How can we make social media more realistic and less aspirational?

Social media. Yikes.

I’ve stayed away most of the summer. Mostly because I was just busy with work, but honestly…I struggle SO MUCH with social media. Especially in my social media presence as an author. I want to create something of beauty where people can go to feel magical and safe. But I also feel pressure to make everything look perfect in a way that’s just not realistic.

This picture, for instance. I have many photos I’ve taken for my website that I absolutely adore, that feel like they embody who I am on the inside. But guess what? I don’t wander around in the woods wearing an outfit like this. HA! No, I usually go out there after my workout, in sweatpants and Wellie boots. There’s absolutely nothing feminine, beautiful, or mystical about me in those moments, at least not on the outside.

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The honest truth is that I get SO frustrated with social media today. It seems to be inundated with sexy photos of girls in their twenties pouring tea with their hair cascading down their shoulder and into their décolletage, or wandering barefoot and braless in the woods, or twisting their spandex-clad legs into yogic knots on the top of a boulder. Where the fuck are we, Toto?

I have actually had to unfollow people because I couldn't handle some of it. Outdoor soaks in bathtubs filled with rose petals? Sensual nude selfies in the greenhouse? Foraging for berries in a miniskirt and thigh-high boots? Come-fucking-on.

I don't actually have any objections to these things on principle. It's just that this is not all of real life. This isn't even 20% of real life. (And if you tell me you regularly bathe outdoors under the full moon, forage barefoot for your own food, and are quite commonly naked when watering plants in your greenhouse, I might punch you. I'm sorry in advance, but seriously. I can't handle it.)

I don't expect to see pictures of meltdowns, tantrums, broken hearts, disappointments, the earwig crawling up your wall, a broken pipe, your cellulite-y thighs, or your arm coated in the chocolate cake you just binge-ate. I suppose that doesn't make for particularly compelling social media posts.

But can we just talk about these things? Please? And can we post the occasional imperfect picture that maybe shows just a peek of real life?

And really…is everyone on Instagram twenty fucking years old? Where are the bold women in their 40's, the brazen hussies of 50, the scandalous seductresses in their sixties, and beyond? Where are they posting? Thank goddess for Catherine Just and Kris Oster and Lyn Thurman and Valerie Geary and Liz Gilbert and Anne Lamott for daring to take up real estate in this youth-obsessed culture.

I try, in my own ways, as well. I struggle with my author accounts on Instagram and Facebook. I don't really like to get personal on social media. In a memoir? Sure, I'm all about that. What's the difference? Hell, I have no idea. One feels more controlled, I suppose, more contained. Who knows what happens to your words and images on social media.

So I try to walk that line of what to share, tending to stick a little too closely to talking about my projects. I try to post occasionally about what I'm doing, but that voice inevitably crops into my head: Why the hell am I sharing this? What possible reason could I have for telling a bunch of people I don't know that I'm baking bread on a Sunday afternoon? Yes, I want to share my feelings of warmth and comfort with others, but again, on social media, it too often leaves me feeling empty and even sometimes manipulative.

The truth is, no matter what my Instagram feed looks like, I'm just an ordinary person with a job and a side hustle and an unbelievably messy, disorganized house, a crazy family, and an endless ability to annoy people with my quirks, flaws, and habits. Sure, I wish I was beautiful and sexy and that I radiated an unshakable inner calm 24/7. I wish I spent my days puttering around in a field filled with mullein, untangling my long skirts from the grasp of bittersweet nightshade. I wish I picked mushrooms with an owl perched on my shoulders and a fox at my heels. I even wish that I took baths under the moonlight and snapped nude photos of myself in the greenhouse.

But really, I’m just a woman with a messy ponytail running from one modern-day obligation to the next, like most of us do. It ain't pretty, it ain't sexy, it's not even that interesting. I suppose it wouldn't do much for social media, right?

In my attempt to find a way for myself in social media, I created another Instagram feed called The Owler's Notebook. I use it to share photos and stories from my owling adventures. It's very specific, which helps me feel like I know exactly what to post there, and I don't have to second-guess my motives because I'm there for the owls. I'm there to share their story, more than my own. That, I can handle.

I do want to present curated content at The Owler's Notebook - of course I do. I'm inviting people into the forest, and it must look the part. But I feel that I'm able to find the balance between reality and Instagram-fantasy-land very easily.

