I have recently undertaken a project that is taking me much longer to complete than expected. It’s not a writing project, although I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about once it’s finished. This project concerns pictures. Roughly a thousand, give or take. I haven’t counted. I don’t want to count.
These pictures are images of myself, my past, my family, ghosts of relatives I knew, and some I didn’t. Some I met many times, others not once. Many are of my mother and father, but then there are pictures of trees, houses, apartment complexes, dogs I’ve never seen or heard of, even elephants. There are pictures of emus, too. From 1970. Yes, you heard that right. There are pictures of emus from 1970.
What am I supposed to do with these? That is the exact question I’ve been asking myself now for days. I’ve managed to put together 300 or so pictures of myself and family: 150 of my mother and I, and 150 of my family from both sides of the tree.
When I started this project over a week ago, I began by throwing pictures out. My father is a retired pilot, see, and he did this thing all my life (he also did this long before my life began, as evidenced by pictures from the 70s) where he would take pictures of things and not people. I unfortunately inherited the habit from him, though as I’ve gotten older I think I’ve gotten better about it. I still love to take pictures of mountains, flowers and clouds, don’t get me wrong, but these days I’ve seen the crucial value in capturing moments with those I care about. That value vastly exceeds the meaning gleaned from looking back on pictures of things, and not people.
So I began by throwing pictures out. I threw away probably 20-30 pictures of clouds my father had taken while in the air at some random point. I threw away pictures of rock formations from a trip we took as a family to Tennessee. I threw away pictures of things I’d never seen, couldn’t remember seeing, and don’t really want to see. All I want to see are pictures of people who I once loved or who once loved me in return.
After the initial purge, I gave it a rest. It occurred to me that in my frustration to try to organize literally a thousand memories into some kind of reconcilable and acceptable mass, that I might be getting a bit hasty by throwing away pictures of anything.
After a few days, and after accepting the fact that if I wanted to throw away pictures, I could damn well do it, and there was nothing wrong with doing that, I just better make very sure I didn’t want them some day down the road, I came back to the pile. And it did seem more manageable, if not for the slight reduction in size, however small, then for the fact that I was now OK with something I had struggled with for years. I had seen those pictures of clouds many times over the years, and ignored them, pawing through the pile for more pictures of my mother. And it had always bothered me. I was suddenly setting myself a little bit free.
This quest for freedom continues. There is a glimmer of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. The mess is becoming more and more organized by the day. But the toll it’s taking on my psyche is starting to pile up. It’s occurring to me that I am exchanging one pile for another, whittling one down while building a more complex, and possibly more self-destructive pile in another realm, the other realm being in my head. This is disconcerting to say the least.
Looking at all of these pictures, reliving events that I want to remember and some I don’t, absorbing meaning from things that happened decades before I was born, looking at pictures of my grandparents before my mother was even conceived, seeing pictures of my parents in love, something that I forgot had even existed: all of this takes an unavoidable toll. And my goal is to let it do just that: to take its toll. Let the grief have its way for once. I will not hide my face in shame for feeling sad or for grieving losses I never had the chance to grieve before. And I have many, many losses to grieve.
This pile of pictures has been something I’ve carried around with me from apartment to storage unit to house for many years. I’ve added to it, certainly, as the last ten years or so there have been many pictures taken of myself and my friends (my friends have been more like a family to me than anyone else since my mother passed away), but the biggest challenge (and arguably what’s enabled me to procrastinate organizing it the most) is the fact that I get so wrapped up in the emotion of all of these pictures that every time I look at them, I fail miserably at organizing them in any coherent way.
Progress is being made, though, despite all my deflating talk. And this is helping me see that progress is NOT linear. It’s messy, it’s emotional, and it’s even frustrating. The unconscious desire to back-slide into old habits of blind depression and withdrawal are strong. But the human being inside who is struggling to free herself from decades of painful repression and bad emotional habits cannot look away from the light. It’s beautiful, to say the very least.
Even pain and grief can be beautiful.