I joined Instagram on a Tuesday, the night of a weekly social club in the Berkshires where members get together to share dishes that correspond to that week’s theme. It’s more relaxed than it sounds—the raison d’être behind the club’s founding wasn’t to show off our cooking skills, but to give us rural work-at-homers a reason to get out of the house and speak to human beings out loud.
Like many people nowadays, I live far away from dear friends and family, and admire the effortlessness with which Instagram allows people to keep in touch. Inspired by how much my husband enjoys the platform, I’d been thinking about joining for months, but the photo sharing app’s very ease felt like a betrayal to my paper, scissors, and gluestick self.
Now, I don’t think of myself as old-fashioned so much as a neo-Luddite. I’ve never owned an e-reader, but I figured out the mechanics to self-publish a book. Like many people with cellphones, I’d rather be texted than called, but I still write handwritten letters to my out-of-town friends. I haven’t owned a microwave since I left my parents’ house for college. When I need to heat something, I barbecue it on the grill.
In accordance with my subconscious policy to make things more difficult than they need to be, for the past six years I’ve owned a Blackberry. It didn’t ring when people called me, the Internet took approximately two and a half hours to load, and I could have taken better pictures with a cardboard box. It was pretty much an expensive pager, but I loved it to death. Its very uselessness as a social connector endeared it to me—because I couldn’t surf the web with it or even visit Facebook, I was accorded that rare feeling of unreachability when I was away from home. My iPhone-holding friends made fun of me for my outdatedness, and strangers in airports were constantly warning, “you better not be attached to it ‘cause Blackberry’s going DOWN,” but I marched on to the beat of my Qwerty keyboard drummer. While on a recent trip to Chattanooga to visit my family, however, my not-so-smartphone died. Whether its demise was brought on by exposure to the fried turkey dinner my dad likes to serve on Monday nights or it just couldn’t take the pressure of being the only Blackberry Bold 9650 left on earth, I don’t know, but no one in the local Verizon store could bring it back to life.
The only Blackberry with a keyboard left on the market was going to cost three times more than competing phones, and its new interface was supercharged with search engines and mobile apps that actually worked. Reluctantly—and I mean, near teary-eyed about it—I became the owner of an iPhone 5C. My husband sighed with relief: finally, I’d joined the modern world. I could Google Map my own directions instead of borrowing his phone before going somewhere new. And, more importantly, when one of us was travelling, we could stay connected to our newborn through the magic of FaceTime. And it took such great pictures, he said. Finally, he wouldn’t be the only one taking pictures all the time.
A longtime user of Facebook and Twitter, I’ve always preferred these two outlets to other social platforms because—to me, at least—they encourage story building through words. Twitter forces me to think (and write) succinctly, while Facebook has shown me that people favor optimism—educational takeaways that have influenced both my personal and professional life. But when it comes to image sharing, I get camera shy. Incorrigibly, and perhaps to my own detriment, I’d rather write a thousand words than share a picture. But, I just gave birth to a human person and her grandparents have needs. With my family divided between Tennessee and Florida, and my husband’s friends and relatives back in his native France, a filtered photograph was going to cost a whole lot less than a plane ticket. So I decided to become a photo sharer. I joined Instagram.
And so it was that I arrived at the Social Tuesday dinner with a casserole full of peanut rice and my Instagram app freshly uploaded, all ready to try out my image-sharing skills at our weekly potluck. I also arrived with my husband—I’d cut his hair recently, and he was showing grey—and my little four month-old, who had on mint footie pajamas and a fleece bear hat with two brown ears. Cute, I thought, surveying my small family. Ready to be seen.
While we set about complying with the hosts’ shoes-off policy, their dreamboat of a one-year-old reached into our car seat and touched my daughter’s face, before turning to his mother and going, “Baby?”
A striped cat refused to move out of the woven chair he was napping in by the fire; a friend went to sit down on him, and still, he didn’t move.
Someone brought beer samples from a business they’d soon be launching, with labels made by a graphic designer friend.
There was homemade pho soup, beef balls, white wine and Cointreau cocktails, spicy slaw. There was a string of vintage Christmas bulbs hung up over a bookshelf. Snow piled up outside the window. Imprints of large animals waited there, with claws.
I should get my iPhone, I thought, watching people mill around. I should capture this.
Once the pho was served, I went to the dinner table with a heavy heart. Heavy, figuratively, because the idea of photographing any of this made me nauseous, and literally heavy because by that time, I had my baby on my breast, a giant glass of water in one hand, and a beer crooked in my elbow.
“I’m picturing your Instagram,” a friend I had confided in earlier about getting the app said as I sat down, holding her hand up in the imitation of a camera about to go ‘click.’ I laughed, temporarily bolstered by the idea that strangers would like me, think of me as a fun-loving, stylish mother who’s able to do it all, before sinking back into the truth of my heartsickness—if I created one more place for people to like or reject me, I was going to crack.
