One Thing I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self.

Last week, as part of my book tour, I visited San Francisco. I had a free afternoon, so I walked from my hotel to my old apartment (pictured), where I lived for about a year before I went to law school.

As I walked there, I tried to remember the details of my life in San Francisco. I have no recollection whatsoever of going to a grocery store, or a restaurant, or a book store.

I have odd patches of memory. The big hill I had to climb on my running route, and the bagel store I went every morning, and a long walk that I took with my roommate one day, and the salads we loved so much that we would go to Berkeley to get them.

One of my  more poignant Secrets of Adulthood is: Never forget how easy it is to forget.

I wish I could tell my younger self: Make a photo diary before you leave this place! You think you won’t forget, but you will! Instead of taking photos of unusual sights, take a photo of the most usual sights. In the future, you’ll be a lot more interested in seeing a photo of your dorm-room closet or your laundromat than seeing a photo of the Louvre.

How about you? Do you ever wish you had photos from ordinary days in the past? This reminds me of when I decided to take tourist photos of my own romance.

  • wannadanc

    There is so much truth in this – the pictures I didn’t take!! I thought it was just my faulty memory!!!!

  • Cluttered Mama

    I have been trying to really capture photos of ordinary days for my future self. I want to remember not just how my boys looked when they were dressed up for Christmas or on a vacation, but how they looked in ordinary moments at home. Right now my 4 year old is in inside out, aqua and black striped pj pants, no shirt, “sitting” upside down on the couch, playing with his cars. I want to remember THESE moments too.

    • gretchenrubin

      Absolutely. And you can never get the opportunity again, if you miss it.

  • Sharon

    Also remember to slow down and enjoy every stage of your life. We seem to want to move on before we’ve even finished the now. Life goes by fast enough on it’s own.

  • Sid

    Absolutely! I have pictures of my time in the Navy but wish I had more of the mundane stuff–the hangar, the folks I worked with–those are the things I wish I could see now.

  • Veronique

    I know I am in the minority but I do not have photos of family around the house and I do not like like photo diaries. For myself and again I know this sounds weird, these things make me sad. They make me feel as though I cannot be present, in the moment as though the past is calling out to me to linger there. I have photo albums that I go through once in a blue moon but the idea of pictures of people who change everyday sitting frozen on a desk or table peeking out at me every morning is not something I like. I am very much a believer in mindfulness and have been so most of my life. I have a very good memory and can recollect the places I have gone and lived with a great deal of accuracy but I do not feel a need to go back often. It just makes me sad. Many people I know visit their old haunts and like to tour through their childhood homes.Everyone has different reasons for doing this but I just don’t enjoy it. It is almost as if it confuses my memories. It reminds me of Uncle Ricco from Napoleon Dynamite who kept on talking about his glory days in High School. The glory days are now the moment you are living. I sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with me that i feel this way.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great example of someone knowing herself. There’s no one right way to happiness, and you know what works for you. My memory is horrible and so I feel cut off from my past. To my mind, you’re very fortunate not to need these reminders to keep the past vivid!

      • Veronique

        That is so kind. Thank you.

    • Anne

      I agree. I recently had to move from a lovely house I’d leased for three years. The owner (who lived far away) could no longer keep up the payments, it was foreclosed, and the bank preferred an empty house to a tenant (!)

      I had a good time making a sentimental photo album of the beautiful gardens. But after I moved, I didn’t really want to look at the album, and I didn’t think I ever would. It was one of those possessions that just take up space.
      When the owner asked if I had any photos of the gardens, I sent the album to her. The photos were digital and of course I still have copies on my computer, but I doubt if I’ll ever look at them.

    • peninith1

      Ok. I get that you have sad feelings about some things from the past and don’t want to go there. However, here is something to consider. My mother, who came here from England to marry my Dad after World War II spent many, many years refusing to look at her old family pictures because they made her sad. This feeling of hers interfered with me learning much about my mother’s childhood until very recently, and her photos are still sort of the ‘dragon hoard’. I hope that I have secretly, without offending her, taken enough notes that I will be able to match pictures and a few stories later on. On the one hand, your memories are yours. On the other, you may have family members who are vitally interested in their own family history, who would deeply appreciate you sharing or passing on those things in some way.

