Living Messy

I recently became intrigued with the idea of messiness, and so began to try to write a bit about it.  However, most definitely not being an expert on the subject (more about that later), my musings were – big surprise – rather uninspiring.  After struggling for a while with my own thoughts, I decided to reach out to family and friends for some different perspectives.  Lucky for me (and you), many responded to my request and so helped make this blog post more of a “community effort” rather than merely my own, personal take on things.  Enjoy the result!


messyWhen my children were very young, some friends and I formed a playgroup that met once a week at alternating homes (we frequently joked we should really call it a mommy group, because over time we found the social opportunities it offered our band of stay-at-home moms far outweighed those it gave our children).  One morning, as we were all observing, and only nominally trying to control, the chaos that is a toddler playgroup, one of the mothers – a woman with two extremely active toddlers – remarked that she would really like to have a few more children, enough to make her life, as she said, “a little messy.”

Full stop.

“You’re kidding, right?” I said.  “You want more of THIS?”  I totally didn’t get it.

You see, I have always spent large chunks of my day trying to keep my life tidy. I’ve organized every closet in my home.  I mean EVERY CLOSET.  And every cabinet.  Multiple times.  The work surfaces of my life – my office and home desks, my kitchen counter, even my tack locker at the barn – are impressively tidy.  I am also a “tweaker:” as I move through the spaces of my home, I am constantly straightening art on the walls, fluffing a pillow or adjusting the position of a knick-knack.  (I would do this at my friends’ homes too if I wasn’t sure they would take offense.)  Even my writing process is neat.  I can’t stand the disorder of a misspelling, a grammar mistake, or a problem with the structure of a sentence, so I edit as I go.  No rough (a.k.a. “messy”) drafts for me.

Come to think of it, even many of my hobbies (jigsaw puzzles, gardening, scrapbooking) are about making order out of a mess.

Okay, so maybe one or two friends have used the term OCD when referring to my organizing compulsions tendencies, but still.  Doesn’t everyone, on some level, prefer a clean and organized home to a messy one?

Maybe not.

In responding to my request for their take on messiness, a surprising number of people wrote in support of the concept.  As sample of their thoughts:

“Wouldn’t feel alive without it . . . Never assume a messy room or situation is without clarity.”. . . “Shows intelligence and perhaps indicates time is best spent not sweating small stuff like over-organization.”. . . “My time is better spent on things I find more important.  I would rather be with people I love than cleaning.”. . .  “I worry more about my neighbors losing their home to an unjust foreclosure than whether there are weeds in the lawn-strip we share.”. . . “When I procrastinate cleaning, it’s because I’ve decided that what I’m doing now is better than the satisfaction of a clean room later. Why clean when you can play?”. . . “Messiness offers the visitor an ‘archeological dig’ of sorts, a window into the lives of the residents of the home.” 


Well, several people did seem to agree there are different types of messiness, or even note how a healthy messiness could easily morph into something not so healthy:

“What is mess to one person may not be to another.”. . . “There are two kinds of messiness. One has an uncomfortable, overly cluttered feel, and is off-putting. The other feels comfortable, welcoming, and is a reflection of the personalities and passions of the family members that reside there.”. . . “I think messiness can originate from different dynamics and that it can be useful or problematic depending on the particulars.”. . . “There indeed are degrees of messiness. I love the plaque in my office: ‘You can touch the dust, but please don’t write in it.’  We can tolerate a higher degree of mess when it’s just us than when there are others contributing to [it]!”. . . “After packing and getting ready to move, my thoughts are that messiness is a bad habit to be conquered. So it probably depends on where you are in your journey.”. . . “How messy is messy?  I think the guiding line is whether the messiness interferes with functioning. As in most things, I think moderation is the key.”

But, taken in their entirety, the responses in support of messiness definitely outnumbered those cautioning against it.

I think I’m beginning to understand why.

messyLike many people in today’s high-octane world, I live in a fairly constant bubble of low-grade anxiety.  My efforts to organize, straighten and regiment the different areas of my life are, I think, my attempt to ease this worry stream.  Knowing that everything not only has a place, but remains firmly fixed in it, assures me that life is predictable, orderly, known, and in this assurance I can relax, protected (or so I think) from the unexpected, the unpredictable.

The trouble is, sometimes I spend so much time cleaning and straightening that there is no time left to actually do something, to create new things rather than rearrange the ideas and objects I already have.  And, truthfully, I can see how the safety and security of a neat home or office (or life) is, flipped on its head, boring predictability that makes it hard for creativity and spontaneity to get a word in edgewise.

But most importantly, I’m beginning to see that the assurance of predictability I feel when I organize is only an illusion.  Life, at its core, is really unpredictable, and no amount of shoe cataloguing or desk de-cluttering will change that.

So I think I now understand what my playgroup friend meant all those years ago.  By asserting that she wanted her life to get a little messy, I think she was saying that she wanted to get to a place in her parenting, and in her life, where she could no longer be in perfect control, but would instead be open to the spontaneity, surprise and unexpected creativity that can result from a bit of messiness.  For her, the opposite of  “in control” was not “out of control,” but “open to the possibilities.”

Thanks to the input of my contributors, I see now that if I could just manage to allow myself to be a little messier, I might gain:

    • The surprise and delight that can come from allowing the unpredictability of life some wiggle room.
    • A home that reveals more about me than the fact that I am tidy.
    • A chance to create something I couldn’t envision or predict.
    • The blessing of free and unencumbered play.

“But,” my inner OCD voice protests, “Life is too unpredictable to just let it unfold.  Who knows what might happen if we let go of the reins and begin living messy?”


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2 Responses to Living Messy

  1. Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC says:

    Anne! I am so enjoying your blog today! I’ve been away too long! And, while nothing in my life is too far away from messy, this post in particular resonates with me and the messes I’ve been making and cleaning up this last month. I was just posting yesterday on my blog about dealing with some of my clueless moments and how messy that is for me. Now you are talking to me about the blessings that come as messiness unfolds. Thank you! I’m taking your words and Ann Stonebraker’s words (from her blog post) as signs that I can be OK with a little more messiness in my life!

    (And, I love that second image in this post! Where did that come from? Is that your artwork?)

    • Anne Barker says:

      Oh, Tamara, I’m so glad that you stopped by, and even happier that you found something you needed. I wrote that blog out of my difficulty in allowing things to become messy, and my discomfort with messiness in any form, and was hoping the thoughts might resonate with others. Thankful that they did, because it means I’m not alone!

      No, the image is not mine; it is borrowed from the web. I’d like to be able to make something like that someday, however. I think it would be good for me to make messy art!

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