. Why are you asking me if you can take a picture of the baguette and cheese you just bought?”
“Because I want to take a picture of you with the food.”
“Uh, sure? I guess? But don’t post it on Facebook.”
He knew, of course, that that was exactly what I wanted to do. Posting inane shit on social media is my jam. Still, I went along with it and pretended that the thought had never crossed my mind. I snapped the picture and immediately put my phone away, as if Facebook wasn’t even a thing I knew about. The photograph is still on my phone, in fact —I checked today while I was writing this. In it, Nathan is holding a paper cup of wine smirking his I-fucking-hate-having-my-picture-taken smirk. I can tell that he doesn’t understand why I feel the need to take or share this picture.
Later, when we were lying on the blanket staring across the water at the Toronto skyline, I snapped another picture. It’s sort of crooked, because I was trying to be stealthy about it. In it, along with one of my feet, a broad expanse of sky and the distant shore, you can see Nathan in profile.
“Can I post this one to Facebook?” I asked, handing him my phone.
“Oh fiiiiiiine,” he said (you have to imagine this exhaled in a long-suffering sigh — Nathan is very long-suffering). “You can’t see my face, so whatever. Knock yourself out.”
I posted it with the caption, “Weekday afternoon island picnic with Nathan, AKA I am spoiled.”
It’s one of hundreds of pictures on my Facebook profile — documenting and sharing my life is a thing that I do almost reflexively now, as do most of my peers. I post selfies, most of them artsy and pretentious. I post pictures of my kid, my husband, my friends, pictures of pretty places and pictures of trees that I find to be exceptionally lovely. When my sister and I met Jane Goodall I posted a picture of the three of us together, when we saw Chris Hadfield speak at a local bookstore, I snapped and posted a picture of him, too. I don’t post pictures of my food, but that’s only because I’m a terrible cook and most of what I produce is incredibly unappetizing. It’s not just photographs either — I chronicle my daily life in all kinds of ways, from short, pithy tweets to long, emotional journal entries picking apart all of my feelings in excruciating detail. I sometimes feel as if I spend half my life living it, and the other half documenting it as if something incredibly important depends on my ability to perfectly describe the exact shade of my friend Audra’s lipstick as we lounge one late-summer afternoon on the patio at Hurricane’s.
Why, though? I mean, why do any of this in general, and why take and subsequently post that picnic photograph in particular? Was I trying to make people jealous of the fact that my odd-ball work schedule means that I can take off in the middle of the day for an island adventure with a good-looking dude? Did I feel like my friends would be legitimately interested in this little slice-of-life? Was I trying to create a strange sort of public memory for myself?
Probably a bit of all three, if I’m being honest with myself, though the memory part is what stands out the most to me now. Looking at that photograph I remember how Nathan was in a bad mood that day, and how I was hoping the picnic would cheer him up. I remember how it started raining almost as soon as we disembarked from the ferry, and we ended up sitting under a tree drinking warm white wine while waiting for the storm to pass. I remember being upset about the rain, because I felt as if there was so much riding on the day beingperfect; I remember Nathan reassuring me that yes, he was having a very nice time in spite of the rain, and would I please stop worrying and try to enjoy the day as it was, rain and all. I remember that after the sky cleared we bushwhacked our way through the undergrowth on tiny Snake Island to get to my favourite beach, which we had all to ourselves that day. I remember the fire ants biting my legs, and I remember thinking that it was worth a few ant bites just to be lying there in hot sun with one of my favourite people. I remember drifting off to sleep listening to kids yelling and splashing in distant canoes. I remember the dreamy sound of the lake approaching and then retreating across the damp sand.
There’s been a lot of brouhaha over the past few years about how technology has changed our lives for the worse; I’ve heard more than a few whining complaints about selfies and pictures of food on Instagram all swaddled up in a that comfortably familiar blanket of worries about Kids These Days. Kids these days, with their inability to understand consequence and their disdain of privacy and their purported inability to make real-life connections with other people. There was yet another opinion piece on this subject in yesterday’s New York Times, this one specifically about pictures and social media and all the little ways we put our lives on hold in order to document them. In it, the author, Sherry Turkle, frets that we’re losing the ability to be in the moment and sit with our own thoughts — times of what she calls “uninterrupted reverie.” And, it’s like, she’s not wrong, you know? We do pause our lives to in order to record them, and we do share those recorded images or thoughts with the world at large. But this isn’t anything new — it’s part of what it means to be human, and it’s been happening for as long as there have been people, in one way or another.