      • Veronique

        It is not that I have sad feelings about things from the past and don’t want to go there. The photo albums are in full view for everyone to see and enjoy. I simply do not enjoy having frozen pictures of people and lingering over the past. I find it detracts from the now.

  • marit

    I try to look at where i live through “tourist” eyes, which makes me so much more aware of little details. And then sometimes i take pictures and blog about it.

  • Jennifer Cook

    Yes! I shot photos of my grandma’s house right after she died, before anyone had touched anything and I love looking at them.

    • Cluttered Mama

      That is so awesome. While I have vivid memories of my Nana’s apartment, I wish I had photos of it now that she has passed.

  • caitlin

    This is one of the reasons I love Instagram so much–it’s such a simple way to capture ordinary sights and to see beautiful images in daily life.

  • This is surely a fact! When you’re young you think you’ll never forget! But, boy, even at 36 I am shocked at how much I can’t remember!

  • Manda

    I’m with Veronique. I find i dont need the photos (and dont really like them either). So many people live in the past…my sister is one. I’m also not a fan of taking photos, i feel everyone tries too hard to capture a ‘moment’ and forgets to be in it. Also, photos lie. We all pose and smile, but really, who wants to remember that particular gathering when you kept hidden your heart that was breaking? i’d rather the smell of detol, which always reminds me of a relitives house at noosa. every time i wear a certain perfume, it takes me straight back to the department store, buying it for the first time. cut grass rminds me of school summer holidays. Ahh, bliss. No photos required.

  • I have a horrible memory too and wish I had taken more photos and written down stories from the past. I have asked my family to buy me a Project Life kit and a home photo printer for Christmas so that I can try and document our life and remember the ordinary things from when my son is small. I hope it will become a great family project for us.

  • Kristina

    I realized how easily it is forget things when I was in high school and ever since then I’ve kept a journal. However, recently I started a photo-a-day project where (as you’d expect) I take a photo of one thing from my day every day. This ensures that along with the exciting things in life, I’ll also end up capturing the mundane things too. At the end of the week I post the photos on a blog, which I use to stay in touch with my family and friends.

    I have to admit I’m not always perfect at getting a photo in every day, but the intent is there and after about half a year I’ve collected some great photos of my daily haunts and special events!

    • Kristina

      I have to note also that photography is one of my new hobbies so the two things go hand in hand and I think both really help to contribute to my happiness in the present and in the future.

  • Mara

    I completely agree! Since my first son was born 4 years ago, I have developed a passion for capturing the everyday in photos. I started off more looking for the “perfect scene” or “perfect moment”, but now I am passionate about capturing REAL life because when I look back at those photos, they are the ones that make me remember and really feel something. Every year, I do a “day in the life” of my own family where I photograph our family doing the daily stuff from dawn to dusk. I then make and print a photo book with a brief introduction of what is going on in our life. I also create annual photo books for our family that capture both the “big events” and the day-to-day too. Photography and documenting our lives and memories is something that has brought me a lot of happiness.

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great idea. I want to copy this!

  • Polly

    When my son was a few months old, we used to go for long walks with the pushchair. It had a bar across the front and he would ride with his little feet up. It was a warm summer and he was often without socks. I kept thinking to myself I should photograph that, his little feet on the bar, but kept forgetting the camera, and then suddenly he was too big to do that anymore. Not exactly a place from my past, but certainly my son’s feet will never be that small again!

  • It’s often the photographs that don’t go in the album that provide the detail to our lives. My wife was flicking through some old photos at the weekend taken about twenty years ago in our previous house. It brought back how small it was and how horrible some of the cast-off furniture was. As for photos that we don’t have I don’t think there was much from the flat we rented before the house which is a real shame.

  • Rachel

    Re-read my diary from when I was fifteen recently to try to get a feel for 1979 and what it was like to be a teenager then for the novel I’m writing. It was all introspection! Wish I’d mindfully jotted down the minutiae of my life so I could go back, not to live there, just to get an idea. Once it’s gone, it’s gone so it’s nice to capture those moments in images or words.

  • maryl

    Love this post! I was also just in SF after an absence of many years . . . there’s something illuminating about such a revisit: what’s the same and different about the place and about the person. I have ONE photo of my month in SF way back when, and dozens of a recent 3 day visit — all thanks to my iPhone. Today’s technology makes capturing daily life a snap. You’ve inspired me to use it more mindfully.

