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Last Sunday my friend D and I led the service at UUCA, on the theme of Embracing the Mess. D wrote a great scene in which our kids (and one bonus kids) demonstrated how to make a mess and we figured out how to deal with it. This was not much of a stretch for any of us.

A moment from our “Embracing the Mess” service on July 14.

If you’d like to watch the service, visit http://www.uucava.org/livestream/ and click on archives and click on the July 14, 2019 service.

Here’s my reflection from Sunday:

One of the reasons I became a Unitarian Universalist after spending many formative years as a Presbyterian was that I wanted more variety than the Bible seemed to offer. When I discovered that UUs looked to many sacred and secular texts as sources of inspiration, I was delighted. As a writer and reader, I love discovering wisdom from new people and places.

That said, I acknowledge that the Bible includes some great stories. They’re not always easy to understand, universal truths are embedded in those parables. My perspective on Jesus is that he was a kind, compassionate, and generous person and a powerful teacher. When I think about embracing the mess, I keep coming back to this story from the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Picture the scene. You have an unexpected celebrity guest—plus his entourage—and you’re working frantically in the kitchen to find something suitable to serve. You’re pouring chips and salsa into your best bowls. You’re searching for the corkscrew to open a bottle of sauvignon blanc. You’re preheating the oven to pop in some Trader Joe’s appetizers. 

And you’re doing it all by yourself, while your sister is in the other room laughing at your guest’s amusing anecdotes and not lifting a finger to help you. Maybe it’s not your sister, but your significant other or your roommate. Regardless, you’re growing increasingly frustrated at them for having a good time while you’re working your tush off.

I have a question for you. How many of are familiar with the enneagram? How many of you are type 2?

For those of you who don’t know the enneagram, it’s an ancient tool used to help us understand motivations and behaviors. The enneagram can be a useful way to examine the choices we make and help us to become emotionally healthier. 

Type 2 is known as the helper or the giver. Martha was likely a type 2. A bunch of guys show up on her doorstep and she immediately gets to work making dinner. There is a need to be met, and she assumes it is her responsibility to meet it. She does not understand why no one else is helping, because it is so obvious to herthat there is work to be done. 

I will confess that I am also a type 2. After years of emotional work, however, I would like to think I am a healthy 2. This means I would probably head to the kitchen to get snacks for Jesus and his friends, but then I would order pizza so I could join in the conversation sooner. I might ask the apostles to take everyone’s drink orders. 

Unhealthy 2s plow ahead with all the work themselves, becoming increasingly resentful. Healthy 2s will ask for help when they need it, or even decline a request that someone makes of them. My spiritual director calls this “the holy freedom to say no.” The enneagram provides a direction for each type to move toward in order to balance out unhealthy tendencies. For type 2s, we are guided toward 4, known as the romantic or the individualist. I suspect Mary in this story was a 4. When Jesus showed up at her house, she knew exactly what she wanted to do, which was sit and hang out with him. What could possibly be more important?

I can’t count the number of times when I was younger that I cleared the table and started doing dishes when I had friends over just to get the mess out of the way. And then missed out on time I could have spent having fun and laughing with people I loved. The dishes will always be there. I have learned that community, conversation, and connection are much more important. 

A couple months ago, a friend of mine from college emailed me to say he and family were going to be in town and wanted to get together. He asked if we wanted to meet at a restaurant, but I suggested they come to our house, knowing it would be more relaxing, and that the kids could play, and we would have more time to talk. He agreed, although he suggested we get takeout and he offered to bring wine and dessert. I ordered dinner from Bangkok 54 and we had a fabulous time, and I did very little work.   

Of course, I’m not saying you never have to clean your house, but that embracing the mess provides an opportunity to cultivate both connection and creativity. 

How many of you have ever lived in a house overrun by Legos?

This has been my house for the past decade. 

We have built Lego sets of a lunar lander, Hogwarts, the Millennium Falcon, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, countless superheroes and villains and their vehicles, and many more. We have thousands of Legos that have been used to build fabulous creations even more imaginative than the sets you buy at the store. Everyone at our house is a builder, but Zeke in particular is on his way to becoming a master builder. Where I see Legos scattered all over the coffee table and the floor, he sees superhero hideouts and innovative spaceships and cars that can dive and fly and so many technologies that might actually come to fruition someday. I have no doubt that he could become an engineer and design the prototype for an actual car that flies.

Our house is also littered with overflowing bins of art supplies, books piled up next to densely packed bookshelves, and magazines with ideas for making new stuff out of old stuff you have lying around. Sure, sometimes I wish my house looked like something out of a magazine, where you’re sure no one actually lives there because there’s no stuff. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to give up the time our family spends making art, reading, and creating with everything that surrounds us. 

Embracing the mess opens up possibilities and allows for freedom. This can be risky. And liberating.

Both my kids attended AUCP, the phenomenal preschool located here at UUCA. After Zoe graduated and before Zeke started, AUCP launched a program called Timber Tuesday, where, every other week, a class spends the entire three-hour school day in the woods near Long Branch Nature Center. Rain or shine. I have never been an outdoorsy person, and I was skeptical about this at first, but AUCP’s director Susan Parker quickly sold me on the value of spending this time outside. Kids who struggled to conform to classroom expectations thrived outside when given plenty of space to explore. Kids with sensory or motor challenges pushed themselves to climb rocks and touch trees and splash in the creek. As a parent, one of the most important lessons I learned was that it’s ok to get messy. Just bring a change of clothes. Or be prepared to ride home in your underwear. 

I remember sometime after I had become a Timber Tuesday convert that my kids and I were out after a rainstorm. Instead of instructing my kids to avoid a puddle, I encouraged them to jump in it. They were astonished. 

They have certainly taken that encouragement to heart. Two weeks ago, our family was on vacation in Lewes, Delaware. One evening we went to the beach to watch the sunset. One minute we were walking with our toes in the water, and next thing I knew both of my kids were laughing and splashing, submerged up to their chests in the Delaware Bay, fully clothed. Then we went to get ice cream. Because why not?

mousetrapLast night while Zoe was having a sleepover with her grandparents, I was hoping Randy and I could do some grown-up thing like watch an R-rated movie or play Bananagrams. Or if Randy had to do work, I would, say, read a book. Instead I had to guiltily dispose of one dead and two distressed mice.

After my last post about the mouse I saw in the bathroom in the middle of the night, several friends offered to loan me humane mousetraps. Those people perhaps are better people than I am. In fact after reading this you may think less of me, but I am what I am at this point. I’m not going to change. Anyway, I had already called Phil, our exterminator, with whom we have an annual contract because we have had many unwelcome small creatures in our house over the past decade. He comes whenever we call because I don’t like the thought of tiny things attacking us or our children as we sleep, or infiltrating our food, or pooping on our stuff. So Phil had come earlier this week and discovered a mouse hole behind my desk and set several traps around the house. He said he thought there was only one mouse, and he didn’t see any signs of the mouse in the kitchen, although in past months and years the mice have definitely been in the kitchen. We thought maybe they wanted to check out the upstairs just for fun.

Then last night while Zeke and I were hanging out making block towers and kind of watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, while Randy went to pick up Vietnamese food from Four Sisters Grill for our dinner, I heard a squeak. You know when you read a book about a mouse or sing “Old MacDonald” and you say “squeak! squeak!” but that’s actually what I heard. It’s much more literal than when you say, “oink” for what a pig says, because if you listen to pigs they don’t really say, “oink.”

Anyway, I sneaked away and checked one of the traps and saw a very dead mouse. It was not squeaking. I did not want to attract Zeke’s attention to the dead mouse, so I moved an easel in front of it. But I still heard squeaking. Clearly it was not coming from the dead mouse. I couldn’t see any other traps. I texted Phil to ask where the other traps were, but he did not answer.

