An old friend, who I'll call J, is in San Francisco for a conference. It’s been a year since we last saw each other—another conference. We run that circuit. This night is one of those rare moments we’ve seen each other outside of an event with suited-up adults and boring keynotes we do our best to avoid. The one constant of both our lives, when they intersect, is that we are the only teenagers most places we go. At the white-tablecloth Italian restaurant we enter, we are the youngest people in the room. As we do, we immediately start talking about fanfiction and masturbation and hookups and pop music. There's a genteel elderly couple sitting next to us, conversing about a timeshare.
I avoid eye contact with them, but I'm pretty sure they look scandalized.
J and I belt out Blank Space in his ritzy suite at the Prescott Hotel at 11 PM, and he says that I can crash overnight. The next morning I get on BART at 7 in the morning—earlier than I’ve been awake in weeks—and my mind wanders. Like an old-fashioned movie theater projector, it sends me images in flashes:
Paper sailboats I never learned how to make, drifting slowly away from me down a river I dare not swim to catch them.
Bigger boats—boats in the marina at Jack London Square one night in late January. It’s after midnight. There's a boy with a contagious smile standing next to me, and we have managed to walk from Berkeley to Oakland, sans intentionality or direction--an accidental fourteen-mile trek in the night.
Speedboat at Lake Chelan. I am a loudmouthed ten-year-old, hair cropped short, four years into glasses and still remarkably unable to pull them off. We ride the choppy waves and leave a bubbling wake as white and frothy as the foam seeping over the edges of a beer stein. We inner-tube and my sister flips off into the water, but when she comes up she’s smiling.
Sunny Capitola Beach and summer camp camaraderie and ice-cream-lipped-stickiness and two years later, summer camp crush putting his arm around me in the dark that flickers with Mary and Max, a black-and-white animated movie that almost makes me cry.
Sunlight pooling on the couch where I’m reclining lazily on New Year’s Day, watching Bob’s Burgers for two hours with friends, being completely unproductive and feeling no guilt--a guiltlessness I feel again in a gym, with the yoga instructor almost a year later who says gently, "Let your body do absolutely nothing," as we lie back into shavasana.
There are no pictures of these moments, and occasionally, I wonder if there should be. Social media is saturated with snapshots of euphoria, all gleaming smiles, glistening waves, pretty boats, and the prettier people sailing on them. Sometimes I find myself scrolling aimlessly and getting jealous of the pictures, of the people. There’s the white girl who everyone went to high school with, she of the big smile, bikini top and cutoff shorts. She's perched on someone’s shoulders, raising a PBR to the sky at a music festival in a desert. There are three teenagers from the cross country team, having the time of their lives as they crouch over a precipice about to dive into clear blue water.
And then there’s me, with my Europe vacation album and my grainy screenshotted Snapchats, posed pictures with my freshman year Hall Association, or TEDxRedmond, or a million other things but—there's no photo of the time I burst into laughter on the street while standing behind a couple who had just said a not-very-funny thing about Burgermeister but they were so happy and I was, too, happy to be happy and to be alive. Not everyone feels a sense of inner warmth from listening to the genial conversations of strangers. Happiness says a lot about your personality and values, more so than humiliation or anger or even grief. Fart in church, get maligned by an acquaintance, or face the death of a loved one, and those reactions are all predictable; but happiness, like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, is not a tame or predictable lion. The tl;dr version: sometimes, weird shit makes us happy.
But in a social environment that pushes for constant documentation, "pics or it didn't happen," all of us accruing digital stacks of photo evidence to rival FBI dossiers, I fear that we narrow our conceptions of what "true happiness" can be. We try too hard to cast our experiences in the light we see as common and acceptable--just check out the Instagram account/art project "Socality Barbie" to get an idea.
But there is so much joy to be found in idiosyncrasy, and the kinds of things that don't make for good pictures. My mom still asks me to take more photos, though, and I realize the value when I'm clicking through her monstrously large "iOS Photos" album on Facebook and find myself tugged back to moments in the past with greater clarity. It's good to have photos to look back on. But it shouldn't feel like a necessity when you're doing something you love, with people who matter, to catalogue every moment. I know many people who feel compelled to background themselves in social outings just so they can snap picture after picture. It may seem like a way to extend an experience, to forestall the inevitability of endings.
But gazing at pixels is no way to re-live a life.
Sitting next to each other in the dark, J and I start talking about mortality.
“We shouldn’t be sad that our footsteps in the sand will get blown over, we should be glad that we got to go to the beach at all,” I say slowly, with the feeling of unwrapping an exotic fruit and discovering what lies inside--realization and action, not one before the other.
It occurs to me as I’m walking away from the Prescott Hotel, down the streets of SF in the pale dim morning, air nipping around my ears like the breath of absent passersby, that he and I didn’t get a picture together.
But that’s OK, I think.
I blink, the flash goes off, and the camera I call memory fills with light.