Saturday, April 16, 2016

The big in-between

When I first started traveling solo, I didn’t have a camera and didn’t bother bringing my phone, so there is almost no record of those journeys other than the stamps in my passport (and I’ve since gotten a new passport). Barcelona, Benidorm, Riga, Budapest, all just fuzzy memories and race medals, since of course I went to those places to run. At one point my friends insisted I get a camera, arguing that it was my duty to those living vicariously through me to photograph and disseminate these jaunts. Think of those less fortunate souls lacking time and money (and only running when chased) who would never get to do a half marathon in Latvia! Think of them and take some damned pictures! I caved and bought a cheap digital camera, and while I’m still not actually in any of the pictures I took with this camera—it wasn’t a phone, after all, and the selfie-stick hadn’t been invented yet (probably would have sounded like something vaguely dirty back then)—at least I did manage to get that waterfall in Iceland everyone else on the bus got, so as not to feel like a complete loser.

I don’t look at these pictures very often any more, but I will admit that at the time, it was nice to be able to share them. I looked forward to it, even, and I enjoyed the “likes” and the appreciative comments when I posted them on facebook. Funny thing about that, though: some of the best pictures I took, showing some of the most amazing places I’ve seen, happened when I was actively plunging into the darkest part of my life. The camera doesn’t capture any of the fall itself, but hey, at least the view going down was spectacular. The photos, I knew, even as I took them, were a lie, glittery and enticing like the best lies always are. They told people what I was seeing, but I myself was not in them at all.

This is not anything surprising. Every day of our lives we choose how we’re going to represent ourselves—we do it even to ourselves, in our own heads. When you say “this is who I am,” you aren’t stating a fact; you’re making a choice. That choice may be a positive, helpful thing that allows you to focus on the good in your life; it might also be a myopic one that conveniently allows you to ignore everything that doesn’t fit the image you have of yourself. Likewise, no matter how much we try to live-Tweet our existence, most people are well aware that what we post is only going to be a highly selective representation of what’s actually happening to us. That’s right, no matter how much we disdain the person who seems unable to eat, sleep, shit, or so much as breathe without posting about it, there are vast, complex, unfathomable human beings behind what we are being asked to “like.”

You know that thing cranky people say, “You’d stop worrying so much about people talking about you when you realize how seldom they do?” Yeah, I hate that saying. Not only is it one of those sayings that hides meanness behind a façade of wisdom, not only is it unduly critical of a natural human reaction, but most of all it misses the point completely. The precise reason we worry about people talking about us is because they do it so infrequently. If you’re being ignored, it’s easy to make people notice you; if you can make noise—and we are born making noise, almost before we can breathe—you can get attention. What’s a whole lot harder, though, is to make people see beyond the superficial. People decide, she is X, he is Y, and you, you are most certainly Z, and that’s it, there’s nothing past Z. You certainly can’t expect folks to invent a whole new alphabet just for your sake. You’re Z and that’s all that needs to be said.

And in truth, much of the time we don’t need people to see beyond the superficial. There is, oddly enough, an honesty about surfaces. Yes, the pictures I took of my trip to Reykjavik don’t even hint at the mess my mind was at the time, but why should they? The point was to get away from the mess, for at least a little while, by looking at something else—a mountain, a beach, a waterfall. If even I didn’t want to face the mess, why on earth would I expect anyone else to? Plus whenever we try to go beyond the superficial, the results are simply a different kind of artifice. It’s interesting how “awkward” has become such a huge social phenomenon. Why would anyone want to look at “awkward” pictures when that’s exactly what we try to avoid when we take pictures in the first place? But that is why we look at them. Awkward means anything that refuses to conform to the image we have of how things should be. In other words, awkward means real—or does it? Perhaps awkward simply means admitting the lie rather than revealing the truth, which remains ever elusive.

I say all of this because I find myself today, the day of a good friend’s wedding, musing over the fact that one of the biggest events of my own life is coming up in two months and I’ve hardly said anything about it. What’s more, I don’t particularly feel compelled to do otherwise. We have one engagement picture, taken by a stranger with the fiancé’s phone, and that’s pretty much it. I enjoy seeing the photos and posts of my friends who are getting married, having babies, buying new houses, traveling the world. I’m happy for them, and I hope they are at least as happy as their posts suggest, though what they’re really feeling is likely far more complex and mercurial. I don’t begrudge anyone a post, a tweet, or a selfie, on any subject their heart desires. The act of taking a photograph, or writing a blog post, or anything else that is created and shared, is of course an act of hope, because it assumes that we—or someone, at least—will experience the creation again at some point in the future.

I guess, though—and this is a strange admission coming from a writer—I’m at a point where I’m more interested in the things we don’t represent about our lives. Not all of these things are interesting or beautiful, but they don’t have to be. The thing about undertaking something that’s new and different for you—regardless of how anyone else sees it—is that it’s an adventure. Yes, there will be a beautiful picture of a waterfall when you travel to Iceland alone, but there will be so much more that isn’t so easy to capture or comprehend. Likewise, when you decide not to travel solo any more, you will almost certainly want at least some record of the event so you can treasure it in the days to come. But there’s an awful lot that happens in between making new memories and treasuring old ones. As near as I can describe it, that’s kind of what life is, the big in-between, which is not nearly as poetic as Shakespeare’s little life rounded with a sleep. Regardless, on we go through it, for better or worse, alone or together, recorded, retweeted, reposted, or otherwise.

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