Maybe it’s all the talk this week on Twitter about eternity, or Eoin’s musings on change, but it’s gotten me thinking about time, and how we attempt to capture perfect moments.
I have a truly dreadful memory. Short-term it’s not too bad: I can remember your name and your personal history. But I am useless with the semi-distant or distant past. People tell me stories from school or college in which I play a starring role and I can’t remember anything they’re describing. One close friend once described to me in detail a series of original jokes that I told to a group of rapt friends in primary school one lunch-time while they laughed hysterically. I do not recall anything like this ever happening! It can be kind of depressing. Memory is an elusive thing. It’s no wonder we try to imprison important moments and keep them safe for revisiting in our minds.
When I was eleven years old I was given my first pair of glasses and told that my need for them would diminish as my eyes finished developing. Unfortunately the prescription was wrong and it irreparably damaged my eyes. My eyesight as a result has gotten worse with every passing year. I also have a stigmatism in both eyes and have been advised against using contact lenses. As a result I have always felt that I view the world through a window. When I take my glasses off at the top of a mountain or by the sea, everything becomes immediately unfocused. When I put them back on the focus of course returns, but I am behind a glass screen again again. I sometimes feel a little alienated from my experiences because of this. Cameras never help. Every photograph I take is like a picture through a window through a window. Sometimes I feel like this, combined with my poor memory, leave me doomed to forget everything good. It is also possible to ruin a perfectly lovely moment by trying to capture it. The attempt of capturing interrupts the moment. And yet we want to hold on to it somehow.
I am a naturally nostalgic person. I read comforting books over and over. I watch my favourite programmes over and over. There is an episode of the Royle Family where Denise goes into labour with her first child and has a little meltdown on the bathroom floor while waiting for the taxi to arrive to take her to the hospital. Her dad, Jim, sits down next to her and reassures her that there’s nothing to it and, in a rare moment of honesty, reveals to her how her birth had made him feel. I watch that episode at least twice a year, and I weep every time. It is such a perfect episode. I allow myself to re-live the joy and the humour and the beauty and the pain over and over. I think it might be linked a little to anxiety. If you’re anxious, you naturally gravitate towards the things that ease the anxiety, rather than risking something that might trigger it. It’s a fool’s game, really.
Sometimes a smell can transport me back someplace in a heartbeat. That can be quite shocking actually. You’re walking past a shop and suddenly you’re seven again. Or, you pass the perfume shop and you smell a certain aftershave and in an instant you’re with your first boyfriend again. The smell of motor oil reminds me of my father.
The prisoners I work with are trapped in their memories; the good and the bad. This profoundly affects their present, as you can imagine. One of the men I see regularly is getting one re-socialization day release per month right now, in preparation for his permanent release. He describes these days to me in minute detail, from the moment he wakes and leaves the prison to the moment he returns. He dwells firmly in those days in the 29 or 30 prison-days between releases. The thoughts of them literally fuel his survival.
Charlie Brooker released a trio of short movies last year called Black Mirror. Episode 3 was called An Entire History of You and depicts an alternate reality where all citizens have a chip implanted in their bodies that records every moment of their lived experience – everything they see, hear and do. Memories can be played back in what’s called a “re-do”, either in front of the eyes or on a screen. It’s a scary little dystopian fantasy on the dangers of memory that speaks to our obsession as a culture with documenting everything. A few months ago I was with a few friends in our local having a few beers on a Saturday night. We’re a low-key gang; not a pair of stilettos (or a pair of chinos for that matter) in sight. A group of glammed-up young women sat at the table next to us and spent the next couple of hours snapping photo after photo of themselves. There was no conversation to speak of; no laughter. Just lots and lots of time with their arms round each other, giving dazzling smiles to the camera, and the occasional trip to the bar or toilets. What they seemed to be failing to do in all this recording and documenting was have a great time together. This was no attempt to capture a beautiful moment. It was an attempt to create an illusion of a fantastic night out – probably more for themselves than for anyone else. We’re all familiar with this phenomenon. How does it shape us – how does it shape our futures – when we fiddle with our present for the sake of looking back?
There is a lot to be said for living in the moment. After all, this moment is all we’ve got. But where does the moment belong once it’s gone, and what moment is coming? If anyone figures out how it’s done, do send me a Tweet…