Saturday, December 17, 2016

Just Yesterday

I'll never forget a conversation I once had with my grandmother.

“As you get older,” she said, looking out the car window as I, a newly licensed driver, cautiously navigated traffic, “time goes faster and faster.”

She continued: “I look in the mirror and think, 'Who's that old lady?'  I feel like I was your age just yesterday.”

Just yesterday.

As another year draws to a close, I'm starting to understand that she wasn't just using a figure of speech.  Time really does seem to be accelerating, like an evening toboggan ride down an icy hill.  My experiences are becoming more abridged, more porous. Last week can blur into last month, or an event fifteen years ago. 

I think it has something to do with cognitive processing.  If you are blessed to live long enough, the activities of your day-to-day life begin to wear familiar patterns in the carpet of your mind.  So as you're washing and putting away the same dishes 1500 times, or saying goodnight to your spouse 10,000 times, or celebrating your birthday for a cumulative six weeks, perhaps your brain starts to deal with all of this information in a way that's the most economical. Maybe it begins to take out the similarities the way that digital compression takes out redundant pixels:

When you're younger, you don't notice this as much because your data set (i.e., life experiences) isn't large enough for you to lose track of your files (i.e., memories).  A seven-year-old can recall nearly every single book they've ever read because, well, there's only three years of reading to sort through.  And because those first books were so different and new to a developing mind, and because they were undoubtedly read over and over, those stories and pictures were emblazoned on the reader's memory for the rest of their life, even if they can't recall the exact titles.

Yet if you ask me a comprehensive list of every book I've read in the last decade (several hundred?),  I'd be sure to overlook a few.  Shorter experiences such as movies are even more challenging. And the instant a picture is taken with one's phone? Perhaps lost for good. “Photo or it didn't happen” has become a catch-phrase of our distracted modernity.

In a way, I think this is why painting from life can be so meaningful.  Instead of merely watching a screen or taking a drive-by selfie, one has to engage the scene in a more purposeful way.  Even at my fastest pace on my smallest paper pad, it can take at least a couple hours to complete a painting in the field. Note-taking, composition-finding, paint-mixing, outline-drawing...and of course laying down the brushstrokes themselves. It involves such an amount of effort and focus that, by the end of it, I feel as though I've not only created a record of a place; I've inhabited it.

Later on, when I view the work again in a different context, framed and hung on a wall, it's almost like looking at a pinned butterfly specimen.  While others see a motionless picture, I recall a living scene.  Once again, I hear the spruce boughs whisper, or feel the sun's warmth on my face.  I smell the river mud or the ozone after a departing storm.  It's more than a picture. It's a direct connection to an actual experience that was lived-out in both space and time. It's a memory made visible through the filter of my existence.

And perhaps...just perhaps, by slowing down to think and observe and create, my perception of time will do likewise.

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