    • Betsy22

      I take a lot more photos as well, now that I have a cell phone camera. Not always the best quality photos, but I think that I end up capturing more regular, every-day type moments.

  • LisaAnn

    This is so true! I have forgotten so much! This is one reason I started digital scrapbooking, to capture the moments of life, and to see how much my family and myself grow and change, and I think it would be appreciated for future generations as well. I would love to have gotten a peak inside my parents and grandparents lives as they grew up! I’d also like to start scrapbooking pictures with lists of favorites (food, tv shows, movies, etc.). I think it would be fun to look back on. There are many products, projects and sites dedicated to this type of thing, and I’d like to get involved with some. There is Project Life, Capture Your 365, and Project 52, off the top of my head. I believe in living in the moment, but I think it is fine to take some time every now and then to look at where I’ve come from, too, and to share that with family and friends. Even documenting some bad times don’t bother me, I think it can be therapeutic. Life just isn’t all rainbows and butterflies all the time. It makes me appreciate how far I’ve come and to be grateful for where I am at now.

  • Sabrina

    Thank you Gretchen! Sooo beautifully described. <3 =]

  • Laurel Holman

    It is SO easy to forget. I have been doing a Project Life album this year, with one spread per week. I do it on Mondays so that the memories are fresh, and I try to include a mix of photos from the week, ephemera (a sample of kid art, tickets, etc.) and words/journaling. It’s a great place to record the details, and it becomes a great record of our family life. I’m not sure how much I will look back on the album over time, but it makes me feel good to know that the record is there if I want to remember.

  • Kelly Jo

    Veronique, you are not alone. I have felt very similar to Veronique just recently because for the first time in my life a memory was taken from me. My grandmother has alzheimers and they had to put her in a home, this was probably one of the saddest days of my life. Strangely enough when my pap died it still wasn’t so final because we could go see my gram in that house, but the house is now gone the contents taken away from my sister and I by my cousins, they took everything we were left with nothing. PIctures, memories, things are just things and do not make a memory but pictures do. My grandfather was in WWII and rarely talked of it,I knew it pained him. My gram was a very quite spirit as well. I wish I would’ve taken pictures of the ordinary things in her house, her china hutch that sat right beside the door. Her bedroom we had sleepovers in, the way her kitchen was set up. Her cabinets they were a special kind, miniature just for her. If I knew deep down this day would come I would’ve sat longer, went more frequently and realized 35 years is still never enough for a childhood memory. Anyhow, I agreed with Veronica in saying sometimes revisiting the pictures I do have makes me so sad I can’t function for days so I must realize that doing happy things that make me feel good now is what I need to focus on. Memories are special because they happened, but sad because you can’t relive them. This wasn’t really how I expected it to feel. Happily though I have recently dove into my art and found a new happiness that takes me to worlds I never knew existed.

  • Yes, this is so true. something I relate to but never do anything about. Always have that attitude of ‘i will never forget’ – it’s the same with vacations. Being in the moment often means neglecting the fact that the moment will change. Great post. I’m gonna go take a picture of the front of my house right now.

  • CL

    Speaking of remembering, have you seen in the news how Mary Lou Henner can remember every day of her life. I don’t know how that can be possible???

  • Julia

    Wow, great apartment, Gretchen!

    I found your blog yesterday, and have very much enjoyed reading through it. I just compiled my ‘List of Things to Do Every Day’. So thank you!

  • peninith1

    This comment string is all about photos and memories, yet your original question was ‘what you wished you could tell your younger self.’ I think that the one practical thing I wish that I could convey to myself in my 20s would be that it IS POSSIBLE to manage a small or moderate income wisely to achieve your goals. I did not learn this until much later in my life. I spent quite a few years feeling overwhelmed and not very hopeful about my future, because I didn’t know how to manage money and was embarrassed to ask for help. I began to climb out of my fear and ignorance in my 40s, and finally bought a home, and started saving. Then (in my 50s!) I got some guidance from a financial adviser and found I was able to make and carry out plans that once seemed impossible, Still, I was very stupid about money for a long, wasteful time. Worse, I was constantly worried about money. So that’s what I’d tell my younger self–find someone good at money management to help you set goals and carry out a plan.

