Honestly, I’m the last person you’d expect to write something like this. I despise clutter, instinctively throw away anything I can’t identify, and make every attempt to be a minimalist.
But here’s the thing: It’s really hard to be that way when you have three little kids. In fact, I would even say it’s impossible to be that way and to be an attentive father and husband. In the end, you will always end up choosing between persons and things. When you choose the former, you’re a good parent and husband. When you choose the latter, your house may look a bit cleaner, but the people you love may end up feeling neglected.
What’s a mess, anyway?
This is easier to accept when you step back and ask yourself what a mess is in the first place. Let me paint a messy picture for you. Moments before my wife and I left the house for a wedding, my eyes scanned the kitchen. I saw an unkempt wasteland: littering the counter top were spoons with dried coffee marks, crumbs and jelly from lunchtime sandwiches, dishes with drops of egg yoke hardening into a glaze, glasses embossed with lip marks, a single knife smeared with (somehow) butter, syrup, and peanut butter. I get irritated just thinking about it. When I look at scenes like this, my instinct is to drop whatever is in my hands and just start cleaning. Ahead of me lies a sense of euphoria in knowing that all things will be put back in order, everything in its right place.
But take another look at that kitchen. What seem to be remnants of careless behavior are really the marks of persons in motion. The spoons with dried coffee on them were marks of my wife and I carrying out the ritual of earning morning caffeine. The crumbs and jelly mark the sandwich-making I carried out with love for my son (who has to have the same thing for lunch every day; I wonder where he get’s that from . . .), and the egg yokes hardening on the plates mark my making of breakfast: two eggs for me and two for my wife (and then the kids turn into vultures). And that single knife with three sticky substances clinging to it: that’s another mark of breakfast making, a very particular one. My son wants to have butter, syrup, and peanut butter on his pancakes, cut into strips so that each topping is separate from the others. And even the pancake crumbs that decorate the edge of the knife are evidence of another person in motion: my wife, who made the pancakes because she knows how much our kids like them. This seemingly chaotic mess is actually an orchestra of movement preserved in little markers all over the place.
So, from this perspective, messes are wondrously crafted histories of personal movement. Messes mark relationships. They say, “Someone has been here and done something.” When you clean them up, you’re cleaning up history. And how terrible the world would be if our little personal histories all came to an end; if the world were wiped clean, every counter top glistening, every spoon in the drawer! Oh, we clean up the messes, but deep down inside, we live for them.
If we can remember that, it will be a bit easier to choose people over things, relationships over routine. Such choices seem small in the moment, but this is where we define ourselves, in the ordinary.
I’m still working on this, and I’m sure I will be for the rest of my life. It’s not easy to leave messes alone. But it’s far better to do that than to leave people alone.