I can basically sum up what I’ve been thinking and feeling for the past year as: “Everything is horrible, but life is still beautiful.” Because, DUDE. Have you seen the news? Or read – I don’t know – anything lately? It’s scary out there. And there is no blanket fort cozy enough to block out the constant feelings of impending doom, existential dread, and personal inadequacy. Or is that just me?

If you’re not careful, you could drown in the grief and fear and discouragement. You could end up unfriending half the people you know and railing angrily to your cat about the fundamental unfairness and stupidity of the Universe, and that won’t end well. Your cat doesn’t care, and you’ll be so annoyed at this that you might consume vast quantities of salted caramel ice cream in a futile effort to self-medicate. (Again, just me?)

We all cope in our own ways. Mine happens to be gratitude, which I think can maybe be mistaken for relentless positivity. You know what I’m talking about. I have a name for this phenomenon, especially as it occurs online. I call it the Flat Lay Life.

This is totally what my desk looks like. Doesn’t everyone’s?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Pinterest, a flat lay is one of those artfully styled and lit shots, taken from an angle that suggests the photographer is floating serenely somewhere above the scene, possibly on a cloud of puffed quinoa. These pictures are perfect, beautiful, and designed to make you ache with longing for those gorgeous ballerina flats (with matching scarf and earrings, natch) or that impeccably prepared meal. It’s not so much about reality as it is about curation. Creating a narrative.

Flat lays are great, and they serve a purpose. But the Flat Lay Life mindset is something else altogether. There is no room for mess or disorder. No place for ugliness or sadness or suffering that doesn’t have an expiration date. We want to project beautiful images. We want to be uplifting and to be uplifted. We want to struggle prettily. Positivity! (Hash tag #blessed.)

The thing about a Flat Lay Life is that it presents a snapshot that is devoid of context and often predicated on privilege. NO EXCUSES! YOU CAN DO IT! HOW COMMITTED ARE YOU? Real slogans I found just by searching #positivity on Instagram. No matter how sad you are, there’s a reason for everything. If you’re sick, you’re a warrior. If you stay positive, good things will happen. These are bite-sized, generic phrases no one can argue with but that give you no insight into a life lived. And I say this as someone who posts her own “notes to self” (taken from my anxiety-ridden inner dialogue) on the daily.

I’m not trying to shit on people who are trying as hard as they can to stay out of the quicksand. I promise.

But I have found that the most meaningful practice of positive thinking and gratitude must be rooted in the pain. I’m not grateful FOR the pain, mind you. The pain can go fuck itself. But I find it immensely helpful to celebrate any crumply five dollar bill I might manage to pull from the dirty laundry hamper of my life. (Hey, remember when I told you guys chemo affected my cognitive abilities? I can still craft a magnificent metaphor like a BOSS. #wordsmith) I treasure the bits of goodness I find in the depths of despair, no matter how small or weird.

I do a thing that works for me. I come up with these lists. Not every day, but as often as I can. They’re for me – it’s a practice, like meditation but without me having to sit still or attempt improbable stretches. For example, this one I wrote while recovering from my final (knock on wood!) breast reconstruction surgery:

People say nice things, which is both sweet and squirm-inducing, but again – this isn’t for them, and I don’t get to pick how they interpret my ramblings. And possibly other people find it treacly and annoying. Fair enough.

The point is, my gratitude is not a cure for anything. It’s not a silver lining. It’s me holding onto a lifeline as I dive into the fire swamp. (If you’re confused, Google The Princess Bride. Then, see me after class and explain why you have failed to watch one of the great cinematic romances of our time.)

Life is not a flat lay. It’s bumpy and untidy, and sometimes it sucks for longer than you think you can bear. But there are good things, amidst the dreck. And you can make it a point to notice and honor them if you’re so inclined. No pressure, no hash tag, no filter.



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