A very strange thing happened at our family Seder, which included 14 people ranging in age from 12 to 94.
No one took a photograph.
It’s not that the group is anti-technology. The five under 30 are all very social media savvy and four of the Baby Boomers routinely post photos of events on Facebook. My wife Kathy and I had discussed taking photos and posting them for other family members earlier in the day.
We were enjoying the moment of being together so much that we forgot to make a record of the event.
Maybe we’ll regret it one day, but right now I feel pretty good about not only living fully in the moment, but also inhabiting the moment with other people about whom I care. This particular group of people comprises a complicated network of special relationships, some intergenerational, between cousins, uncles/aunts and nephews/nieces, parents and children. Moreover, many circumstances lent poignancy to the evening.
Take into account the overwhelming emotional wave that Jews ride when celebrating Passover—our holiday of freedom—and you can imagine how the moment of being together could captivate us to such a point that no one remembered to pull out the smartphone or electronic camera and snap a few.
The concept of memory is a complicated one. No matter how impressive one’s powers of visual, emotional, tactile and sensational memory may be, our memory distorts events. The further away an event is in time, the more likely we are to think of it in terms of words and images, and not what actually happened. Taking a photograph may help to freeze the memory—simplify it to nothing but the photo and/or a few random word images. The memory acquires gloss and is homogenized.
The upside is that the simplification helps us remember, and makes us creatures with enduring consciousness, not just consciousness of now. On the other hand it distorts. St. Augustine hinted at this distortion when he wrote that there are only three types of time: ”the past in the present,” “the present in the present” and “the future in the present.” Proust wrote and now Karl Ove Knausgård is writing thousands of pages trying to recapture the past in a fictional form using nothing but words. Robert Caro has spent thousands of words describing just the external life of Lyndon Baines Johnson and he hasn’t even started writing about Viet Nam yet! On a less sophisticated level is the person who documents every meal and event with 10-12 photographs that she/he immediately posts on Facebook and Twitter.
The creation of the artificial constructs we aggregate and call memory can impinge on the actual event. Think of how the bridal party leaving the reception just when it’s beginning for two hours to take photographs disjoints contemporary weddings. Most of us have seen people at museums who go around snapping shots of every work of art and never seem to look at anything directly. Snapping photos of food or asking people to stop talking for a minute to pose intrude on the experience. It’s as if the recording of the memory becomes more important than the experience itself. We get to the point that the photo validates the event. Without the photo, nothing “real” has occurred.
The mass media reinforces this predilection to place memory over experience. Just think of how many advertisements for cruises, amusement parks, airlines, state tourist boards, sports teams and holiday gifts, food and decorations have as their basic message “make a memory” (as opposed to “experience something special”).
On the other hand…from the late ‘40s through the mid-‘60s an uncle who married into the other side of my family took silent super eight films of all family events. I remember my mother and father and all my aunts and uncles joking about him. His camera antics made him a buffoon in the eyes of much of the family. But what a difference a few decades make! Those few who survive cherish the electronic transcriptions of the filmed images, now set to sentimental piano music. It is haunting to see your deceased parents dancing and watch your father’s lips mumble counted steps, like you remember him doing.
Thus it may be worth the small sacrifice of the present entailed in picture-taking to facilitate the future’s memory of the past.
The question, then, is: Do we live in the present or do we live in the past? And let’s not forget about the time we may live in the future, anticipating what will happen after graduation, on vacation or next time one sees a beloved, or saving money, or denying oneself something in the present for something in the future? Augustine suggested we live in all three states of being simultaneously, formed by the past and moving towards the future, but all of life experienced only as now.
Will one of us someday feel sorry no photo was taken at the Seder last Friday? I bet several of us have already noted it with some regret. But I hope none of us feels bad about it. The lack of photo attests to the heightened experience we enjoyed. Would all of life be so joyful perhaps we would have no need to remember?
I grappled with some of these issues a few years back in a poem, still unpublished, titled “The Best of Times.” In reading it, keep in mind that the characters and the scene are pure fabrications of my lame imagination and based on no specific persons. Hopefully you recognize the “reality” of one or more of them in people you know, and more importantly relate to the situation and the way it reverberates both backwards and forwards in our mind’s time, which is really the only time that each of us knows:
THE BEST OF TIMES
Black-bean spare ribs, tangy cabbage salad
celebrate a high school graduation.
Silent dread invades me as I think
that this will be the final family time
for one of us: aunt and uncle in their eighties,
another uncle soon retiring from a stressful job,
sickly sister, secret addict, cousins overweight:
there are just too many here today
and a single marching time, always forward
into dark unknowns for all of us, one by one,
and all the ones who come after,
and all the ones who come after that.
Though one by one we die alone,
tonight we gnaw on bones together,
banter cherished stories heard before
and we want to hear again,
stories in stories of whistling past shadows,
swinging at the short end of a long rope,
kinfolk no one’s met in whorling waters,
huddled over steamy bowls of hope,
the best of times reduced to anecdote
or ancient bas-relief, tableaux emerging
from a plaster that is life itself, being lived,
every moment, even as it hardens into past.