Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

In Which the Documentarian Ponders His New Role

Yesterday felt really strange. For one thing, I didn't spend any time with my parents. For another, I spent more with my daughter and her mother on an outing than I had in quite a while. Of course, since Skylar was on a horse -- or coming off one -- for much of her gymkhana and focusing on her next event for the remainder, I passed the remainder of the hours either taking pictures or interacting with other grown-ups.

In the past, the former activity would have been my primary task, since I used to assume the role of family documentarian and also found the distance it afforded me from small talk comforting. Since Skylar's mother started taking lots of photos, however, I haven't felt the same need to capture the moment. In fact, I frequently don't even see the photos she takes anymore.

To a degree, this change in my family role has come as a relief. Because I am less fixated on doing the best I can to document our daughter's doings, I can actually experience things as they happen without having them mediated by the camera lens. The downside, however, is that I have felt my investment in photography slacken in the process. I'm taking fewer pictures and the ones I do take are often lackluster, managing neither to meet my artistic standards or serve as snapshots with no pretense to quality.

Mind you, I did take pictures yesterday, off an on. And I also shot video of Skylar's events, including the one where she fell off the horse. Now that there's less pressure to share -- her mother used to post my shots all the time -- I find it easier to conclude that most of what I shot isn't worth sharing, if that makes sense. My photos and video will sit on the memory card until I bring myself to transfer it over to a hard drive and will then be stored there, dormant, unless I finally force myself to organize my archive properly.

Or don't. There's always the possibility that I will never sort through my photographs and video with any kind of plan. Perhaps, like the hard drive on which my music library was stored, the devices they are stored on will one day stop working without my indulging what's left of my once-vigorous archival impulse. Although I've backed my files up well enough to ensure that such a calamity is highly unlikely, I actually take some solace in knowing that I could endure such a loss without deeming it a catastrophe.

Maybe that's what the Zen folks mean by "letting go" and "being in the moment", the realization that going forward doesn't necessarily require material attachments to the past. Certainly, the fact that my mother's condition more or less ensures that she is always in the moment -- her cognitive troubles are like those of the protagonist in Memento -- has changed my perspective on the value of obsessing on the documentary record. She can clearly enjoy experiences without storing them on her internal hard drive. And the physiological effects of that enjoyment persist even in the absence of an archive to document their cause, or at least one that she can access readily without assistance.

To be perfectly honest, I'm starting to appreciate the advantages of a faulty memory as never before. My mind is so cluttered with detailed recollections of experiences that no longer matter to anyone but me that it's hard to move around in there without stumbling. Although the recent Sturm und Drang I've been confronted by has sources that are very much in the moment, the difficulty I'm having navigating my way through the bad emotional weather surely reflects the fact that I can't seem to put my foot down anywhere without breaking something I once regarded as valuable.

My mother, like most self-professed "pack rats", went through several phases, beginning in middle age, when she suddenly decided that she needed to free herself from the burden of material things. She started donating stuff on a regular basis and periodically set out to prune her archives, an activity she was still engaged in when the effects of her illness made it impossible for her to continue. I found these attempts to purge alarming, because it always seemed that she would get to a point in her efforts when she would start discarding items somewhat randomly, rather than persisting with her original plan.

She also had a knack for getting rid of new possessions. Sometimes, in high school, I would look for a recently acquired article of clothing only to learn that she had given it away to a clothes drive. And, even as the books and magazines would pile up throughout the house, the ones I wanted to save always seemed to vanish. Later, after I'd left for my year as an exchange student and then, upon my return, college, some of my most prized possessions met a similar fate.

Or at least I thought that they had. While trying to make sense of the chaos created in my parents' Maryland house by my mother's last attempt to set things right, the one she had to abort right when things were at their messiest, I found many things that I had imagined to be lost forever. Some I brought back home with me, with the idea of sharing them here, in a series of entries meant to revive the archival impulse that was once a major motivation for maintaining this journal.

Maybe it's because I still haven't caught up on my sleep since my cross-country drive or because the day-to-day burden of coping with my parents here makes nostalgia seem superfluous, but I haven't had the will to go through all those rescued possessions since returning to Tucson. I keep telling myself that the day will come and that I will then be glad that I took such care to curate my attachments to the past.

Perhaps that will still happen. Right now, though, as I sift through my feelings about yesterday and on my investment in the role of documentarian more generally, I'm at least able to entertain the notion that I will leave all those things in boxes, unshared. I'll still remember them regardless. And it may be the case that what I do with those memories doesn't fall into the category of using them to a specific end. Could it be that their inert presence, secreted away in the dark corners of my life, will do me more good by going unremarked, like the negative space that makes a picture work?
Tags: autobiography, everyday, health

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