You and Me are History: Archiving the Future

23 Snaps Photo book

My lovely 23 Snaps Photo Book…

The other day, I was asked to produce a baby photo of my youngest child, and I couldn’t. With a wave of nausea, I realised that every moment I have recorded of my youngest daughter’s life, has been digital. And I haven’t been organised about it either.

I sat on the floor with the defunct hard drive that contains the Biscuit Thief’s baby pictures. The connection needed to access the photos is not compatible with my latest computer. Other photos are on a PC that no one, apart from cavemen, use anymore. The rapidity of change in digital technologies is blisteringly clear in the difference between the photographic record of my teenager’s life (born 1996, box of photos in the attic) and that of my second child (born in 2005, diddly-squat in the attic). This problem is big, and it’s getting bigger.

So I’m worrying, I’m worrying about history. But I’m also wondering about whether it matters that I haven’t diligently archived my family’s past. There were, after all, generations before photography, video and audio recording and we can only guess what our ancestors looked, moved and sounded like. Is my lack of a tangible record of my children’s past any worse than the edited histories we have received down the years? Whole chunks of information and images have been discarded over time, deemed unworthy of preservation on (usually) racist or sexist grounds. History has always been selective, and the recording of it highly subjective.

I’m thinking that we live out a strange dichotomy. We think we are in an era of information saturation; that we are recording everything, enjoying this weird intimacy over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social channels. But actually, none of it is tangible… “all that is solid melts into air…” said Marx of modernity. This intimacy is fleeting, a firework in the night sky, a brush against a stranger. There is a disconnect between what we share, what is evanescent and what has permanence. History feels precarious at the same time as being collectively experienced over social media.

My memory is lit up by palpable things; like my father’s handwriting on old birthday cards, or my aunt’s silk dress, still mapping the contours of her body. Nearly six feet tall, she must have been an elegant woman with exquisite taste to own such a dress. My great, great grandmother’s engagement ring reveals that the central diamond, cut in Europe, was at some point removed from its original setting and cast in another in New York in the late 1800s. It tells me more about her life than a photograph. Yet I long to see her, to know her face. I yearn to know whether it is from her that I get my freckles and strawberry blonde hair. I wonder about the quality of her skin and the way her mouth naturally set when she was unaware anyone was looking. Only a photograph can show me that.

Thinking about all this has inspired me to get my digital act together and create tangible histories by printing off photo books for my children. In search of solutions, I tried out 23 Snaps, an app and website which allows you to upload photos to a central server and share your photostream with invited guests. You, and anyone else you invite, can compile and order beautiful printed books, all from within the app. A friend of mine recommends Photobox, and every six months or so, she compiles and prints off another photo album. There are other services such as Jessops and Snapfish but I have yet to find a good way to preserve video. Any ideas? I’d love to know what works for you… how do you log your life?

The Enduring Perfection of Nadia Comaneci

One of my most abiding Olympic memories is of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal games. As I recall, there was a heatwave that summer, one that scorched its way across the US like a smoldering fuse-wire, raging through cities and forests, melting tarmac, setting prairies alight and drying my lips to paper.

I was 9-years-old, watching the Games while on holiday at my grandparent’s house in the New Hampshire mountains that smelled of pine trees at sunset. A chunky colour TV beamed Nadia’s hipless frame right into my pre-pubescent consciousness. In her unforgiving white leotard, stripes up the sides popping like arteries, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci performed like no gymnast had ever done before.

She was fearless and focused way before life coaches brought the Gospel of the Goal to the mainstream. Nadia was angular yet kittenish, pure muscle, with an anatomy of metal and spirit of steel that shames the chronic public anorexia of today. She also had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes that betrayed the fact she was still a child. I was transfixed by her every move both on and off the apparatus.  She was like no girl I had ever seen before.

Back home in London, my city was agitated.  IRA explosions had rocked the West End earlier in the year, the punk movement was bubbling under with the Sex Pistols just months away from signing to EMI. I was slightly too young for punk to get under my skin, but Nadia felt like a peer. To me, she embodied subversion with every sinew of her slight yet powerful frame. She was the pale, mechanical, aloof ‘other’, perfectly fitting the cliched perception of ‘Eastern block’ citizens we had back then, before the walls and Ceausescu came crumbling down.

Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars on July 18th 1976 is etched on my mind forever. After a gravity-defying routine, there was a delay before the Omega scoring system showed a result of 1.0. The crowd and the commentators were initially confused before it became apparent that Nadia had actually scored the first ever Olympic perfect ‘10’ in gymnastics. “She broke the machine!” I thought in wonder. The computer had, quite literally, said “No”.

I was entranced by this idea of unexpected perfection. A completion so exquisite that it broke the rules, a perfection so persistent that an outdated system had to redesign itself. We did not know then how symbolic this would come to be. Nadia’s faultlessness seemed so transgressive and useful and desirable, anything less seemed suddenly pointless.

