Where you find meaning

One of the salient aspects of lockdown is how everything slows down. You’re contained within a location and constrained from meeting others face to face. Every movement is small – from bedroom to study to kitchen; from home to shops, or the circuit in which you exercise or walk the dog. Your window on the world is literally your front window, or those brief occasions you get out, or via the TV screen. Routines barely waver because there’s nothing to disrupt them. External distraction is barely a thing.

In this world we have, it seems, and by necessity, become much more internalised. I was discussing this with someone the other day and we agreed that it’s not necessarily a bad thing and, in smaller doses, perhaps even a necessary thing. In times before we were sadly lacking in this. It’s been welcome to return to ourselves and to the smaller movements of domestic and family life. The problem is, there’s little balance. Hopefully, in times to come, there’ll be a healthy balance between being in the world and feeling it.

Fair to say, I’ve always had strong internalised tides. I used to think that I felt things through my skin, even as I led a pretty robust lifestyle. I was always aware or was most of the time. I thought and pondered, I considered and contemplated, and I could feel it in my stomach as something tenuous but precious. This situation has only accentuated this tendency.

I’m sure a lot of people find themselves reflecting in times like these. I have too, though without particular intent. It’s a bit different for me because while many others have become more conscious of their family around them, I have become conscious of how little family I have. It’s something I’ve become accustomed to over recent years and so I don’t miss in any practical way what I don’t have. There have always been occasional pangs when I feel the absence, and that still happens, but no deeper or more frequent than before. I have grown more detached from it if anything, but the context feels different – more historical almost.

One of the constant reminders is the constantly changing photos on my bedside smart device, as I’ve written before. It seems to me that every week a different photo catches my eye and slowly insinuates its way into my thoughts. Almost all of them are family photos and from family occasions. I walk around while at the back of my mind I carry the image from the picture. For the most part, the occasion is lost to memory – dinners at random memories say, though others I remember, such as when I became godfather to my nephew. It feels strange to me and often quite distant. I wonder sometimes, was that really us? Was that really me? I can recognise myself, but looking back I look different from what I remember. The space of time – up to 30 years – has given me an entirely new perspective, but at the same time, it feels as if I’ve carried a story all this time which has grown and shifted over time until it bears little relationship from how it started. It feels as if that would forever have been the case if I hadn’t set eyes on these old pictures again. In a way, it feels like a reset. It feels as if what I see with my eyes is truer than the memory.

That’s a funny feeling – almost as if you have to review all that you’ve taken for granted. And, yes, I know, some of that will be false or exaggerated. It’s natural to feel more sentimental now, say when you set eyes on people no longer with us. But it also causes you to re-balance the things that have important in your life.

This weeks photo was taken at some indeterminate restaurant sometime in the early to mid-nineties. There are six of us at the table and, as I glanced at it, I realised that three have since passed away. It’s an incongruous thought when you peer at healthy faces with beaming smiles. It’s a moment caught, which is one of the things about photos obviously – they don’t change, while the people in them do.

I’m sitting at the table at the end nearest the camera. I’m wearing a jacket that looks pale in the photographic exposure. I remember the jacket well when I look at the photo – an oatmeal coloured linen jacket that was a favourite for many years. I have a cocky smile on my face, leaning forward slightly, handsome and dashing – like a Spitfire pilot out on the town. I look so certain of myself.

Opposite me is my step-sister. I’ve noticed in these photos that she’s always close to me. She had a thing for me when my mum met her dad and thereafter we were close. That was the case for many years, a dear person to me until mum died and everything went. In the photo, she’s good looking and a little plump, as she was in the early days. Later she loses the baby fat and blossoms into an attractive and intelligent woman. I miss her.

My sister is there, as is her husband. They’ll part about 15-20 years after this, and he’ll abscond to England to live with a woman he met through Facebook. Very modern. Very tawdry. Later he’ll die over there from a massive heart attack. It’s a shock, but not altogether a surprise – he had unhealthy habits and a tendency to binge. And there he is, locked away in an old photo.

Also there, as in most of these photos, are my mum and her husband, my step-father, both dearly loved. They’re smiling, as always. For mum, there was nothing better than being with the people she loved most.

I caught sight of that photo on rotation last night. I leaned in to study it more closely. As often, I felt a sense of wonder and a vague melancholy.

I wonder: what was my life then? What did I think? What did I expect? What restaurant was that? What did I order? Who was I? And: how is that me?

I went away from it and I thought, that photo will continue rotating, and with others, even when I’m not there to see it. Even after I’m gone as long as someone plugs it in. It’s a fragment of memory that’s broken off and lives on in cyberspace. It’s me that gives it context – without me, it’s just a photo of a bunch of unknown people having dinner together. There’s no history. No meaning. But looking at it again there’s a historical perspective I didn’t have before, and from it erupting other moments and possibilities and revisionist conjectures. But only in me. I give the photo meaning. I suspect that’s true of much of life: we give it meaning.

That may be a realisation many are now experiencing in this lockdown. It seems a simple and obvious thing, but those are the things we forget or take for granted. I only have photos, but I reckon lots of others with family around them are feeling a lot more present without the distractions of former times. You don’t want to lose that or let it drift out of shape.

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