A Beautiful Mess

I went to church last Sunday, and sat in the back row.  As I sat there, a couple did the pew shuffle to get past me, and sat down next to me.  They both looked a little worse for wear – not homeless exactly, but certainly not Sunday-best shiny, and they looked a little uncomfortable being in a church.  I get it man – I’ve been going to church my whole life and sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable, too.  The man was wearing an all black leather motorcycle outfit, with dozens of small pins on the front.  The pin that caught my eye was the largest, a large circle of white with black typography that simply said “I’m a Mess.”  

It caught me off guard, and without even thinking I tapped the man on the shoulder and said, “I love your pin.” He looked confused for a moment.  He touched the pin nervously, looking skittish and said “thank you” cautiously, guardedly.  I looked him in the eye and smiled, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Aren’t we all?”  

His body relaxed and he looked relieved, and he nodded and smiled.  To prove my point, apparently, I proceeded to cry through the entire service, dripping salty tears on my nice church outfit.  I wished I were wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket instead – easier to wipe off.

I’ve been thinking about that man’s pin all week,  because the truth is we’re all a mess, it’s just that few of us are brave enough to advertise it.   It made me wonder  – what if instead of channeling so much energy into putting on a shiny veneer, appearing ok and together – at church, at work, with our friends and family –  what if we all acknowledged that we weren’t ok?  What if we told the truth – that we’re a mess?

There is a certain relief that comes with acknowledging we’re all a mess.  One of my writer heroes, Glennon Doyle Melton, talks about how life is “brutiful” – brutal and beautiful.  All I have to say to that is AMEN, sistah friend.  When I close my eyes and reflect on my 32 years of life, the moments that bubble to the surface are just those – the beautiful and the brutal – the brutiful.  They hold hands, and one enhances the other.  Moments of loss and grief and heartbreak and joy and hope and celebration, all swirling together.

Brene Brown is another one of my writer heroes – I think her books should be required reading for everyone who has a pulse.  In “Daring Greatly,” she talks about the courage it takes to be vulnerable – whether that vulnerability is parenting or leading a company or falling in love – to open ourselves up to pain, rejection, failure, loss, disappointment – that is brave.  If we are brave, if we fully live our lives, there will be seasons of deep pain and loss – that is part and parcel of being human.  It’s in those seasons that we get to go to our people – to those who know and love us well, put on our metaphoric “I’m a Mess” pins and lean into love and support and community.

The really good news is we’re all a mess.  It’s good news because we’re all in this together – we can be broken together, and offer love and support and solace for one another, no matter what life brings.

There is a story in “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver, a Native American legend about the difference between Heaven and Hell.  In Hell, there is a circle of folks packed tightly together, sitting so close they can barely move.  There is a pot of stew in the middle of the circle, and everyone is starving, but no one can bend their arms to feed themselves, so they are tortured eternally.  In Heaven, there is the same circle packed tightly, the same pot of stew, but everyone is reaching across the circle to feed their neighbor.  Everyone is feeding their neighbor, so no one starves.  

If that’s not the most beautiful picture of Heaven, of community, of friendship, I don’t know what is.

The good news is we can be that for each other.  We can reach out, from a place of our own messiness and pain, and love and encourage and uplift those around us.  We can say “me too” and “you’re not alone” to the people in our closest inner circle of friends and family, and to the strangers we find ourselves sitting next to in a church pew on a Sunday morning.

I have a poster hanging above my bed that simply says “Beauty from Ashes” a reference to Isaiah 61.  If you asked me to describe my faith, what I believed God was like, in 3 words, it would be those: “beauty from ashes.”  Because I’ve seen Him do that over and over and over again – in my life and in the lives of people I dearly love.  I’ve seen Him restore, redeem and renew.  Often maddeningly slowly.  Often – usually – not in the way I thought or hoped He would.  But the cornerstone of my faith – my belief in God and in the nature of life – is a hope and a conviction that beauty comes from ashes, and light from darkness.

So the moral of the story is, I’m a mess.  You’re a mess.  We’re all a mess.  And maybe that’s actually a really good starting place, because that is so not the end of the story.

Feeling 32

My birthday is coming up in a few days, which is always a cause for reflection.  I made a joke the other day about “calling myself 31 while I still can” and then immediately took it back.  I don’t actually feel that way at all.  I’m not “turning 29 again” this year – or any year.  I’m turning 32 and I am deeply grateful for every minute of the 32 years that have made up my life on this earth so far – even the really crappy ones.  Just like I’m thankful for every grey hair – or “wisdom highlights” as I fondly refer to them – you better believe I earned every single one of those greys.

In my moments of clarity I remember that getting older is a gift, because it means I’m adding to the treasure store of experiences and life lessons and moments with the people I love that make up my life.  Especially right now, with everything that is happening in the world, all the pain and suffering and heartbreak and discord – that global backdrop makes me even more deeply grateful for the good gifts in my life, and acutely aware of what matters most.

No offense to Taylor Swift, but man am I thankful not to be 22 anymore.  When I was turning 30 two years ago – and freaking out, as much as I hated to be that cliche – so many friends who were a few years ahead of me in life reassured me that my 30s would be way better than my 20s.  At the time I thought they were just trying to make me feel better about the fact that my life was basically over – but turns out they were right.  Almost-32 years-old Mary is a happier, healthier, more content person than the decade-younger version of myself ever was.  With each passing year I learn more about who I am and what I want I want my life to be about, and I’m able to be more disciplined about saying a kind yet firm “no” to the things that don’t matter, so I can say a wholehearted and emphatic “yes” to the things that do.

I’ve been reflecting a lot in the last few months about what I want my life to be about, what my “life mission statement” is, and it’s simply this – to love others well, full stop.  I want to prioritize people and relationships above all else.  The gift – as weird as it is to say that – of my dad dying when I was 22 was I learned that tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.  It gave me a clarity about what matters most  – the people we love and who love us – and that those are not gifts to ever take for granted.

I am currently obsessed with a song by Cam called Village – I’ve been listening to it on repeat while I run and feeling the truth of it deep in my bones – that we are all a product of the people who have loved us along the way, and that the best gift we can give them in return is to live our life well – with love, sacrifice, courage, joy and grace.

Your whole heart’s a village

Everyone you love has built it

And I’ve been working there myself

And that’s where I’ll be

With a front-row seat

To watch you live your life well

And I know you’ll live your life well

So as I approach my 32nd year I have some “new year of life” resolutions – and they are not about wrinkle cream or covering grey hairs.  They are about loving more deeply and well, speaking the truth in love, and telling the people in my life whom I treasure how much they mean to me, over and over and over again.  Jobs, money, non-grey hair and wrinkle-free skin – they all come and go – but the people in my life whom I love and love me-  that is all and everything.

Oh, and cake.  Lots and lots of cake – with extra sprinkles.