My Beautiful Mess

“As I look out of my eyes at the world, I see that a lot of us are just running around in circles pretending that there’s ground where there actually isn’t any ground. And that somehow, if we could learn to not be afraid of groundlessness, not be afraid of insecurity and uncertainty, it would be calling on an inner strength that would allow us to be open and free and loving and compassionate in any situation. But as long as we keep trying to scramble to get ground under our feet and avoid this uneasy feeling of groundlessness and insecurity and uncertainty and ambiguity and paradox, any of that, then the wars will continue. It’s like the matrix of creative potential. The matrix of the spiritual life. It’s like if we could rest there, which I suppose would be the description of enlightenment or the mystic, you know. Rest in that place, and is completely happy. That’s why, you know, they always say, with someone who’s very, very awake… the walls could start crumbling in and they wouldn’t like freak out or something. Because they’re kind of ready for anything to happen.” – Pema Chodron, Interview with Bill Moyers, Faith and Reason, 2006.

I read this quote for the first time a few days back on Karl Duffy’s wonderful blog, Mindful Balance. While I am not a practicing Buddhist, I’ve found Buddhist teachings to be extremely helpful in dealing with both my depression and my anxiety.

The combination of Pema Chodron, who is quite my favorite Buddhist teacher, and Bill Moyers, the J.S. Bach of Journalism and one of my personal heroes, was simply too much for me to resist. In a heart beat, it was copied into Word, printed, trimmed, and pasted amidst the chaotic grove of notes, sketches, and inspirational quotes that line the walls of my cubicle at work.

The Wall of Quotes, as I call it, sometimes gathers covert attention from my coworkers (many of whom are already more than halfway convinced that I am a few tacos short of a combo platter). You will find many notables there amongst the wisdom—don Miguel Ruiz, Jessica Mitford (“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”), Kafka, and H.P. Blavatsky to name a few. I even have a quote or two of my own up there.

The Five S’s

Several months ago, we were introduced at work to The Five S’s of Lean. The basic concept is that productivity comes from simplicity, order, and standardization. One of the suggestions given was to clean the clutter from your work space, in order to help your focus.

Yeah. Not quite so much. My desk is to Lean Six Sigma what Kryptonite is to Superman. Just one look at the toys, pictures, quotes, and poofy pens with Koosh ball cartoon tops would send Mr. Lean, Mr. Six, and Senior Sigma right over the hedge into the funny farm.

But Chodron, my new business mentor, seems to think differently. And so do Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place. One of Abrahamson and Freedman’s theories is that there are two kinds of messy people—the healthy and the not-so-much—as well as two kinds of neat people—the healthy and the not-so-much.

In stressing so much the fanatical neatness so prized in Western culture, we have created a culture of neuroticism, with little lenience for chaos, creativity, wildness, or just plain fun. But wildness, chaos, creativity—these are the stuff of which legend is made. (Not to mention the fabric of the space-time continuum….)

My Beautiful Mess

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I too have been seduced by the hyper-organizers, those Five-Year-Planners who preach the Gospel of charts, lists, and SMART goals. I’ve done the whole thing—bought the cupcake and drank the Kool-Aid.

The net result was a very sick stomach, insomnia, and almost no actual productive work. The very organization that seems to help others was a toxin to me—it stifled my imagination, lulled me into a stupor, deadened my vigor, and pretty much bored me to tears. I was trying (and failing) to be a perfect corporate drone.

Not quite my style.

In recent years, though, I have come to the realization that we are not cookie cutter humans. What works for some is poison to others. I know many people who would have a nervous breakdown at my desk, as I would at theirs. Color-coded file folders vs. a top drawer full of light-up yo-yos, bouncy balls, herbal tea bags, and pictures of my nieces and nephews—I ask you, in the championship match, which would win?

Both. And neither.

The truth is, clutter and chaos are necessary, both in business and in life. You can’t always stare at the ground and insist it’s a ground, not if you want to move past the deadly emptiness of linear thinking into the realm of creativity. Sometimes, you have to look at the ground and see it for what it is—a vast, cosmic sea of energy, coalescing into something we have as a species collectively agreed to call the ground. Sometimes, you have to look at the world through upside down eyes, or inside out vision, or just plain cockeyed wonder.

And sometimes, you have to alphabetize your files. Sometimes, you have to clean out your desk drawers in order to be able to find those scribbled notes of genius you’re always writing down. Even the most creative of persons can benefit from a system, no matter how wild and off-the-wall the rest of humanity might consider it.

