It’s an old photo but a real one, not a digital image on a screen. It’s crumpled and bears the scars of time just as we do now. There is a group of us standing together. Well, it’s more like a huddle. It was taken in the West of Ireland. In January. On New Year’s Day 1992.
We were freezing and hungover but smiling and happy. At least that’s the feeling that radiates from the photo. But when I look at it now, all these years later, I wonder was is it just innocence rather than happiness? Blissful ignorance of the poison darts life was going to fire at each and every one of us in the photograph. Some of them got us soon after this photo was taken, others took longer to be delivered. Death, illness, marriage-cupid’s special dart, separation-it’s poison counterpart, childbirth, stillbirth, divorce, break downs, break ups, emigration, success at work, failure at home or the other way around.
We were still teenagers, at university, young and fresh faced, when sunlight fell pure and straight; neither zigzagging off fractured hearts nor damaged minds nor catching the edge of yet another new wrinkle; when time stood still and didn’t race ahead, faster, faster, everyday quickening its pace. STOP! STOP! you scream only to realise it’s silent, it’s not your voice but your soul screaming, keening, yearning for a time before loss, before illness, before death, a time before you realised how harsh life could be or that you carry it on your face, the lifeless eyes, the lined skin, the absence of a smile. Of course, you’re aware of the miracles too, love, children, friendship, achievements, but, always there is the pain – so much pain – where is it meant to go? Douse it, drown it, eat it, starve it, run from it, exhale it, pack it away, examine it, ignore it, be mindful of it, work through it, feel it, don’t feel it, talk about it, bottle it up, spew it all over the Internet. So many options, so many avenues but where do they lead? Not back to youth and beauty or to simplicity and safety or to optimism and hope.
Life was shiny then. It glittered with possibilities, opportunities, chances to be taken. That’s how I remember it, feeling filled with purpose, energy and drive. Now, in the middle, it has lost its sheen. It’s neither here nor there. The colour has faded. Energy is harder to muster. Beauty is harder to fake. Do you push or pull, stay or go, look ahead or look back? The middle is a difficult place. Straddling time and generations, you forget yourself.
Yet…there are always opportunities, they just present differently now, you must look harder for them. Meanwhile, all around, outside the hub that is your life, the energy of the world hums, drawing you out, trying to attract your attention, even if that same attention is distracted by social media, Donald Trump’s latest antics or a pressing family crisis.
Just look up, occasionally, from the page that is your life and remember – a time when photographs weren’t digital, a time when texting didn’t exist, a time before Sky Atlantic. Less technological times, but the demands of life were the just the same, young children, ageing parents, work, money, stress. They are wrapped in different paper now but they contents are the same. It’s just that we were young then and we didn’t know anything; we thought we did but we didn’t. We had no idea what was ahead, how to negotiate the maze. Maybe it was better that way. Instincts were honed along the way. They are sharper now. The edge of innocence worn off.
Would I do anything differently – maybe that’s a question better left unanswered. All I know is, I was never afraid of looking forward but as I look at this photo and in doing so look back, I am in awe of my courage as I try to remember myself.