It seems evident throughout my blog and website that nostalgia is a feeling I grapple with on a regular basis. My mind spins around ideas of time, nostalgia, fear, gratitude, and loss, and how my experiences with these concepts have affected and influenced my personal growth.
Teju Cole writes in Known and Strange Things (“Memories of Things Unseen”):
"Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.”
I have been increasingly aware of the links between my desire to photograph and my attachment to the past and present. I started taking photos, back in 2009, because I felt a strange sense of loss at the gaps in my family's photo albums. It was a foreign feeling to me at the time—a new awareness of time's passing, of the irretrievability of tender moments lost forever. I carry a camera with me every day because I have no idea when I'll encounter even a fraction of a second that I'll find captivating. Yet, I've been wondering, is it a preservation of a memory that I seek? Is it attachment to the present? Is it fear of the future? Is it sadness? Appreciation? Perhaps I photograph as a method of mourning the transience of time which passes so quickly I cannot ever give each moment the attention that I want to. Perhaps some moments are so overwhelming that I try to preserve a shadow of them in hopes that I can feel more gratitude for them later.
One of the most enjoyable things about consuming so many books is that I start to notice patterns in concepts or references to different texts. Time is a concept I’ve been more interested in intellectually since I read A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki in November, which I wrote about in a prior blog post in January. Since then, I’ve been aware of the ways in which time comes up in the books that I read, from Teju Cole, who writes about time in the context of photography, to Anthony Ray Hinton, who writes about time in a cell on death row as an innocent man. In Ken Liu’s short story, “Mono No Aware”, he writes:
“Everything passes. That feeling in your heart: it’s called mono no aware. It is a sense of the transience of all things in life. The sun, the dandelion, the cicada, the Hammer, and all of us: we are all subject to the equations of James Clerk Maxwell, and we are all ephemeral patterns destined to eventually fade, whether in a second or an eon.”
Sally Mann, known for her large-format documentary photographs of her children, writes about the same concept of transience in her photographic memoir, Hold Still:
”As for me, I see both beauty and the dark side of the things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as the well. And I see them at the same time, and chary of that ecstasy. The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means ‘beauty tinged with sadness,’ for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay. For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.”
This sense of transience, this mono no aware, is a feeling that I have recognized for several years now, although I never had the vocabulary for the feeling. I've tried to describe it as a form an instant nostalgia, an awareness of present beauty so visceral I sometimes only recognize it as a physical pain in my chest. In high school, I read Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and although this quote has been beaten to death, it was the closest thing I had found to an accurate description: "And in that moment, I swear we were infinite." Perhaps it's simply a distinct awareness of the movement of time, that each moment is a moment that will never return. It is a feeling that makes me feel completely insignificant, but profoundly grateful for my own existence and capacity to have such ethereal experiences. I wonder if my tendency towards hyperawareness is tied to my fears of taking things for granted, which in turn is tied to childhood experiences of loss. I am aware that my father was only in my life for 1,831 days, so insignificant when compared to the 8,759 days that I've lived so far. I am aware of time because time revealed it's capacity to cause pain before I had even had a chance to take it for granted, and that is a lesson I live with forever.
I read The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli this week, which was mind-bending and profoundly fulfilling at the same time. He provides an overview of the history of time theories, and then dives into a more abstract/metaphysical discussion of time. Rovelli is a quantum physicist—the first half of the book hurt my brain, but the second half was worth the pain. I was most taken with his thoughts on why time matters to us as beings that exist. It is what makes us, us. We are guaranteed to change through time, but the passage of it ensures that the past follows us to the present and to the future.
“It is memory that solders together the processes, scattered across time, of which we are made. In this sense we exist in time. It is for this reason that I am the same person today as I was yesterday. To understand ourselves means to reflect on time. But to understand time we need to reflect on ourselves….
This space—memory—combined with our continuous process of anticipation, is the source of our sensing time as time, and ourselves as ourselves. Think about it: our introspection is easily capable of imagining itself without there being space or matter, but can it imagine itself not existing in time?….
Because [time] is nothing but a fleeting structure of the world, an ephemeral fluctuation in the happening of the world, that which is capable of giving rise to what we are: beings made of time. That to which we owe our being, giving us the precious gift of our very existence, allowing us to create the fleeting illusion of permanence that is the origin of all our suffering.”
I don't know if I'm afraid of my death, but I unwillingly imagine the death of loved ones frequently. It used to make me panic, but I have been consciously trying to address these fears in the last few years. My mother, a strong believer in fate, tells me there is no point worrying about things outside of our control, because well, they're outside of our control. We must try to be safe and responsible for our own well-being, but that is all we can do. I try to internalize these lessons, but it is difficult. Death is so easy for me to imagine. But I realized, through this book, that it is not necessarily death that comes into my mind so easily, it is loss.
“Fearing the transition, being afraid of death, is like being afraid of reality itself; like being afraid of the sun.”
I am constantly aware of certain dualities in my life. Gratitude and fear often come together. I wrestle with vulnerability and distance. My gratitude for people pulls me towards them, drawing out a consistent desire to want to tell and show people how much they mean to me, how much I appreciate them, how much better my life is with them in it. Fear pushes me away, because vulnerability means that I have something to lose, and the possibility of loss can still leave me paralyzed. But, it is not just the possibility of loss that makes me uneasy, it is the possibility of my words or feelings losing meaning, numbed by time. I'm often caught off guard by the things I hear around me when I am steeping in my visceral reactions to beauty.
"What's the big deal? I see this every day."
"This is nothing compared to *INSERT TRAVEL STORY*"
"I wish there were less people here and it was 5 degrees warmer and I had a prettier cocktail to take a picture of for Instagram." ***possibly a fabricated quote.
I don't know how to react, because comparison, when it comes to gratitude, does not come naturally to me. Of course, I will perceive things to be more beautiful on certain days or in certain situations, but that never detracts from the appreciation I can feel for the current state. I often wonder, whether by revealing too frequently the depth to which I feel certain things, my words or actions will lose meaning to the people around me, like how beautiful scenery can lose their magic to the people exposed to them each day. Slipping into someone else's swamp of indifference or complacency over time is one of my most realistic fears (I have many unrealistic fears, like being tipped over in a portable toilet or someone jumping into my open car window while I'm driving, but that's besides the point). I've dealt with this by rationing my expression of feelings, which is perhaps the most socially acceptable way of handling an overload of emotions. I’m well practiced in a persona of sincere aloofness, a candid coolness—the direct result of many internal battles.
Rovelli made me realize that my fear, gratitude, nostalgia, memory, love, and fascination with time are thoroughly entwined. It is impossible to address one without attempting to untangle the rest. It can be messy, but it was deeply comforting to understand that these feelings arise from having people, moments, and experiences in my life that make my life meaningful. It is a privilege to fear absence. Time is suffering because it forces us to acknowledge the things we have the capacity to lose.
“A precious miracle that the infinite play of combinations has unlocked for us, allowing us to exist. We may smile now. We can go back to serenely immersing ourselves in time—in our finite time—to savoring the clear intensity of every fleeting and cherished moment of the brief circle of our existence.”