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