The lost trove

Not a writing-related post today, at least not explicitly. I’m departing tomorrow for summer travels. We’ll be in Italy, and my plan is to make a large amount of time while we’re there for writing. Best wishes to you, with love,

Bird tracks, April 13, 2013

In November of 2016, my computer crashed. Just a black screen that at the time seemed innocuous–better restart it, I remember thinking. Better shut it all the way down and reboot.

My friend in the school’s tech support office took the next hack at it, rescued what she thought here all of my files, then wiped the drive for a factory reset. It turned out that what she’d saved was a tiny fraction of the actual data.

Photos from 2011-16 were the principal loss. The five years since college graduation, my year teaching in Germany, two brief romances, the first years of my relationship with my now husband. Innumerable sunsets, clouds, and closeups of flowers, studies of a bottle of balsamic vinegar with the most beautiful drip-patterns, and a collection of selfies documenting with increasing insecurity the growing bald spot on the top of my head.

I also, temporarily, lost my novel. At that time, it was still in the drafting stages, still early. I was able to recover close to the most recent draft with a freeware program I found online. That was a crisis averted.

But losing the photographs was a kind of existential moment for me, which called into very practical question my relationship with my past. I could pay some significant sum for professional data recovery, or I could let it all go. It was a question I wrestled with that November, as Thanksgiving approached, through family gatherings and the ups and downs of normal life, as I photographed more sunsets and graded essays–those myriad moments that I had felt at one time worth documenting, whose memories I certainly retained, but not with the vividness or detail that a photograph recalls to the mind, how important was it to me to reestablish that tether?

My instinct told me to let the photos go. Don’t be too attached to things, it said. This is an opportunity to shed. There was the matter too of cost. Raised to be frugal, sometimes to a fault, it felt shameful to spend money on something so unnecessary. The pain of losing them will mellow. And yet, the mystery of them kept me wondering. What forgotten details, what forgotten moments and colors and faces and hidden meanings lay waiting in that trove? Perhaps I would never know.

To my husband, the choice was clear. A saver, a serial backer-upper, it was to him a cost worth bearing. Still unsure it was what I wanted, I paid Best Buy for an external hard drive containing near 50,000 files. Stripped of much of their metadata, separated by file type alone, the time any meaningful organization of them would require would undoubtedly be enormous. I left the drive in its box. I didn’t open it for two and a half years, until yesterday.

Partial lunar eclipse, December 10, 2011, Bitterfeld, Germany
My sister gave me this bottle of balsamic vinegar. As I slowly used it, it left beautiful designs on the inside of the glass.
Sunrise on January 18, 2012, Bitterfeld, Germany
My husband (then boyfriend) and I at the state capitol, May 14, 2013, for Governor Dayton’s signing of the Minnesota’s legalization of same-sex marriage

I spent two days feverishly scrolling through the images, removing the files too badly corrupted to recognize and the internet cache downloads (I was shocked how many photos of Donald Trump and Barack Obama were somehow lurking on my hard drive). In the end, I retrieved 21,437 images. A lot of these were already in my Google photos one way or another. I’m not sure how many otherwise lost photos were actually recovered.

One interesting mystery is a collection of images from November 15, 2012. They’re gray rectangles, bearing odd collections of detail–lines, crystal-looking structures, curious shapes. Some look like x-rays; others like arial radar scans. On November 15, 2012, what was I doing? I would have been partway through student teaching, living with my parents in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I’ve no idea where these images come from. Maybe you’ll recognize them.

What is it like to encounter relics of the past? Who are the people we find there? What new feelings emerge? There’s an interesting mellowing. There’s the slow visual change of the Jimmy that appears in them. There are smiles when I know I wasn’t happy. I’m not sure how much of the interior of me I can really see.

But then, maybe that’s too harsh. There are a huge number of nature images. Then and now, I can’t resist capturing the green of a fresh leaf or a view of the land through an ancient door. There are these certain continuities, these reminders of what has stayed more constant through the years. Perhaps there I am.

Fallen berries, November 10, 2013, at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in northern Minnesota

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