As humans, we are lucky that nature bestowed upon us our five senses. These senses have the power to interpret the world around us in a myriad of ways, thus playing a large role in guiding our decision-making. When something smells foul, we know it is likely inedible. When we hear someone coughing, we know they are sick and we should avoid contact. When we feel heat coming from the stove top, we know not to touch the burners. (I did this once as a child, ended up in the emergency room with third degree burns, and therefore can speak from experience.)
There is also the so-called sixth sense, which some call the “gut instinct.” Years ago I was walking my dog at night on our normal route in our generally safe neighborhood in Vancouver. As we turned to head down a side street, Frank stopped and emitted a low, nearly inaudible growl. The hackles on his back stood at attention. I looked into the distance, but couldn’t see anything. He didn’t start barking, but something had his attention, and I began to feel very uneasy. Better safe than sorry, so I turned us around and started walking back home. As soon as we turned the corner of our house, he calmed down and was fine.
All of our senses send signals to our brains to help us decide a course of action. Each sense holds a certain amount of power in our lives, and I would imagine that everyone has one particular sense that is stronger for them than others. People have reported that when one sense is lost, the others are heightened.
Senses have the power to trigger memories. Certain sounds, smells, and visions can immediately bring us to a point in our past, sometimes so strongly that we relive that moment and the emotions connected to it. The smell of pipes and cigars reminds me of my Grandfather. The music of Sigur Ros always makes me think of the first boy I loved. My mom’s lentil soup makes me feel like I’m home.
I believe the most powerful sense is sight. A piece of artwork has the ability to elicit every emotion possible, from adoration to disgust to boredom. A beautiful sunset can evoke a sense of awe from even the most curmudgeonly person. The sight of a person crying can move another to tears.
Our sense of sight allows us to take in our surroundings in an instant. It can bring closure when there is none. I knew I could start the mourning process of my miscarriage when I saw the ultrasound screen showcasing my empty uterus. Unlike the first ultrasound that had a baby and a heartbeat, I did not want a picture to take home of this one.
While photographs can only be tied to the senses of sight and touch, but that does not mean it is not without a great deal of power. Simply put, a photograph is a moment captured in time. A camera gives us the unique ability to freeze frame a one nanosecond of our lives, and as long as that artifact remains intact, we can revisit that moment over and over again with more precision than our memory would allow without it. With smart phones and social media, those memories are at our fingertips.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, can it also be worth a thousand feelings?
What sparked this recent train of thought about the power of our senses and, in particular, the power of images, was a few nights ago. I was out at a job fair, and when I got to my car, I started trolling Instagram and saw that my former love had posted a picture at the Blazer Game. It wasn’t even a picture of him, but rather a picture that he took, and I immediately felt a rush of emotion.
Later that night when I returned home, I looked through my phone at the few pictures we took together over the last six months. Before the split, I kept a photo of us on my phone as my lock screen. It was at Christmas and he was kissing my temple. That is my favorite picture ever taken of us. It used to make me smile every time I looked at it.
I then scrolled to the picture we took at Pioneer Courthouse Square in front of the giant Christmas Tree. I started thinking about that night, the fun we had, the sweet words he said to me in the movie theater, words that are now lost forever.
The next picture I studied was taken the afternoon I found out I was pregnant. The intense longing I had to turn back time and go back to that day before everything began to unravel was visceral. There have only been few times in my life where I felt such an intense longing to turn back time.
I have also saved every single picture he sent to me on my phone, so I am left with all of these selfies and pictures of us that I know I need to destroy, or at the very least, hide away somewhere. There is a scene in Sex and The City after Carrie and Big have broken up. She is preparing for her first post-break up date and finds a photo of them in bed. Carrie says:
I was reaching for my favorite necklace when….I thought I’d destroyed all the evidence, but there it was. We’d taken it with a disposable camera, before it ever dawned on me that we could be disposable as well. It was then and there I created my own very first break-up rule: Destroy all pictures where he looks sexy and you look happy.
Should this be my new break-up rule as well? The last picture we took together was in Astoria on the pier. As Carrie says, I had no idea at that moment that we were disposable. I look at the smile on his face and ask myself, “Was that smile fake? Was he already arranging his exit strategy?” Perhaps this photo is what spurred the horrible dream I had last week that he left me for another woman. In the dream, I saw a photo of them on Instagram, and then he brought her to Astoria with us. I was heartbroken, and he tried to say she was just a friend, but I knew better. She was in her early 20s, brunette, and he was “now free to be with the real love of his life” because he wasn’t burdened with my pregnancy.
The visuals from that dream still haunt me. The dream was so vivid and realistic that when I woke up and collected myself, I got onto social media just to see if it actually happened.
