I’m locked out of myself. I punch in another series of searches into Google, blotching my keyboard with clammy hands. It’s unavailing, I know, yet I continue clinging onto my last waning bits of false hope — to find a solution, a way to reach into the void and snatch back years of memories I’ve just inadvertently lost. But I can’t.
Many months ago, I was revelling in the summer’s scent of fresh lawn clippings, the droning legatos of passing airplanes and heat hives inflamed by the sun’s abrasive rays. After I walked to my nearest stop and boarded the bus, I plopped on my headphones and shuffled through my playlist, a roulette of songs from various albums including Oddinary and System of a Down’s self-titled.
The coppery miasma of the bus’s interior and the engine’s roaring rumbles duly accompany the seat’s rugged texture, a dark lapis coated under navy rectangular patterns. Spaced out and unbothered, I gazed at the passing scenery while counting the familiar local landmarks from the bus’s vista.
At a residential road flanked by parked vehicles on both sides, a goose led a brood of dirty yellow goslings onto the sidewalk. The driver halted the bus at a comfortable distance behind them, watching the goslings trip up the grey and white speckled curb.
I drew my phone from my pocket to record a video of the geese. Before I could raise my phone to my face, the music from my headphones suddenly cut out. My phone had died, which stifled the sound being sent to my headphones.
I tapped the screen.
I continued to peck at it, pausing a few seconds later in bemusement.
About a minute later, my device reanimated on its own. This was a first in my phone’s two-year tenure. I quickly dismissed the peculiar incident and rebooted my music app, more crestfallen at the missed opportunity to capture the goslings fluttering onto the pavement.
But over the next few months, this became a common occurrence. Whether I’d be doomscrolling through social media or drumming up school notes during lectures, my phone would spontaneously power down before coming to life again shortly after, a malfunction that would happen about ten times daily.
Irked by these random restarts, on this December day — one in about a dozen left in the year — I decided to export the contents of my phone to my laptop and create a backup file. Then, I manually wiped my phone back to its original clean slate. I was hoping that factory resetting my phone would put a rest to the bug and that I could later re-download my data back onto it. In theory, I would finally be able to listen to music on the bus or thumb down notes without being nettled by intrusive interruptions.
After the factory reset, I plugged my phone into my laptop to access my backup file. It didn’t work. Perhaps my wires were faulty. I grabbed another cord, although the results remained rigid. Somehow, for whatever reason, my data wasn’t retrievable. All my files, notes, schoolwork… everything was seemingly gone. Panic began to brew, spearing my consternation in stages. I tried again and again throughout the afternoon until eventually using my laptop to pull up different forums and webpages to seek out a remedy for lost data.
Hours hurdle by. It’s now 11 p.m., yet I’m still here scooching around in my seat unable to sit still. My left hand gravitates to the obsidian ballpoint pen near the side of my desk, wriggling and greasing its grip with my sweaty palm. Meanwhile, my free hand browses Reddit — a site I always turn to for tech assistance despite never having an account — to read experiences from other people who have confronted the same issue.
Darkness besieges me, accentuating the glare my eyes are tearily glued to. I arch closer towards my screen, hearing the whizzes from my laptop’s fans spinning in overtime. My hope to find a solution on the web dwindles to atoms.
My phone periodically boots up a setup screen that treats me like a new user with prompts welcoming me to my “new” device. It’s mockery, and I’m too stubborn to use my phone from ground zero when it’s stripped of years of content I had racked up. I shut my phone off and let it camouflage into the eventide.
It’s that time when neither daylight nor the moon are overhead; the sun had set a short time ago, although it’s too early for its counterpart to make a glimmer through the nightfall. Typically, I would be looking forward to the new year; but today, I’m trying to crawl back in time. Defeat slowly straggles in my chest, bubbling the anxiety I’ve known all my life to an insurmountable form.
The web isn’t offering a way to resurrect my phone and bring its lost content back to light, so I finally concede. A long, exasperated sigh escapes me. I fling back into my chair’s headrest and curse, my eyes staring up into the dark. There’s a bag of reasons why this is a tight spot to be lodged in: I’ve lost some important school notes, I’m now expelled from communications with friends and family, but much of the tribulation comes from the loss of memories, a disintegration of receipts that proved the existence of times past.
Photos have always been my apparatus for reliving. A gallery of captured moments makes up an identity, cached in portable safes — our smartphones — snugged in pockets and bags. My attachment to photographs spurs from my tendency to scroll through logs of pictures and videos whenever I’m drowning in the blues to recall what it meant to be at a particular time, to relive the past and each inimitable step that has led me here.
Scenes that I don’t want to slip away were inked by images, pictured by pictures, each as fond memories or lessons that I invite myself to view through a refreshed lens. Without my photos, I’m afraid I’ll be unable to recognize and revisit the past, and subsequently forget myself.
