I am one of those people who always has 3625714 internet tabs open at once.
Tabs from two weeks ago. Four weeks ago. Six weeks ago. Articles I don’t remember clicking and will likely never read. Google searches for things like “fun facts about armadillos” and “why is the sky blue.”
I collect seashells and stones. Pennies, in case they prove to be lucky.
I bought myself a bouquet of pink roses on my 24th birthday. The buds now sit in a small mug on my dresser, their blushing petals crisped to copper around the edges. My birthday was more than six months ago.
I have volumes of voicemails saved on my phone: from my parents, my sister, my friends. One from my grandmother. One from an ex whose face I haven’t seen in years.
I like to hold onto things. That’s why I write. That’s why I photograph. Perhaps it’s a learned fixation, instilled by my longtime journal-keeping habit, but it feels more like an inborn compulsion.
Collecting is a way of bracing against impending loss. Documenting is a method for fossilizing significant moments in the ever-changing story of my life.
Humans are natural pack rats. When we’re not amassing physical stuff, we hoard memories, nowadays mostly in digital form. We gather data. We pile up proof that we exist.
We are all afraid of life’s frailty and fickleness. We are all battling with our impermanence and insignificance. And so we grab for armor.
Fancy new apps and technologies keep emerging to feed our desperate need to hang onto temporary experiences, from Instagrammed ice cream cones to Snapchatted sunsets to riverside runs tracked via Fitbit. This way, we can pick the events apart, edit them, and probe them for deeper meaning.
Adulthood naturally urges us to feel oppressed by the passage of time and alarmed by the trivial transience of things, and these modern media compound the effect. I am grateful to have grown up before the dawn of the smartphone: as kids, most of us still knew the bliss of being fully present in a moment without worrying that it was slipping from our fingers. We played without needing to publicize the proof.
Back then, a sunset still maintained its ephemerality, and ice cream cones weren’t permanently frozen in the Instagram icebox. A rose was simply a rose, not a prop for a photographic souvenir.
Have you ever watched toddlers toss pebbles into the ocean? They can spend hours throwing stones, admiring the ripples, then throwing more stones, again and again. They’re delighted by their ability to make a splash. It doesn’t matter that the splash is temporary, and it doesn’t matter who’s watching.
Social media says our lives should read like gripping narratives. They should be juicy enough to follow. That old proverb about a tree falling unheard in a forest has taken a new shape: If a girl makes a good joke and no one is around to Snapchat it, does she even make a sound?
We all want to make a sound. We all want to know that we’ll leave a mark, as if collecting matter suggests that we matter.
And so, as we continue advancing into modern adulthood, it becomes more and more difficult to let go of what we don’t own. To accept that something as luscious as a sunset or a decadent dessert is only fleeting, cannot be regulated, and is not truly ours.
I think it’s okay to stockpile memories of sweet moments. We never know when we might need them.
I like seeing those wrinkled roses on my dresser as a touchstone to show me who I was and who I am. I like that I can listen to my sister’s voice on my phone when I need a reminder that I am loved. And I don’t plan to stop photographing technicolored skies anytime soon.
But I think we need to notice when our symbolic scrapbooking begins to overwhelm our enjoyment of real-time living. We grip so hard for control of our daily narratives that we can become unsure of what’s truly important. We’re not certain what to hold onto and what to let go. And so we try to save everything, and in our anxious struggle to box things up, we neglect the here and now. We miss the shifting skies because we view them solely through our screens. We only see the birthday treats for the Facebook albums. We clutter our dressers — literal and metaphorical — with too much stuff, and it collects dust that clouds over the present.
Sometimes, a rose is just a rose. The sky never looks quite as vivid on film, anyway.
I am learning to embrace the deliciousness of the ephemeral. I am practicing hugging life tight, then releasing.
I am trying to savor sans saving. Revel in the temporary. Love hard and let go.
I think the secret is making marks every day in small and fleeting ways — tiny impacts you can’t hold onto, though they’re deeply felt. For example:
Take an old book from your shelf — one you’ve finished and no longer need — and write an anonymous uplifting note to a stranger on the inside of the front cover. Drop it somewhere on the sidewalk when nobody is looking.
Help a random neighbor carry groceries up the stairs.
Save your lunch leftovers. Find someone on the street who seems to need them. Hand them over without a word.
Compliment someone’s outfit. Tell her that she’s rocking her red lipstick. Tell him that his tie brings out his eyes. Walk away before they catch your name.
You can’t hold onto these miniature moments, and the memories fade slowly. But their weightless warmth remains. Their weightless warmth remains.