When I was a kid, we had one small box of family photographs. It was bright red and we used to pull it out all the time — to flip through the pictures of my parents in Honolulu or Acapulco, looking tan and younger; and my brothers and I as infants, then at Disneyland, then in the stands of Shea Stadium. Those images — there were maybe 150 — were burned into our memories, and to this day register in my mind as the official document of our lives together as a family.
Cameras were heavy then. My father had a manual Nikon 35mm with a creaky leather case and a neck strap. It felt like a brick, so he didn’t bring it with him everywhere he went. That’s why there were only 150 snapshots in that box. And yet, in many ways, it was the very limits of that universe — the fact that there were so few pictures, and such obvious gaps — that drew us to flip through them so often, and remember every detail.
Things are different for me as a father. Within my phone alone, I have several camera options. My iPad shoots HD video. My wife and all of our friends have their cameras at the ready everywhere we go. One weekend away often produces more images of our kids than the entire contents of that little red box my parents kept.
The irony for me, though, is that we don’t pore over the digital pictures the same way we did with the film ones when I was a kid. I think it’s because our children — and most kids today — are over-documented. They’re used to being shot from every angle, every day. There is no limit to what’s recorded, no obvious gaps in time, and therefore no single place to look for that indelible record of our lives in pictures.
I don’t think I ever consciously made a decision that I needed an alternative way to document the over-documented, but one way or another I stumbled on something that works for me.
It’s doing it in longhand. I bought a stack of Moleskin journals and I fill them not with my innermost thoughts or views of the world, but rather with the daily headlines of what we did; maybe the funniest thing that was said or done; and not much more. I can’t capture everything, and put no pressure on myself to write every day (though I rarely go for more than four days without adding at least something).
There are days I might go into great detail about one thing — what our morning routine is like these days, for example. There are days when I have to catch up for four days and I write everything in shorthand. I’ll take the best of the photos on my phone or iPad, print them on copy paper and tape them into the Moleskin, embracing the tactile and the fact that they don’t have the same level of clarity as they do on screen.
I’ve been writing in these notebooks for five years now. When I began, I thought they would be great to look back on several years later, the same way those old pictures of my parents looking younger fascinated my brothers and me. What has surprised me is that looking back two weeks is just as good. These little notebooks have revealed just how much we forget, even when it’s so easy to capture almost everything with our cameras.
I’ve told friends that, in a fire, the Moleskins would be the first (and perhaps only) non-living thing I would make sure I had in my arms on the way out the door. I keep them on our bookshelf, in random order, and reachable to the kids so they can pull them down whenever they want. And whenever they do, I think of that little red box of family pictures, and I’m reminded of just how valuable the simple act of putting something down can turn out to be.