I learned everything I could about perfect Nadia. I was delighted to find she shares my birthday, 12th November, my Scorpionic twin ~ I took this as symbolic of our probable affinity. She was my first female icon, the one that led me though puberty. Nadia set the bar for what one could achieve by aged 14; suddenly the possibilities of my life as an adult had some tangible form.  Whatever I did, I wanted it to matter. In my young mind, she was the embodiment of Cold War austerity and pain and I was embarrassed by what I perceived as the flabby ‘too-much-ness’ of the West. Our gymnasts had breasts, curves, cellulite and no medals. It is probably because of Nadia that I studied Russian at school.

But over the years, like my personal dreams of perfection, Nadia’s image was replaced by pictures of women who symbolized other ambitions, new guardians of my creative journey. My photos of Nadia would be covered over by ones of Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Joni Mitchell and other goddesses of music. Then by writers and artists who stole my heart and weaved their magic; Sylvia Plath, the Brontes, Toni Morrison, Frida, Georgia, Elisabeth Frink.

Sometimes I think of that bedroom wall in my childhood home and imagine how an archeologist, chipping away through the layers of my own personal iconography would find at the foundation, a pull-out-and-keep spread of Nadia Comaneci in the saturated inks of 1976, still perfect.

The Empress’s Old Clothes: On Why Every Ageing Woman Needs Patti Smith

Patti SmithCall me reckless and foolhardy, but I thought de-cluttering the attic would be a constructive way to spend a drizzly London Sunday. Fast-forward three hours however, and I was sitting on my bed in emotional turmoil, weeping over ‘old stuff’.

It all started innocently enough. The initial few feet of clutter comprised a series of dusty suitcases, lined up like dutiful soldiers. The first couple I opened were harmless containing as they did ‘Our Summer Things’. Sandals bent out of shape by last year’s sweat; beach dresses stiffened by seawater; t-shirts smelling of sun lotion from our holiday in Spain. I jumped when a couple of unspent Euros dropped onto the floor and noisily spun themselves into stillness. The next suitcases were more emotional, ‘The Ones With The Baby Clothes’. However, my nostalgia for the newborn days of my daughters was held in check by equally potent memories of how bloody hard it was.  So I happily kept the most precious items, things the girls might like ‘for their own kids’, and let the rest go to Oxfam. And then, just when I thought I was safe, I spotted the mother of all suitcases tucked away at the back of the eaves. Pillar box red and large enough to contain a small horse, it beckoned like Pandora’s Samsonite box.  “Open me” it said.

And so I did.  In it were layers of my old clothes, things I would have been wearing around the time I got together with my husband eleven years ago. I pulled them out one-by-one stroking the fabrics like and old lady finding stray cats. I tried desperately to remember the ‘me’ who wore the clothes, and found that rather like recalling the face of a dearly departed one, you remember the general idea, but the detail is lost. You think you won’t forget, but oh, how you do.

The clothes were all in sizes six and eight (UK sizes) like they belonged to a child. There was the top I was wearing when my husband proposed to me, and a t-shirt I was given when I toured Japan in my singing days. I found one of my few concessions to designer labels, a mint green Malene Birger skirt I bought off a friend who was at my wedding but who I’ve since lost touch with. There was a collection of eclectic items bought on Haight Street during my San Francisco years. “These are my old skins”, I thought to myself, “shredded layer upon layer, and I hadn’t even noticed I was changing.”

I was totally shocked to find these clothes defining moments in my past more powerfully than old photographs. The contents of the suitcase were like some terrible haunting, a ghostly revisiting of my old selves. I found myself almost superstitious about throwing any of it away. Perhaps because these things were there with me in the past, tangible witnesses to who I was then. They held my body, they were next to my skin and now they cannot even begin to contain me.  I couldn’t possibly get one of those tops over my burgeoning bosom now; my old waistline is my new thigh. That I was ever that small and streamlined strikes me as ridiculous and yet there’s a part of me that wants to crawl right back inside these acrylic and cotton castes of my old self.  How ironic it is that at a time when there is physically so much more of me in the world, I am at my most invisible culturally. I look up from Pandora’s suitcase and catch a glimpse of myself in the bedroom mirror.  I notice that I am kind of boggy now, moon shaped bags under my eyes, crevices when I smile. The angularity of my face has gone and there is no definition in my body.  The clothes remind me that I was once a wiry little missile, completely airborne, with a vision and expectations of the world that were arrow sharp. (The fact that I was this way due to lots of cigarettes, habitually skipped meals and a nervous system on fire matters not in my hankering for youth). The body I have now reflects what is needed now; be vigilant it says, buttress yourself against disappointment; scare the off the enemy  with the sheer size of your arse. I am a mother, my family’s frontline of defence, fattening for the domestic pot into which I would happily jump and boil myself if it would save my brood.

