Life is a Mess, But Also Often Quite Pretty

Hockey child baking cakes amongst the deplorable kitchen mess

This is a tiny conversation in one of the outer galaxies of the internet, but I want it to be a truly useful one, both for me and all who read. We have been discussing in the comments recently about the difference between the face we present to the world, especially on social media, and the dark, ashamed place that we often really inhabit. Can I tell you how much I love the conversations that happen in the comments? So many kind, wise, brave, thoughtful, vulnerable people. I have some rather unconnected but themed thoughts about a few of the insecurities that perfect lives on social media generate for me.

The game: I think that those of us who are women are especially vulnerable to this kind of insidious comparison game. Clearly, everyone except ourselves is living pretty much the perfect life, and the proof? There it all is out there on social media. We are too clever to know that this is true, but somewhere in the depths of our souls, we believe it, because we are convinced that actually, everyone out there has it all together except us. We are the middle-aged lost people who feel that despite decades of parenting and work, and managing to pay the electric bill, that somehow we have failed to adult. But at the same time we don't really want to adult, because it just doesn't seem like that much fun.

Myself: It is excruciatingly uncomfortable for me to expose myself 'out loud'. I think a lot of us grew up in a space where we were encouraged to put our shiny happy faces on for others to see. I have done the same for my children, and regret it now. But they are tough and brave and luckily ignore a lot of what I do and say. I have spent a lot of my adult life learning how to be sociable. I am quite good at it as long as I don't have to sustain it for long. I quickly get out of my depth, and sustaining relationships is tricky. I rely on the kindness of friends, often, to keep relationships going because I am not that great at following up, answering the phone, emails or texts or actually wanting to leave the house. I am even not that good at doing this with my adult children. Although better at it with them than with anyone else (short break in transmission while I call my girl). And my poor mother mostly has to call me, although I am always pleased to hear from her. It's not you, Mum, it's me. I joined Facebook several months ago, but haven't been able to sustain it. All those people saying witty or even just nice things about other people on a daily basis.. and confidently putting it all out there in a format that I can't even begin to decipher. I think I can confidently say I am pretty much a fail at Facebook... but then I roll my eyes at myself, because all the people seem to manage it and run all their creative projects and change the world. And many do it so well with honesty and bravery and vulnerability a well. And here I am walking the dog. 

Parenting: I am consistently at sea about parenting. I have four very different children and think it is unfair that just as I get used to working out how to deal with one child, then I have to turn around and work out completely different ways of relating to another one. Much as this seems an odd thing to say, I love being a single parent. I am a much nicer person now I am not unhappy and emotionally holding my breath all the time. But still, mess and trauma and shouty voices and slammed doors and anxieties and troubles and ill health, too much driving children about, and even worse, teaching children to drive, and concern about studies and schools and worry about adult children and their concerns and difficulties and all the cleaning, such as it is, and all the cooking, such as it is.. sometimes I feel like I am drowning. And yet.. sometimes also I discover that the children are propping me up as well. They have made me stronger and wiser and taught me empathy and conflict resolution as well as turning me into a shouty, whiny haggard person. No, actually, I did that to myself. They just provided the perfect excuse.

Here on Blueday I do not discuss my children's journeys, because their paths are their own. Sometimes I post a photo or a conversation with their permission. If I don't mention them it is not because I don't want to share the difficulties of parenting with you, it is because I can't do it without co-opting their stories. We are normal, middle-class citizens with an average load of difficulties and challenges. I would really like to try to find a way to discuss some of the down times if I can do it without exposing my kiddos to the internet. 

Where is the real?: Do you know what intrigues me about modern fiction? It can be soul-searingly honest, dark, gritty. It bares the hidden corners of modern life, which I think is admirable, if sometimes quite difficult to read. But you would hardly know that any of these dark corners even existed if you relied on social media for your version of reality. Often people reveal their problems, but only after they have triumphed over them and have a really useful solution to offer. See my last post for a classic text-book example of this. There is nothing wrong with offering useful solutions to life's many dilemmas, of course. But what about when there aren't solutions? What about the demons we battle over and over and over, and realistically know that we will continue to do so for the rest of our lives? It is good sometimes, to hear about these. Good to know that yes, they happen and no, we are not alone. 

