adjective jum·bly \-blē\
Definition: jumbled, confused

The truth is, every area of my life is pretty jumbly these days.

That makes me uncomfortable, as it would most people, I suspect. And that discomfort has caused me to focus on all of the ways that my life is “less than”: less than ordered, less than complete, less than fulfilling. In short, less than perfect.

And then something happened that stopped me in my tracks. An unexpected generosity, offered gently when least expected. If this were entirely my story to share, I would explain – but since it’s not, I’ll just ask you to imagine: you have an armful of various fragile objects you must not drop, each varying in size and weight; objects keep getting added to this load until you are in danger of dropping them all. Just when you are about to lose your hold, someone quietly walks up and takes the largest, heaviest object. Without asking, without calling attention, without expectation of return.

This generous act did not fix all the jumbly-ness of my life.

But it did set in motion a re-ordering of my thinking. I was reminded of a great vintage shop in Minneapolis called Hunt and Gather (pictured, above). The shop is filled with a jumbly mess of stuff. When you first arrive, it can feel overwhelmingly chaotic. You wonder how anyone finds anything there. Then, surprisingly, the chaos of it overwhelms your mental need for order. You suddenly begin to see beauty and whimsy in the details; the very messy-ness of the place becomes charming. And instead of thinking about the ways the place is “less-than” (less than clean, less than organized, less than roomy), you begin to think about the ways it is wonderful.

One simple act of generosity helped me to see my need to create that same kind of shift when looking at the jumbly chaos of my life. Instead of letting the chaos overwhelm me, I can look for the beauty and whimsy within it. Its ginormity can be recast as abundance; as “greater than”: complex, multilayered, generative. When I am able to make this shift in my perspective, space opens up to see all the ways my life is wonderful – not only all the ways it is “less than”.

Suddenly, I can look at the jumbly mess and understand Nietzsche when he says:

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”





Jenion, the Many-Handed: Chaos, Time and Change

Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on. — Buddha
Chaos breeds life, when order breeds habit. — Henry Adams
When tempest tossed, embrace chaos. — Dean Koontz

My house is a shambles. Three times last night I either tripped or stubbed a toe on something that didn’t used to be where it currently is. Junk proliferates, and my vision of orderly packed boxes and neat piles of “to donate”, “to friends”, and “to the dumpster” dissipates. Just being with, and among, this chaos exhausts me before I even begin to work at bringing some order to it in the few hours I’m snatching back from the dinners and coffees that we’re cramming into these “last days”.

Two nights ago, I sat in my living room maniacally sorting through thousands of buttons – feeling like Nero, fiddling while Rome burned.

And that is just on the level of “what am I doing with all my stuff?!” The chaos is threatening to overwhelm me on an emotional level, too. After nineteen years in the same job, seventeen of which have been as a “live in”/”live on” staff member, the process of separation is really strange. For example, I had no trouble parting with files and piles of paper in my office. One day of concerted effort filled both the document destruction bin and several recycling receptacles. On the other hand, I’ve been slow to complete the work that needs doing before I leave – a pared down list of “final” things. Then there’s the commemoration of my longevity and the celebration of my impact on the campus which is sweet, poignant, and at times a little like listening to myself being eulogized. When it feels too surreal, I have to go walkabout – lots of extra visits to the chapel and the coffee shop in order to maintain emotional equilibrium.

In addition to kind words and amazing memories, I routinely get one or the other of these comments: “I’m so jealous” or “Congratulations on your retirement.” Both feel completely understandable while, at the same time, leaving me at a loss for what might be both an appropriate and kind response. By my calculations, and with what all of the prognosticators say about the increasing retirement age, I have a full two decades of work left. So I laugh (if with a slight hysteria) at the retirement comments.

The comments about jealousy are harder. It doesn’t feel like this place I’m in is a somewhere others want to be – uncertain, unknown, unplanned. Frankly, those who are most emphatic about their jealousy are in the best positions to be here without the narrow financial margin I’ll be balancing upon, which makes it incredibly difficult not to call them out – tell them they CAN be here, they just don’t choose to be. On the other hand, I understand their comments – it has been freeing in a manner I can’t describe to have put an end date on this particular stage of my life.

On the other hand…I find myself wanting to use this phrase to begin most sentences these days. The current level of chaos in my life lends itself to so many possibilities, I picture myself looking like one of the many-handed Hindu deities. On one hand, this. On the other hand, that. And on the other, other hand, something entirely different. Interestingly, Kali, the goddess whose name came up when I googled ‘many-handed Hindu deities’ is the goddess of Time and Change. Time feels in short supply right now, while I have a bumper crop of change to manage. And the only way I know how to do that is to lean into it, to borrow a recently popular term.

