Between Photographs, or Remembering a Time When There Was Magic in the World


Driving down Constitution Avenue after seeing Sarah Silverman at the Warner Theatre made me a bit nostalgic. As we passed the statue of Einstein, I told my friend about this one time…

I was working on campus over the summer, scooping ice cream and cleaning dorm rooms. The ice cream store closed after midnight, and a couple of times, I went home, had some coffee, got on my bike, and rode down to the Mall.

It was moody at night, back then, when there was still magic in the world. I peddled down empty streets at 4am. It felt like this:

I could hear sirens in the distance, pause at an intersection, and watch emergency vehicles zip across intersections a dozen blocks away — a sudden madness of flashing lights — and disappear. 

I biked down to the Lincoln Memorial. I remember climbing into Lincoln’s lap, using a ladder someone had left there. I sometimes doubt that part, but I still remember it. The sun rose right over the Capitol Dome, at the other end of the mall. Pink sky and amazing. The city was only mine, and everything was beauty and loneliness.

…my friend asked me did I get a photo?

Huh? No. We didn’t document everything back then. God, I sound like I’m 1,000 years old. But no, you didn’t lug a camera around the city. Photos didn’t get uploaded or downloaded or tinted or refocused after they were taken. Very often, we just lived life, oblivious to the fact that the moment would pass and we might not remember it.

How will our children remember things? Will they remember more because there are so many photos, so many cues to jog our memories? I hope so. I hope they will be able to embrace their lives and remember it in full Technicolor, at least the good things.

I won’t. Each day, I am farther away from most of my life. I see it through a 35mm lens. Things that are far away are tiny and indistinct.

In some cases, I am grateful for what I have forgotten. When a bad memory comes, I have a hard time reconciling it with the person I am today, but I know it has shaped me. When a good memory comes, I’m delighted, but saddened that it will not stay. It will just go away again. Maybe for good this time.

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This is why I’m writing; for the cues to those memories and to these new ones. As my mind slips from me, as minds do, maybe some of the past will survive, recreated from flawed memories and incomplete descriptions, but still serve as snapshots of a time and a place and a life lived in the long pauses between photos.