We document our lives for all kinds of different reasons — because we find ourselves fascinating, because we’re trying to make sense of what’s happening to us, because we want to reach out to other people and ask them to tell us that we’re not, in the end, alone. We want to capture experiences that are by their very nature fleeting and somehow turn them into something permanent. We want some kind of touchstone that represents all the moments we’ll never have again, because by our very natures we are wanting, grasping creatures who can’t seem to accept that there are certain things that we can’t hold or keep. So we started painting on cave walls. We carved gorgeous bas-relief scenes into ancient monuments depicting mundane moments from every day life. We wrote about ourselves anywhere we could, using whatever materials were at hand. We tried to make sense of our short lives through images and words, because that’s what we do. That’s what people do.
That’s what I do, too. In fact, I sometimes I wonder if I don’t enjoy the memories of experiences more than the experiences themselves, and if that’s part of why I obsessively write, photograph and share the things, important or otherwise, that happen to me. It’s rare for me to completely lose myself in a moment; I’m always wondering what comes next, how things will end, whether the outcome of this seemingly-happy moment will, finally, be judged to be good or bad. I’m always picturing the scene through the camera’s lens, watching my hair tangle in the wind and the authentic-looking smile light up my face, as if comparing my life to a movie might help me figure out which direction it’s going to take. It’s only later, when viewed as a completed story, that the happiness of the situation becomes certain, no longer tainted by my doubt or anxiety. It’s only then that I breathe a sigh of relief and let myself feel wholly, perfectly good.
Or else sometimes an event is too big, too overwhelming as it’s happening, to allow me to feel anything as uncomplicated as happiness. Take, for example, the week-long trip to Paris that Matt and I took for our honeymoon. The we spent there wasn’t happy for me, exactly — it was too much a whirlwind of sights, sounds and smells that I was trying frantically to process and understand to be called anything as easy as happy or fun. To quote my friend Susan, everything in Paris is either delicious or beautiful or both, and I was desperate to see and eat as much of it as I possibly could in that short time. The main emotion that I remember from that trip is awe — awe and wonder at almost everything we saw and did, from standing atop the Eiffel Tower and looking out across the orderly jumble of grey buildings to using the funny toilet with the rotating, self-cleaning seat that we found in the little English tea house. Everything seemed incredible. It was only later, after our plane had touched down in Montreal and I’d given my mother and sisters the gifts I’d brought back for them and told the story of our trip over and over, that I was finally able process everything that had happened. It was only then that I had the chance to sit down, sort through the pictures I’d taken, and savour how very good the trip had been.
The photographs I took in Paris — even the photographs that I’d taken while feeling overwhelmed and anxious — helped shape the narrative of a storybook honeymoon. And while my memory tells me that this narrative may not be entirely accurate, it’s the one that I prefer to present to both myself and others as the truth. I also can’t help wondering if perhaps accuracy and truth aren’t really the same thing, after all — because while it’s accurate to say that I experienced moments of dismay, frustration, anger and fear during my honeymoon, I’m also speaking the truth when I say that it was perfect. Pictures that were taken under one set of circumstances might ultimately convey a different meaning, and somehow both ways of looking at the photograph are simultaneously correct. Images like the one below, taken from the top of Notre Dame, seem peaceful and romantic, even though at the time the height was making me dizzy, I was worried that they were suddenly going to start ringing the enormous thirteen-ton bell, and I felt shaken up after climbing the circular tower staircase, slippery after eight hundred years of use, behind an old Polish man with a bad limp who seemed likely to fall on Matt and I at any moment.
But when I see this picture I know that this moment, as frightening as it might have seemed at the time, was also unbelievably wonderful. And even if I didn’t feel particularly peaceful or romantic, the image itself is undoubtedly so. Both ways of looking at that picture are true.
We take pictures and write status updates and scrawl out journal entries because we’re trying to put together some kind of lasting story about our lives. And as much as these things might seem pointless or self-indulgent now, I suspect that someday, someone will be grateful for these records. In the same way that I love poring over old photographs, enjoying the ephemera in the background almost as much as the figures in the foreground, I’m sure that someday someone will squeal over the quaint adorableness of pictures of iPhones and Kindles. We make fun of people who Instagram their food, but I would give my eyeteeth to have similar photographs of meals from 50 or 60 years ago. Posterity of the mundane always seems slightly ridiculous at the time, but I’m willing to bet that our grandkids and great-grandkids won’t be disappointed that we took the time to pause our lives in order to document them.
It seems hardly fair, anyway, to think of it as “pausing” our lives, when the documentation itself has always been so much a part of how we live.