In the 20 or 30 years we spend working, we build huge shields that cover and protect us. I don’t even think we’re aware of it while we’re doing it, but as we struggle to balance too much work with living authentic lives, we create elaborate, intricate armor to help us get through our days. It comes in the form of everything from unconsciousness to boredom to depression and beyond, but it serves a purpose, or so we think. It allows us to move faster than we really want to, listen only to key points, answer mechanically when someone asks us how we are, and dull ourselves from being distracted by shiny things along the way.
When we stop working, things begin to change. The protective covering starts to fall away slowly and we poke our heads out to see what all the fuss is about. We notice that lovely expression on our neighbor’s face across the street when she waves good morning, the amazing way the afternoon sun comes in that side window. We let ourselves re-read a book that changed our lives when we were 19 and we enjoy a cup of coffee as if it were the best ever made. This is my favorite thing about this time of my life. I am awake and I am noticing and I am paying attention—for the first time in 30 years. I am almost embarrassed by the clichéd feeling that I am discovering life for the first time, but it’s true. It’s as if all that armor created a huge barrier between me and the real world when I began full-time work and only now have I begun to start shoving it away a little bit at a time.
I felt that wall budge on the very first day of 2016 when a group of friends and I met at a wildlife preserve for a cold, but beautiful walk to mark the start of the new year. Cell phone in hand, I took some nice photos of the river, the trees, the egrets, and the path we were walking. When I got home, I posted one of my photos on Instagram. I’m such a luddite that for a couple of years I thought of Instagram only as an easy way to edit and filter photos, not as a place to share them with others. But I’ve grown in knowledge a tiny bit and I get it now that I can use it to let others see what I’m working on visually. Beautiful images and not many words. How great is that?
Then I opened my newly found “there-are-lots-of-small-but-amazing-things-to-enjoy-in-the-world” door a bit and realized this could be the start of a year-long project. I titled the photo “#a year outside, #day 1.” I have to say, though, Just the thought of having to do this 364 more times was intimidating enough that I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it lest I decided to give it up.
Day 42--A Year Outside
But then, there I was the next day, stopping in the park on my way home from a run to take a picture of an old brick wall I’ve always loved. That’s when that big barrier creaked open a tad further. I had committed—to myself—to take a picture, outside, every day of the year. I also realized immediately that I could cheat if I wanted to. If I took two today, why not use one of those tomorrow? If I took five, I’d be free from this task for most of the week. But little by little, I realized there was something for me to see and learn in doing this every day—and in not just checking off the boxes on my self-imposed to-do list, like I used to do when I was working.
If I stick to the rules I’ve devised, the project serves as a daily reminder that I want to go outside and see something, a habit that was not part of my life when my days were filled with meetings to attend and forms to complete. This seemingly silly mission can actually stop me from mulling and tormenting, it can change the tone of an afternoon, and it can force me to see something I haven’t seen before. It’s a tiny wake-up call to remember what’s in front of me. On some days it’s my dogs in the backyard; on others it’s the steps to a friend’s front porch. It’s a documentary of sorts, of a year in my life, and a year slowing down.
The life lessons in this very simple exercise continue to amaze me and make me painfully aware of their absence in my life for so many years. No room here for perfectionism, no worries about people’s opinions (I think I have 11 Instagram followers!), and no spending hours pondering the future of the project. It’s just me and my camera-phone, seeing the world as it is on this day, at this moment, outside.