Wisdom from Wooliam: My Messy Beautiful

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” – Judge Taylor in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Ace marched proudly from the preschool classroom, clutching the telltale yellow fabric bag. “I got Wooliam,” he announced, triumphantly displaying the bag and its occupant. “It’s my turn again!”

Wooliam is a stuffed lamb whom Ace and his classmates take turns hosting. This endearing little creature participates in the family’s activities and chronicles them in a journal entry. Naturally, the chosen four-year-old is thrilled over the opportunity to oversee him.

I must admit, though, that “thrilled” is not an apt description of my own reaction. While I applaud the spirit of this tradition and appreciate Wooliam’s importance to Ace, hosting duties can be . . . well, a wee bit burdensome. Not because Wooliam is a troublemaker (he’s not, although he has managed to get lost and throw us into a panic every single time he visits our house, starting with his first visit to Sonny over two years ago), but because of the journal. The journal is not only read to the preschool class but accompanies Wooliam on each visit for the host families to enjoy. Not to overthink things, but the temptation to manipulate an activity or two in order to make our family seem well-adjusted and not too tedious (or neglectful of Wooliam) is real. Turn off the TV and let’s play Battleship, everyone, and then let’s go to the park!

Which brings us to this last visit, which happened to land over spring break. Yes. When it dawned on me that Ace would be in charge of Wooliam for eleven whole days, I had two simultaneous thoughts: a) Where can I buy Wooliam’s twin in case we lose him for good this time, and b) How can we possibly come up with eleven days’ worth of journal-worthy activities?

But fast-forward to spring break’s end, and Wooliam’s selective reporting had come through for us yet again. Bless him.

What Wooliam divulged: “We played hide-and-seek!”

What Wooliam concealed: “Sonny and Ace forgot to look for me and nobody missed me for two days. It’s dark under the couch, and I evidently am allergic to dust.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I helped set the table.”

What Wooliam concealed: “Hot chocolate spilled on me. But it’s okay, because it turns out stuffed sheep are machine-washable. Who knew? The dryer made me dizzy.”

What Wooliam divulged: “Sonny and Ace made me a colorful pipe-cleaner tightrope that stretched across the living room.”

What Wooliam concealed: “I got strung up from the colorful pipe-cleaner tightrope by my ears.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I helped Ace and Sonny make a salad for dinner.”

What Wooliam concealed: “It may be that Ace’s lunch consisted primarily of Cheeze-Its.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I watched Ace dig for dinosaur bones.”

What Wooliam concealed: “I got buried in the dirt up to my neck. Ace’s mom rescued me and brought me inside before it started raining. See previous comment regarding machine washing.”

Good old Wooliam. Ever the gracious guest, he manages to make us look competent. He is grateful and uncomplaining. He looks and listens for the wholesome beauty and turns a blind eye to the rest.

20140414_081224I could take a lesson and look and listen for the beauty, too, and spend less time dwelling on the messy—not in order to appear more competent, but in order to be more grateful. Not to deny or veneer the messy realities that need acknowledgement or resolution, but to welcome the everyday gifts concealed in messy wrapping.

Last fall, for example, I was felled by a nefarious strain of the stomach flu and spent a miserable day flat on my back. But Sonny wrote me a note: “I love you, Mommy!” I awoke at one point to Ace’s favorite dinosaur book propped on my nightstand; he’d brought me the best thing he could think of to make me feel better. Both boys crept in periodically to rub my arm and ask in whispers if I felt better yet or if I needed more water. They proudly announced that they’d cleaned the house without even being asked.

The discomfort of this nasty virus? Messy. My sons’ blossoming compassion and empathy? Beautiful.

My kitchen is in an almost permanent state of disorder: smears of sunbutter and crumbs of play-dough, sticky spots, ubiquitous papers and crayons. I can’t take two steps without stepping on someone who just wants to help. But it’s the space where my family gathers to play and create and cook. It’s where Sonny and Ace learn to pitch in. It’s our favorite landing spot when we want to connect.

My kitchen is messy. My kitchen is beautiful.

I spend hours in the minivan, sometimes frustrating, teeth-gritting hours. With the minivan we pick our way over slippery roads in the winter and creep through traffic jams in the summer. Inside the minivan imprisoned hangry kids hone their whining credentials during long errand runs. Here snack crumbs and wrappers fall and crumpled papers overstay their welcome until I get around to cleaning the interior. But in the minivan Sonny and Ace and their carpool friends play their own version of “Name That Tune” and tell knock-knock jokes that never grow old. It’s where Sonny talked Ace down from his nervousness about starting preschool. It’s where the four of us sing Christmas carols as we cross the several states to Grammy’s house in December. It’s where Ace encouraged Sonny that he was “the best soccer player on the field, and also the best brother.”