I hope to see more of this in social media - accounts that tell a story as realistically as possible. And more of people who are more honest about their struggles - if not in the pictures, than at least in the captions. (But I swear to god, don't let me catch you posting about what a rough day you had because your body dysmorphia reared up, beneath a close-up shot of a pendant hanging between your naked breasts. I'll have to punch you again.)

I don't know what the answer is, and I don't want to be a judgmental bitch about it, either. Okay, okay, post whatever you want. #liveandletlive But I think we're moving pretty quickly in the wrong direction. Everything has to be on-brand. Good lighting. Sexy, pouty selfies. Poetic, provocative hashtags.

#Fuckallofthat. #Cantwejustbereal?

We cannot hide at Grandma's house

As I write this, I find myself terrified. Excited, yes, but incredibly terrified.

I am buying a house all by myself on a salary with which I can barely make ends meet (the danger of working for a non-profit). No backups. No safety nets. No second income. No roommates.

Just me.

There are times, as I run from one room to another, packing furiously, that I feel I will explode from the worry, from the fear. Can I do this? Can I even make the one step it will take to sign that last contract? Can I even make it as far as to just finish packing and truck everything over there?

Funnily enough, by the time you read this, I'll be well-settled into my house. I realize all of this will be over. I might even feel like laughing that I ever felt so afraid.

In fact, I'm counting on that.

In my youth, this kind of fear would signal to me that it was time to run - or at the very least, hide. I would've assumed the fear was a sign that things were wrong, that I was going down the wrong path.

Now, I see that I have never grown in significant ways without doing something that scared the you-know-what out of me. I have never changed without the rug being pulled out from under me, without doubting that I was ready to make a change, without jumping off the edge and into what scares me most.

I still hate that that's true. Will the next 40 years also be full of nausea-inducing choices to grow, versus the relative ease of complacency? Will I have to face this fear again and again and again?

I wish it weren't so, but I think I probably will. It's the Big Bad Wolf waiting for me in my dark forest. I just want to arrive at Grandma's house, safe and sound, but in truth, there's no end, there's no destination. There's only the twisting, winding pathways leading us through the woods, where all the scariest creatures await us.

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So, I press on. I know better now than to run. The fear, like a bear, will only run after me, and eventually overtake me. So I might as well face it, trembling, holding on to my lantern. Once I've looked it in the face, I know it's not going to be half as scary as I thought. And once I've danced with it for a little while, it's going to become easier and easier, pressing me to meet the next creature that awaits me.

I suppose that's the best gift we get out of all of these risks, all of these moments of facing our fears - we realize, simply, that we can survive it, which gives us the courage to try again, to reach even further.

Scared as I am, I cannot wait to see who I become after I settle into home ownership. That's a big manifestation in the physical realm. What's going to come to help me support that?

I am terrified…but jubilant with excitement, waiting to find out.

Prepare the space for inspiration

There is a stretch of time between the winter holidays and February that is dark, quiet, and bitterly cold. I often struggle in the days after Christmas, when the tree comes down, when all the pretty lights get put away. My soul knows it's not time, yet. We're still in the darkest days of the year and removing the evergreen, the illumination from our homes at that time is just too soon.

Thankfully, 33 days later comes the moment when the ember of warmth and light that we hold close to our chests during the winter solstice becomes the tiniest flicker of a flame. Candlemas (or Imbolc) is here. In pre-Christian times, this holy day fell between the winter solstice and vernal equinox, marking the halfway point of winter - the tipping of the scales when spring finally started gaining strength and crocuses were starting to push through the snow. The day was often associated with the goddess of inspiration, Brigid, who was later incorporated into Christian tradition as St. Bridget.

As Christianity overtook the cultures of the Great Mother, this day became a celebration of light, when baby Jesus was held by Simeon and declared to be the light of the world. The churches blessed their candles on this day (hence the name), and many people would leave candles burning in their windows throughout the night to commemorate this sacred time.

This is one of my favorite holidays of the year. It feels like such a deeply sacred time to me, a time when I long to keep the world at a bit of a distance, a time when I want to spend the evenings with family members and hold them close. Truthfully, and I mean no disrespect by this, I'd rather have a paid holiday on Candlemas/Imbolc than on President's Day.

If you look closely, there is such a beautiful magic in this time of year, even though it seems that we are still locked in the harsh embrace of bitter winter (which, itself, is an illusion - I'm convinced that winter is a gentle lover that some of us have yet to learn to appreciate). It's a perfect time to kindle the flames of inspiration that have been smoldering in our hearts all winter long. It's a time to appreciate the magic of the earth, the energy of the sacred feminine that is on the brink of succulent fertility, and the innocence of childhood.

