From the time she was little, my daughter (like most kids, I think) loved nothing more than a big mess. Now, I’ve mentioned I am a bit of a perfectionist–which I once defined as someone who thinks they’re ALREADY perfect…I’ve learned that instead, I’m someone who always WANTS things to be perfect, or in their right spot, or “just so,” which is a constant feeling of internal frustration since things NEVER EVER ARE.
I have a problem with that. I’m working on it.
But since I wanted my daughter to be a fearless mud puddle-splashing, bug-loving kid, I make a point to allow her to be messy and try my best not to worry about it. That mud on the patio? Calm down, mama…I can hose it off. Sand in her hair? That’s what bathtime’s for. Doodles all over her skin? Well, that’s why you get washable markers.
I let her cover her arms in stick-on tattoos, paint her hair with temporary pink mousse, and make magical messes experimenting with food coloring, baking soda & vinegar. The way I see it, childhood is the BEST time for messes! The BEST time to color your hair and marker your skin, when the responsibilities of the world and work and jobs and life don’t interfere.
Well. That’s all well & good in theory…until she started asking ME to join in.
As a kid, I was a mess-lover, dirt-digger, and bug-catcher. But something changed as I grew up (as I’m sure it does in us all) that made me not WANT to lie down in the grass anymore (it’s itchy! There are bugs!) or splash in the puddles (my pants will get soaked! I’ll ruin my shoes!) or catch a bug (I don’t WANT to touch a mealworm!). I started realizing, though, that unless I joined in, all my talk to her about having fun and making messes would be just talk. My kid learns more from what I DO than from what I say, and unless I joined in, she might feel that the beautiful messes were somehow wrong. So I did.
I let her paint on me. I let her polish my nails. I get down in the grass and get dirty. Not every day. Not always. But when the opportunity presents itself and the only thing stopping me is my own discomfort.
The main key to it all is preparation. Painting outside, or with a mat down, or in a cruddy shirt, and ALWAYS with washable, skin-friendly, or water-based supplies. Have a towel ready.
It was difficult at first, ignoring the inner “irk,” but I told my inner voice the same things I’d say about her: “it’s washable. I can take a bath later. It’ll come off.” And the fun we have doing it is always worth the cleaning up. I can’t say that afterward I don’t run immediately to the shower & laundry to clean everything off, but I try my best to wait til we’re all done to internally freak. I can’t say it’s not a challenge sometimes, but I try my best to enjoy it IN THE MOMENT.
Because I allow the messes, you’d think that nothing would be off limits. But she is VERY sincere about knowing what’s okay and what isn’t. She knows not to paint on the walls in house, and respects that story books are for reading. Thankfully, she asks before she doodles on things. Because I allow the messes, she doesn’t seem to feel the need to go crazy elsewhere. It seems with her that giving her the opportunity to go wild sometimes keeps her calm in other places.
We have a world full of no. Every day of her little life is full of boundaries and structure, struggle, conflict and organization. There are rules and manners and courtesies, permissions and consequences. These are good things. These are necessary. But there are moments you can let go of your hangups and just enjoy the feeling of paint slopping around and mud between your toes, for no other reason than that it’s fun.
You forget those things when you’re older, and you’d be surprised how quickly and fiercely that happens. So why not cram your childhood full of them?
So, kids or no, artistic or not….when’s the last time you made a beautiful mess?
Just before last winter, when we lived in Alaska, I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the artists in Fairbanks’ Paint the Pipes project that my friend from Chartreuse told me about. Essentially, in the hopes of beautifying Fairbanks, artists were selected to paint designs on the vent pipes downtown. I did two designs, but my design called “Dreaming” was the one that was selected. (Personally, I think the tangled ravens could’ve looked pretty cool, but I get why it might be a little…less upbeat.)
When I first moved to Alaska, I was overwhelmed by a sense of isolation. I didn’t know many people, I had a young child, and my husband was scheduled to deploy. A counselor once told me about an artist, a woman who moved to Alaska during the Gold Rush, and painted to comfort herself, and had written a book about it. The book didn’t necessarily comfort me, as much as remind me that this “adjustment period” in Alaska will pass. And it did! Soon I met some of the very best friends I’ve ever had at a duty station. But I thought of the native babies that grew up in those harsh conditions, and how they not only survived, but thrived. Being relegated to the indoors for a good chunk of the year, I often wondered what they dreamt about, or what they did to pass the time. I thought of however rough the conditions, you always have your mind, your creativity, to take you other places.
So “Dreaming” it was. I was very very sick when I began painting my steam pipe, and winter was coming….so I had very little time to work on it. On top of that, one of the developers of the program set up a time-lapse camera to document my progress on the pipe, which I didn’t mind, but it sure was intimidating. I often thought, “I’d better move around and finish this up quickly, or it’s going to be one heck of a boring time-lapse.”
I did the majority of the painting the first day, probably in about 3 or 4 hours.
Then I was able to come back another day (still sick, sadly) and paint some more detail. Probably another 4 hours or so.
And finally: COMPLETE!
I was so excited to see it in the wintertime, that I drove out to take a picture after the snow had fallen. But to my surprise, CHUNKS HAD FALLEN OFF. The city had primed the pipes, but since mine was a steam outtake pipe, it was warm, so mine was the only one that cracked. They had never tested the primer in winter, I guess.
If you’ve ever read Vonnegut’s “Bluebeard,” (one of my favorites), you can appreciate the irony.
Luckily, the bottom part seems to have kept fairly stable. They asked if I’d be willing to come back & repair it, but sadly, we moved just before summer. I hope it stays together for awhile, or at least until someone can repair it. I won’t even speculate as to the symbolism….and I hope passing tourists do the same!