Is the minivan a messy place? Yes. Is it a beautiful place? Yes.

Beauty does not eradicate messiness. The stomach flu is still miserable and always will be; my kitchen is still in disarray; I sometimes consider changing my official primary address to “minivan—the messy one.” And some heartaches and struggles are too large to be glossed over by a surface check for the positive. But at other times, if we look and listen for the beauty, we will see it.

Thanks, Wooliam, for the reminder of what to look for. You’re always welcome at our house, and next time I promise to hide the pipe cleaners.

 

This essay is part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project. To learn more and join us, click here. To learn about the New York Times bestselling memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, click here.

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Those Pesky Cats of Kilkenny

“There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.”

When in our much younger years my sisters and I would fight/argue/vehemently discuss, my parents took up the habit of reciting this poem to us. It was their defense against hearing about whose right it was to invade someone else’s bedroom, for example, or who hadn’t done her share in cleaning the fish tank, or who poked whom and whether this was done on purpose. Eventually they decided to save some of their breath and began abbreviating their point by simply announcing into the air, “Oh, look, it’s the cats of Kilkenny.”

Cats of Kilkenny

Any success with shushing us with this method was due not to the fact that we internalized their warnings of destroying each other. It was because we didn’t want to listen to cat poetry when we were trying to determine which unlucky sister’s turn it was to sit in the middle seat of the car or exactly what qualified as hogging the bathroom. Meanwhile, I mentally added “say ‘Cats of Kilkenny’ at them” to the list of the hardships I vowed never to deliver to my own children someday, along with “force them to make their beds when they’re just going to sleep in them again anyway” and “refuse to serve sugary cereal for breakfast.”

Fast forward until last week. Sonny and Ace were engaging in constant and noisy disagreement over . . . well, almost anything. Whose turn it was to set the table. Who was hoarding the green marker for no reason. Whether the word pool could be said to rhyme with itself.

And then it happened. As I wandered past a heated discussion about who had neglected to close the door of the couch cushion fort, the immortal words of “Cats of Kilkenny” poured from my mouth as though with a life of their own.

Did they stop fighting? No.
Had I really expected them to? No.
Then why did I do it? I don’t know.

Fighting. It sets my teeth on edge. But sometimes amidst their howling onslaught, Sonny and Ace reach resolution. Sometimes they do eventually listen to each other. So maybe if they keep it up, they will become expert resolvers and listeners, cutting out the middleman that is their fighting.

Or maybe not. But this article  claims that sibling rivalry will eventually pay off with skills related to problem solving, regulating emotions, increased maturity and self-control.

Will this really happen? I don’t know.
If so, how long will it take before these new abilities kick in? I don’t know.

Just in case, though, next time Sonny and Ace fight, I might do something different. Perhaps instead of reciting “Cats of Kilkenny,” I will cheer them on: “Keep on practicing, boys. Try to keep it down, though, okay?”

Or maybe I’ll just claw my ears out. We shall see.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go compel my children to make their beds.

Clutter and Peace

Clutter. It’s the bane of my desk. And kitchen. And hall. And minivan. And purse.

School papers, receipts, bits of modeling clay, socks (mateless and otherwise), wrappers, notes, crackers, colorful pipe cleaners, jars, oatmeal canisters, coupons. This morning I even found a banana in my purse.

You get the idea.

Occasionally something (such as a banana in my purse) tells me that the clutter is a tad out of control, and in a burst of optimism (or denial; you decide) I determine that it would take but a  little effort to eradicate it. My attempts look something like this:

I carefully sort through the pile of junk mail, keeping a couple flyers and recycling the rest.  Sonny and Ace follow my instructions to transfer any clothes that are lying around to the laundry room.

Next up: recycling. Out go the notes, receipts, most of the junk mail, and oatmeal canister. Out goes the months-old cardstock “armor of God” craft from VBS.

Ahhh, looks better already.

J comes in with the mail. He starts a new pile of flyers.

I schlepp a large shopping bag through the house, filling it with various and sundry items. A broken robot.  Mateless socks. The infernal Superman book that I can’t stand to read even one more time. An outgrown  shirt. The monkey puzzle with a missing piece. I park the bag in the mudroom and, recognizing that anything destined for Goodwill is automatically pronounced a cherished favorite, cleverly conceal it with an old blue pillowcase.

