Downsizing my life, upsizing my joy

“Mum. Could you be any cornier?”


“No, I’m serious.  I can’t believe you just said that.”

What.  But it’s what I’m trying to say.  I’m actually attempting to downsize all this stuff we’ve accumulated over the years and replace it by…upsizing joy.  You know, replacing stuff with joy.  Like getting rid of the stuff.  And getting more of the joy.  Say goodbye to all this stuff and say hello to a life filled with joy.

Stuff no.

Joy yes.

Okay now you’re just staring at me and I’m feeling judged and also I’m getting uncomfortable.  Don’t make me over-explain myself.  Because I’ll do it.  I’m a professional over-explainer and once I start, buckle up.

Just listen to me while I find my words.

Or keep rolling your eyes because I’m the biggest idiot you’ve ever met.

I admit, it’s hard to listen when your mother is using every cliché in the English language and talking like this car load of donations headed to Catholic Charities is somehow going to bring her more joy.  Because downsizing your life isn’t the key to happiness.

“I was actually still using those seven bags of clothes but thanks for giving them away Mum.”

She’s off her rocker, lost it, taping inspirational Pinterest quotes all over the house and reminding you that the stuff won’t bring you happiness.

That’s me.  I’m the mother on the never-ending quest for what’s going to bring us true happiness, real joy, the kind of fuzzy feelings you find hidden somewhere within all those motivational quotes.  I’m the one losing my marbles reconciling real life, real life, even the ugly parts, especially the ugly parts, we all keep off social media.  (Oh and speaking of marbles, if you know me, you know mine plummet to the floor on a regular basis.  On any given day you can find me scooping them up and stuffing them back into my head full of dreams while singing that one Wilson Phillips song we all know.  Luckily I know all the lyrics and my latest haircut screams 1992.  All trends come full circle and I’m just trying to be a trend setter because I missed my chance 24 years ago when I was too busy being depressed over Joey McIntyre to care about my hair.)

I digress.  Because who wants to be real on social media?  Not me.

Who wants their perfectly displayed highlight reel to be interrupted by all the things we love watching?  Not me.

We all love watching things happen don’t we?  As long as they’re happening to somebody else of course.  So here I am amidst reconciling real life with the desire we all share: to live happily and in peace, despite what storms rage on around me.

Despite what storms rage on around us.

Because we all have storms.  It’s actually one giant weather system called Life.  Grab your umbrella because turns out none of us are getting through it dry.

One thing I’ve learned over the past five years of raising teenagers, well there are a good 593 things I learned and some of them I’ve been spending a great deal of time trying to unlearn, but one thing I’ve learned is you can still be happy even if your real behind-the-scenes life doesn’t seem to measure up to somebody else’s highlight reel.  Thank you Steven Furtick for putting into words the greatest gift we could have given each other: permission to be real.  To be real on social media, which, in an odd twist of human evolution has somehow become more “real” than actual warm living bodies.  How many people “like” your latest Facebook picture but ignore you at the grocery store?

Seriously, you ignored me in the cereal aisle but you liked my new boots on Instagram 45 minutes ago.  I’m actually still wearing those same boots as I stand here trying to choose between which box of processed breakfast food has less high fructose corn syrup and will make my 11-year-old son act less feral when I send him off to school in the morning.  You’re welcome teacher.

It’s a bizarre twist of human behavior isn’t it?  We’re more comfortable texting, liking, sharing and lurking on one another from behind a back-lit device than actually looking into one another’s eyes anymore.

And we have blurred the lines between what’s real, what happening in our lives, who we share our lives with, how we’re truly feeling and editing a selfie so dramatically that we create impossible standards that even we can’t live up to.  We can’t even live up to ourselves.

Let’s say that one more time.  We can’t even live up to ourselves.

Of course we shouldn’t actually look at or talk to one another in the cereal aisle!  We only look good in our Facebook profile pictures.  I recently had my 40th birthday and according to it my skin is flawless.  Maybe she’s born with it?  Maybe it’s Maybel…maybe she just found an amazing photo editing app that removes all traces of too little sleep, not enough sunblock and too much real life.

But what is real life?

We’re tired, none of us are perfect parents, sometimes marriage is hard and no, none of us are ever going to be as happy holding a pumpkin spice latte while standing in a heap of bright orange leaves as the lady in the Starbucks ad seems to be.  I bet she’s not even happy.  Maybe she’s fighting with her boyfriend, she didn’t make enough money modeling for this ad to pay for next month’s rent and her cat is a huge jerk that hates her.  Also she’s allergic to pumpkin so she’s going to be a hot mess in about an hour.

