Between beauty and dream: On memories and the case for emotion over story.

Hold on to your hats and pants, folks, for we’re about to embark on a precarious jaunt through Big Thunder Mountain, which is my pet name for my unorganized frontal cortex. (Not that it’s anything as grandiose or awe-inspiring as a mountain, mind you, just that it’s rather doom-y and cavernous at times. But it sure likes to dream...)

Let’s start at the most natural of places: song lyrics.

If all you told was turned to gold
If all you dreamed was new
Imagine sky high above
In Caribbean blue...

It’s a verse from Enya’s ‘Caribbean Blue’, and after an admittedly hasty search for the meaning behind this song’s lyrics (something about Greek gods of wind), I found a commenter who described the song as being “Between beauty and dream...”

And I was like, Damn, that’s exactly how I feelz about it.

This song for me evokes a strong nostalgia, the way only a few songs can, for specific periods of one’s life. This song makes me long for a time when I was ten, and newly arrived to the UK from Bulgaria.

While preparing for our life-changing journey to the new land, I’d been writing letters back and forth with my dad, who moved to Leeds a few months earlier than us, to secure housing (a through-terrace house on Sunnyside Road in Bramley), transportation (a shiny blue Ford Escort), and tales of exotic and sprawling grocery stores, complete with details like sliding doors and conveyors on which the goods rolled to the cashier. (ASDA sure delivered)

If I'm making it sound like I was arriving from life in the caves, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. I had a tech-savvy childhood, for instance. Bulgaria was the part of the Communist bloc tasked with the manufacture of a large chunk of the bloc’s computers, after all. By age six, I was playing video games just like my Western friends, and my dad was writing programs on our little computer to help us do our math drills.

But, yes, there were differences, and apparently the grocery store fables are what really gripped me about the UK. That and the thought of starting horse-back riding lessons (or horse-riding, as the Brits more parsimoniously call it).

I’ve predictably digressed...

When we arrived in the UK, everything was new (well, except the furniture, such as our orange and brown stripy sofa, which looked as if it came straight from the back room of a 1970s bingo hall). We had a fancy new CD player. We’d never had a CD player before, and my dad had purchased three CDs to go with it. Dire Straits, Jean-Michel Jarre, and something else none of us remember. I then borrowed a compilation CD of top chart hits of '91 from the babysitter. The first track was ‘Caribbean Blue’ by Enya.

The dream-like nature of the song, the gloomy weather of the UK in November (the month we arrived), along with the mystery surrounding our new life... it all melds into one ginormous emotive experience. She sings of blue, we saw but grey, yet all we felt was hope.

A few days ago, when the snows began to melt and the rains started in Kingston, I had an inexplicable return to that time, along with a compulsion to play ‘Caribbean Blue’ on repeat.

As I walked my dog through the nearby fields later that day, taking deep inhales of the moist air, I realized what it was that possessed me: olfactory memories. The smell of damp tree-bark: It was the smell of the UK. It was the memory of my middle childhood, of a time in my life that was full of dreams and possibilities, and though it was chock-full of the unknown, nothing about it felt insurmountable.

And now we are here: The purpose of this post. It is to make the case that - at least for me - emotion can trump story. Sure, I live to tell stories, with words and with images. But the most impactful things in my life are inseparably tied up with emotions. Even the best of stories. If you ask me what my favourite photographs are, of mine or of other photographers, I’ll point to ones that evoke emotion over story. Almost every time.

The images and stories and songs I yearn for are somewhere between beauty and dream. They don’t need to be coherent, in the same way dreams don’t need to be. Ever try to tell someone your dream? Yawn. Even if you’re a damned good storyteller, you’ll induce some snoozes. The thing that compels you to tell someone your dreams is the feeling you’re left with when you open your eyes. It’s the emotion that grips you, but that's attached to an ineffective or half-baked story. That emotion is hard to put into words. But could it be done through music, sound, or pictures?

A client recently left a review on my Google page:

“Other photographers have captured what my family looks like; Viara captured what my family *feels* like.”

That is high praise indeed, for someone like me who lives on feelz.

So now Enya’s lyrics take on their own meaning for me. If all you told was turned to gold, why then you’d have the power to spread the riches of joy and inspiration and beauty to the world. If all you dreamed was new, life’s possibilities would be utterly vast, and you would never think of anything as insurmountable.

Your world would be a boundless sky, in bright Caribbean blue, waiting: to be explored, to be experienced, to be tamed.

I wish you peace and love on this adventure, and all the limitless freedoms of childhood memories.

Here are a few pictures taken with my iPhone while on a recent walk through that near-by field, on a sunny day with the kids.



Further (and sometimes more legitimate) reading:

A Psychology today piece on Music Evoked Nostalgia,

A bit about the science of music-evoked memories,

A New York Times piece on Bulgaria’s lofty computer manufacturing goals circa 1985,

A Google Streetmap view of our little house on Sunnyside Road, Bramley, UK.

And a link to Enya’s Caribbean Blue (which I continuously misspell as ‘Carribean’, go figure)