I’ve never been fond of cameras. I’ve always thought they ruin things—like guests clanging their utensils against wine glasses at weddings and yelling at the newlyweds to “Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss!” Most of my favorite moments haven’t been photographed, and as such, they are mine to savor, draw strength from, and fictionalize as I wish.
I tried my hand at photography once in a semester-long class when I lived in Paris during my twenties, and I was very taken with the feel of the plastic tubs in the darkroom and the liquid slush of the chemical baths, the illicit feeling of working under a red light in the dark. I worked with dedication on the photographs I took, most of them black and white snapshots of an abandoned zoo I’d started spending time in on the outskirts of Paris interspersed with photographs of my legs in these red cowboy boots I was obsessed with: booted legs on a dirty mattress, in an empty bath.
But what I really liked about the photographic process was that I didn’t complete it: I purposely didn’t add enough fixer to the images so that, in time, the light would dissolve them, turning these fleeting moments into truly impermanent things. I still have the handmade album I presented the photos in at the end of the program, they’re glued onto black craft paper with captions in silver pen, but the photographs are nothing more than inky water stains, the color of mud on snow. Their imperfection reminds me of the years I spent in Paris—sometimes light-filled, often dark—and their malleability echoes the changing nature of memory itself. Using the passage of time as a filter, the photographs continue to change, as we all change, every year.
When I got married, we didn’t have a photographer at the wedding. We figured lots of people would be taking pictures that they could share with us, and that it would be fun to create an album of the day viewed through the eyes of our guests. Several days after the wedding, my stepmother called: Did I realize we hadn’t taken any family photos? Not a single one? Because my French in-laws were still in town, along with my mother and stepfather, she insisted that we correct this oversight with a staged photo shoot at my father’s house. She made my husband and I get dressed up again in our wedding finery, but my half siblings and extended family members stayed in their shirts and jeans. The photo is terrible. It’s absolutely ridiculous. But it’s also a cherished simulacrum of one of the best weekends of my life, a wedding we were too busy experiencing in all of its messy, unsure glory to photograph.
We returned home from the Social Tuesday dinner late, but I wasn’t tired. After I rocked my daughter to bed, I scrolled through my Instagram feed to try and understand the way this particular shared world worked. I saw that a writer friend of mine had found a great chili store in Texas. That my friend Catherine had started following my friend Jessica after I’d liked one of Jess’s pics. That Danica and Rufus had had hot dogs for dinner, the seventies-style filter applied above the hashtag, #throwback.
That night, I went to sleep with the seasickness that comes from seeing too much of your friends’ lives played out online. The loss of intimacies and other secrets whispered into a phone, the molecular wizardry that reduces all the flavors and complexities of a conversation into an unspaced phrase, prefixed.
I slept poorly, drawn out of thin dreams by my daughter’s cries. Sometime around dawn, I put the electric kettle on for tea and looked through our kitchen windows at our backyard where a new set of tracks from our resident bobcat traversed the hard-set snow. I’d caught him only once, on an afternoon in November while I was in our bathroom brushing my teeth. He was slinking across our property in the same line the snow reveals he still does now, pausing every once in a while to look in the direction of our house, at my face in the window, at our human smell.
When I’m up in the middle of the night, nursing my daughter, I look out her window with my breath held hoping to see the bobcat on his way through to somewhere else. The dead quiet of three thirty, my baby’s eyes closed against my breast, my hand holding the blind up just enough to see outside—it is a private moment in my not always private life, whose intimacy would be altered if I offered an image of it for other people to—or to not—like.
And so, twenty-four hours and two posts into my Instagram misadventure, I deleted my account. When it comes to taking photographs, I still feel the same way I did at the end of summer camp as a ten year-old, turning around the disposable camera my mother placed into my hand before I packed. A yellow box with twenty-four chances to capture what it felt like to swim and dance and sleep alongside strangers for the first time. What remains from that summer, in a green box with other photos, is an image of me with a too-big bathing suit on, standing by a dock, flanked by my friend Andrew, who I had a crush on, and the swimming instructor, Jessica, who I also had a crush on. But what isn’t captured there, nor in the twenty-three other photographs I inevitably took, was the morning of that snapshot, when I spent two hours diving through the rust-colored lake water to find Jessica’s dropped ring. No photograph to suggest how the silt felt between my fingers, the cold suck of the mud, the iron taste of lake water in my young mouth. Nothing tangible to show for the sudden shock of pleasure when my fingertips connected with something round and hard, or the bubbles rising towards the surface when I smiled, and put the ring on my own finger, and headed up for air.