And somehow thinking that made me feel like less of a flop for soaking my pants last time I sat in a pile of wet leaves while catching my sweater on a branch and getting burdocks in my hair.  The pumpkin spice was delicious though, what little I was able to drink after spilling it on my cute boots.

What is real life?

Being a parent is hard.  So hard.  We all take different approaches while silently judging one another for those differences.  And those sweet little cherubs you just posted about were driving you insane an hour ago weren’t they?  I know mine was.  I literally had a 15 minute argument with my inner voice about why opening a bottle of wine will not make him less annoying.  And despite loving them with every cell in our bodies, despite every breath we take being filled with anxiety for their safety or joy over their happiness, despite being willing to step in front of a fast-moving freight train for them, they also make us utterly crazy and sometimes we hand them iPads because today is not a perfect parenting day.  Today is not the day we have patience.  Today we didn’t complete one single solitary Pinterest craft.  To be honest, today we didn’t even put on real clothes or brush our teeth.

Today is not the day we share our lives on social media.

Seriously, you don’t want to see it.

And so for the past six months I’ve been reevaluating my life and all the things and stuff that we surrounded ourselves with, things that have gone unopened, stuff that was purchased with the best of intentions yet sat unused in a drawer for years.  Things we just had to have, stuff that filled empty rooms of a big house.  Things that looked so beautiful in pictures and became part of an identity, of how we envisioned our lives to be, if nothing else, in pictures.

I’ve been looking at how I present myself on social media and what message do I want people to take from my words, my pictures and what degree of my personality am I able to truly present through a screen?

Where am I going to find that joy?  That blissful moment captured in time, staged, framed and put on Pinterest for all the word to see, drool over for 30 seconds, pin and never actually come back to.  Ever.

Where are we searching for our joy?  In things?  In stuff? In perfectly edited pictures of other peoples’ crafty kitchen creations, well-dressed children, immaculately cleaned homes, snapchat-filtered faces and Starbucks ads?  Damn you, Starbucks.  You lower my self-esteem but somehow I still can’t quit you.

And these past six months have been a wonderfully unexpected turning point, as my 40th loomed ominously, approaching like a cloaked harbinger of surrendered youth and leaving with much ado about nothing, and a major life change.  A change in address, a shift in my confidence and outlook on relationships.  Relationships with all people, not just those I love dearly.  If I see you in the cereal aisle, I want to say hello.  You don’t have to and I understand if you’re more comfortable only talking to me on Facebook.  But just know I’d like a hug.

I just like hugging.  Hugging’s my favorite.

I want to know how you’re doing, really, how are you doing?  I’m okay skimming past the boring small talk and actually having a real, albeit two-minute, conversation.  I’m into that. I’m into real.

It’s okay that your marriage isn’t as perfect as everybody thinks and your job exhausts you.  Welcome to the club.  We have comfy pajamas and the Food Network is on constantly.  I’m into real.

It’s okay that your kids are tiny and cranky and sometimes they suck the very life out of you.  Welcome to the club.  We have wine and mini pumpkin whoopie pies and the password is “let me in now.”  I’m into real.

It’s okay that you have all the stuff you never use and all the Pinterest recipes and crafts but you’ve never actually done one of them.  Your pins are super cute and I’ll give you an A+ for good intentions.  Again, welcome to the club.  We have crafting scissors that we don’t actually know how to use and I bet between the two of us we could totally nail that Thanksgiving party favor craft project.  You bring the wine and I’ll bring the hot glue gun.

I’m into real.

And for those of you wondering, this glorious shade of toasted chestnut hair is totally natural, Sephora has nothing to do with my glowing skin and no, I’m not wearing a push-up bra.

Renée Chalou

About Renée Chalou

Renée Chalou lives and raises her family in Presque Isle, where she owns a fitness center, LiveWell United. Her oldest son is in his second year at UMO, her daughter plans to attend UMPI in the spring and her youngest son is an active, happy 11 year old in 6th grade. From her life experiences as a homeschooling parent, blending a family, and transforming herself from an overweight, side-line mother to a competitive athlete mother and fitness leader in her community, she writes about what she knows: living life well even when it's not perfect. She writes about finding and clinging to the good even when it would be easy to focus on the bad, no matter what challenges life brings. Life in Northern Maine is wonderful, full of adventures and sub-zero temperatures. It's not for everybody and nobody claims it's easy. But it's a good life, it's hers and she'd like to share some of it with you.