Sonny comes inside and carefully sheds his wet socks, leaving them under the bench in the hall.

I collect a pile of magazines, make a mental note to bring them to the preschool, and stack them by the back door.

“Here comes suuuuuuuuuuuuper dinosaur rescuer guy!” Ace zooms past, sporting a cape fashioned from an old blue pillowcase. Meanwhile, burrowing noises from the mudroom. It’s Sonny: “Hey, this is my favorite shirt! And my favorite robot! And my favorite puzzle! Why is all this stuff in here? Can we read the Superman book?”

I read the Superman book through gritted teeth and follow the trail of puzzle pieces to The Bag, stuffing the rejects back into it.

Ace is dumpster diving. “Mom! You can’t throw away Sonny’s breastplate of righteousness!” (Well, no, not when you put it that way.) “And I can make an invention with this oatmeal box!” He marches into the kitchen, possessively clutching the oatmeal canister, and dumps it in the vicinity of the other craft materials.

Meanwhile, I reconsider getting rid of those magazines. I haven’t even read all of them yet . . .

It’s not tidying up; it’s Whac-a-Mole. Evidently I lose at decluttering.

So it also goes in my head. Last Sunday began the week of Advent that focuses on peace. I determined that it would take but a little effort to shed any mental clutter that obstructs peace.  But then:

I check an acquaintance’s CarePage, and the news is bleak.

The recently-cleaned house is suddenly not clean. At all.

I hear an ambulance stop nearby.

Why is he having stomach aches again?

I am worried about a friend.

Why is the dryer making that noise?

Did I say the wrong thing? Yes, I’m pretty sure I did.

I miss my grandpa.

I can’t sleep lately, so I am tired, so I am crabby.

My Christmas to-list is nagging at me.

And so on.

Some of these are not insignificant matters, but many are. And despite my resolve to shed this mental clutter, I can’t seem to do so. Even when one piece is quelled, another pops up.

Evidently I lose at achieving peace.

J turns on Handel’s Messiah. “And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

I may lose at achieving peace, but that’s okay, because it’s not up to me.

May you find peace this season—clutter and all.

Hope Is a Superpower

“Mommy, if you had a superpower, it would probably be a walrus superpower. Then you could break ice with your head!”

Two things here: First, what is it about me that suggests “walrus” to my four-year-old? (And please keep any inklings to yourself, because I really don’t want to know.) Second, as long as he’s doling out superpowers, why couldn’t he grant me a more practical one?

I began to mentally form a wish list of useful superpowers—none of which, you may notice, relate in any way to walruses.

  • The “prepare for Christmas in the blink of an eye” superpower.
  • The “beam laundry from the dryer to the closet” superpower.
  • The “instantly purge the house of clutter” superpower.
  • The “quell whining with one calmly spoken word” superpower.
  • The “inject everyone in the house with gusto for whatever I cook” superpower.
  • The “be astonishingly organized and never procrastinate” superpower.

Caught up in the very idea, I began to make frequent mention of my superpowers. I would use my superpowers to start the van! I would use my superpowers to make a  spreadsheet! I would use my superpowers to prepare lunch! Finally Ace, drained of patience, sighed. “Mommy. Mommy. You don’t need superpowers to do those things. You just use your regular powers.”

Oh.

Right.

Lunch-making would be a waste of a superpower, wouldn’t it?  As would everything on my wish list (with the possible exception of that whining one). All they take is regular powers and some extra effort.

So, what superpower would I actually choose, given a chance?

  • The ability to assuage the pain of grieving friends.
  • The ability to ease the holidays for those whose hearts have been broken.
  • The ability to console those whose outlook is bleak.

And so on.

It’s Advent, the season of spiritual preparation for Christmas, the time of waiting for the coming of Christ. This first week of Advent has focused on hope.  Unlike the word wish, hope indicates possibility and expectation. As Kathleen Norris wrote, “Hope has an astonishing resilience and strength. Its very persistence in our hearts indicates that it is not a tonic for wishful thinkers but the ground on which realists stand ” (Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life).

We lack the superpower to magically exterminate others’ pain, but we can use our regular powers to chisel away at it until hope begins to glimmer and gives them ground on which to stand. We can use our regular powers to relay a memory of the loved one for whom they are grieving. To bring them a meal. To pat a shoulder. To send a note. To sit in silence with them. To babysit their kids. To invite them to our home. To send a comforting poem or passage or song. To take them on an outing.

Use your regular powers to clear their path for hope. When one has hope, one can go on.

May you have hope, and offer hope, this season.