05 Feb A heaping tablespoon of reality.
Yesterday, I was mindlessly perusing Instagram. I hate when I do that, but I did it anyway, against my better judgement. I was scrolling through a particularly delightful feed of “lifestyle” photographs, when I noticed that I was using the images to gauge the quality of my own life. The woman in the photographs was stunning, and her life appeared before my eyes like a series of daily fairy tales. Thoughts of inadequacy cascaded through my mind, “Why am I not nibbling on artisanal scones and sipping a rare silver needle tea from an antique bone china teacup at a perfectly set dining room table that is made from a slab of 300 year old maple?” or “It’s Monday morning at 10am, why am I not wearing a gown and $600 Jimmy Choo high heels and flashing the perfect smokey eye as I awkwardly hold a tube of candy-apple-red Chanel lipstick in my hand?” or “Am I less of a person because I don’t have a set of white ceramic matte-finish deer antlers hanging above my crisply manicured bed linens – or wait, do my mismatched teddy bear pillow cases and jersey sheets even qualify as bed linens?” and finally, “What’s WRONG with me?”
This brief interlude got me thinking. Of COURSE the photographs that you see of “picture perfect” lives are not an accurate depiction of reality. The people in the images are normal people, just like anybody else, except that they are really good at posing for photographs that make their lives look “perfect”… and make the rest of us look like we just, “haven’t really got it figured out”. The problem is that there are probably people out there who think that their lives really are incomplete because each second of their day doesn’t look absolutely incredible. While it can be nice to get design/fashion ideas from people who know what they are talking about (and I certainly do not), I think it is also very easy to fall into a much more sinister trap – the trap of feeling like your life is not amazing.
Where am I going with this? That’s a good question, because I don’t really know either. But, seriously, I actually do know. I looked back at some of the photographs that I post to my blog or my social media, and I gasped – wow, it pretty much looks like I spend almost every day of my life perched on the summit of a mountain somewhere with my hair blowing in the wind. It also appears that all of my climbing trips are absolutely perfect, and that each one of them is pretty much a multi-day euphoric experience. It appears that I never struggle with any aspect of these adventures, and that I magically end up in the most beautiful places in the world, having the most incredible time of my life. And I will say – some of that is true, in very (very) small bits, but I realize that I don’t always share the reality of the images that I post. Why? Because reality isn’t as pretty or exciting sometimes. I would rather share a photo of the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen as opposed to a photo of the 17 blisters on my right foot.
Here is my struggle – I love sharing the amazing moments that I’ve experienced, because I want to inspire more people to get outside and explore. But, I also want to share the reality of what I love to do. It is not glamorous. When you go on a backpacking or a climbing trip you invariably cannot bear the smell of your own stench after a few days. Parts of your body that you did not realize could experience chafing, become chafed. Going to the bathroom without a toilet can be a humbling experience. Your feet will hurt more than you can possibly imagine. There are moments of exhaustion so severe that sometimes you have to talk yourself into taking another step. Fear is ever-present, especially while climbing. Sleeping is often difficult, most notably when you are in a snow cave and/or you think you hear a grizzly bear.
I teach a backpacking class to women every year, and throughout the class I talk about many of the amazing experiences that I have had in the wilderness. I show photos of some of the most beautiful places that I have visited, and by the end of the class, all of the women are excited to get outside and explore. While I absolutely do not want to dampen their enthusiasm, I always share with them a parting sentiment – the most amazing, wonderful times of my life have been in the wilderness, but if you try this and you find yourself feeling miserable and not enjoying every second of it, you’re not doing ANYTHING wrong. In fact, you are most likely doing everything right. Do not give up on this. Climbing a mountain is not easy. Spending 6 days in the wilderness is not a 144 hour Kodak moment. Of course, there are those fleeting moments of intense joy, satisfaction and accomplishment. There are those moments where absolutely nothing and everything seem to matter at the same time. And there are moments when you look out across the landscape and have to blink away tears because you have never seen something so beautiful in your entire life, and you simply cannot believe that the world exists and that you are a part of it. But overall, it is the combination of experiences – both miserable and existential – that create the magic. You simply cannot have one without the other.
While my dad and I have many differences (he is a good fly fisherman, and I suck, for one), one thing we both agree on is Moby Dick. Many years ago, my dad told me that I needed to read Moby Dick, and to this day, I have read and/or listened to it 4 times. There is one quote in the book that always stood out to me:
So many times, I have burrowed deeply into my sleeping bag, imagining myself as that one warm spark. My nose, freezing in the icy air of my tent – but my body and my heart, cozy and surrounded in a delightfully decadent warmth. That quote speaks to me so clearly about not only my experiences in the wilderness, but also about life in general. On a climb, similarly to our daily lives, bliss seems to bloom like a flower from a twisting vine of misery – you’re exhausted, you’re uncomfortable, you’re frustrated … but then, the rain stops for a moment and the clouds relax, a rainbow stretches across the sky, and the warmth of the sun hits your face. Suddenly, you find yourself forgetting everything you were worried about, and you melt into the world around you. The magic in that moment is the contrast – you were uncomfortable just seconds before, but now, it feels like the world has personally revealed a secret to you – it lovingly coaxes you forward, “Keep going, there are so more moments like this – you’ll find them, I promise.”
We have such a tendency to be hard on ourselves when things aren’t perfect. Social media contributes greatly to these feelings of discontent in our lives – we look at other people’s photos and compare them to our “sad” daily existence. We ask ourselves questions that we should never ask – “Should I know and/or care about clear or gold chiavari chairs?”, “What’s wrong with me that I am dressed in old, torn sweatpants and haven’t I combed my hair in 3 days?”, or “Last weekend I went hiking and I was cold and exhausted – why didn’t I stand on a cliff with my hair blowing in the wind and feel as amazing as that idiot blogger lady said I would?”. The answers are simple – nobody knows what a chiavari chair is, everybody wears torn sweatpants and skips showers (case in point – me, right now), and nobody has fun on every hike – even people who LOVE hiking. I LOVE the wilderness, I will never be without it in my life, but I absolutely do not always have fun.
I’m not saying that blogger or lifestyle photographers are lying to you – because stunning photographs and awesome experiences are great – what I’m saying, is that if anybody took ho-hum photographs of NORMAL life, or if I only complained about how tough it was to climb a mountain, nobody would be interested. We love to dream – but we need to adjust our expectations to a more realistic level. Don’t miss out on the beauty in your own life, because you are so busy wishing for something else – for a reality that doesn’t really exist. As I sit here writing this, I am literally laughing at what I see – cat toys scattered everywhere. There is a purse sitting on the floor with an ice axe sticking out the top (don’t ask), two used mugs that have not found their way to the dishwasher and a candy wrapper lying on the armrest of our couch. I am using a TV tray to type on my laptop – not a picture perfect Restoration Hardware desk with vintage paperclips and scissors placed thoughtfully across a page of linen-texture paper with my imaginary “to-do” list for the day (‘sip on Moet mimosas, spa mani/pedi, & attend red carpet event’) written in calligraphy. My life is real and normal. I do hike a lot, and I climb a lot of mountains, but not every weekend. Most of my days are shockingly average – that used to bother me, but now I love them. I can’t have the amazing days, if I don’t have the average days. And you know what? Normal is beautiful because it’s MY normal – my life, my friends, my family, my joys and sorrows and struggles and triumphs. Your life is not boring or ordinary – because who defines that? A blogger who posts beautifully staged photographs? Life is, and can be, everything that you want it to be and more. You can certainly appreciate and be inspired by others, just don’t lose focus and forget to recognize the beauty and extraordinary moments in the snapshots taken through your own lens.