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Bottle it up

I did not use to trust them.

You know the kind. Shiny websites brimming with optimism, rosy photos of an Instagrammed life free of wrinkles and pimples. Pressed white shirts with no stains from jam or sesame crumbs, dogs that behaved perfectly, significant others who always looked on adoringly. I had been skeptical about websites exuding the kind of sunniness that I felt no life could sustainably muster. It was as though the more I scrolled, the more they bragged. The more they yelled out from the screen “my impeccable life is more photogenic than yours.”

Unsurprisingly, I have changed my mind. A foundational pillar of my graduate program — any graduate program — is thoughtful critique. We pick ideas apart all week long. Most sentences end with “… and that is why that does not work.” or “… it has been unsuccessful.” There is value to knowing how to spot the holes and in acknowledging that good intentions are not enough, but my world of successes is feeling curiously empty. What does work? What are we left with? What is promising? What can fuel hope? What can we look forward to?

Perhaps that is what they teach you “later”, or perhaps you learn to not need it. On certain days, the lines between critique, negativity, and cynicism feel blurry. And it is on those days that I turn to the internet to remember what sunny lives look like, to inhale crisp white shirts and doting dogs and small victories. Instagram may not capture vulnerability, insecurity, or flaw adequately — but it sure as hell captures sunniness.

I had the sort of day one would want to Instagram today, except they have yet to develop the kind of dorky platform that would make engaging meetings and giddy conversations look as photogenic with a photo filter as other people’s lunch orders, fluffy dogs, and sea views do. Today was the kind of day I want to bottle up, the kind of day that reminded me why I wanted to be here and why being here has that wish fulfillment quality to it. A kindred spirit and I have had a major breakthrough in our hope to bring a storytelling forum to our graduate program, thus enabling all of us to share our personal experiences with issues ranging from the loneliness of field work, to international love, to a life of wander and wonder. I worked on the kind of final paper that has one typing furiously through lunch because she is driven by a perceived need — a need to talk about the topic of the paper prompt. A need to learn. Reading about gender and conflict and violence and their interaction every night before bed has not been good for avoiding nightmares (that is where Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things come in…), but it reminds me this is the work that makes me come alive. These are the questions I want to live in. This is my life’s work. These are the ideas I want to play with, the needs I want to respond to, the lessons I want to be learning.

I am wary of joy that shouts itself from rooftops. I discovered Those Shiny Websites with the unwrinkled everythings when I was grieving and my initial reaction was visceral bitterness. I wanted to yell through my screen (in the pre-Instagram days) to those on the other side. At the time, I lived in a home that prized stoicism and perseverance, so I inhaled sunniness vicariously and vowed to keep quiet about unbridled joy if it ever returned to my life. I  had feared that it would make someone feel excluded or discriminated against by the universe, or that by admitting to good fortune outloud, it would slip through my fingers and I’d plunge into eternal grief again. So, let this be the exorcising of old demons. The claiming of happiness. The less sunny days will return, as will the pervasively blurry lines of cynicism. Let this be the act of bottling today up.

Nothing “happened” today, per se. Nothing “happens” on the best of days. It is not every day that you get married or that your child gets to say his first word or that you get promoted or that you feel those first pangs of love that make you want to hug the whole wide world. On the best ordinary days, little that happens is other-worldly. On the best ordinary days, the little things line up photogenically to remind us of what it is that makes us come alive. 

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