My outer appearance reflects my inner state. My mind, like my jaw line is ill-defined, constructed of fuzzy edges. How I long to forge sharp new neurological pathways in my brain or travel across America in a camper van, but instead I stick to what I know is needed for the greater good.  My goals feel less defined because they are less about me and perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but I do seem to find myself in an uncertain sea. Interestingly, the directionlessness I feel is being played out in the very cells of my being as my hormones shift towards menopause. There’s just no routine anymore. Yes ladies, perimenopause starts around age thrity-five and ends around fifty-five; that’s twenty years of chemical ping pong we all have to play without a goddamn bat between us.

I remember my granny  saying that she never felt old, that she never noticed time passing, and I know what she means now. In the Tarot of midlife, I am shifting from the Empress card of  fertility and family to the High Priestess, the goddess within. Sitting with a group of friends recently, I noticed how inward my energy has become. I am no longer reeling things in towards me, but instead am an observer, offering a bit of advice if asked.  On good days, I am journeying from Mother to Wise Woman, on bad days from youthful pretty hot stuff to boggy earthbound sloth. I would be lying if I said I don’t I miss something of the ‘me’ in Pandora’s suitcase; all that delicious youthful power that turns heads and breaks hearts. Now, I’m thankful if I get though a social encounter without breaking wind. But there are compensations; I’ve got funnier as I’ve got older, I have far more permission to be ridiculous now than I did when I was young.  And I have a bosom of Shakespearean barmaid proportions. Proper, bawdy lady bazookas that came free with child-rearing.

For those of you who aren’t there yet, midlife feels like this: You are standing alone in the middle of a large, flat desert plain; the tallest thing for miles is you. In the not so distant distance, a heady black thunderstorm is gathering and starts rolling towards you. Before you see the storm, you can sense it; the air is static and filled with moisture, pockets of heat surge and fall and lightening starts splitting open the sky and skewering the earth.  Man, I really wish I could put a tree somewhere in this metaphor, but there is nowhere to hide and there is nothing to do but stand tall and hope it strikes quickly.

If it had a soundtrack, midlife would be accompanied by the juddering strings of a suspense thriller or perhaps the ghostly crackle and bleep of one of those creepy satellite dishes listening for life on Mars. “Is there life over 50?”  The message is sent out across the universe and if you listen hard enough you can hear the whispers of invisible older women answering, “Yes, don’t be scared.”  But that’s my point, I can’t bloody hear them so I don’t want to throw the old me into the Oxfam bags yet. Where have all my cultural icons gone? Where are the amazing sisters who will pull me through the next phase of my life? Where are the older women who have survived motherhood (yes, it is a question of survival) AND the menopausal storm without resorting to surgery and its demeaning ugly sisters Botox and Microdermabrasion?

As I reached the bottom of the Dreadful Suitcase of Hell, I realized that Patti Smith is the only woman I could think of who can guide me now. She found her voice again at 50 and released a violent warrior of an album in the wake of her midlife fury. And so, with Patti on the CD player I finally found myself able to bag up the past and send it to the charity shop. I did however keep the shirt I was wearing when my husband proposed. That was, when all is said and done, a bloody good day.

Notes on Nostalgia

Even in this super-sophisticated digital age, our heartsong is analogue

This morning at about 6.45am, the sun hung in the sky in a particular way that cast outrageous pinks across the turquoise dawn. As a black dot of a plane silently made it’s way across the horizon, I was reminded of long-haul flights across the Atlantic in the smoke-filled passenger jets of my childhood. Airlines back then had names like TWA and PanAm, airhostesses gathered static in their nylon uniforms and there was no veggie option in the meal choice.

I would sleep for most of the flight missing the endless surging of the Atlantic and the icebergs of Canada below. I’d wake up just as the plane banked right towards Logan airport in Boston. The cabin would be flooded with the purple and rose hues of dawn and I peered out of the window imagining I was reeling America in by magic, bringing the land up to meet me rather than the other way around. As we descended, the intricate threads I saw below me morphed into real roads, buzzing fireflies became life-sized cars weaving their early morning headlights and suddenly, BANG! We would be on the runway. Landings in those days were different. Questions were always asked;

“Is the pilot drunk?”

“No, stoned.”

“Ah. Is everyone ok?”

“My head hurts.”

“ That’s just because your brain was thrown against your skull.”

What were planes in the 1970’s actually made of? Paper and string quite possibly. A study into the psycho/physiological effects of early passenger jet suspension would probably reveal the simple fact that the 21st century is more ‘bouncy’ than the 20th.

I digress.