Leaning in to change, to chaos, can be both a daunting and an empowering experience. Some people have lauded my courage in taking this leap of faith – I feel less courageous and more like I’m whistling in the dark, hence “daunting”. But I do feel empowered, as well. For maybe the first time in my life the choices I am making are not being made out of fear or a need to control things in order to feel safe. I don’t feel safe. But I do feel right, somehow, as if this is the right thing to do at the right time to do it. Which lends a certain peace to the chaos that is my life right now – like the calm in the eye of a tornado or hurricane. The maelstrom is happening, and sometimes I’m whirled up in it and trying to relax enough not to be hurt by the buffeting. But in other moments, I experience the “rightness” at the center. And that feels empowering.

We live in a rainbow of chaos. — Paul Cezanne

In praise of the mess

There are these seemingly strange coincidences which happen in life. You hear about a random thing, like the artwork of Ursus Wehrli, and suddenly the name and his work are everywhere: on your cousin’s facebook page, in “Freshly Pressed” on WordPress, at Juxtapoz.com. (To see his work, go to http://www.juxtapoz.com/Current/the-art-of-clean-up-by-ursus-wehrli)  Wehrli, for those who haven’t been running across him almost daily for the past week, is an artist whose work is obsessed with bringing order to what normally appears random or chaotic. I admit to looking at his work (a photograph of alphabet soup followed by a photograph of the same soup with letters arranged alphabetically, for example) with a certain amount of awe for the sheer labor-intensity of it. The compulsive nature of it. The high-magnitude need for order it reveals.

The other night, I went directly from the office to an appointment, to a drive-through for a dinner salad, then back to the office for a program sponsored by my department. When I arrived home at 10:00 p.m., I popped some popcorn, kicked off my shoes, and reclined in the LaZyBoy in my living room. Looking around me, I saw the accummulated mess of several weeks of a busy schedule: on the sofa, stacks of clean laundry crammed to one end, down comforter and pillow jumbled at the other; table tops cluttered with empty soda bottles, empty microwave popcorn bags, empty take-out containers; five pairs of shoes/sandals scattered on the rug…and I briefly imagined Ursus Wehrli walking into this environment and attempting to bring order to it. For a moment, I felt embarrassment at what he would make of things. Then I mentally shrugged my shoulders and opened my 1,000 page fantasy novel.

When, a brief time later, I fell into a half-sleep sitting up with my book open on my lap, I had a very strange waking dream. In my dream, Ursus Wehrli, did in fact pay a visit. His dreamland alter-ego was played by this actor:

Alan Tudyk Picture

(Alan Tudyk) who played the German rehab patient, Gerhardt, in the Sandra Bullock film “28 Days”. Ok, so I type-cast in my dreams – doesn’t everyone?!

Anyway, Ursus was acting as a “life consultant”, and I had hired him to help me get my life and house in order. Literally. He insisted that my calendar be arranged so that the shorter appointments occurred earlier in the day, while longer appointments followed later. Of course, every activity was considered an appointment, meaning that every activity was blocked on the calendar. Sleep, as the longest block of each day, therefore came last. No napping allowed. All belongings: clothing, beads, towels, tchotchkes were grouped together with each other, then also size- and color-coded. My house began to look like a crazed organizer or Martha-Stewart-on-steroids had been there. At first, my dream-self loved this newfound clarity. I was getting caught up on paperwork, there were no dirty dishes or laundry haunting my activities, and every night I slept in my bed (as opposed to sitting bolt upright on a chair in the living room) at a completely regulated time. But I began to think of poor Ursus Wehrli as an evil taskmaster devoted to making my life completely regimented. I became agitated, looking for a way out of this overly regulated life.

Then I fell asleep in earnest, and at some point the dream segued into one in which I was stuck on an elevator and no one would help me get out. Then my alarm went off.

I felt relief when I woke, looked around, and realized that the mess of my life remained unchanged from the night before. A fully lived life is messy. Not every activity can be categorized and advance-planned. If one makes it a mantra (as I have) to “choose people and doing over solitude and navel-gazing”, perfectionism drops off the list of important values. Symmetry is lovely when it occurs naturally, but when it is forced and regimented it loses its appeal. So my house is messy – in the past few weeks I’ve worked a lot, worked out a lot. I’ve talked deeply and thought deeply. I’ve travelled and I’ve relaxed. I have listened and served. I’ve been pampered. I’ve played a part in possibly saving some lives (or at least weaving a safety net for some fragile souls). Some nights I’ve slept for ten hours, others not at all. On at least one occasion, I even slept in the afternoon! Why would I choose dusting or dishwashing over all that?

The people, the places, the time blocks of my life are rich and rewarding. They are also messy, crammed, thrown together in sometimes strange combinations. And I couldn’t be happier. Seriously, I would choose this chaos over well-ordered days and a clean house every time. That might disappoint my mother, and cause Ursus Wehrli to hyperventilate. But, so be it. I love my mess.