This week I overfilled my hot cocoa, knocked the mug, and spilled sticky-sweet almond milk on the kitchen counter. Before thinking, I was already saying aloud: “Ahhhh, Bethhhh …” I could hear a parent scolding a child, over-reacting about spilled milk. And I was shaken—stopped in my tracks—because I would not like to respond in such a way to any person, let alone myself.
Spilled cocoa. Sticky surfaces. Mess.
Mess characterizes life, and I like to think that I’m good with mess. As a researcher, I like to describe the research process as “incredibly messy” and to delight in scattered post-it notes, coded transcripts, piles of books and papers, and other materials. As a teacher, I like to announce: “This semester we’ll get to roll around in the messiness of understanding race/ism (or feminism or the writing process or other complex things).” Mess is perhaps one of my favorite words, something I run toward instead of from. I even describe myself as “a mess”—affectionately so and at moments when I seem to be experiencing the most growth.
Yet, I really struggle with mess, perhaps more than I know. When I spilled the hot cocoa, I not only needed to clean up right away, but I could also feel a wave of negative emotions wash over me. I could hear an old familiar voice asking, “What’s wrong with you?” And I could see my tendency to shrink, a tendency that runs counter to my current affirmations:
- It is safe for me to be seen.
- It is safe for me to stand TALL.
Certainly, I’ve been on a roller-coaster this week, following (inter)national events, feeling fear within my body, and fumbling to move forward. Last week, I wrote about “mucking around in the mess,” and this week I’m still very much in mess and a mess.
One minute I’m signing a petition; the next I’m confronted by 2 or 10 or 20 new problems.
One afternoon I’m inspired by an exciting teaching collaboration with community partners; the next I’m intervening into a campus discussion in which one person disparagingly calls others “foreigners.”
One day I’m feeling uplifted (participating in, seeing friends’ photos, and reading great critiques of the Women’s March); the next I’m swinging low (e.g., asking why professional associations encourage action for some causes but not others—and realizing that rifts run deeper than I even imagined).
So, how do I navigate the current roller-coaster ride? What does it mean to be living in mess?
- It means giving myself permission to feel my emotions and ask what they’re communicating to me.
- It means giving myself permission to eat sugar and break out with acne and still work on cultivating radical self-love that’s needed for standing in solidarity.
- It means welcoming the Divine feminine that’s struggling to break through the shadows.
It means a lot—a lot more than I can or am ready to unpack here—but it surely means asking questions and looking at the self and wondering why I’m so quick to snap or scold.
My Reiki teach Marty Tribble often reminds me: “We teach what we most need to learn.” And it’s clear that right now I’m learning about mess: how to live in mess, befriend mess, be truly ok with messing up …
So, some more mantras for the days ahead:
- I give myself (and my home and my relationships and my writing) permission to be imperfect.
- I allow my actions and activism to be imperfect, emergent, uneven.
- I give myself permission to act out, smart off, play hooky, miss a week, fall behind, let loose, whine, cry, rebel, take risks, get hurt, try again, etc.
- I give myself permission to be messy, a mess.