  • Rebecca Mileham

    I don’t seem to have any pictures of my own time at primary school, but I
    look after the archive of my kids’ school, and get very nostalgic
    looking back at the old photos (going right back to 1902). I agree that
    it’s the insignificant-seeming, daily things that are now so important,
    not all of which were ‘worth’ photographing – we don’t have that many
    pictures of people actually doing their lessons in the classrooms, for
    example, or eating lunch – it’s often special occasions.

    Photos definitely seem the best way to find evidence
    when I am looking in the archive for answers about what happened, when. For example,
    when were the cricket stumps painted on the playground wall? I’m looking
    into that question right now. (see, and
    people also get in touch from decades back, asking if we have pictures
    of their relatives. Often it’s the people who have moved away who most
    want to have reminders of their early years here in Banbury.

  • Allison

    Just this morning I was trying to recall details of my life out West, some 25 years ago, and dang it, there is so much I am forgetting. Love the idea of taking more pics of the everyday – will use that going forward.

  • Totally agree with this post about taking photos throughout one’s life experiences. I wish I had taken photos during my college years at CalArts. 4 Yrs and virtually nothing to represent that time. Great friends, teachers and experiences are mine to remember, which I do, but toting around a camera, I just didn’t think about it.

  • When I get pictures printed, I keep the ones that aren’t really album-worthy in a photo box. I love that box just for checking out the backgrounds and the expressions of people who weren’t supposed to be in the picture.

  • Jeanine Unsworth

    I started a project this year to always have my camera in my car. I live in Montana and I love the change of seasons. One of my favorite sights is when the corn starts to grow and it is about 2-3″ high. One evening, we were driving home from soccer and the sun was setting on the cornfield and I yelled at my husband to stop the car! We pulled off the road and took the most beautiful photo of the organized rows of green sprouts! I take photos of random things. A pile of fall leaves, a puddle of rain, the frost on the evergreen trees. Beauty is everywhere, you just have to open your eyes.

  • Heather

    This is something I’ve been thinking about since my husband died suddenly a few years ago. We both took a lot of photos, but they tended to be of places we went together, and not of each other – unless it was Halloween. These are great memories too, but it was only b/c I did a project called 12 of 12 (credit to Chad Darnell) where you take 12 photos on the 12th of each month, that I have as many photos of *him* as I do. And I do treasure these photos.

    And yet, he always called photos “what cameras think I look like” and I think this gets at what some of the commenters have been saying. Snapshots of a particular instant can get in the way of your true memory of a person, if you’re not careful. But, like you, Gretchen, I can have a terrible memory about these things, and I’ve recently been looking through photos from 10-15 yrs ago that feel like a storybook that I have to remind myself was my life. So, mixed feelings.

    I do tend to take photos of my everyday life, though, so I guess that’s something. I was wishing I had more, though. They can be sad even if the time was NOT sad – poignant maybe is the best word. But that’s OK. I like the reminder that the incredibly obvious of today will be poignant 10 years from now.

  • stephanie

    I did a photo scrap book of my room when I graduated from highschool. I had completely covered the walls with pictures, posters, magazine clippings, etc. So when it was time to take it all down, I took photos to remember what it looked like and also pasted some of the more special items in the scrap book. I love the memory I have from it!

  • I completely agree! We always take the simplest and seemingly mundane things for granted, but then I think about when I’ll be 50 years old, wouldn’t it be nice to have a visual memory of all these places I’ve been? 🙂

  • great article. i’m gonna take a pic of my office now, and maybe the insides of my file cabinets……….

  • Totally agree…I was on a quest to take a picture in front of every building I’ve ever lived in. Starting in college, then while living in Paris for a few months. I find myself missing the front of the buildings and my nostalgia thirsts for just that: a picture of me standing in front.

  • Klaire

    Sometimes our memory forgets..But a photograph brings back all the bittersweet smiles of yesterdays

  • shwetanki

    Certain memories come in our way when we co-incidentally or by our own will move to places where we had spent some time in our past. But since we are not robots, many parts of this memory fades away with time and we just have tits and bits of our own spent time. So i will strongly say, do not run for things that are yet to come rather live in the utmost present to make it memorable in future.

  • Nazo

    You are a hurdler .