A few years ago I found $50 I had tucked into a dictionary long before. I had hidden it there years before as a little gift from me to me, which I knew I’d forget putting there but would find one day. “When I do”, my past self thought, “I will probably feel loved and remembered.” I went to the bank and pulled out the money, tucking it in between the letters L and M, tucked it away for a future self who didn’t yet exist.
Two years later, as I was looking up the spelling for Langoliers, (a horrible movie!), the bill sussurred out from between the pages and tickled itself all the way down my legs and onto the floor. I felt the kindness and compassion of my former self flooding into the present moment, like a sweet, chalky perfume I’d once loved and nearly forgotten. It was me who had so thoughtfully made this effort, who who really cared about me all the way back then. I felt swept up in compassion from my own, former self. In that moment, I was at a time of struggle which I could never have foreseen back then.
It’s much easier to look backward – after all, we know the person we were before. Or do we? And looking into our future selves is even more nebulous – we know we’ll be the same person, sort of, but that person does not really yet exist. In six months from now, maybe we’ll have put on a pound or two over the holidays, but still be basically happy. Or perhaps will we find it in 16 years, after, who knows, a major financial windfall and the start of a new love affair, or after we’ve strangely gotten into the most amazing shape of our lives and finally gotten that job we always want?
Or maybe, when we stretch out our thoughts to ourselves in the future, we’ll reach into a void of pain and loss. When we stretch out to the future, we grasp the wispy suggestion of what and who we might in general. That person might be happy when they find this gift… but then again, she may need a little encouragement… or maybe a lot.
Sipping Coffee with Shadows
Why do self-portraits matter? Why do we really do them? Is it just to capture a moment, as if we were a tourist visiting our own lives? “Here I am, with my new hat!” Or “Look at me! I’ve in the bathroom at a fancy hotel!”
Maybe. But in a deeper way, I believe we photograph ourselves to tell ourselves our own story, to ourselves – it is always the story of I. The true purpose of self-portraits is to make a gift of ourselves to our future selves. Maybe, when we create a self-portrait, we are trying to see into our own eyes – the ones that will be, down the road, one nebulous, unknown day. When we photograph ourselves, we are talking to ourselves across time and, truly, across realities – in the moment we shoot a self-portrait, we are real – flesh and blood. But our future self is only the tiniest twinkle in our own eyes now. And if we try, yes, we can love that person. Loving our future selves will make a present day, some day, just that much sweeter.
But today, in the present moment, our past self is really only a memory, and the only proof that we lived exists in the form of photographs.
What if, some day in the future, when we really need it, we feel the hand of our real self from the past touching our lives? Who was thinking of us, loving us into the unknown days and years ahead? What if, through a self-portrait of encouragement, we make a tangible reach from the past into the current moment, when the two of us come together, our eyes looking into our own eyes, past to future, and back again? Maybe when we look into our own eyes from the past, we will feel the hair brushed from our face today, a warm hand tugging on our sleeve, an old friend arriving unexpectedly on our porch, bringing us chocolate cake on a Sunday morning for no good reason at all except that they love us?
But who does that? Who loves someone who doesn’t even exist yet? Who leaves them gifts they know they’ll find?
You do, that’s who.
And this is the real reason for self-portraits. We do them for love.
Even more so if the gift you give your future self is simply encouragement and kindness when you might need it the most. This is what I discovered last week when I found a self-portrait I’d shot two years ago in Spain. I was standing on the balcony of a beautiful room overlooking the Mediterranean coast, in Begur. I’d just attended a travel writer’s conference and we were given gorgeous accommodations in exchange for writing about the our experiences in each hotel. I couldn’t believe my life had taken me there. I couldn’t believe my feet were on that balcony and my eyes were seeing that sumptuous blue water, or that my skin was soaking in the buttery Spanish fall sunlight. I couldn’t believe my life, somehow, through some luck and a lot of hard work, had gotten me there. It was blowing my mind. I picked up a camera, not to capture a snapshot of the place. It was a private moment. I was alone, and I wanted to say something about what I felt. I wanted to talk about my life in the poignant silence of a photograph.
Yesterday I found the photo as I was looking preparing to edit something else. I didn’t even remember taking it. I opened it up and what I saw was strength, certainty, and calm in my face; I looked happy. I remember feeling as if I were resting deeply in my own perfect path, as if at last I were resting deeply in the arms of my dreams. I saw something else too – the lack of questions in my eyes. No. I saw no questions. I saw only answers. I made that self-portrait not to share where I was, though I was on a balcony in Spain, overlooking the sea. I made it as a statement of encouragement, a one-way conversation between me and me, that would occur at an unknown date in the future. That date was today.
I’m at the tail-end of two full years living nothing but questions, one tumbling across my life right another, and another, a turbulent river I can barely seem to climb out of. It’s felt as if my mind has been drowning in unknowns for so long that I’d forgotten what it’s like not only to know, but to not even need to know. I didn’t remember I was that person – the person who knew, until I looked into those eyes – my own eyes, two years before.
Yes. I feel loved and remembered, by me, by my past me.
And so, where are you? Are you strong right now? Do you have even a moment here or there that you feel certain? Happy? Strong? Confident? Or even just amused by and affectionate toward yourself? Or do you wish you did?
When you do, tell no one your plan: grab your camera and dress up a little, for yourself. Go to a place you love and feel loved – even if it’s the tiniest corner of your own kitchen. Relax in your chest. Hold the camera before you, and relax your eyes. This a private moment, between you and you. Look into and straight past the lens into your own eyes, your own soul, your own future self who will need this one day. As you look, relax your irises, feel them really relax and dilate. Then, when you feel kind and open and at ease, pick up the camera, bring it close to you, with your elbows bent – and imagine – know – you are speaking to yourself through yourself, one into another, now to then. Don’t worry about smiling. Just breathe your kindest, softest breath of gentle, loving kindness toward your own heart, and take the shot.
Don’t look at it yet. Put the camera down. If you felt uneasy or worried, put the camera down. Have a sip of tea. Look out at the yard. You live, and you are good. Shoot again when you feel you have more to say to yourself, when you feel more open, when you arrive at the feeling you want to wrap up in a soft bundle and offer it through your eyes.
Now you can review the photo if you can. Be careful not to judge yourself now – you want to stay very open and gentle in your feelings. If you would prefer a different moment, then relax, breathe, try it again. Sip that tea.
When you feel you have really captured a feeling you love and cherish that you might like to feel again one day, save it on your computer to a file called A Gift To Me, or Photos To My Future Self. If you can, email it to yourself on a certain day, or attach it to a calendar appointment 1 year from now. Surprise yourself with it. Print it, and put it in a book you know you’ll read, and label the photo like a gift card: “This too shall pass,” or “You are good,” or “Hi. It’s me. I like you.”
Save this photographic moment of encouragement somewhere you’ll be sure to find again one day. In this way, with a camera, say yes to kindness and save it for a rainy day. It’s a gift made by your hands, and your eyes, and it’s just for you, bundled up warmly in the form of a loving, thoughtful photograph.
One day, you too might feel loved and remembered by the past, who cared for you before you even existed.
If you try this, or ever have, write me and tell me your story. I’d love to hear it.
Only good things,