By Jen Violi
No, really, that’s a nice mess. I’ve never seen something so lusciously wrecked and full of compostable possibility.
Okay, that’s a lie. I’ve seen myself, and talk about luscious wrecks and an excess of compost. I’ve got it. And I’m here to tell you, our messes are beautiful. Not only that, they are the number one sponsors, the major funders, the biggest backers of our creative endeavors. We need our messes to create.
Our lives might actually be one long opportunity to learn to love our messes. Or at least mine is.
I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who doesn’t mind drop by’s. Instead, I’m one of those people who occasionally hides from knocks on the door or rings of the phone. Which is often about control. Protecting my mess.
But, but I haven’t showered yet today, and I’m afraid my armpits might smell like my grandpap’s garage.
But they’ll see the dishes in the kitchen sink, and they might, god forbid, ask to use the bathroom I didn’t clean this week.
But they’ll find out that I’m not the perfect hostess, that I don’t have it all together, that I’m a real person.
Which reminds me of the one year I co-taught a class of almost forty kindergarteners (never again, not my special gift) in Arizona, and one of the students, upon seeing me exit the ladies’ room, said, “Mrs. Violis, you go to the bathroom?” (Side note: I was neither married nor plural at the time; that’s just how she said it).
I laughed at that idea, her thinking that grownups might somehow be superhuman. In some ways, it’s not so funny because, in some ways, I live that idea.
Years ago (probably right around puberty, which is an epic story cycle unto itself), I decided that as a grownup, I must “keep it together,” a.k.a. be superhuman. Not let anyone know I fart or get sad or love singing along to the Partridge Family CD I still own. After all, what would people think?
As some of you may have already discovered, trying to preserve a super-human identity is not a sustainable endeavor. Especially when you’re actually human. Like I am.
Also, it turns out that my humanity, the mess I try to hide, fuels my creativity.
I learned this during the three years I wrote my novel, Putting Makeup on Dead People. In it, I bared the soul of the narrator, Donna, a high school senior whose father dies. Donna keeps herself cut off from connecting and healing, and death fascinates her to the extent that she applies to mortuary school.
I needed my own mess to go into Donna’s mess, and I needed to have compassion for everyone’s disarray, including my own. I needed my experience of being leveled by grief at the death of my own dad to share hers. And believe me, sobbing in a hospital bathroom will never be described as “tidy.”
To embrace Donna’s quirky view of the world, I needed to embrace my unique sensibilities. For instance, I love cleaning to the soundtrack of the children’s movie Tarzan, and we’ve already covered the Partridge Family business. I have a high cheese factor and a weird sense of humor (ask me sometime about slow-motion, apathetic stripping to Phantom of the Opera; it’s a riot).
I also have the magical power of what I like to call “going to church” in any given moment. I drop to my knees at the beauty of a poem, and tears stream down my face at the way the light comes through the spruce tree outside my patio.
I used to be embarrassed about all of these things, but now I know that they formulate my signature blend—sacred and silly. They make my writing work, and when I try to hide them, my writing falls flat.
When we don’t embrace our messes, we tend to hold back. We make our art “beautiful,” clean, marketable. In making things palatable for everyone, we also lose the unique flavor of ourselves.
So please, repeat after me: my mess and I are beautiful. An owned mess is potent, because you can use it. Instead of being the hidden “worst” of you, your mess becomes the best of you, what makes you a more compassionate, glowing, and effective friend, lover, colleague, mom.
What I often say to clients and students: the best we have to offer in life is the best we have to offer in writing.
This goes for whatever art form you use to share your story. When you know your whole messy beautiful self and bring it to the table, your story hits a pure note. It works, and it’s contagious.
At the risk of being cheesy, because I am, sharing our stories benefits everyone. If people are strands of Christmas lights, untold stories are the burnt out bulbs, the ones that throw off the rest of the strand or leave a shadowy patch on the tree.
Zora Neale Hurston writes, “There is no greater agony than an untold story.” I agree. Let’s put ourselves out of our own misery, don’t you think?
Life is too short for self-imposed agony.
We need each other’s stories, be they poems or murals or dances. Like me, you’ve probably been healed by them. Like me, stories have probably saved you.
The biggest reason we don’t tell them? We fear the mess.
Fear the reaper, fear the big bad wolf, or even Virginia Woolf if you want, but please, don’t fear the mess.
The mess is your story, and Story is an essential food group as yet unidentified by the FDA. Offering your story is a vote for abundance and space. It’s a dark world, and we need as many active light bulbs as possible.
One of my favorite parts of the day is taking off my bra. You know what I mean? That gorgeous moment when you don’t have to hold the girls up anymore.
We spend so much time every day buckling ourselves in or zipping ourselves up, that I think we’ve forgotten how to regularly let it all hang out and bounce around in messy glory. How beautiful and compelling that is. Our hearts, our souls, our guts, are drawn to the mess.
In Theater of the Imagination: The Joyous Body, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, tells of experiencing Malvina Hoffman’s “Hall of Man” sculptures, big brass naked representations of people from all over the world. At the exhibit, Estés noticed that while the parts we Americans think of as beautiful were all intact in the original brass, the unusual parts (translation: the parts we often think of as messy or ugly and try to hide)—hook noses, dangling breasts, enormous testicles—had been touched so often they’d turned to gold.
So go ahead, lose the bra, elasticize your waistband, elasticize your life-band, let it all hang out.
Make a mess.
Be a mess.
And it will be beautiful. Golden.