Did you know that in the old days, people celebrated this day much like Christmas - by setting up a tiny bed near the hearth and leaving an offering of milk and honey for the goddess who became weary on Imbolc Eve, visiting everyone and touching them with her inspiration? Sound familiar? A little Santa-esque, right? This tradition of setting up a Brigid's Bed is so charming and magical, it makes my heart smile. Can you imagine living in a culture where our children were as excited about setting up a Brigid's Bed as they were about hanging stockings on the mantle at Christmas? What a wonderful thought.

It's a beautiful lesson for us all. Inspiration has been smoldering in our hearts and souls all winter long. It is waiting to flicker into a flame. But we have to set out a bed for it, first. We have to make a space for it. Whether that is literal or metaphorical, let this celebration of light, of inspiration, be our preparation for whatever is waiting to be born within us. 

Winter is our teacher

(I wrote this post about a month ago, when we got the first of what I thought would be a handful of storms. And...that storm turned into dozens, dumping several feet of snow on us. We're still in the thick of it, too. Non-stop snow, terrible road conditions, bad accidents... All of which is causing me a whole lot of anxiety. So as it turns out, I obviously still have a LOT to learn from Winter, my teacher.)

I have to say, I’ve noticed a surprising amount of backlash to winter this year. I know many people find the long nights and cold weather hard to bear – in fact, I am one of them. But there’s a certain magic to winter that cannot be denied.

There is nothing like the colors of winter. The grays, blues, pinks, and purples. On some mornings, the sky looks like taffy – striped with 4 or 5 muted pastel tones. In the late afternoon, that muted blue sky becomes deeper and deeper, turning almost sapphire, while the gray of night slowly overtakes it. On especially nice afternoons, the sunset gifts us with a beautiful pink tone.

Then there’s the snow. I admit, I’m not always a huge fan of snow. Even after decades of living in northern climates, I still hate driving in snow and ice. I still fear weather-related car accidents. And I absolutely despise it when we get so much snow at one time that I have to set my routines aside. Not being able to bicycle or take my daily walks because of the messy, dangerous roads is extremely difficult. Within 24 hours, I get pretty extreme cabin fever. After a week or more of this, I have been known to struggle with panic attacks because I feel like I’m trapped. So yes, I’m not always a fan of snow. However…

You can’t deny that snow is beautiful, wondrous, and magical. There is nothing like the feeling of big fat snowflakes landing on your face when riding your bike or walking around town (assuming the roads or sidewalks are clear, of course – if you’re worried about slipping in the ice, then it’s hard to pay attention to the beauty of the snow). And nothing beats the color of the sky when it’s snowing like that.

Snow is like a big, fluffy blanket laying itself down over the earth. If we aren’t rushed by our work schedules, or stressed about the holidays then we have the chance to actually feel an appreciation for this beautiful change in the weather. Think about how fun it is to sled down a hill. Or to feel and hear the sound of snow crunching under your feet. And just seeing the trees and rooftops decorated with that silver-white sparkle is so beautiful.

The best thing about winter is that it gives us permission to slow down, rest, and contemplate. Granted, our society completely denies this and holds us to wildly different expectations. But the only way we’re going to change anything is to start changing ourselves.

Like many of you, I’m not in a position to make drastic lifestyle changes just because it’s winter. I still have to wake up before dawn in order to get to work on time. I still have to put in the same amount of hours in a day. I still struggle with the holiday rush and seasonal affective disorder. And I, too, have to find my way in the holiday rush.

However, as each year passes, I try to adjust as much as I can. I turn off the TV and computer and read a real book (e-books are a no-no, because I’m trying to let my eyes adjust to less light at this time of year, which translates to less screen time) at the end of the day. I work out slightly less (sometimes simply because the snow forces me off the streets and sidewalks). I try to stretch more and go to bed earlier. I take a lot of time to think and try to pull back from activity in order to spend more time on contemplating how I feel, what I want, and where I’m heading over the course of the next year.

In the long term, I have what I call a “winter goal” – a big picture lifestyle goal that I want to move toward over the next few years to help me create the kind of winter I want to have. I want to start clearing more space for that time of year so I have more down time and more time to spend with family, rather than feeling like all the end-of-year tasks are piling up and that I’m busier than ever.