Having such easy access to these visual memories on my phone does nothing but make me miss him terribly. On the other hand, I don’t need a photograph to know that I’m a glass case of emotion. Breakups are rarely easy, and this one is no exception. Of course, if I want to feel less loving I can always just look at the smug selfie he took in Vegas. I was never particularly fond of that photo, and in my search of social media to find out if my dream was real or fake, I saw he made it his Twitter and Facebook profile image. The picture is of him, in a cabana, wearing aviators, and he has this swaggering little half-smile that I want to bitch slap right off his face. Nice selfie, you smug son of a bitch. Is this your way of saying “I don’t give a damn?” I’ll give you something to smirk about. Wait… that doesn’t right. Goddammit.
These photos currently evoke so much emotion from me, but I know that won’t always be the case. As with every powerful emotion, I know someday this won’t hurt as much. Eventually the strong emotions that are wrapped around our memories like twisted tree branches will slowly unwind, and what will be left is unknown. When I look at those pictures a year from now, the emotions may be entirely different. Perhaps acceptance. Defeat. Resilience. A fond reminder of what we had, and not the painful stab of what we lost or what we could have had. It will move me in a way that is different from now. I might give my own half smile, or just sigh and put it away. Only time will tell.
As long as we are still breathing, there is the promise from time that the hurt and pain alleviate, and life will move forward with that person planted firmly in your past, instead of haunting you in your present. Case in point: I was looking through the images I have saved on my computer, and came across some photos of old boyfriends. One of them was with Rolando, when we went to Seaside for the day (I really should stop going to the coast with men). I began wondering if he and the
chubby troll nice young lady he is currently dating are still together. I worked some stalker investigative magic and found that they are indeed still together. I saw a few pictures of them, and instead of reliving the pain he caused, I felt a sense of calm and acceptance. Clearly, he and this woman work in away that he and I didn’t. If he had not broken it off when he did, eventually nature would have taken its course and we would have split up, and I’m thankful that it happened sooner rather than later. I only wish he had been more of a man about it, and not led me on. However, now that time has passed, the power of our old photos together, and the power of the photos he has taken with his new girlfriend, no longer hold anything over me.
Life moves on, whether we want to it or not. I wonder how long it will take before I can look at photos of my last love and no longer feel waves of hurt, anger, confusion, regret, second thoughts, and sadness. When I see his face, I see the future I was planning. I see the guy who had equal ability to make me laugh and make me want to punch him in the throat. I see the guy who I pictured as the father of my children. I see the guy I was willing to go the distance with, the guy I was willing to work though the hard times with and hopefully come out the other end stronger. I also see the guy I walked away from, in a move that I am still not sure was the right thing to do.
There is also this undeniable truth: We conceived a baby together. And then we lost a baby together. And then we lost each other. When that embryo formed, we become connected in one of the strongest, most primal ways possible. We talked about being a family together, the things we would do. We also fought and were scared and had no idea what we were doing. This is not the kind of experience you easily walk away from, nor is it one that you easily forget.
I don’t know what I am going to do with our pictures. Even if I dispose of them in some manner, there are countless other visual reminders around the city of Portland of which I can’t dispose. Certain parts of town will always be tied up with my memories of him. Even places we had planned to go to together. I don’t know who I am going to go to The Whiskey Library with, and even if I make it there, it will remind me of him.
The days of holding him physically next to my heart are over. I may even never lay my eyes upon him again. Maybe he is already holding another woman close to his heart, or maybe he never really held me close to his. Maybe I was always in competition with ghosts from his past, a contest that I was destined to lose from the start.
And maybe, just maybe, with the promise of time, my emotions will begin to fade. But even if that happens, I will always have that connection to him. When you imagine a family with someone, when you are actually planning for a family with someone, that kind of thing doesn’t dissipate into thin air, as if it never happened.
The future of our photos remains uncertain at this time. My new goal with my emotions is this: I will see how I feel about it in one week, and go from there. For now, I leave you with this quote, which describes this entire theme much better than I ever could.
We take language into our minds; we read words in the same internal voice with which we think, remember, pray. But when we look at paintings or photographs, the reverse is true. If the image corresponds to our most intensely personal, yet archetypal, yearnings and memories, we don’t take the image in, we move out of ourselves into the image, as though it were another world, a hologram whose forms of light are ghostly angels, or a dream whose physical reality is suggested by what we see on the surface of a canvas or a page. We connect with the image as though we had lost it within our own memories and are now surprised to find it represented outside ourselves, vital and luminous, charged with energy.
Jayne Anne Phillips
Until next time ~ B