These thoughts flicker in my mind as I continue sitting in the dark, saturating me with a heaviness marked by profound mourning for nostalgia’s blanket. It feels like I was set back a few years, having pieces of my life erased as if they never actually transpired. I surrender to my fatigue, blocking the moonlight with my curtains and giving in to sleep.
In the morning, I pick up my ancient home phone and dial the number to customer service, with fingers crossed that someone at my phone’s company will hopefully know of a method or technique to recover lost data.
The line plays a generic jingle distorted by harsh static and muffles. With all that money they make, couldn’t they find something better? (Although it could just be an audio issue with my wireless home phone; I ignore this possibility and stick to the blame game).
I impatiently fidget with my pen, clicking it in an arrhythmic fashion. My head starts to drift, and I spiral into a reflection of what I’ve lost.
There’s a picture I remember snapping with my phone, likely sometime during a blazing day in August 2019, of Vari Hall’s interior, a buttery barrel-shaped building at York University in northern Toronto. Immersing in the image rekindles oscillating memories, a bounce between an eagerness to paint on a new canvas, to begin anew, and the nervousness that comes with a shift in routine and being planted in an unfamiliar environment.
Vari Hall’s interior
The photograph was birthed when I sauntered across campus, wonderstruck by the university’s multifarious breadth, about a month before my official post-secondary debut. One of my classes, about a 10-minute walk from Vari Hall, was in a separate building snuggled between chipped crimson brick walls that encase the twisty corridors of a basement that feels modelled after a medieval dungeon.
York’s labyrinths were confusing contortions I could only navigate with guides. I spent hours wandering around campus with my timetable in hand, snapping photos of the directions to my future classrooms. The image of Vari Hall was one among dozens that I had once used as a reference to remind me where I had to walk to reach my destination.
It was around that time when I played Icarus, carrying aplomb and a fervent drive to succeed despite my timorous demeanour; however, I had soared too high by taking on a far-above-average course load, believing I could tackle as much as my plate could overfill with.
This miscalculation would gash my GPA, a slight nosedive that rocked my poise. So, I spent all my time, every minute I could gather up between five brimful days of classes, pouring over my notes and cranking the gear to habitual late night shifts, transcending what I’m used to and multiplying it.
Attempting to balance a schedule overflowing with perennial studying would splinter the ardour I once had. School became less about learning and more about survival. What kept me floating was that picture of Vari Hall, a reminder of why I started university in the first place: to chase a passion rather than being injected into a job I’d hate in the future.
When I no longer needed these images to traverse campus, which soon became muscle memory, I still decided to continue the tradition of snapping pictures of my surroundings to preserve the inspiration I had coming in and keep me grounded — that I’m here, now, and must accomplish my objectives.
In my fourth and final year, many of my classes were situated in the cellar of an obscure building in a computer lab. The room was adjacent to a fancy junior common room I frequently studied in, which housed a few abstract paintings and an indoor fire pit. Ornate two-way curved lights as sleek as fresh snow shone onto the rows of desks, all beneath a ceiling that brandished a maze design. It was here where I had tweaked my blueprints, altering how I approached studying and goal setting, putting me on track for summa cum laude after my rough start three years prior.
Pictures of Vari Hall and this junior common room take me from feeling directionless and astray to recognizing how far I’ve come. So, whenever I’d be cratered in quandary or hardship, I would rely on these images to recognize and re-learn the resilience I’m currently craving. It’s like having a friend tell you, “Hey, you’ve made it through some shit before, so you can do it again!”
But without photographs, how do we remember — recognize — who we once were and what we’ve become?
Finally, after half an hour or so, someone on the other end of the line picks up, dissolving my train of thought. The lady on the other end of the line, in a modulated and soft-spoken tone, asks how she can help me. I explain my phone’s glitch and how it led to my botched data transfer following a factory reset. She takes me through what I assume is a data recovery process. She recommends I buy cloud storage, so I do, praying that maybe some of my data could be unlocked after bypassing a paywall to the cloud.
But it didn’t convalesce my missing data. It turns out that she had been giving me data loss prevention measures rather than steps on how to reclaim my phone’s lost content. Gripping my home phone, I reiterate my intentions as articulately as possible, pressing the smooth oblong telephone harder into my ear and hoping my voice isn’t cloaked by static like that galling jingle was. She puts me on hold again while she calls for her supervisor, who picks up a few minutes later in a husky voice.
I re-explain my situation to the supervisor, who tells me that there’s nothing they can do to help retrieve my lost data. I ask if I could bring my devices into one of their stores for hands-on technical assistance, although she tells me it likely wouldn’t yield any results.
Despite my heightening perturbation, I thank her for her time in the most courteous tone I can muster up. I spend the next one or two days continuously calling different support lines and experts, regardless of what the supervisor had said, hoping that someone will have that magic solution.
No one does.
Since those calls didn’t help, I’m determined to commit the rest of my week to visiting an innumerable number of tech stores in my area and beyond — whatever it takes. Equipped with my phone and laptop shelled in my backpack, I start off with a few smaller local locations. I explain my circumstances and ask if anything can be done to restore my data, to which it’s consistently dismissed as impossible.
The generic tech stores don’t seem to have any relevant services or fixes, so I travel further to a crowded mall to stop by an official store of my phone’s brand. A young woman with slouched posture greets me in a tone as buttery as her shoulder-length hair.
I again tell the tale of how my situation came to be. She informs me that she’ll ask a few coworkers for advice, specifically the ones with better knowledge about cases like mine. The blonde woman walks towards the back and talks to a few of her colleagues, who I notice are probably around my age or just marginally older.
My eyes swing around the store. I see a kid, maybe only five or six years old, playing Fruit Ninja on one of the tablets a few tables away. He’s ferociously swiping at the screen as his face scrunches up into a round tomato, his expression furrowing deeper and deeper into a volcanic frown. A minute later, he’s bouncing on his heels, his face loosening up and harking back to his state of juvenile ebullience. He reminds me of my younger self, fixated by the random joys of life.
A photo I remember taking during a mellow summer day in July maybe a decade ago shows a looming dusk settling above a few silhouetted trees. I shot the picture after ambling home from a cousin’s birthday party. It was the sole photo I captured that day following a family reunion and screenshots of Mario Kart winning results, which were weaponized for light-hearted bragging rights.
A looming dusk settling above a few silhouetted trees
I was fresh out of middle school, a carefree time characterized by my tendency to cruise in a perpetual state of insouciance. Revisiting these moments and what it meant to be at a certain place and time is the most paramount reason why I take photos with my smartphone. Photographs become the only visual reminder, the leftover residue, of a past moment.
In the latter half of the party, while the birthday boy was nibbling on slices of pepperoni pizza, minus the crust, I was annoying his cousins with a miniature rubber golf club, which I kept sliding under the locked door of the bedroom where they were holed up.
I waved the club left and right like an overcharged windshield wiper to produce a violent squeaky sound similar to that of a rubber duck. Irritation inflated them, ballooning into a tug of war. They yanked at the club from behind the door, and I heaved back.
There must’ve been maybe four of them in that room, all the same age as me if not slightly older. Despite having the numerical advantage, they had the grip of the golf club whereas I had the clubhead. I turned the stick so that its scarlet clubhead faced upwards, preventing it from being slipped under the door. No matter how hard they pulled, it was impossible for them to capture the club. They soon surrendered and burrowed back into the room as I regained possession of the club and meandered to the living room, awash with triumph.
A few hours later, we all mustered into the kitchen to sing “Happy Birthday,” many of us ignorantly off-key, roistering over chocolate cake and forgetting about the tug of war.
This particular sunset photo illustrated a tranquil end to a jubilant day. Preserving history and revisiting memories evokes a sense of nostalgia that amalgamates glee and gloom. It’s like smelling a specific aroma or hearing an old song that you’ve forgotten existed. Sometimes, I forget what it’s like to be a kid made content by simple things — but pictures remind me.
It’s that realization that makes photographs like these significant. Pictures are evidence that something is worth remembering, eliciting emotions that range from radiance to regret to respite, perhaps all at once, something that isn’t possible without being able to dodder through old photos to spark rediscovery. These random childhood memories remind me of how much time has passed, moments that feel like lifetimes ago, as if they never really happened.
What connected us all then was a celebration. Now, it only lives as a photograph on my smartphone. Well, it did.
Soon, the blonde woman returns and bluntly delivers the news that pops my momentary reverie: there’s nothing they can do to help recover my data.
I’m vexed at myself, wishing I had just endured my phone’s on-and-off glitch rather than trying to fix it.
I branch out to more major retailers and stores that represent my phone’s company. Despite visiting various locations, everybody echoes the same verdict ruled by the supervisor and the blonde worker. The days are fading away, drawing the new year closer. Tired of long commutes, I settle on visiting one last big box store.
The worker there, a tech expert, is behind the counter tapping away at his aging keyboard that’s hooked up to an equally archaic computer. He’s donning a uniform flushed in a resplendent colour and has a buzz cut that emphasizes his lofty ears.
It’s all routine: I approach and greet him before laying out my conundrum. He speaks colloquially, breaking the chain of formality I’ve been faced with by the other tech experts before him. While running a hand across his head, he proposes advice similar to the ones I’ve already received over the past few days. I offer my thanks, although I confess that I have already tried what he’s telling me.
“You’re boned,” the worker tells me with an unsure smile.
“Yeah, I know,” I quip back in a convivial tone, suppressing an eye roll. I send my final gratitudes, leave the store and make my way home with my head hanging low.
Back at home, in my compact bedroom, I turn my phone on and am again faced with a greeting message. I begin the process of setting up my phone from scratch; it’s time to bite the bullet.
Halfway through, I suddenly remember my old phone that’s probably nesting in one of my drawers. I had used that phone for about five years before its battery health had viciously depleted. Ideally, I could backup my data from that device, which would at least revive some of my old photos. I cancel the setup process on my current phone and rummage through my stuff, finding mementos from throughout my life, each reigniting memories and decelerating my search.
One item I found is a small portable black bag filled with CDs and DVDs of music, movies and computer games. I hold up JumpStart 1st Grade, which was practically my younger self’s version of Fruit Ninja, a game I remember playing on an old HP laptop as a kid sometime in the mid to late 2000s. Despite not having many other games, I had found delight in playing this same game over and over again. We can enjoy ourselves a lot more when we’re fully engaged in the present and celebrating what we have, a mindset I had as a kid that I’ve regretfully shirked.
Underneath the collection of discs is my Grade 9 yearbook from 2015–2016, featuring photos of myself I’d rather not look at. Images of my high school’s corridors take me back to specific moments of dolor that I’ve reconciled with in a similar way to my time at York University. I’m realizing that our resilience and skills are learned and developed, not captured. We shouldn’t recognize growth from pictures, because where we are now already illustrates it.
Finally, a fairly recent item I acquired near the end of 2021 is The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield, a book I admittedly haven’t begun reading yet. Secured by other books huddling around and fortifying it, my copy includes Hadfield’s autograph, whom I looked up to after my sixth-grade teacher played a video on the class’s SMART Board of his “Space Oddity” music video filmed aboard the International Space Station.
The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield
It was there when I considered the cosmic perspective — that in our short and hectic lives, which are microscopic in comparison to the infinite vastness of the universe, our problems won’t mean anything in the grander scheme of things. Perhaps there’s another lesson to be gleaned here: life goes on with or without us. It’s a saying that has been rung by many, although the words are finally resonating with me.
Remnants of different memories surround me, and I pause to reflect. Fragments of my life aren’t erased with an absence of photographs; they’re already floating around me, waiting to be rediscovered and recaptured. What can’t be recaptured, though, is the flaking present. Being stuck in the past for too long will obstruct new memories from being made. We shouldn’t want our tomorrows to be about yesterday when there are new experiences to explore.
My old phone peeks out from under a few stacks of notebooks. I lift the books out of the way and rescue the old relic, failing to swipe off the dust embedded onto its silicone case. To my astonishment, it still has juice. I turn it on and initiate the data transfer from my old device onto my current phone. It’s tedious, but it works.
In an hour, I’m greeted by my old phone’s wallpaper on my current phone: a fulgent neon astronaut floating in space in front of tiny planets. My thumb flicks past the lock screen and taps on the photos app, surfacing a small swarm of pictures that include the photo of Vari Hall and the sunset after my cousin’s birthday party. The images only go up until a certain point; the latest photograph is of my current phone sojourning in its slick box when I first bought it, signalling a transition from my old phone to the next.
Whipping through my old photos and trying to remember what’s missing is like steering into a maze with no exit. An acute lethargy suffuses me. I’ve wasted a week, maybe more, stubbornly trying to seize back what’s lost despite being told numerous times that it can’t be done.
The sun sets, gleaming a warm tangerine into my room. Perhaps the loss of my photographs isn’t a blank, chasmic gap that I have to refill and replicate, but an incentive to build upon the past to create new memories.
It’s time to become comfortable with the rift between my older pictures and the lack of recent ones. This could be a sign to take new pictures. I’ve already recognized myself and revisited recollections by simply being, by finding cues in the world around me and reigniting the photographs naturally stored within.
Then, as I’m scrolling through my old pictures, my thumb locks in the air, pointing up at a slight angle as my phone powers itself down.
“Wow.” A scoff snaps out of me, a fusion between dismay, umbrage and mirth, although I’m leaning more towards the humorous side — because it’s a little comical that I’ve been through all that for my phone to still be acting up. The factory reset solved nothing. I’ll take it as a hint to loosen my grip on the past.
We alone are cameras — and we’re still capturing and adding to our stories. Maybe I’ll ruminate more thoroughly when the battery in me inevitably diminishes one day in the future. But for now, I think about the impending new year, a renewed opportunity for getting the most with whatever time we have left. When my phone finally turns back on a minute later, my thumb swipes out of my photo gallery.
No, I don’t have to wait until the new year to start living again.