Ultimately, my goal is to be self-employed and to be able to pull back a bit from work in the winter time. I’d like to wake up when my body says it’s time to wake up (around 8 AM, I’ve noticed, in the wintertime) and go to bed earlier. I’d like to have ALL the holiday gifts finished and wrapped by Thanksgiving so I don’t have to run around looking for last-minute items. I’d like to have holiday cards completed by Thanksgiving, as well. I’d like to have all my creative projects finished by Halloween so I can automate everything – from sales to blog posts – in November and not have to touch my website in December. Which leads me to the ultimate goal of wanting to take the entire month of December off. As a teacher, I used to get July and August off, which is really nice, but honestly, I’d rather have a month or two off in winter – especially December, when all I want to do is bake cookies, knit, and spend time with my family.

Now, here’s how I know that our culture doesn’t support this kind of “seasonal living.” I literally felt scared to type out that I wanted to take the whole month of December off, knowing other people would read this. I’ve already heard many times that teachers are “Peter Pans” who never want to grow up because “real adults” work all year long, with only a couple days off for holidays and illness.  There’s still a big part of me that feels like I “should” deny these desires to alter my lifestyle season-by-season – even though that’s what we were MEANT to do. (Electricity and the internet have given us the opportunity to work 24/7/365 – but that’s doesn’t mean we SHOULD.)

So I’m going to dare to listen to my body and believe that I have every right to create a life that works for me and keeps me healthy and happy. I believe this is everyone’s right.

I honestly believe that if we had a little more respect for winter and for the lessons and opportunities it brings, we would feel very differently about this time of year. I suspect so many people hate winter because we live in a summer society. Go, go, go. Fast and hot. Long, long days. Do. Do more. Don’t think, just go. We get angry and frustrated because winter simply refuses to play along with this game. It won’t give us the light or the warmth to allow us to remain in action mode, and our bodies naturally want to pull back a bit, rest, be instead of do. And this is very hard for us to accept.

I also believe that the source of much of our seasonal depression is caused by this inability to alter our lifestyles in the winter. There’s really no social support for those who want and need to pull back and so we feel like we have to fight to keep going, to keep producing. I think it’s easy to fall prey to depression when we feel we cannot give our bodies and souls what they need.

There’s no easy solution to any of this. This is the world we live in and it’s not going to change on its own. In fact, I’d bet that it’ll keep moving in the direction it’s moving in – greater action, longer days, more disruption to our circadian rhythms. I don’t say this out of cynicism, but out of genuine concern. I think it’s imperative that we stay tuned in to what our bodies and souls need and keep pursuing those needs relentlessly. No matter what our society tells us. No matter what’s on our to-do list.

We have to take care of ourselves. That’s what winter is all about. Its severity, for those who live in colder climates, isn’t a mistake made by Mother Nature. It’s a test of will and survival. What do we have to do to stay warm and nourish ourselves in this stark, harsh time?

Breathe. Eat. Rest. Be.

Sometimes, that’s enough. And it should be enough.

So don’t hate winter. Find the beauty and magic in it. Listen for its lessons. And let it change your lifestyle. Let it affect you. Let it mold and shape you.

This time of year was never meant to be simply an interruption of summer. It wasn’t mean to be an inconvenience to ignore.

Winter, as much as summer or any other time of year, is our teacher. 

The sacred space of grief

There is a place along a path I walk where a beautiful coyote took its last breath. He laid in rest there for the many cold months of winter until he was removed in the warmth of spring.

Copyright 2016 Yancy Lael

Copyright 2016 Yancy Lael

The weeds have grown around this spot, leaving the perfect outline of the wild creature’s body. Nothing grows there. Everything keeps a respectful distance. For now.

There is something beautiful about the space that death makes. It’s sad, and it’s empty, but it’s also a blank page. A quiet moment. An empty pocket.

Life respects this empty space. It keeps things clear for a time. Because the space must be acknowledged. The grief must be tended to.

From the outside, it may look like ruin. Plants may grow in a riot around this space. Life may be screaming all around the emptiness. And yet there it remains, still, silent, gaping.

What you can’t see, hidden underneath the surface, is all the magnificent energy building and growing. New life is always waiting to be born from this empty space. The ground where the coyote once laid may look barren, but in reality, it’s more fertile than the ground around it, boasting all those audacious weeds.

One day, when I walk that path again, I won’t be able to tell where the coyote slept his last sleep. That space will be filled with luscious green grass, swaying the in breeze. That spot will be more filled with life than any other place on the path. The bees and worms will swarm and squirm there. The Western Kingbirds that live nearby will visit for lunch every day. Gophers and snakes will take shelter there when a stranger like me walks by.

One day, the space death overtook will be alive again. Screaming, screaming, screaming alive.