One time, my mom said: I hate to be the one to break it to you girls, but no one is holding their breath waiting to see what you end up doing.
It looks harsh when I type it out, but she said it with a helpful heart. Faced with daughters that were fussing over their looks, agonizing over what social or career move to make, and designing their lives as though they were presentations for some unseen audience, she was trying to do us a favor.
I remember having two reactions:
- Oh good. The pressure is off.
- That can’t possibly be right.
This was before social media of any kind, before phones with cameras that recorded your life in a minute-by-minute virtual yearbook, and still I was concerned with how I presented to the outside world, how my personal tagline read. It just didn’t seem possible that my successes and failures weren’t being recorded in some official book.
The other day, feeling supremely silly, I made a big show of having my family watch as I tossed a baby carrot toward the trashcan without looking. My girls were saying: There is no way you’ll make it! You can’t even SEE the trashcan from there! In slow-motion I dramatically arced that baby carrot through the sky. It soared, banked off the corner wall, and ricocheted into the barrel with a resounding flourish.
The crowd went wild.
That carrot made me realize that in the movies, a character’s life is made up almost entirely of scenes such as those. Under pressure, they triumph. But in real life, the unedited, painfully unfiltered reality, these scenes are few and far between. We enjoy a few golden triumphs here and there, but the bulk of our narrative is comprised of more boring, tedious scenes interspersed with ones we’d rather forget.
There was the time I accompanied my sister and her boyfriend, Josh, on a weeklong bike trip down the coast of California. We strapped all necessities to our bike racks, whizzed down winding roads, snacked on the edges of cliffs, got dust in our hair, and slept on the ground at night. It was heavenly.
Josh hosted a slideshow get-together a couple weeks later—because that’s how long it took to process film and that was how you shared photos in the ancient times before Facebook. We all piled onto couches, chairs, and window ledges as Josh clicked his way through stunning scenic views and amazing action shots. The crowd oohed and aahhed, cracking jokes, and chiming in with questions, laughs and delight. With another click Josh landed on a photo of me… naked.
Literally, crickets could be heard outside the open windows because the room, just seconds before boisterous and jovial, had become utterly silent.
Let me clarify. This was not an inappropriate photo. Once our bike tour reached a completely isolated stretch of deep national forest we took three whole days to camp and swim. Each of us was naked the entire three days because, well, why not? It seemed wild and fun and free.
This was also not a flattering photo. By any means.
In it I am standing, cooking Top Ramen noodles over a campfire. The sun is directly overhead, bathing every inch of my dusty body in bold, garish light, and casting unlovely shadows under every possible bit of my flesh. I am not coyly posed, but slightly hunched, squishing my thigh with my hand as I bend over. Also scowling. Also wearing sandals.
The next fifteen seconds, as Josh judiciously gave this photo as much gazing time as the previous coastline shots, were the longest of my life. In that entire time not one word was spoken, the silence broken only by the eventual, and seemingly cacophonous CLICK as the slide projector finally moved forward.
In the movie version of my life this photo would be incredible, slaying every man and woman in the room with its sexiness, and its display of fitness, vigor, and raw beauty. In the real-life version, this photo and the horrific moment of it’s public display, were quickly stashed in the darkest recesses of my memory and never spoken of again.
Until the baby carrot Hail Mary pass.
Somehow that swooshing carrot made it okay to reveal this less-than-stellar naked photo scene. My girls laughed so hard when I described it. I laughed so hard. When I reminded my sister of it she had no recollection of this soul-scarring moment. I always figured that she and I never spoke of it because of the immense shame of it, because the completely unbearable awfulness of it was something that neither she nor I wanted to relive. As it turns out this naked photo of me, and the deathly silent reception it received, plays no part in her personal narrative. She found the re-telling delightful.
Apparently it is true, no one is holding his or her breath, watching to see what any of us are going to do next. Everyone is wrapped too firmly in their own story to record any but the most basic chapters of someone else’s story. They are much too busy stashing their own unflattering photos in the deleted file.
Oh good. The pressure is off.
At turns, I am both relieved and horrified each time I realize I am directing this one little life. I am in charge of telling my story, on my own terms. Sometimes I sink the shot, many times I don’t, but I get to tell the tale.
I am the hero of my own pages.
WRITER & PARENTING MENTOR
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.
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