I resumed building and knocking down towers with Zeke. Actually he was doing the knocking down, but we were both building, and I was really impressed by his fine motor skills when he would carefully add blocks to the top of my already tall tower.

Eventually Randy got home and we ate dinner and he put Zeke to bed. While they were upstairs, I gingerly picked up the trap with the dead mouse and put it inside a large plastic cup from a restaurant, and put the cup inside a gift bag decorated with poinsettias left over from last Christmas which was inexplicably in the kitchen in that little space between a cabinet and a kitchen cart where we keep grocery bags. I threw it in the trash and tied up the trash bag and took it outside even though we’re not supposed to put trash outside until the morning when the garbagemen come, because I didn’t want the dead mouse in my house anymore.

I continued to hear intermittent squeaks, which seemed to be coming from the stove. I armed myself with a large metal steamer pot and a plastic plate in case the mice came darting out from under the stove and I was quick enough to catch them. I pulled out the drawer underneath the stove, where we keep pyrex dishes, and saw several glue traps that Phil had left, which are usually for ants or roaches. But stuck in one of the glue traps were not one but two mice, squeaking and immobilized. Great. They’re not dead, but they’re stuck.

I used a paper towel to pick up the trap and put it in the steamer pot and covered it with the plate, just in case they could escape. I went outside and crossed the street and tried to shake the mice out of the trap into the snowy grass by the sidewalk. They would not come out. I did not want to touch the mice. Then I did something I now regret, but I honestly didn’t know what else to do. I just threw the whole thing down in the grass and hoped that the mice would either miraculously escape or mercifully die quickly. I just didn’t know what else to do.

I went back inside feeling terrible about the mice, but also relieved that they were out of my house and at least three fewer mice would be threatening my family with their toxic poop.

Then, since I had found two mice in the kitchen where we didn’t think there were any, I did some investigating. I pulled out the kitchen cart and discovered a great deal of the aforementioned toxic poop. I started to cry, but I stopped because the vent in the kitchen is connected directly to the vent in the kids’ room and the last thing I needed was to wake Zeke up.

So Randy and I spent a good deal of the rest of the evening cleaning up toxic mouse poop and sanitizing the surfaces of the kitchen.

Then today I was moving things around in our minivan so I could give one of Zoe’s friends a ride home from Brownies. I had to clean out all the junk in the back to put up the third row of seats. In so doing, I found a bag containing two gourds leftover from Halloween which I had intended to bring to my sister’s house to compost. Then I found a third gourd decomposing underneath Zoe’s seat. It may or may not have eaten a hole in the rug. I was able to remove much, but not all, of the gourd. I’m not even sure what tool I need to remove the rest. And I had to go in to the Brownie meeting, where we made art, so that was lovely and it took my mind off the rotting vegetation in my car. I don’t know how it didn’t smell, but it didn’t. Maybe because it’s been so cold.

One highlight of the past week has been that we were lucky enough to win tickets to the White House Easter Egg Roll for the first time. I am excited and I know the kids will have a great time even though they don’t really know what it is. Zeke doesn’t even know what Easter is. But Zeke has consistently said Daddy in reference to Randy, and he can breathe like Darth Vader (on purpose) and he said POP when we were making popcorn. And he said “I love you” to my mom.

But I could do without the rodent defecation or vegetation decomposition. And also it would be nice if Zeke would go to sleep. It’s 11:19 and he’s still awake. We saw comedian Maz Jobrani perform on Friday night and he described the tribulations of getting his daughter to bed. he said by the end of it he would be saying, “‘Lord Jesus please make her go to sleep!’ And I’m not even Christian! Moses! Mohammed! Buddha! Bahai! The first God who gets her to go to sleep, I’ll convert!” It’s a good thing we’re already Unitarians.

