Say Yes to the Mess

Reflection #74 (6th August 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

The theme of this week’s service – the messy side of life – was inspired by something that happened to me last week (before I’d even changed out of my pyjamas). I was idly staring out of the kitchen window on Saturday morning, while cooking my dad’s porridge, and I noticed that the man who sweeps the street seemed to be lingering directly outside, just a couple of metres away. It was still quite early and it took me a moment to realise what was happening: the man from the council was roughly chopping off all the flowers that were billowing out through the garden fence and onto the street – Californian poppies, geraniums, salvia – all these soft frothy blooms from my little patch of cottage garden that weren’t causing any obstruction or getting in anybody’s way as far as I can tell. It’s more or less the only splash of colour and life on our street – most of the gardens have been concreted over to make space for cars – and it’s always alive with bees. I’m quietly proud of it. But it’s not exactly tidy. It’s (intentionally) left a little bit wild. It made me feel quite sad that someone felt that this little bit of wildness was not welcome on our street – it was too scruffy – and these few stray blooms breaching the boundary line should be unceremoniously lopped off. And I’ve heard many tales of verges being strimmed and hedges ripped up in the name of municipal ‘tidiness’.

This experience got me thinking about the untidy and the messy – in all spheres of our lives – and our varying degrees of tolerance of untidiness and mess – perhaps even our acceptance of it. Tidiness wars have been going on for years, in my house, between me and my dad – who is Mr. Minimalism – and who would probably quite happily live in a bare and spartan home (with a neatly mowed lawn out the back and perhaps a just few old-fashioned rosebushes arranged in an orderly fashion). By contrast… it’s not that I relish being untidy! I really like things to be orderly, I do! But by comparison to dad, I am Ms. Maximalism, and somehow I’ve ended up with the role of being ‘the messy one’. Down the years I’ve defended myself from this charge by claiming that I just ‘have a lot of interests’ – which all happen to have papers, books, equipment, and materials attached – and they take up a lot of my time and energy (which means I don’t get round to bringing order to the chaos all that often). If you’ve ever come along to any of my online services or Heart and Soul you get to see the one just-about-respectable view of my home, where all the recently acquired and as-yet-unshelved books are teetering in piles right behind my chair, so that they are just-about obscured from the camera. And while I might be able to get away with the claim that I’m rewilding my garden for the sake of the bees I don’t think anyone’s going to buy it if I say I’m rewilding my bedroom floor with a meadow of books.

Untidiness in the material sense – having a cluttered room, or a disorganised house, or a garden that’s turning to wilderness – this sort of untidiness is of course only one aspect of what we’re talking about today. The bigger picture we’re considering here is the very messiness of life itself. I wonder what that phrase brings to mind for you? Maybe social messiness – tangled relationships – complex situations arising from the interaction of fallible human beings, and flawed institutions, in an imperfect world. Or organisational messiness in your affairs – not being ‘on top of things’ or getting your ‘ducks in a row’ as the poem said. Perhaps a more general sense that nothing is quite as straightforward as you feel it ought to be. It seems to me that there is a lot of social pressure to ‘have it together’ (or at least to look like you do). And I imagine it would, in some ways, feel delightful to ‘have it together’… but that’s a state of being that feels forever out of reach to me (and I suspect I’m not alone in this regard). If anybody here today really thinks they’ve cracked it and they’ve got a tidy life perhaps you can tell us your secrets after the service! But there’s something in me that strongly suspects it is neither possible nor desirable to avoid life’s messiness altogether – there seems to be a connection between disorder and creativity – mess making space for emergence. So perhaps there is a middle way to be found.

I came across a blog post from author and therapist Lisa Olivera – she’s recently written a book on the subject of self-acceptance – and in this piece she reflects on a line from the beloved poet Mary Oliver: ‘Most things that are important, have you noticed, lack a certain neatness.’ Lisa Olivera responds: ‘… it is an obvious truth I’ve been trying to accept my whole life, yet one I often fight against. I’ve been taught to strive for neatness: for clarity, for knowing, for linear, for the 1-2-3 progression of everything, for the clean lines and clear Before and Afters and overcomings and I’m-Past-That, for the plan and the schedule and the has-it-all-together… We think we, and life, are supposed to be neat and tidy, organized and ready for the photo-op. We think the sign of readiness is a lack of tangle, a lack of messiness. We assume we’re the messed up ones if our behind-the-scenes secrets and processes and next steps don’t look as clear-cut and set in stone as they seem to for “everyone else”… Living is important; living isn’t neat… being a person is a lot more complex and complicated than those trying to sell us constant ease and tidiness want us to believe. Perhaps it isn’t ours to fix at all, but ours to welcome, embrace, accept, understand, lean into, learn from, allow.’

Words from Lisa Olivera. So, all that said, I wonder where you would place yourself, and your life, on the messiness continuum? More towards the orderly end of the spectrum… or the chaotic end? And how do you feel about the place where you situate yourself? Perhaps your life is pretty messy but it suits you that way! Or perhaps your life is pretty orderly and you long for a bit more creative disorder! Maybe there are aspects of life that you could take in hand and get more of a grip on. Maybe other areas of life are out of your control and working on a sense of acceptance could be your next step.

Often there is something we can do to make our lives at least a bit more orderly and manageable, if that’s what we’re aiming for, but constraints on our resources – time, money, energy, health, support – these constraints can make it very difficult for us to get out of whatever mess we find ourselves in. And, as an aside, let’s remember that even Marie Kondo, the renowned decluttering guru, had to let her hard-line tidiness standards slip once her kids came along! The more we are trying to juggle in life – the more projects, the more responsibilities, the more personal challenges that life brings our way – the harder it will be to keep up any semblance of order. It’s important to bear in mind the many complicating factors so many of us are contending with when we’re trying to sort our lives out.
And, crucially, let’s strive to be real with each other about what our lives are like, as far as we can. Because there’s a great deal of comfort to be found in facing life’s messy realities together.

I want to close this reflection by sharing a kind-of blessing, a kind-of affirmation, it’s taken from the piece by Lisa Olivera. Perhaps we can think of it as a prayer saying ‘Yes to the Mess’.

‘Mary Oliver said: “Most things that are important, have you noticed, lack a certain neatness.”

When I hold this as true, I care less about neat. I want to let it all be untidy.

Letting it all be untidy means dropping my ideas about how it should go
so I can more fully lean into how it’s actually going.

Letting it all be untidy means surrendering to the pace that is most true,
rather than the pace I assume will take the least amount of time or effort.

Letting it all be untidy means noticing where I’m projecting an idealized version
of the present onto the real version of it, and choosing to turn back toward the real.

Letting it all be untidy means seeing the grief and longing as intricate pieces
of the whole instead of deterrents from fully living, from growing, from thriving.

Letting it all be untidy means trusting the unpaved path, the unclear outcome,
the longing to do the thing before having clarity around how it will go.

Letting it all be untidy means looking at the pile of dishes or the unswept floor
and seeing them as visions of tending to what matters more instead of proof of inadequacy.

Letting it all be untidy means making room for setbacks and confusion,
for impatience and envy, for the things we’re told to either hide or quickly clean up.

Letting it all be untidy means allowing what is true to be true, within myself
and within my relationships and within my work and within my life.

Sometimes, what matters isn’t tidy; sometimes, what is true isn’t neat.
And perhaps that isn’t a problem as much as it is a reflection of being
more alive than I would be if I spent all my energy tidying instead of living.

May you find what’s important and let it lack a certain neatness.
May you find what matters right inside the tangle.
May you find the aliveness right inside the swirl.’

And may it be so for the greater good of all. Amen.

Reflection by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: