In the face of a 21st century horror story, I had been a model citizen all day. Repeatedly removing the contents of my bag without a single bout of hyperventilation. Calmly calling the car service to have the vehicle immediately brought back. Methodically checking under the seats with the same detached focus I employ when I’m washing the dishes or mopping the floor. Peacefully accepting the driver’s crap alibi that he had already had another fare in just a matter of minutes, and they had probably taken the phone, although he couldn’t remember what they looked like, or where he picked them up, or where he dropped them off. Resisting the urge to pounce on him like a jungle cat and start shaking out his pockets.
I mentally calculated the losses (several thousand photos, several hundred notes, literally every contact since elementary school) as if it were a simple math problem. I spoke so coolly and courteously as I reported it to Apple, T-Mobile, and the police. I didn’t even have to fight back tears when I found out that the way my phone had been set up prevented me from tracking it, remotely wiping it, or recovering any of the memories that had been so lovingly curated on there for the past 8 months. But when I stepped into our apartment after a long day of incessantly reaching for the ghost in my pocket and a long night of blindly navigating subways and cross streets, I collapsed into my boyfriend’s strong frame and sobbed like a little girl. Ugly, messy crying. Like someone close to me just had died a horrible death. What the hell was wrong with me? Lots of things. I just hadn’t realized it until that moment.
The whole incident was very strange to me. Usually my reasons for being upset are pretty clear and reasonable, and I have certainly had much more terrible things happen to me. But after losing this little chunk of metal, I was a total basketcase. I could handle the loss of the phone itself, although I had proudly purchased it at the rather insane 900-ish-dollar factory price so that I would be free from a contract plan. I could recover the main contacts I needed through Facebook, and the idea of having a new, basically private number after over a decade was kind of refreshing. My freakish knack for memorization made the drafts of writing in my notes frighteningly easy to duplicate the next day. It wasn’t even the fact that the thief might find some way to crack my code and open my life like a book (although he had probably already wiped the thing and pawned it). It was the pictures that tied my stomach in knots.
I had gotten the new phone a few days before I met my (amazing) boyfriend, so the phone itself was like a time capsule of our entire relationship. The funny thing is, I had very prudently just uploaded all of the best pictures of us less than a month before. Hundreds of meaningful photos were 100% safe and sound in several secure places. But for some reason, it didn’t shake the pain. As the type of person who snaps photos of everything and anything, all the time, I was mourning the loss of the in-between pictures; the blurry, flat-out awful shots by any photographic standards, silly, slice of life pictures I had hoarded up that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, tons of messy memories that wouldn’t even be worth framing. My camera roll was more like a mood ring than an actual photo album. I could scroll through fast enough that it was just a blur of colours, but still remember exactly how every single moment felt. And for some strange cathartic reason, I did it all the time.
When the absence of the pictures still had me waking up in a cold sweat several days later, I knew I needed to do some soul searching. I started asking myself hard questions. Why do you take so many pictures? Why do you have to have every good thing that happens to you on record? After all, I had been forced to backup my masses of photos to clear up space on many, many occasions, and I can honestly say I never looked back at a single one of them. I guess I just wanted to know that I could. Did I really need proof of everything? Was I worried my life would be forgotten one day if I didn’t have gobs of selfies and snapshots stockpiled somewhere? Was I afraid I would never be as happy again as I am right now? The questions were as hard to swallow as the answers.
My boyfriend knows me well, and he was armed and ready that night with black and white cookies and a lap to cry on. He patiently listened as I stumbled through the stages of grief, promising me that we have a whole lifetime to take more photos. My Mom tenderly pointed out that when she was growing up, you would have maybe 5-10 pictures of yourself over half your childhood. Photographs used to be a luxury, and many childhood firsts, major life events, and valuable moments went by without a trace. You just enjoyed the memories as they zoomed past you, like cotton candy disappearing on the tip of your tongue. Most of the time, there was no other choice.
I think having intense social media connections, incredible technology, and basically instant everything makes it harder for us to enjoy things in such a pure way. We struggle to dig into a pretty meal without first posting a photo of it, we can’t get together with friends without craning up our arm for a couple of group pictures, we must show everyone our view of the sunset, and we can’t fully enjoy a good hair day until we’ve snapped a new profile picture for evidence. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to snap thirty-five pictures of it on the way down, does it make a sound? Quite frankly, who gives a shit?
I’m getting a new iPhone today. A blank canvas on which I will quite likely dump thousands of pictures all over again. A fresh start to this bundle of insanity I try to write off as a cute hobby, although it may be just a frenzied, snap-happy reaction to some deeper fears that I would much rather sweep under the rug. But I’m going to try something new. I’m going to try to cut the emotional ties I have to these piles of pixels. Maybe I will go back and delete some old ones every now and then. Maybe I will write about my relationship rather than constantly keep a visual file on it. Maybe I will allow myself just one picture of the sunset, and then turn off my phone and watch it sink into the skyline – with my eyes for once, not through a tiny screen. It’s going to be hard, but I have to try.
I can’t tell for sure, but I think that maybe, when I am less focused on having a souvenir of every experience, when I start embracing the fragility and impermanence of life, the things I carry with me will be much more valuable than anything that can so easily be dropped and lost forever in a taxicab.