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I am sitting in the parking garage — 5b North — I’ve made a note of it for later — while my kids sleep in the back seat of the minivan. My daughter is moaning slightly. Outside the garage the rain is coming down in torrents. My husband is sleeping in the hotel room after spending the early part of the day in the emergency room after spending the night throwing up. Luckily my daughter only threw up once. Did I mention we’re on Spring break? Woo-hoo!

Luckily our friends who met us here in Philadelphia for a few days were still here today so I had another adult around to help out at the children’s museum. Zoe insisted that we go even though she was tired and weak. She was definitely off her game but rallied every now and then, exhibiting an encouraging burst of energy and an occasional smile. We spent a while in the craft room at the museum, a suitably low-key place to be. One table was book making. Zoe’s book was a one-page brief, which said blah blah blah blah and some other similar blahs to describe how she felt.

As I inch closer and closer to 40, which is waiting expectantly for me this weekend, I realize this is just how it is. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and — well you’ve heard that song before. Those are, indeed, the facts of life.

I used to think I needed to be happy. That you either had a good time or a bad time or were a happy person or an unhappy one. Since becoming a parent I realize it is more realistic to have a happy moment followed by an unhappy one and if you’re lucky followed by several happy ones before something else goes awry.

Did I mention on the first day of this trip we were rear-ended on the highway in what became a six-car pileup just North of the Millard Tydings Memorial Bridge over the Susquehana River and had to wait on the shoulder for the state troopers to arrive while comforting children in the car? Thankfully, no one was hurt and our car is mostly okay. Thankfully it wasn’t in a blizzard or a rainstorm or a heat wave. Thankfully our children did not scream throughout the hour we waited.

Pause.

As I was writing earlier, Zoe woke up and said she was going to be sick so I quickly unlocked the door and opened hers and she thoughtfully puked all over the ground. She is typically both neat and accurate when vomiting, which is a good skill to have. I pulled out the roll of paper towels that I cleverly stowed in the car just for this vacation and brought her some. Just at that moment, Randy texted to find out where we were and say that he’d woken up, so I requested his presence in the garage. He carried Zeke in and Zoe rode in Zeke’s stroller. I was amazed that she fit, but she did.

I won’t go into details about the rest of the evening except that to say it involved calls to my parents and the pediatrician and some amount of weeping from various family members, and wet washcloths, and a trip for Zeke (nestled in Ergo and clad in raincoat) and me (clad in raincoat wearing Ergo) to the CVS to procure supplies for everyone. I asked the woman at the front desk for directions to CVS and she explained that it was three blocks away and I actually asked her to write down directions because I knew I would not remember them and it was raining and I just couldn’t deal.

Thanks be to God that at the tender hour of 9pm, the rest of my family is sleeping peacefully. Please let them all stay that way until morning.

All this is to say that perhaps one of the most significant things I’ve learned in my nearly 40 years is that we will survive and that it is imperative to suck the juice out of those beautiful moments scattered among the messy ones. Tonight: in the midst of her painful headache, Zoe asked to call to my mom, which immediately calmed her down and soothed her. Then she watched some Reading Rainbow videos. Thank goodness for the sanguine virtual presence of LeVar Burton. And she asked me to sing “Amazing Grace” to her, which also seemed to help. And Randy was willing to switch beds with her and take the sofabed because she said she was uncomfortable.

And: Zeke totally chill and taking it all in on our rainy mission. Zeke happily putting his toys in one of the hotel room cabinets and taking them out again. Zeke smiling and laughing and blowing raspberries. Zeke not puking. And Zeke finally submitting to sleep after I was very close to being out of jiggles.

Childless people have observed to me in the past that, from the outside, being a parent seems daunting or difficult or perhaps even impossible. “I could never do what you do!” they say. Or, for those actually planning to have kids, “Wow, that seems hard.”

