Here Comes the Mud

keeping it clean is not what nature intended

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Ian Kloster


There is a website called Things Organized Neatly. It's a gallery of things organized neatly. If you're like me, scrolling through page after page of precisely arranged objects of various origin causes two things to happen. First, a relaxing moment of luscious Zen flows over you like a mild summer breeze. You see cheap, colorful toys neatly organized like a puzzle on a pure white table. You see a 1960s era bicycle disassembled and laid out like a set of surgical tools. You see an entire worksop's worth of hand tools hanging on pegboard – organized first by function, and then by size – and you wonder if it bothers the craftsman to actually remove a tool and use it. You see a single, perfect stack of hot pink Post-it Notes. And you sigh.

The second thing you feel flowing over you is a gush of depression – with a small dollop of dread added just for good measure. Your life is not this organized, not on any level. Nothing's in place. Nothing fits right. Everything – your stuff, your relationships, your thoughts, your feelings – everything is basically a big, giant pile. Or a collection of piles. And it feels like the best you can ever do is rearrange the piles ... just to get some small sense of control.

Then, if you're like me, you shrug your shoulders and try to remember that no one's life is this organized. These are pictures of things, and no matter how "organized neatly" they are, they are not alive.

“In man’s quest to conquer nature, our culture has developed an unhealthy aversion to the natural messiness of life.”

There is a mud puddle at the end of my driveway. It's big. It forms whenever it rains or whenever the snow melts. Time has not been kind to the end of my driveway – the spot where the concrete meets the street is slowly sinking down, and water does not drain away as it should. Over the years, dirt has built up, so the water that collects is milky brown. The bottom is a slick layer of greasy mud.

My daughter loves it. She runs to it, her rubber boots thwapping against the decades-old cement panels. And I bite my lip. This is what mud puddles are for, I say to myself. Kids are supposed to get wet and muddy, I think. But it's really hard for me to just keep my mouth shut and remember what my daughter doesn't need. She doesn't need to hear me asking her to "be careful" or to "watch it, now." She doesn't need to hear about how we'll need to change her clothes when we go back inside.

What she needs is for me to introduce her to as many mud puddles as humanly possible. All day, every day: mud puddles. Seriously, who the hell do I think I am, putting evil thoughts into her head about muddy pant legs and wet mittens? These things are bad for her.

She needs me to be good for her.

There is an e-mail my wife sent me that contains the phrase "In man's quest to conquer nature, our culture has developed an unhealthy aversion to the natural messiness of life." This e-mail has arrived on the cusp of Springtime in Wisconsin, right as the dirt beneath the snow is ready to rip the door off its cage and emerge, heaving air into its aching lungs, wasting no time as it lunges forward to ravage the state in the muddy business of rebirth.

Alive again. And thirsting to be more alive than ever before.

In the face of this – and in the face of catastrophic "messes" elsewhere on the planet – I do believe it's time be happy about the arrival of some mud. It's time to remember that life never started out as a set of things neatly organized on a shelf. Nature is a chaotic heap of living organisms, and that chaos will always win. Always. There is no point in trying to control it, to wash the mud away, especially when failing to do so causes you so much sadness.

It's OK to get a little messy. It's OK to stomp through the puddles. It's OK to peel your wet socks off and stick your feet in the mud. I think it might kind of be the whole point.

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