In 2005 I climbed in to a tiny metal boat on the sea near Baja, Mexico with my mother and 10 other people. We all balanced our seat bones precariously and pretended we got into tiny metal boats every other day, with our chests squeezed by scratchy orange life jackets. I was 15, and my mom was turning 50. We had come to see the grey whales, and after a motored ride out into the sea, our guide killed the engine and the boat just drifted. There was a time of waiting. Two other boats were small dots on the rolling sea. Then the whales came. As one after another surfaced next to our boat, revealing a smooth barnacled nose, skin grey like the stone on the floor of the creek bed, every person in that boat started snapping photos. I sat sullenly, wanting to touch the whale (and I did, and so did others), furious in that way you can only be as a young teenager that all these people had come so far only to refuse the experience, only to take a pile of photos that we all knew weren’t going to come out very well anyways.
This is how we rank value in the western world: what matters most is the prize you bring home, the evidence that supports the case, the line in the resume or the photo in the album.
We have forgotten how to sit in a tin can on the surface of the ocean while the great grey whale surfaces. We have forgotten how to reach out our hand, how to place it on the cold barnacled nose, how to accept an offering, how to take communion.
Earlier this week, a friend gave me an old smartphone. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice one, and it works great. Up until this moment, I had only ever used clunky and near-obsolescence ‘dumb phones,’ or ‘basic phones’ (if you talk to a Cellular Sales Agent). I still use a ‘basic phone,’ for phone calls, but now I have a smartphone camera and an Instagram feed (@lwhulse) at my disposal and let me tell you, it has changed my life in only a few days.
With a camera constantly in hand, everything becomes a documentable moment. Joseph in the window, Joseph in the rocking chair, Joseph scribbling on a sketchpad with a pen, Joseph asleep for his nap.
But the choice between experiencing and documenting is ever present, especially with my son: when he sees the phone, everything stops for him to try to get it. When I ultimately won’t let him have it, he dissolves into tears (greater or lesser depending on his sleep and hunger levels). He always recovers quickly, but the offering of communion is long gone. To make the choice to document means to actively destroy the experience.
I would never go so far as to say that you should not photograph your children. Part of our work as parents is to hold the memories of their early lives for them, until they can be gifted into the child’s hands when they care old enough to carry them themselves. And it is custom to document our children at every turn: in photos and on growth charts, in footprints and handprints and scraps of paper with first drawings, first letters, first words. We keep baby books, irregularly perhaps but earnestly, frantically, between nap times we record their first words, first foods, first adventures.
I have not learned yet how to tread the line between communion and record-keeping. I know that I love to look at photographs of our life and to remember. I also know that I love to wake up in the morning with my son next to me, and to just lay there next to him marveling at the inexplicable numinous.