Well, sure. It’s hard. But what’s easy that’s worth doing? Okay, maybe a few things. But what big things in life are easy that are worth doing? I have known since I was seven when I became a big sister that I wanted to be a mom. It took me longer than I expected to make that a reality, mostly because it took me a while to find the right guy to be my kids’ dad. But it all came together and there’s nothing in the universe like it. These little beings who need you so much, and you’re everything to them. Sometimes that can be overwhelming and exhausting, but also so satisfying and joyful. You sacrifice a lot, but you receive more in return. Being this person on whom your children can utterly rely, whose trust you have earned, who love you and need you and want you so relentlessly that you sometimes feel suffocated but usually feel so privileged. I am profoundly thankful for my little family. Even when they have made a mess all over me and all around me.

This trip was supposed to be a Spring break adventure–we never go away for Spring break. We always work and Zoe usually goes to camp. And this trip was supposed to be a little birthday present for me, since I am about to have a big birthday. Since Zoe was born and her birthday is two weeks before mine, Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 9.36.19 PMwe have not done much to celebrate mine. Last year I was hugely and uncomfortably pregnant with Zeke and it happened to thunderstorm on my birthday so we got pizza delivered. And all that is ok. But sometimes I feel like I should get a little treat. (I did buy myself roller skates recently, which is as close to a little red sports car kind of purchase as I would come) And I’m sure I will. But in the meantime we will drive home in the morning. I promised Zoe we could return to Philadelphia another time, maybe for a long weekend, to do all the things we had planned to do but didn’t.

In the meantime, I will just enjoy the beautiful silence of my sleeping family and hope that no one throws up on me (or anyone else) in the middle of the night. I love these guys.

 

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — to learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! To learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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My husband is surprisingly adept at quickly maneuvering his body so that his shirt bears the brunt of the voluminous spit-up that occasionally emerges from our baby boy’s little mouth. I am impressed both with Randy’s agility and with his sensitivity to the little noise that Zeke makes right before he gushes forth. Time for a bath for Zeke and a shower for Dad!

As a parent you become surprisingly stoic when it comes to your children’s bodily fluids. Not that a poopy diaper isn’t still gross, or that you relish extracting a booger from your baby’s nose, but somehow the act of removing something unpleasant or offensive from within or surrounding your child’s body, and therefore making your child cleaner and happier, vastly outweighs your own distaste for whatever substance you’re encountering.

When Zeke was only two weeks old, I boldly ventured to the salon for a haircut so I could look presentable at my sister’s graduation. Zoe wasn’t feeling well that morning so we let her stay home from school in the hope that she could rest up and be better for the ceremony. So she accompanied me and Zeke to the salon. Normally I do not take any children to such places, but I had no choice on this particular day. While I got my hair cut Zeke was fussing, and the stylist asked one of his employees to come over to rock Zeke’s carseat and soothe him. Meanwhile, Zoe, in the next chair over, looked miserable and teary. As we were preparing to leave and I was paying, Zoe threw up. I attempted, unsuccessfully, to catch it. She threw up on herself, her feet and sandals, my feet and sandals, and the diaper bag. Fortunately, she did not throw up on her brother. So when we got home and I was trying to clean up us and our stuff, I was not at all bothered because I was so relieved that Zeke was unscathed.

And for the rest of the afternoon I had this classic song by Barry Louis Polisar stuck in my head. Not exactly the same scenario, but how many songs about throwing up on your brother are there?

After many months, perhaps even years, of wanting to hire someone to clean our house (because, despite good intentions, we are either too busy, too lazy, or too sensitive to dust to be very effective at it ourselves) we hired Amelia (and her husband, it would appear) to help us out. She and her husband came for the first time yesterday and our house has never, in the five years we’ve lived here, been so clean. They worked extremely hard and with excellent results.

Are people who clean houses constantly judging their customers, wondering why they aren’t better at cleaning up after themselves? Do they resent what they’re doing, or are they glad for the opportunity to earn money, or just indifferent to the societal ramifications and just doing their job?

Do they inspect all your belongings and learn things about you that you wouldn’t want them to know? Do they see things you didn’t realize you left out that are inappropriately personal? Do they make inferences about your personality, your morality, your family life based on your stuff?

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