A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

black and white photo with young freckled girl holding a kitten

… but doesn’t tell the whole story

I was cataloguing old photos, the way one does when pandemic-bored, and instead of bringing nostalgic joy, scrolling through years of smiling faces left me unsettled. Look at those Halloween costumes! All those trips! Those marathons and trail races, those work events and school shows, boyfriends and dinner dates. Look at me doing renovations, redecorating, decluttering. When and how did I have the energy to do all these things? Past Karen is intimidating the heck out of Present Karen.

a screenshot of many dozens of photos of kids, water, cats, birthday cakes and other things that are hard to make out
So much joy!

I have some insight into how Past Karen was feeling though, and she won’t mind if I tell you that she found life hard. I know this, I’ve written about this, and yet, seeing how happy she was in those pictures makes it hard to believe, or remember. My inner voice kept telling me that she led a great life, and my current life is a failure. 

Here are the ideas that helped me feel good about Past Karen and about now. (“Present Karen” sounds like someone who hands out gifts, right? I can’t type it without picturing boxes with ribbons and bows.)

That Happiness Was Real

This isn’t a case of staging photos for sponsored Instagram* posts; the photos weren’t fake in any way. The smiles were real – if tired at times – and I enjoyed those times so much. A little bit of gratitude for having so much happiness in my life goes a long way.

Remembering How I Chose What to Keep

In my minimalist way, I delete vastly more photos than I keep. I might take twenty shots of a hike with the kids but save only one. On a big trip, I’ll take hundreds maybe, but I’ll delete all but ten or so. It is possible I have a thousand pictures of my cats, but I have thousands more in the trash.

a ginger cat and black-striped cat sleeping together on a couch
gratuitous cat picture

My thought process as I cull the pictures is to first mark the ones that make me gasp with joy as favourites, then justify saving a couple of others to remind me of views or moods I’ll want to return to. I have so very many short videos of waves lapping or crashing, my canoe gliding through morning mist, and wind making trees dance; I use them as backdrops for meditation or to settle me when I’m flustered – but oops, that’s a tangent, not the point here.

Of course scrolling through screens of gasp-with-joy moments will paint a pretty picture of my life.

Remembering What Isn’t There

I have no photos of insomnia. Of messy crying. My gut dropping with fear. Heartbreak. Illness – well, I do have one of my adorably pouty look from that time I was stung twice by a jellyfish and thought I’d been stabbed and would bleed to death in the ocean, but I don’t have one of the rash that rose up every time I shaved my legs for literally years afterwards. I stopped shaving my legs, problem solved.

I do have a bazillion shots of my kids (even more than the cats), and I did take one of my son as a tiny toddler, crying. I kept it for a while (but don’t seem to have it anymore) because I realized that although he spent his days mostly fussing and frustrated, all the photos I had were of his (so very sweet) smiling face. He’s a chill young man now, and I don’t keep ones now if I happen to catch him in a grimace or frown. None of us smile all the time, but why would I keep pictures that make me feel sad or bad? 

young boy with paper glasses saying Happy Birthday, scooping ice cream out of his bowl and making an excited expression
find yourself someone who looks at you the way Andrew looks at birthday cake

The Wonder of this Newfangled Technology

Being able to take photos on the spot, see them, edit them and take a bunch more, is fantastic. Ditto for the ease with which we can share them. I remind myself (and my kids when they’re trapped in the car with me) not to take this ease for granted, and to consider how it’s changed the way we remember things. Before smartphones, I rarely had a camera/film/batteries/SD card with me, so did all those un-photographed moments happen? Do I remember them? If I had no photos of my life, would I feel like Present Karen (🎁) was a failure? PFFFFFFT!! No way. 

Past Karen would be so very proud of me.

young woman in a blue bathing suit, pouting, with one leg stretched out with white cream on it in two places
anguish in Antigua

*If you’re wondering what happened to my Instagram account, I closed it – it was just time for me to move on, nothing dramatic (and lol at the idea of sponsored posts, I think I had 50 followers and many of those were random internet men/bots filling DMs with inspired lines like, “Hi beautiful, how’s it going?”). I left facebook years ago too, and honestly, if you’re considering leaving, I highly recommend it. I haven’t missed it at all, and that is one corporation I’m glad to be away from. I freed up all the time and mental energy I’d spent planning posts, wondering how others liked them, and scrolling through mess to find the few interesting bits … well, like I said, if you’ve thought about deleting your account, this is your reassurance that life without it is a relief.

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