The Angst of the Aperture

Written in 2011, England

I’m slightly tortured every time I push down the silver button to open the shutter on my camera. Just when I think I’ve captured something, some moment, I’m reminded of time and pricked by its spinning wheel. In the moment that light hits the aperture, I remember that the picture I take is just a fragment of the present moment-- bound by the arbitrary edges of a rectangular frame. It goes without saying, but you can never take enough pictures to truly "capture" any moment, any more than you can capture river water in a sieve.

I am traveling—I have been for the past seven weeks. Often, I have asked myself how I can best keep these moments and sensations stored for later retrieval. How can I record the instant in a way which will communicate them meaningfully to others?

I'm no photographer, but I practice, as other tourists do, the habits of snapping photos, recording videos, and purchasing souvenirs. I have, as faithfully as possible, kept a journal and a travelogue. I have kept ticket stubs, gathered rocks, pressed flowers, and colored little pictures to my journal in an attempt to preserve the moments and store up what I’ve lived through for future recollection—because I know from past experience that this preservation doesn't always happen naturally.

Of course, we are creatures whose existences are fueled almost solely by our memories and we rise above all other species because we can recall our experiences.  As a student, I've learned many methods of memorization. But memorizing and remembering are not the same thing-- I've misplaced and left behind towels and camera chargers at hostels because I forgot about them. My attention was elsewhere-- and it just happened. Forgetting just happens, and I know that as hard as I try, I will forget many things in the months and years following this trip.

I don't totally trust my mind, which is why I take pictures, keep scraps, and write. Since I can’t stop time, I hope that gathering touchstones and otherwise "capturing" the moments will fence in my memories and corral them tightly together.

But to go the route of gathering and capturing also has it's complications. Memory cards, like the human mind, are prone to corruption and have capacity limits of their own. Writing requires a sacrifice of time which could otherwise be spent forming new experiences. If I spend my time drawing the landscape, I cannot, at the same time, use my feet and explore it. If I gather rocks on the ground, my eyes miss the sky above me. I could wait an entire afternoon for the lighting to be just right to get a great picture—but then I would be staring through the camera lens and not at the light from the sky itself.

I echo Wallace Steven’s sentiment:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling,
Or just after.

What forges a memory? Do I make the moment what it is? Do I fashion the memory, or does it fashion itself?  I don't know. And maybe it's not important. Eventually, all things will be swallowed up, either by time or by the sun exploding or by the big crunch. I know. Everything moves, everything changes, all things must pass away. But it all still matters to me.

I stare out across a bay in Cornwall. The day is windy so the waves of the water are crested with white foam. I can hear the seagulls and the whishing of the waves, like a mother endlessly trying to coddle a stubborn child to sleep. It’s beautiful. I can’t explain to you everything about this moment and its beauty, but I can give you that.

Future self, I pray you will remember. To both of you, try to imagine. Imagine a little wave that you’ve singled out from your high precipice above the bay. Because you love the moment, you love the wave. Even as it crashes down into the water, disappearing from the blue, you love it. Another fills its place-- this one you also love. You love the moments and the waves, because the light they make will create the snapshot you'll hold onto. And in the end, you realize that you are loving what can truly never be captured, so you drink it in with gratitude. Free from pixilation or rasterization, you fill yourself with the waves, drink them in, allow them to astound you. And then you again come to the understanding of this bittersweet truth-- to love a moment, you must love the change it brings as well. What gives me a moment—time—also gives the waves the ability to play upon themselves, to be waves. So I love the very thing that fills me with angst—time. 

Again, Wallace Stevens says it better:

"Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?...

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting sleeplessly."

Without change, without death, without cycles and seasons, there could be nothing to love. Because of time, there will be more moments and more things I will be able to love. They will rise up into being, frothy and present, and then recede again. I cannot love the little waves without also loving the ocean beneath them. They are the same. 

Similarly, the surface of the moment may recede down into the depths of a subconscious mind just as the particular water droplets may sink deeper into the sea. Both may be hidden and tucked away, never to return or be retrieved. But I believe that each moment, like each molecule of water, somehow finds a way to be renewed, in the way that waters of a Roman bath that bubble warmly up somehow after thousands of years-- even through thick layers of hard sediment.

Like water, memories have a way of rising again, called to mind by a smell, sound, or texture. And the final consolation-- that even if I will not be able to remember all of these things, the knowledge that these things did happen is enough. For example, I know that my feet, resting side by side, walked each step of a mountain. Somewhere in my bones, my feet carry the knowledge of that fact, and they are more beautiful for it (Isaiah 52: 7) .  They carry no blisters or signs of having climbed two mountains, yet there they are, bearing my body day in and day out.


There is a kind of love which can overcome the fears, doubts, and troubles of dealing with time--a kind of love that can make a friend even of death and change.

Sang the Eagles: “You may lose and you may win, but you will never be here again.”

So take it... easy. Without too much force, and with love.

We close our eyes for a moment, and that moment is gone. But the moment gives as it takes, and really, the present moment, in it's fragile and fleeting beauty, is all that we have. There is nothing wrong with using a camera -- if we remember the nature of their purpose and do not rely on them to totally preserve what cannot be.

So for the rest of this trip, I’m opening my arms as wide as my aperture. I’m going to love as many of the moments as I can, and let them fall as they will into the satchel of my life and my memory.

Do you feel time?  Here it comes-- and goes.