A warm sunny December Saturday with no other items on the agenda took us to Harpers Ferrry for some hiking with a little history on the side. The hiking was gorgeous along the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The Appalachian Trail goes through Harpers Ferry (you can’t see very well from the photo but it’s just about mid-way between Maine and Georgia on the Trail).
I knew a bit about the history; most school-children know about John Brown’s raid. I didn’t know how it was a strategic point during the Civil War. At one point on our hike we were standing on the border between the North and South during the Civil War and the trail that we were on ultimately led to a Civil War fort. We didn’t make it all the way up due to tired legs (of parents and kids) but we did make it to the site of a Naval Battery. It was easy to imagine as we walked along the ridge why cannons placed there would have been in an excellent strategic position.
As we hiked I thought about how photos of the day would never show the whole story. They would show the natural beauty of the place and smiling kids playing together. But they wouldn’t show that Ruth got a huge splinter in her finger on the wooden bridge pictured above. A splinter that she sobbed over and wanted out until she saw the sharp-tipped tweezers that I borrowed from the Visitor Center. A splinter that I removed in the courtyard with her screaming bloody murder the whole time.
Photos wouldn’t necessarily show the umpteen mud puddles and muddy sections of trail that our kids insisted on running through despite pleas from us to please try to avoid them.
They wouldn’t show that Ruth decided to change clothes no less than three times in the span of about 20 minutes, despite the fact that we hadn’t actually brought a change of clothes. Somehow she managed to switch around her layers to form different outfits for different reasons. Too hot. Pants got wet. Too cold.
This is the season of Christmas photo cards and newsletters. Inevitably now with the smiling kids on cards and newsletters detailing accomplishments and vacations comes a discussion about “keeping it real” and whether the cards and letters are too sanitized, too neat.
This is also the era of blogs and Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. And for every person who posts photos and stories of their seemingly perfect life someone else will criticize them for not being real enough and post photos showing their own messy living room or stories about their messy life.
Here’s what the photos also don’t show. And the newsletters can’t fully tell either. The stupid jokes we all laughed at when we were tired and sore and a bit giddy. H. and my shared laughter over how ludicrous it was that Ruth was changing clothes yet again. The beauty of the light from the setting sun coming through the trees. How good the mediocre Tex-Mex food we had for dinner tasted because we were tired and hungry. The sweetness in how John comforted Ruth when she had the splinter. The hawk that we all stood and watched quietly but didn’t get a great photo of.
I’ve always been more on the side of posting only the good. Or mostly the good. Not to try and seem perfect but to protect my kids and their privacy. And also because I’m still of the generation that believes there are some things that should be private. What I share over coffee with my closest friends is different than what I choose to share in this public setting. And I’ve always thought of this as an active decision on my part.
One thing I realized yesterday is that pretty much every outing is a mix of the good and bad. Someone is always grumpy (not the same person, but it’s fair to say that someone is). Someone gets injured somehow. Someone loses or breaks something important to them. And I think sometimes we choose actively to present only the good. I think we can also choose in how we remember to remember the good. The bad things become less bad over time.
There was recently a story on NPR about people who have highly superior autobiographical memory. Basically they can remember every day of their life in minute detail. They can remember what they wore on Aug 13 three years ago, what they ate, who they saw. This might seem great but they can also remember how they felt. Scientists consider this condition more a disorder of forgetting than a superiority of memory. We are meant to forget some things. One of the women profiled said that:
in her life there are no fresh days, no clean slates without association. Every morning when she wakes up, details of that date from years before are scrolling through her mind, details that can profoundly affect the new day she’s in.
Imagine if you could not only remember holding your newborn baby but also could remember how exhausted you actually felt when you were going on less than 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep at at time. Imagine if you could not only remember all the times you yelled at your kids or spouse when you shouldn’t have but also that you felt the guilt and sadness that you felt at that time. Imagine if for every family get-together or vacation you remembered not only the laughter and smiles but felt the irritation you had at your kids fighting again in the backseat.
I think we are supposed to forget some things. Already, the story of the splinter is becoming one of those apocryphal family stories that we all (even Ruth) can look back on more with shaking-the-head mock horror than the real slight panic we all felt at the time.
So what’s real?
Well, obviously it’s all real. The pretty pictures and beautiful setting and smiling kids. And also the snotty noses and bickering and whining. But just because we choose to remember the good more than the bad doesn’t mean we are sanitizing our lives. It just means that we are expert at knowing what to forget.