A few weeks ago, I dropped my friend Tanya's son off at her house after he served at the Pantry, our local food bank, with my boys and I. Tanya seemed tired. Her preschoolers were running around in the front yard, screaming happily, the baby was fussing and not napping. My boys emerged from the van and immediately began playing, a complicated game of cops, robbers, princess and Iron Man.
"Well, this is happy," I said. "I love watching them play so well together. How are you, friend?"
She said, "I feel like I'm a mess," as the baby clasped his chubby little hands around her neck.
"I'm a mess too. How are you a mess?"
On Monday afternoon I stopped by my sister-in-law's house, to see if her little boy could come out to play with his cousins. She was on her weekly conference call for work. My almost 2 year-old nephew sat in dripping swim trunks, pounding the home button down on an iPad.
I whispered, "can he come out to play?"
She mouthed, "Oh, that would be perfect." Then she answered a question from her boss and pulled her mouth away from her phone again and mouthed, "I'm so sorry it's such a mess in here."
I laughed then sighed, "you should see my house."
Earlier today Connor lamented, "if only Josie weren't here, I wouldn't have so much stuff to clean up." He continued picking up the art supplies she'd strewn around the study.
"But then we'd have no Josie," I said.
"Yeah, I guess you're right, but it'd be a lot cleaner."
Every time I think of young motherhood, I think of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the ancient king whose punishment for his arrogance and deceitfulness was to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down and then repeat the task again and again forever into eternity.
A Sisyphean task is one that is futile and laborious.
Cleaning up the toys again, putting the kids to bed again, changing the diaper again, feeding the kids again (and again and again). Some days, I identify with Sisyphus. This is what the adage, "long days, short years" is aiming at, I think.
I only feel like Sisyphus when I look at my life through a telephoto lens, focusing on tiny moments in the long days.
When I get out the wide-angle lens, like I do when I see Tanya or Jenna, there's a word I put before "mess" that changes everything: beautiful.
It's a beautiful mess.
The messes are full of life and growth and it's going somewhere, toward a future we can only imagine, toward the people our children are becoming.
All the handwriting practice, all the phonics lessons, all the toilet training, all the food, the dirt, the noise, the whining (heaven and all the saints preserve us), all of it, it's all leading somewhere very important.
When I lose sight of the extraordinary preciousness contained within these mundane moments, it's easy to grow sullen, irritable, exasperated. When I feel that hot maternal rage bubbling within me, I've begun to take a deep breath and say my new mantra, "it's a beautiful mess."
I look at my daughter's crusty nose and dirt-smudged face and I say "beautiful mess."
I look at the rumpled unmade beds of my boys and I say "beautiful mess."
I look at the mountainous pile of clean laundry that must be folded and the bigger pile of dirty laundry and I sigh and say "beautiful mess."
These days are like the sun-lit hours of a long summer morning, full of activity and toil, full of seed-planting and faithful tending. It's easy to think of bed and long for rest during the fitful morning when everyone's talking at you at once and everything must be done and schoolwork needs your attention and the baby pooped and for the love of God you just want to enjoy your coffee in peace for once just this one time please so everyone just shut up for a moment please.
It doesn't stay high noon forever, thank God. The evening of my life is coming, with it's golden light and golden years.
It's good to approach life like the sun will set soon, like the time I have on this earth is about the span of an inch in the great infinity of eternity, maybe less. It shuffles the priorities till they're in the right order.
Maya Angelou once said, "When you greet your children, what does your greeting tell them?"
I greet my children brightly now, with coffee in hand, because they're the beautiful part of the mess and I don't want to miss delighting in the hectic sun-drenched days of my life. These days where my love makes them shine with small attentions, like a cheerful hello or a patient answer or really listening when they tell me more about origami then I ever cared to know or a dumb fart joke.
The significance is the interaction that happens around the swirling, seemingly endless routine of eat-play-sleep.
That's the beautiful part of the mess: the relationships, the growth.
Sometimes you just need to take two steps back to see that mess is beautiful.