And it's not even the big things, often, that we want to know about, but the tiny, annoying things, the mosquito problems that torment us every day. And there, my dears, is where I can be so, so useful. I have in recent times given up caring particularly about all sorts of things that used to worry me terribly, like grey hair and foraging on public roadsides. Well, now I may as well go one step further and share all the abject foolishness of the ways I fail on a daily basis. It will no doubt be very therapeutic. The Stoics would be all over this. In Stoicism you focus on the things that you can change for the better about your life. The areas of life that you can't change you completely dismiss from your list of things to worry about. What Other People Think About You is very high on the list of things that you can't change. So why worry? Well, I will see what I can do..

The photos: And finally, to address the carefully curated photos of my house that I love to post here. Well, I love them because I can almost convince myself that I am living that dream. It also comforts me a little because I can point to that and say, hey, there's me. And it's true for a tiny slice of my life, but not a lot of it. So... because life is never all one thing or all the opposite, I will be forcing myself to share more photos of the mess on the bench around the fresh sourdough loaf. But sometimes I will just go for the beautiful shot, because I like it. And also the happy thought, the uplifting platitude, because life really isn't all about our failures either; sometimes it is about glorious, everyday wonder.

The end: This feels like the most incoherent and badly structured piece of writing I have ever sent out into the world, but in the spirit of getting over my perfectionism, I'll put it out there. Along with a photo of the never-ending dishes. Tell me all about the conversations you really want to have. Be as anonymous as you like. This is, after all, the internet:)


Hazel said…
I love the conversations too. Yours is the blog I go back to to see if there are more comments.

It's difficult, I wouldn't want to only show people the sordid scenes either (I do keep thinking about what you said about a blog!) It was quite nice that people thought I was together and accomplished after making the elderflower fritters as I could think maybe I was, for a moment, but I'd hate other people to feel worse because they think that's my life all the time.

Lots to think about in your post, I'm sure I'll be back :-)
Beznarf27 said…
I am SO with you on "The Game". It makes competitors out of us all whether we want to compete or not. Social media is ALL about competing. It's a competitive world because if you don't have anyone to try to beat, you might not buy ALL of the things you need to be "in the race". The only way to avoid it is to abstain from social media or to pick your social media portions so that you get a healthy dose of reality thrown in to balance it all out. Enter "All the Blue Day" :)

I truly, seriously LOVE your posts of late. Almost cathartic, always stoic, and every more honest and "real" and seriously bucking the system. Jo the anarchist? ;) They are full of possibilities, information, moments of "SQUEE!" excitement when we can think "I can DO/accomplish that!" and empowering and galvanising we middle aged life muddlers into action without the constant grinding need to add something more to our plates.

Life does sometimes seem too hard. I have so many friends who are burned out and suffering depression and who are starting to suffer health conditions that are related to stress. Life seems to move at such a frenetic pace and we get rumbled along with it like seashells on an ever moving seabed and it often feels like the waves tumble us around and we don't have a lot of control over our lives. Taking back little simple things that we can do for ourselves, finding out that other people are not perfect and that most of us are falling short of the race and indeed, didn't even want to start running in the first place is blissful. Knowledge is power. Little snippets of "perfection" that we get on a repeated daily basis from the media do more damage than good and we likely need to extricate ourselves from believing the hype.

But it's so hard not to believe that everyone else has a better, more productive, cleaner, healthier, more stable life than ours and you are SO right in saying that we were taught to "keep calm and carry on and put on your happy face" from an early age. It's a very hard habit to break. Your honesty with your posts is seriously refreshing Jo. You are giving us back permission to just be ourselves. Flawed, twitchy, irascible and imperfect but "ourselves". Than you :)
simplelife said…
So many great points Jo, this was a pleasure to read.
I have so many thoughts, but writing isn't the easiest way for me to express myself. I love your blog because it feels real to me, not overly curated, of course a little curation is great, just as we can't always live in the perfect world of social media I also think it's not great to always live in the less than how we would like it world.
I can see how hard it must be at times to share parts that you may want to share, but because of the intertwinedness of your life with your children isn't appropriate to do so. I think you do a great job of not sharing that which isn't yours to share.
I really think that for me, the problem is with me. I need to remember that not all that glitters is gold.
I shall be following the comments here, you have some great commenters.

cheers Kate

ps love your sink, and a kid in the kitchen baking trumps dishes on the bench every time.

Anonymous said…
Oh, where to start? These posts (and the comments from your readers) strike so many chords with me. I admire so much the ways in which you are all searching for and finding your own ways to simpler and more satisfying ways to live. I can't help wishing that I had been a bit braver when I was younger, and a lot less anxious about measuring up to others' expectations - and my own, of course. The trouble is, I am now 70 years old, my children grown and flown, and with so much still to do "when I grow up"! But there is still plenty of fun to be had, and loads of new experiences - and now I have the unexpected pleasure of your blog.

I've said it before, but you're providing such a valuable forum. I love the way you
write, and the way you are becoming ever more fearless in grabbing hold of your life.

Linda in NZ
Jo said…
Hazel, I would definitely read your blog! One of the great joys of the internet is finding like-minded people who also have intriguing ideas, which you do all the time. Plus you write beautifully:) I know there is a way through the dilemma of presenting a perfect life, and I think it is probably mostly being mindful, and self-knowledge. Presenting a perfect curated image is a deliberate decision, even id subconscious, and I believe it stems from fear and insecurity. Easy to dodge if we are aware of it..

Fran, 'middle-aged life muddlers'? Love it! That is exactly what I feel I am! Yes, anarchy is what I have in mind. It sounds like so much fun..
The wonderful grace that getting older has bestowed on me is the feeling that nothing really matters and I can just let go and be who I want to be. At last. I really want for this to be a space where other people can feel that as well. And for the record, your blog is as good a place as any for me to experience that, so thanks to you too:)

Kate, I really like your thoughts about balance. Yes, it is good to strive to get to where you want to be, and no, it is not good to make that journey look effortless and flawless. What I love about your comments is that you often add another dimension to my thinking. Thanks:)

Linda, 70, pfft! There is nothing to say that you can't keep on journeying away to wherever you want to be from wherever you are, no matter your age. So many older people seem to calcify their thinking and become afraid of change. You are not that person! I have the same regrets that you do, but I wonder whether it is not a function of age that gives us the wisdom to know certain things about ourselves which helps to set us free. In ancient myths the crone holds the key to the secret wisdom of the community. I am aiming for honourable cronehood..

simplelife said…
I'm kind of surprised you can even get my point half the time Jo. My thoughts are jumbled and meandering so writing is a challenge. Basically though I just enjoy what you write here and agree with your sentiment on life.
Cheers Kate
Anonymous said…
What a delight to read this post, and following comments. It has been wonderful to my spirit to discover like minded people through your blog. You all give me hope.
Patricia USA
Jana said…
I really enjoyed reading your post. Given me so much thought.
Meg said…
I think I have grown into myself as I've gotten older, free perhaps from so many of the "musts" and the "shoulds" of my 20s and 30s. But, some remain and brushing up against that conditioning can feel like carpet burn. I think that what we post on our blogs, if we have one, comes back to where we are coming from or growing to. Meg
Jo said…
Kate, your meandering thoughts are quite coherent on the page. I am always grateful that anyone at all out there is engaging with the thoughts I put out. So thank you!

Patricia, thank you from us all, sending the compliment right back to you:)

Jana, welcome to the conversation:)

Meg, carpet burn! Oh, what a metaphor, yes! But it is those moments I think that are most helpful signposts in our journey, if we are listening..

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