In my favorite photo of myself, I am 17. Taken from the doorway of my bedroom, I am seen sitting on my unmade twin bed, leaning against the wall, one knee propped up as a stand for the book I’m reading. I’m wearing a black tank top and a pair of purple plaid pajama shorts that I still, somehow, own.
My dad took this photo of me, barging into my bedroom and snapping it in an attempt to show off a new camera he had bought — one we couldn’t afford, but which he was proud to own, regardless.
I hadn’t time to finish the sentence I was on to look up before he pressed the shutter button and walked out with a self-satisfied laugh. In that way, the image is a true candid.
I love this photo so much because it captures my adolescence in an un-posed, unfiltered, unplanned state. I’m not posing for a video in my friend’s bedroom, or taking an angled, over-exposed selfie for the internet, or even arching my eyebrows in a way that I mistakenly thought diminished the size of my forehead. I’m just me: a bit bored, probably; a bit restless, definitely, holed up in the one space I had that felt truly mine — a childhood bedroom.
The daughter of two strict Evangelicals and the eldest of five children, I spent a lot of my teen years barricaded up in my bedroom, where I read and journaled and dreamed of what life would bring me when I had more freedom and fewer children to look after. In the photo my dad took of me, I am surrounded by notes and clippings I had stuck to my wall with invisible scotch tape, reminders of the relationships and world that existed outside my family’s home, a place that often felt impenetrable.
It’s funny to me now that I love that photo so much in the face all that is attached to it. Despite the fact that at the time all I ever thought about were ways to get out of that room, out of that decrepit townhouse, out of a living situation characterized by anger and religion and substance abuse — a home life that I’d later spend all of grad school trying to make sense of — that I still view that flashing memory with a distinct sense of nostalgia. It’s funny to me how quickly we can assign meaning to something that wasn’t probably ever there in the first place.
Yet while I intellectually know these things, whenever that image pops up across one of the many channels that indulge time-hopping nostalgia with a dizzying devotion, all my memories are tender. Perhaps a testament to how deeply capitalism can warp one’s psyche, I see a young me who does not yet know what it feels like to live in a home that is not ruled by fear, who doesn’t know if she will achieve any of her goals but who is hellbent on working tirelessly toward them. And I feel such longing for that state of being, such deep admiration for my own half-baked self, that it actually makes me sick to think about.
In the sleepy town of Hopedale, Massachusetts, near where I grew up, there is a small, mostly unremarkable road called Progress Street. It’s a quiet, residential stretch sandwiched between the town pond and a rotting mill complex that towers over both. You have to walk past this street in order to fully circumnavigate the pond, whose hiking trails troublingly begin and end on two different roads.
My parents were fond of walking the pond trail when I was little, and every time we reached the end of the path and had to take the sidewalk to get back to our car, my dad would make the same, stupid joke.
Motioning at the street sign, which indicated that cars could only travel in one direction, he’d laugh: “Progress is a one-way street.”
It’s a corny, half-truism that has for better or worse adhered itself to my memory. It’s also, for better or worse, the phrase that comes to mind when I look at that photo of my 17-year-old self sitting in a bedroom that you couldn’t pay me to return to, but which evokes a sense of preciousness, regardless. It’s the phrase that comes to mind as the decade turned a week ago and I found myself scrolling and scrolling through throwback photo after throwback photo scrawled across every single one of my social media feeds — some of which were published by myself.
The uneasiness has left me wondering if, despite the importance lent to our own proverbial footprints, the growth we are supposed to congratulate ourselves for year after year after year, as if it weren’t in some ways totally inevitable, whether nostalgia isn’t just a fool’s errand disguised as reverie; in other words, whether looking backward for meaning isn’t just an attempt to go the wrong way down Progress, a one-way street.
Monica Erin Busch is Manqué’s founder and editor. She is a journalist, a teacher, and along with photo editor Mary Stathos, a podcaster, too. You can follow her everywhere under the handle @somethingmonica, and subscribe to her newsletter here.
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