I am amazed at how the tiniest habits have followed me throughout my life. A cluster of repetitive acts stacked upon one another like gathering cornerstones.
Building my character while leaving me to discover who I am and who I’m still becoming. I notice them more as I’ve grown older, especially those passed on to me by others. My parents are the bearers of many of them.
As the child of a blue-collar third-shift worker, my job was to follow my father around the house before he left for work. Our nocturnal ritual involved touching stove knobs with our index fingers to ensure burners were indeed cut off. We did this before shouting words of confirmation through wood, fiberglass and steel. He’d Marco me with, “Is it locked?” I’d Polo him back with a “Yes, Pop. We’re good,” as I jiggled the handles of our front and back doors. Our collective conscience satisfied, he’d depart as the darkness arrived.
An accepted uneasiness existed until dawn broke, signaling the end of my sentinel duties. My reward for keeping the home fires burning: a Hardee’s Gravy ‘N’ Biscuit.
On top of my night watchman responsibilities, I could count on weekend house cleanings as much as I could Saturday morning cartoons. Baseboards wiped down, table tops dusted, toilets scrubbed to the best of a 14-year-old’s capabilities.
From those years, I fear my hands still faintly carry an aroma resting somewhere between bleach and Pledge. And while we did our fair share of deep cleaning, the true goal was an appearance of tidiness. Random pieces of mail? Stick them in a cabinet beside cereal bowls. Nails and hammer used to hang a picture from two days ago? Lose them in a junk drawer along with the 33 packets of Chinese takeout duck sauce. Just keep them counters clear. Our floors were the same way — desolate dystopian wastelands courtesy of Bissell and Swiffer. Backpacks, jackets and shoes were tossed into closets, buried deep with no coat checker to help to sort them back out.
“Everything had a place — the place being wherever it fit.”
But Lord, you never had to worry about dealing with clutter. Everything had a place — the place being wherever it fit. For better or for worse, it’s the mantra I can’t seem to shake.
My current living conditions challenge my inherited rearing. With two small children, the spaces I occupy now have become an archipelago of unwanted toys. Imagine the most tchotchke-filled Applebee’s you’ve ever been in, but in place of your uncle’s California Raisins collection sporadically splattered across the walls, it’s dumped all over your floor.
That’s home life for me.
Navigating an injury-inducing funhouse. Where heels are bruised on Melissa and Doug’s wooden milk cartons and toes are sheared off thanks to random chairs placed in once-cleared walking paths. Their blanket-covered presence bringing to mind an Occupy Wall Street tent scene. The odds of stepping on a broken crayon or a week-old shriveled pickle are not so much likely as they are to be expected.
Kevin McAlister would be proud. Maybe Jigsaw would be too.
For the past several years, I’ve been fighting my upbringing to keep all things Spic and Span. An uphill battle whose altitude reaches K2-like proportions. Expeditions in our living room alone leave me tottering over toys and the remnants of my children’s chaotic constructions. I’ve tried to ignore it the same way I learned to ignore the accumulation of leaves on a lawn. Passing them off to a weekend not existing on a Julian or any other known calendar. Yet, I can’t shake the constant scanning and sempiternal stumblings. Leaving me both loose and disturbed like the plot of land around a cemetery’s newest resident.
Recently I came again to this state of disarray, defeated and unsure how much more I could take. Here, in the throes of Duplo blocks and kinetic sand, my oldest had stockpiled a portfolio of artwork rivaling that of the Louvre. Projects consisting of crudely glued pictures, stickers and original sketches.
“Here, in the throes of Duplo blocks and kinetic sand, my oldest had stockpiled a portfolio of artwork rivaling that of the Louvre.”
None of these were the first. Only the next wave of what has been a steady stream of creativity spilling out from her preschool folder and appearing from bursts of inspiration in her room. An emerging muse she has with no start or end, leaving nothing but a trail to follow. I sort it the best I can. Gathering and collecting in hopes of preserving something I’m unable to name.
With my curating abilities in overdrive, her pieces wind up in the most unlikely but convenient places. Many of which happen to find their way into my library of books. Folded and creased between worn pages and busted spines, her art lingers like the unrelenting caw birds who frequent our backyard. Demanding attention, petitioning me, offering an awareness I’m apt to overlook if not careful.
And Lord knows, I’m trying to be more careful about the things I tuck away.
Recently I found one of her early portraitures while searching for a cookie recipe. A rough sketch but nonetheless distinguishable. Her small hands bringing to life the depiction of “peas in a pod.” I ran my hand over the slightly raised texture of pressed crayons, feeling the all-too-familiar sensation of losing my footing as I did.
No clutter or toys under my feet this time. The culprit was her and her art. Witnessing what she could do with so little while making me feel so much made my knees buckle. I stood there blindsided, realizing her small art pieces were more than makeshift bookmarks. They were guideposts of her presence in my life. Signs of her entering in, coming alongside, helping me find my place in a world which now includes the two of us.
If the stories of Martin Luther’s conversion hold any truth, with thunderstorms and crackling lighting making the divine known, my daughter’s penchant for Crayola offer the same to me.
Holding her illustration, I’m sensing I’ve spent a lifetime stumbling over all manner of things I should have been paying more attention to. The least of which were children’s playthings.
I’ve staggered through jobs and appointments, unaware of how I made it as far as I did.
I’ve lost traction in relationships with friends, relying far too often on their outreached hand to steady me before the two of us toppled over.
I’ve floundered with family, missing moments I can’t get back.
Always off somewhere, clinging to the transient, searching for the next hit of what’s around the corner. These constant pursuits have left claw and bite marks all over me. Like a stray cat that would have rather been left alone, my empty achievements came with self-inflicted wounds I’m still licking years later.
Sometimes the light going off in my head is ultraviolet, revealing hidden surprises like those found in some of the cheap roadside motels I’ve had the pleasure of crashing in for a night. Bringing to my attention all things I’d much prefer to stay in the dark about. Maybe this is the kind of light preached at revival meetings or at least the kind Hank Williams saw drifting along as a cowboy troubadour. A light hitting and leaving me as close to the Damascus Road as I’ve ever been.
“I’ve always offered better prayers knocked on my ass than the ones I’ve given on bent knees.”
I’ve always offered better prayers knocked on my ass than the ones I’ve given on bent knees. Dazed by the divine in the drawings of a 4-year-old, I swallowed self-assured hubris and muttered words of gratitude for the messes of my life, understanding they have shaped it for the better.
Those messes worthy of my attention.
Those wreckages worthy of reverence.
Those beautiful shambles I mistakenly passed over and swept away instead of surrendering my attention to. Truly a revelation.
A revelation I want to pass down to those sticky and glitter-covered hands of my children. Reminding them, like me, they’ll trip and stumble over themselves more than they will anything else. Hopefully, they’ll see their stumbles as holy highlights, leaving them captivated and eager for more of the same. Hopefully, they’ll heed some of my words and come to understand them in their own time. Until then, I’ll be right behind them — cleaning and supporting all their consecrated messes.
For the sake of my own selfishness, I’m hopeful they’ll continue to make them.
Blessed are the mess-makers indeed.
Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the doctor of ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Besides reading, spending time in the kitchen and amateur gardening, Justin spends time with his spouse, Lauren, and their two daughters. He began his tenure as senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Suffield, Ct. in August. Find his ramblings at blacksheepbaptist.com.
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