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The Puddle of Africa: How I’m Learning to Love the Mess

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Beth Anstandig

I used to think that my husband was a slob. I liked how it felt up there on my high horse. I liked the thrill of judgment and the impenetrable shield of righteousness. But I didn’t like the constant conflict between us. And I hated the feelings of powerlessness. After a few years of wrestling over this, one of my wisest teachers asked me to consider a terrible question: Was Eric messy, or did I have an excessive need for order? Then an even more awful thing happened. I heard one of those shitty spiritual slogans that you chuckle at, but it sort of rings true and then it won’t stop ringing: Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?

Here’s my truth: I want both. I want to be right and happy–and I want the whole world to be as tidy and organized as I am. Can’t we have it all? Here’s my other, more tender truth: the life-long focus on order comes from growing up with a fair amount of painful chaos around me. When I was a kid, I spent more time organizing my stuffed animals than I did playing with them. Without enough stability in my family life, I was an anxious little thing. Organization was my first drug of choice, a kind of quick fix of control. What is fascinating and still a bit saddening for me is how the quest for order actually grew into a disorder.  

Life with my excessive need for order has been an evolution of acceptance. I woke up one day, in the spiritual sense, and realized that I was missing out on my life. The behaviors were numbing me. The elusive order wasn’t helping me with my life; it was robbing me of my life. This might sound ridiculous, but it has taken me a very, very long time to accept the reality that others get to decide how they want to live their lives. It’s not up to me. Really, it’s not. The messiness of it all, the unpredictability, the surprises are actually okay and my job is to focus on me. What a notion! Change myself. I can work on staying in the anxious moment, feeling the desire to change something or someone, the itch, and to breathe through it. It really does pass–and what emerges is something quite beautiful–presence.

When I forget this lesson or need a little tune up, I have found that life on our ranch provides endless opportunties for me to practice the art of loving the mess. Our property was established in 1895 and parts of our now-renovated home were built at that time. Good luck finding a plumb wall or a few feet of level floor. When I asked my contractor if we could put crown molding in our family room, he just roared with laughter and walked away. I thought the imperfections would drive me crazy, and at first they did. But what has happened has been nothing short of a miracle. I grew to love my house. I mean, really love it. I love it so much that sometimes I just walk around it, loving it, and thinking grateful thoughts about it. The quirky imperfections, because there are so many, eventually set me free. The house is absolutely impossible to change and it insists on being old and crooked. It insists on being real about what it is. I get to decide whether to accept it or not. I can choose to stare at the flaws, obsess, and judge.  If I do, it’s nearly a guarantee that I will feel miserable. It’s like listening to a radio station with a fuzzy signal. If you focus on the static, you can’t hear the song. If it’s your favorite song, you listen through the static and enjoy every last note.

That was a nice and tidy story, wasn’t it? Well, this one isn’t. I live with a whole bunch of animals who offer daily (sometimes hourly) opportunities for me to either choose personal hell or stretch myself into being a more tolerant human. It’s winter now and California finally has some rainy weather. With it comes mud. There are days that my excessive need for order has me fantasizing about condo living. Add animals to the mud and it’s just a sloppy, soggy soup. For decades, I’ve been at war with my animals and the mud, insisting that it IS possible to keep them clean, even in the middle of winter. What this looks like is brushing them for sometimes hours, a significant layer of dirt all over my face and clothes, chiseling away at the dried mud chunks glued to their faces, raking their tails and manes, hosing their legs, and then finally standing back, admiring a moderately clean horse. Within seconds of returning them to their pasture, they are lying down and rolling in the mud again. This part is the honest-to-goodness truth. More than once, I have gone through the cleaning ritual, returned them to their pasture, and then run inside my house as fast as I could so I could spend the day with the image of that glorious moment when my horses were clean, even though it’s a lie.

This year I took it to another level. I started researching horses and mud. For sure, there had to be a solution. I’m not willing to blanket my horses anymore because it interferes with their natural climate control system. I came across an article which explained that grooming horses in the winter removes the water-repellant oil from their skin. Brushing mud off of them removes the layer of insulation they worked so hard to attain by rolling. I started seeing the insanity. The behavior of cleaning them wasn’t keeping them clean. It wasn’t working on any level. I had found evidence that grooming them was actually interfering with their natural process, a fact that I wasn’t willing to live with. It felt like I was mopping the floor and had cleaned myself into a corner. What if I let go? What if I put down the fight? What if they get to be as muddy as they choose? Grooming becomes more about bonding, and this is where love becomes part of the mess. If I can accept the mess, I can just be. Groom or don’t groom. Sit. Stand. Stop. Be with. There’s nothing for me to do or fix. This winter I am learning to love the mud and I’m noticing so much more peacefulness and joy when I’m around my animals. I’m noticing the cool air, the thick layer of their hair under my hands, the sounds of the barn. I’m noticing their eyes closing as I stroke their cheeks or scratch their necks. I’m noticing the relationship with them, my own heart feeling full. I’m noticing.

But here is the one that really got me in the gut–and I needed it to. I need moments like these to happen so I stay awake and present. One day a few weeks ago, we were getting a huge amount of rain and our little Emma was getting stir crazy inside. She pulled on her rain boots and declared it was puddle jumping time. A large puddle had formed outside our front door. I was throwing hay to the horses and wasn’t paying attention to her for just a few minutes. When I came out of the barn, there she was, in the middle of the puddle, crouched down with her head lowered into the wet mud, and she appeared to be massaging it into her hair. Mommy, I’m washing my hair in the puddle of Africa! 

It was almost surreal, this five-year-old person living with this expansive freedom, not the external kind, but the internal liberty to see something interesting, become inspired, and to go for it. There was no worry, no judgment, no editing of the moment. Just a little girl washing her hair in a puddle shaped like Africa. First thought: She sure does know her geography. Second thought: That is seriously disgusting. Third thought: This might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. 

I want to be in the mess; it’s where the living happens. And it’s where the loving happens. The pause I’m working on is allowing me to give up those first couple thoughts, the compulsions to change things, to breathe, and to wait until the truth emerges. What a gift to witness my daughter in her moment of joy. What a gift to feel my own freedom. And to think that I almost missed it, trying to clean up the mess.

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