Letting The Fog Lift: A Conversation With Megan Gilger Of The Fresh Exchange
When you stumble across The Fresh Exchange, you may not, at first, realize the world you’ve stepped into. It’s a tantalizingly fluid space—equal parts lifestyle blog, design studio and curated collection of beloved objects, all illustrated with sun-shot images of turquoise lake water and the vivid lights of a backyard dinner party, as a mother chases her blonde baby down a white-sand dune. The landscape is the wind-swept paradise of Leelanau County in Northern Michigan; the woman in the frame and writer of the blog is Megan Gilger, and the man behind the camera is her husband and creative partner, Mike Gilger. Together, they’re creating something impossible: a digital space that strives for all the depth, wildness and flux of a young family’s real lives.
Keep reading for our interview with Megan about that wildness, weathering life’s transitions and why sometimes, to see the next step in your path, you need to get off the internet, take a breath and watch the fog lift outside your window.
Tell me the story of how you and your husband Mike first met.
Mike and I met in college. He was a transfer student, and I actually remember him from when I gave him a tour of the campus during a weekend visit. Fast-forward a year later, he was in a design class where I worked as a teacher’s assistant. He didn’t pay much attention to me, but I knew his design skills. I could tell he felt that the class was beneath him and he wasn’t giving it his all, so I made sure he didn’t get an A as he expected.
We became friends later that year, but it wasn’t until we ended up having every senior class together that we began spending a lot of time together. We actually ended up as competing art directors in a studio course together. Both of our teams bombed out on us, so we ended up designing things together. We began dating a month later.
Working together came much later, though, after we had been married for almost two years. Before getting married, we actually vowed to never work together, even though many people told us we would do really well together. We know it now, but we needed time chasing our passions and careers to know our own strengths and weaknesses.
You started The Fresh Exchange in 2010, almost out of necessity, it sounds like. You’d graduated college at the height of the recession and jobs were scarce, and you’ve described it as a moment when you were forced to “jump in head first without asking.” Tell me about the transition to becoming business partners as well as partners in life, and how you two share the work.
The transition was natural in the beginning. I had a huge amount of work and Mike was not feeling fulfilled by his agency work anymore. I needed to hire someone, and he was a natural hire for the company. At that same time, we took a “job” to go to Paris for four weeks, unpaid—well, in exchange for time in Paris. We were shooting a video and photos for a university program. It wasn’t glamorous, and we were broke. I still have no idea where to eat in Paris because we only ate out one or two times, but what came of it was us realizing that we work seamlessly together.
It took a few years of shaking things out in our careers to know where our strengths together lied. At times it was hard. Mike wanted me to lead more than I knew how, and I struggled at times to have passion for our design projects and [to] balance the blog, my ultimate passion. But we did some amazing work in those early years that we never could have done without one another. It brought us close together and made us quickly resolve issues in our marriage, because they would permeate our work if we didn’t.
Even now, as things have changed, as we became parents and our careers have shifted, we still work together a lot. I am always his sounding board for design ideas and vice versa. He shoots so much of the blog and magazine content I direct and style. There isn’t anyone that sees my vision better than him.
You’ve talked on the blog about wanting to create an online space that isn’t just an echo chamber of other online spaces—that your “most inspired moments as creatives have not come from the content consumed online or from the design community; but from living, traveling, exploring and experiencing.” Tell me more about how that ethos influences what appears on The Fresh Exchange.
We all desire to be original and to be our own, but there was a time I felt The Fresh Exchange shifting. I wanted to make money, be “successful,” and I was losing sight of why I started. I wanted that worldly view of success that actually was far from how I defined success for myself. Though there is nothing wrong with that type of success, I knew it wasn’t for me and it would never ever bring me the joy I wanted in my life. I took a break for a while this last January before reigniting The Fresh Exchange in its current form.
Moving back to my hometown of Northern Michigan from Raleigh, North Carolina, where we’d lived for several years, building a home on a hill in Leelanau County, and building our lives near the shore was what I needed to keep The Fresh Exchange something that was all its own. I stopped spending time on social media. I turned off Instagram for a while. I stepped away from Pinterest. All of it was set aside, to connect with who I am and what inspires me the most. I walked every day in the cold, rain, sun, whatever, because I knew it was the only place I could think clearly. I stayed up late and listened to snowstorms. All of it was where I found some the most honest parts of myself that otherwise I never would have found. Many times I would drive just a mile down the road to the lighthouse that sits at the end of the peninsula. It feels you’ve reached the end of the world when you sit there. Looking out, I felt I could finally begin.
Was that time particularly generative for your work?
Many of my greatest posts came out of those times. For instance, motherhood has made me more humble and vulnerable than ever, and it has brought me to my knees too many times to share. The best way for me to process these feelings is through writing, and so many of my motherhood pieces are cathartic. I think that’s why those posts connect so deeply with other women, with or without children. I think we long, as humans, to know we aren’t alone trying to feel our way in the dark, and motherhood is a place to connect with one another.
Some of the rawest and deepest posts I have written were around the choice to come back to Michigan. We moved to Raleigh, NC, for a lot of different reasons and I strongly believe in leaving something you love to know if you really love it. Leaving Michigan back then felt easy at the time, but I never let it go all those years we were in Raleigh. It was still home. When I realized it all and this shift on the blog began was during our stay at a farmhouse with friends. I cried the night we left because I knew I was meant to be back here. I wanted nothing to do with going back to Raleigh. It hurt to think about going back. That was when we knew the land we were buying in Northern Michigan was going to be home. But when we moved, I wrote this post. I cried leaving our house, where we first brought Hayes home, but it felt like the final breath of our life in Raleigh. Which is absolutely bittersweet. Then I wrote this post about coming home, and I cried the happiest tears.
Writing is how I work through things. I am not super articulate when I speak, but writing has always been how I best tell my story, and I desire to do it whether someone reads it or not. Maybe that is something that makes The Fresh Exchange different: whether anyone read it or not, whether or not there was any sponsored content or made any money, I would be writing because I have to.
You made a big pivot recently on The Fresh Exchange and decided to focus on intentional seasonal living. It seems like The Fresh Exchange has seen you through so much—years of your life, multiple homes in multiple states, the transition to parenthood. Tell me a bit about your new direction and why you’ve come to make the changes we all experience in our lives the focus of your company’s next chapter.
There is something about becoming a parent and reaching 30 years old. I thought people were lying when they said that it changes everything, but it does. Before my son Hayes and before 30, I felt I was just finding my way in it all. But one day, though, it all started to click. I remember walking with Hayes on the lake shore in November—the leaves were falling, Hayes was asleep on me in his carrier and I felt exhausted. Then, I don’t know what it was, but the wind whipped up over the bay we live on and I felt home, relaxed, and I thought about how the seasons shift and mark our lives. I started connecting that everything I love was centered around the lake shore and how it shifts with the seasons. I remember coming back, Hayes playing on the floor, and I started writing down all the connections of the seasons to my life. It all made sense, and I spent the next three months pulling it out of myself, building this new chapter and vision that feels like I spent the last 10 years of my life getting to.
I don’t think you can plan these things ahead—at least I can’t. But I knew if I wanted to continue my career, I needed to find myself in this way. It wasn’t forced, but I was searching for it. I have always spent time holding gatherings, eating by the seasons and feeling how everything changes each day when you live somewhere like Northern Michigan. The fog lifted and I could see it all in a very direct and connected way.