There I was at the dawn of my day, suddenly submerged under memories that ran over each other like busy liquid metals. The dawn flights and abrupt landings flowed into the memory of ‘waiting for our luggage’; a humiliating ritual during which various members of my family dispersed themselves around the baggage carousel heaving off house-sized rucksacks stuffed so full with personal items that the odd bra would always have made a break for it. Half-open cardboard boxes tied with string containing ‘very-important-papers-my-dad-needed-for-the-novel-he-was-working-on’, fishing rods, golf clubs, surf boards, guitars, fish tanks; all of these had to be dragged off the shuddering merry-go-round to the amusement of our fellow passengers. Suitcases, apparently, were bourgeois .

My morning of nostalgia continued.  I then recalled the edgy US immigration officials with their steely blue eyes that made you so uncomfortable you’d confess to just having turned over a bank. Then came the memory of running into the expectant arms of my grandparents and the particular smell of her. Emeraude by Coty.

There was a block of warmth that hit you as the airport doors slid open and threw you into a New England heat wave. Then the cool air-conditioning of the car so wide it looked like the Cheshire cat smiling. Then there was the long tunnel under Lincoln Bridge, then the open highway then suddenly, a left onto back roads leading up the Uncanoonuc Mountains of New Hampshire. Someone would roll down a window and the smell of pine would flood the car and crucify me. I swear it nailed me to the leather seat every time with its invitation to breathe. I wanted to eat that smell, consume it as it consumed me. And then somehow, in some way, some part of me would feel inexorably at home.

Nostalgia, which translates as ‘a painful longing to return’ was considered a sickness when the term was first coined by Johannes Hofner in the 17th century to describe the malaise experienced by Swiss mercenaries yearning for the mountains of home when traveling through the flat lands of Europe. In fact, the army banned the singing of Swiss songs, likely as this was to induce the disease of Nostalgia among troops.

By the 19th century, Nostalgia was considered less of a disease and more a melancholy state, a psychological yearning which helped fuel the Romantic movement’s appeal to the pale, tubercular, concave-chested masses who headed for the Alps and Italy to dream and recuperate.

Few scientists have looked into the question if whether nostalgia serves a specific function. One suggestion is that the ‘warm glow’ of nostalgic memories act like a natural antidepressant.  I have a (totally unfounded) theory that most imaginative brain function (such as nostalgia) is a brilliant ruse to cushion us from the inevitability of death. As nostalgia tends to involve places, people and aspects of ourselves that are now lost to us, there is perhaps some semblance of truth here.

Neuroscientist Susumu Tongawa distinguishes between ‘Non-Declarative memory’ meaning the subconscious memory of learned skills such as how to play tennis or ride a bicycle and ‘Declarative memory’ where subjects can describe past episodes consciously recalling details and emotions. The two kinds of memory are understood to be processed in different areas of the brain and clearly, nostalgic memories belong to the latter type. If nostalgia is an anaesthetized version of the past, memory is the truth of it.

Nostalgic memories reclaim emotional experiences of the past and the present moment reframes them. In the time between the then and now, we imbue our experiences with an emotional potency they didn’t necessarily have originally each time we visit them. In other words, our memories are fluid and the degree to which nostalgia is painful or joyous depends on this emotional revisiting. We can be very creative with our histories. Have I simply renegotiated the neural pathways in my brain that originally linked the smell of pine trees with feelings of family tension during tight-lipped cocktail hours, with new connections to an idealized past where the trees could talk and the New Hampshire sky was so dark you could see galaxies? Perhaps, but I’m hanging on to my renovated version, it’s soul food.

Thinking about it more, I realize that my nostalgia for New England is not so much a yearning for a physical place as for a place in time ~ a moment that faded long ago. My ‘painful longing to return’ is a groaning chasm in my heart that I would most likely feel even if I boarded the next available dawn flight to Logan airport. The beauty of the whole thing is, you never know when you are making a memory. I’m sure my grandmother didn’t know that the image of her teaching me to deadhead Black Eyed Susan’s in her garden would slay me years later any more than my father knew what a potent memory he made when he taught me how to unpeel the bark from a Silver Birch in a way that wouldn’t hurt the tree. I wonder what my daughters will remember of me, Facebook statuses?

The incredible popularity of Smeg fridges, Cath Kidston’s reclaimed 1950’s prints and iPhone apps such a Hipstamatic emulating extinct Kodot Xgrizzled film only goes to show how much we all love the feeling of looking back in all it’s painfully aching glory. Even in this super-sophisticated digital age, our heartsong is analogue, we are vintage chic, we are so very retro it hurts.

I have some home-movie footage from the 1950’s of my grandparents and my father skating on a lake in the Uncanoonuc Mountains. At one point, they all turn towards the camera, squinting in the low winter sun and wave towards the lens, arms around each other, laughing. All three of them are gone now, but this is the way I like to remember them; in grainy, saturated colours, skating joyfully on some ethereal surface between now and then.