We’ve had a few sets of public holidays in April, and we stayed around in Christchurch. JCB prefers to be on the go, preferably outside, so one day when he had gone to burn off some energy, I found myself staring at the lower left-hand corner of our bookshelf – a bulging mess of photo albums that had been treasured haphazardly. The albums were started before JCB and I got together, and had never coalesced. Whether out of necessity (they can’t sit in a disposable camera forever, can they?) or for love of the idea of being the kind of people that “have” photo albums, we treasured these blank books, less so the administration required to sort and file.
I’d managed to find time to sort out our photos on the computer from the last 18 months and print a bunch, but now I had to find a place for them to go. Optimistically, I sat down one afternoon and opened the albums up to try and find the free space.
Oh, how I had forgotten the power that lies between those two hardbacked covers.
Everyone here will know what happens when you open a photo album. I honestly think it’s the closest to time travel we’re ever going to get. Whether we are remembering an experience we had, or glimpsing something vicariously, the act of looking at photos can literally take our breath away.
My perception of time went out the window as I sat cross-legged on the floor with seven albums open in front of me, over a thousand photographs, telling me the story of what I thought was important. It was hugely poignant, if almost a little unsettling and bizarre.
Evenings I had no memory of. Outfits that had long since left my wardrobe, betraying my desperate need to be seen as “trendy”. Friends who once occupied reams of time and mental space, now lost in the annals of social sites I try to avoid. Places I had spent thousands of dollars and hours and kilojoules to get to, only to take this photo and move on to the next, also Very Important Sight. Our wedding: I couldn’t even name everyone in the photos who came to see us make promises about how we would care for one another, sixty years from now. Now all shrunk to a shiny piece of card, desperate to sing their stories to me.
In amongst all the dramatic scenery and expensive memories, there was one photo I’m still thinking about. I haven’t spoken to the people in it for at least six years, hence why I’ve blanked out their faces. Here, I was off with a bunch of other girls from high school, about to leave for a school exchange to Santiago. This was the very beginning of the trip, and we are gathered around a large glass dome at Auckland International Airport, filled to the brim with different currencies. I don’t think any of us had ever seen so much printed money in our lives, and so, because we were exceptionally excited about the most random things, and someone nearby had a newly minted digital camera with gigabytes to burn, we took a photo by it.
Looking at it, ten years later, I was transported straight to the departure lounge, wearing that sticky nylon top, heavy backpack and nasty trackpants that sounded like cheap gaiters whenever you walked anywhere. The nerves I experienced during that trip were viscous. I was going to do a lot of new things for the first time without my parents – long plane rides, staying at a billet’s house for a month, living in a Spanish-speaking country without having mastered even the basics, spending a lot of time in the company of other people. Girls that age can be really mean to each other. What if I got sick, or had to do something I really didn’t want to do? What would I eat every day? What if I hated it and couldn’t come back home?
I started to remember what it felt like to be in my last year of school again. What did I believe was true? A lot of it had to do with how unlikeable I thought I was; I had lost two best friends in the race for popularity. They cast their nets wide; I did not have the energy to keep up. I had been kindly and safely taught about a rule-obsessed, patriarchal religion that was there to be obeyed rather than questioned or even simply experienced. I believed my worth came down to my academic achievements. I remembered how scared and desperately uncomfortable I felt, every single day of that year.
I’m thankful for the space that ten years has granted me, and the ways I’ve learned just how wrong I was. I didn’t yet know that in having less friendships, I was prioritising deeper ones. I didn’t know that being an introvert was valuable. I have learned that my strengths are parts of myself to be proud of, not feel ashamed of or embarrassed by.
I’m so thankful that I have grown and changed my mind, and had new experiences that have shown me what I was wrong about. I’ve gained confidence, tried new things, learned what I love and been able to do things I never even dreamed about.
Still, in that photo, there was a part of me that thought, what will I be looking back on in 2029 and be glad I left behind?
My desperate need to be liked?
My crude and limiting beliefs that are still shaped by privilege I can’t see?
Yes, yes, yes. I really hope so. Those photos showed me what used to define me, and what I had left behind and grown out of. Seeing how far I’ve come is a reminder of how far I could go.
Don’t forget the power of looking back as an inspiration to keep moving forward.