How to Make a Mess

just one of many exercises from Kerri Smith’s “Mess”

My mother is the anti-mess.  The careful super-heroine.  The best worrier (or warrior?) ever.

She gets angry when a child falls because she, or someone around her, couldn’t stop them from falling.  She tells them “rub it,” when they smack their foreheads on the corner of the coffee table.  It worked for me growing up.  It works for me now.

But, lately, I’ve learned, sometimes there is nothing you can do.  At first, this was scary for me.  With MS, I tried medicines, then abandoned medicines, drank green tea, then drank coffee, took cold showers, took hot showers, slept not at all, or slept all I could.  I took every prescription the doctor gave me and none of the prescriptions the doctor gave me.  My MRI showed what my brain wanted to do, regardless.

With my sons, I followed them around the house with a batch of paper towels, arms rearranging whatever they had displaced.  I “picked up” the house over and over again everyday, not stopping to make messes with them.  I  rarely joined their “picnic” in the middle of my living room floor, which simply meant they dumped every toy from their bin on our area rug.

Everything was the end of the world.  A misplaced throw-pillow.  A Cheerio in the corner.   I saw it coming when my son took off his socks many times a day to pick the “fuzzies” from his toes.

I write with my teeth clenched if I can’t wash my dishes before I begin.  I feel like I have two jobs running at one time, two songs playing in discord from one speaker.  Everything is too much.

I found this book, Mess, by Keri Smith.  After reading the introduction, I realized that, aside from being nervous and unhappy,  being consumed by this need for order hinders my creativity, gives me unearned headaches, and a lot of guilt about missed picnics.

As far as work, I never would have been excited to cut apart a piece of fiction with scissors, yet when I actually did it, I almost cried with the connections I had made, the ties of emotion I arranged simply by disconnecting what I had thought, at one time, was whole.  It hadn’t been whole, at all.

This morning, I did the dishes.  But I left the coffee spots on my desk, opaque brown splats on a thick sheen of glass.  While I might have wiped them up before, now, I let them rest, the little buggers, spots like those on an MRI.

Mess, by Keri Smith

Instead, I went to work again, cutting apart the story I had taped together with scotch tape yesterday afternoon, and re-taped it in new places.

I’m trying.  I drink coffee, take my prescriptions and even a vitamin (as my mother takes daily, with water she drinks from a small plastic tumbler that she hides next to the paper towels).  I sleep hard (with a prescription) and cry warm, fat, tears when need be and write drafts more imperfect than I had originally realized, but I’m happier because of it.  And now, on top of it all, I make messes in meaningful ways.  I tape my son’s paper alligator on the living room wall and fight him when he takes it down.  I argue that I like his abstract self-portrait on our kitchen cupboard.   And I’m slowly becoming okay with the messes that have been made, like an indecipherable MRI, my own abstract, self-portrait.

Now, when I go to my mother’s, I will open and reopen her kitchen cupboards, the only messy part of her house. Besides the pantry closet (SHH).  Her socks might be neatly tucked one inside the other, but she does leave a basket of folded laundry in front of her closet, next to a dresser.  Still, you will never find a dirty dish in the sink for longer than ten minutes.  They’re clean before she eats dinner.  This happens more often than I’d like to admit in my own house.

“Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader

Watching  “Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader, a video that Keri Smith writes about in her introduction to Mess,  I both laughed and gritted my teeth, unsure which was the right response.  At first, I wanted to pluck him from the branches and set him down safely.  But I bet, as times goes on, I will want to flick him off the branch and listen to the splash.   And then, when he stands up with a scrape on his knee or a knot on his forehead, I will tell him to “rub it.”

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About Sarah Cedeño

Sarah Cedeño received her BA and MA in Creative Writing from SUNY-Brockport, and her MFA in fiction from Goddard College. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, The Bellevue Literary Review, Literary Mama, and Redactions. She lives in Brockport with her husband and two sons and teaches writing at SUNY-Brockport. View all posts by Sarah Cedeño

4 responses to “How to Make a Mess

  • lucewriter

    Wonderful piece. It’s inspiring. I agree that OCD can be an enemy of creativity. And I mean OCD in quotes haha.

  • lizzschumer

    I love about a thousand parts of this. Life is messy, and I think, in a sense, it’s supposed to be. I used to get all freaked out about writing on, cutting up, slashing out or in other ways, marring my pages. After I spilled an entire mug of coffee on my freshly-printed manuscript just moments after it emerged, still warm, I got over myself and began to love destroying my work to make it better.

    The MRI comparison is interesting, too. I read “Excerpt from a Family Medical Dictionary” by Rebecca Brown while waiting for my yearly one last week (if you haven’t read it, run, don’t walk to your nearest purveyor of beautiful words. It’s stunning. Although I don’t know if I recommend a radiologist waiting room for the best setting for this particular book) and wondered about the imagery of medical tests for life events. Yours is better than what I came up with, I’ll tell you that much.

    Sharp writing, sharper insights. Thanks for sharing!

  • Sarah Cedeño

    Thanks, Lizz, I will have to check out Rebecca Brown’s book! She’s awesome in person, so I’m not surprised to hear her book is, too.

    I almost uploaded a picture of my last MRI into the post. Maybe another day.

    It might be a fun writing project for us to have an image/anecdote conversation of MRIs via blog/email.

    Thanks for the recommendation, and for your kind words!

    • lizzschumer

      Ooh! Now you’ve got my brain churning in all kinds of non-work directions. Yes, an MRI-based writing project sounds like great fun! I need to look into getting a copy of mine … the written report just isn’t as poetic or creatively stimulating.

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