The Art of Compromise

There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t be caught dead with a spreadsheet program. The thought of something so vulgar, so banal, seemed like death to my dreams of wild creativity and artistic endeavors.

Now, I’m a fan of Microsoft Excel. Actually, I’m a wizard at it—it’s one of my favorite programs. And not just for my job. Quite often, when I have something to do at home, I find myself opening up Excel and using it to organize the chaos of my thoughts into something that is actually workable. (Oh, and it’s so much fun running macros. I ain’t lying—it’s like magic.)

In a development that surprises me more than anyone else, I’ve moved into a space where chaos and order can coexist. I’ve found a compromise, a bipartisan effort between my left brain and right brain towards the joint goal of living the best life I can.

But it’s not just about spread sheets and poofy pens. When you look deeper into this standoff between order and chaos, you begin to see that the physical applications are only the surface of the much deeper situation.

Dancing Under the Skin

When you look at it, really look at it, this tendency towards standardization and uniformity is a metaphor for a deeper trend in human nature.

Forget the desk. Look at your friends page on Facebook.

Forget the spreadsheet. Look at the books and stories you read.

Is there variety there? Is there conflict? Or does it all start to look exactly alike after a while?

Like not only attracts like, it campaigns for it. It fights for it, the normalcy and regularity of sameness that we all may secretly crave.

Underneath our skins, we are chaos, a riot of contracting muscles, pulsing veins and arteries, cells living and dying, and conflicting emotions that often send us scattering off in twenty directions at once. Underneath the skin, we are microcosms of a wild and sometimes frightening universe. And there is safety in the illusion of conformity.

In this unsettling world, there is something very seductive about sameness—looking like and thinking like and acting like and dressing like the people around you. I am not knocking it; I love getting the jokes and understanding the references among my friends and cohorts. I adore knowing that when my mind goes a little too far into the wilderness, there are people out there who will pull me back onto the sidewalk and make me feel like I belong again.

That’s Not the Point, Is It?

But as good as safety and belonging feel, they aren’t really what we came into this life for, are they? Were we really born into this random, contradictory, fabulous world to be safe?

No, we came here in these pulsing bodies with chaotic thoughts and emotions in order to explore, to learn, to grow. We were born to grow, not stagnate.

A garden doesn’t grow neatly. There is dirt and there are bugs and wind and rain and mud and weeds. A garden must be tended, of course, if it’s to thrive. But it can’t be tamed, or it loses its vibrancy and passion.

Almost twenty years ago, I packed two cardboard boxes and a duffel bag and boarded a plane to Phoenix to start my Real Life™. I had no job lined up, no money, no car and only a handful of friends where I was going. I didn’t even have a space—I spent six weeks couch-surfing at my friend Chris’s house. My family, my friends and history were behind me, a forty minute drive from the New Orleans airport. My safety was gone.

In 1993, I purposely threw my life into chaos, leaving everything I knew, a life lived by rote, behind me. When I got there, I chose a calculated, wholesale rejection of comfort and familiarity. I made a point of listening to music I didn’t know (preferably in a language I didn’t speak), eating foods I’d never tried, and associating with people with whom I had little in common.

It was difficult and often lonely, at least at first.

But as time passed away from the resounding buzz of sameness that had permeated my first two and a half decades, I found another sound emerging from the uncertainty, loneliness, and alienness of my new life.

I found my own voice. I tried things that frightened me. I achieved things that amazed me, often because nobody in Phoenix knew me well enough to know that I was “incapable.” I stretched outwards, fell down, ran out of money sometimes, had some amazing experiences, got my utilities shut off more often than I’d like to admit, and generally had a grand time of it.

Composting a Life

I’m not much of an outdoorsy girl, but even I know that compost is kind of gross. The idea of taking all the garbage, decaying food, whatever and lining your garden with it can be a bit off-putting to our neatness-obsessed Western culture. But any gardener worth their salt will tell you that compost is good for the soil, good for the plants, and good for the environment.

Compost takes something most people throw away and turns it into something miraculous.

We as restless spirits in human bodies need compost, too. We fade in well-worn, wrung-out soil. The things we usually want to throw away—the conflicts, the chaos, the messy human interactions, the very pain of living itself—are often the ones that provide the most nourishment for our spirits.

We are not spreadsheets. We are living things, and we need a little bit of fertilizer to grow.

So go out. Rake up the mud a bit, trying something new, something scary. Listen to opinions that oppose your own, not only with the intent of debating but in an effort to understand.

You will find that the world more textured, more complex than you ever imagined. And so are you.

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