Notes from the Messy Middle

Once a month, my Mama Friend takes my kids for the whole, long day. (I reciprocate a week later or earlier by taking hers. It’s this thing we do, and it’s awesome.)

From behind the steering wheel first thing in the morning, seven whole hours to myself seems like an eternity of possibility. I see the day stretching wide before me, and I am limitless in it. I can check off every last thing on that way-too-long-to-do list if only I just focus.

Usually I spend Addie Day holed up in Panera, writing and consuming a steady stream of coffee and bagels. But yesterday, I decided to tackle The Basement Room.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length, you might remember The Basement Room from the end of November (when I vowed to let it go and have an imperfect Christmas.)

The Basement Room has been through a lot in the five years we’ve lived in this house. It started off as Man Cave, full of movie posters and the swords we brought home from China.

Then, when Andrew started working from home, it transitioned to accommodate both his office and my sewing/craft miscellanea. (For a person who’s not all that crafty, I have a surprising amount of craft supplies, and anytime I do any sort of sewing project, my side of the room explodes with it.)

Now The Basement Room is in transition to becoming our guest room, and I’m trying to prune back the unnecessary craft supplies and just keep the essentials. And, just to make things a little extra wacky, I’m also cleaning out our storage space at the same time, which means there are half-full Rubbermaids everywhere.

Here’s a reminder in case you’ve forgotten just how bad it is:

super messy basement

At home on Addie Day, the house buzzes with a strange, kid-free silence. I sit on the floor in The Basement Room, surrounded by the debris of our life. My Diet Coke is somewhere nearby, and Season 2 of Veronica Mars is playing on my computer, and it’s long, slow work, this purging. It surprises me when I find my phone underneath a pile of scrapbook paper and see that it’s already 1:30 in the afternoon.

Watch enough sappy episodes of Extreme Home Makeover and you’ll begin to believe that a house can actually be ripped down and built back up in a week. Look at enough Before and Afters held side-by-side on Pinterest, and you’ll forget about this eternity of in-between. The tutorials promise ten easy steps to give your bedroom a facelift in a weekend, and it sounds entirely possible.

And it’s not just in the home improvement realm. Everywhere, we’re cutting out the middle. We cheer on contestants in one-hour increments as they drop pounds in drastic numbers week-to-week. We keep just enough of the hard work of weight loss to make a good story…and then we edit the rest out.

We tell the three-minute versions of our faith and cut out the messy uncertainties, the lingering doubts, the long, quiet Middles.

But I’m sitting in a pile of papers and books and photos and files, and here’s the unsexy truth of it: creating space takes time.

messy middle with quote

The mess gets worse. And then better. And then WAY WORSE. And then it circles around again. These questions, What should I keep? And What can I live without? These are big questions in some ways. They are questions that take time.

I am going through my kids’ art projects and my old writing notebooks. I am piling up fabric scraps, trying to figure out if I’ll ever use them again. I am folding up squares of tissue paper for future gifts and testing out loose pens to see if they still write.

For most of the day, all I’m really doing is moving piles around the room. All the time, the stacks are getting smaller and more manageable, but it sure doesn’t look like it.

At four o’clock when I grab the keys and head into the winter cold to get the kids, The Basement Room still looks so much like it did when I started this morning. You can only see the improvement if you look hard and deep, look all the way in.

And it’s a hard lesson for this overachiever, this perfectionist, this project-finisher: to let go of the golden myth of before and after. The middle stretches long and exhausting and tedious, and this is where you do the good, real work of life.

This is where you let go and hold close, and this is where you make space within yourself. And to stand here in this middle-mess and not give up: this is faith.

You close the door and leave for today. You’ll come back to it tomorrow. Move some piles around. Throw a few things away. Keep on working until it’s done.

29 thoughts on “Notes from the Messy Middle

    1. Thanks Katie. (I get frustrated here too. Why am I not superwoman?! Why can I not superhumanly get everything in my life done in one hour? So annoying.)

      1. Yes! Why am I not Superwoman and why does the middle take so long? I appreciated your thoughts here and find myself in the same boat.
        “And it’s a hard lesson for this overachiever, this perfectionist, this project-finisher: to let go of the golden myth of before and after. The middle stretches long and exhausting and tedious, and this is where you do the good, real work of life…this is faith”
        Working daily to accept the day and it’s limits while being grateful for this life I have. Thanks for the lovely words.

  1. you’re reminding me I have to tackle my closet – smaller space but same sense of the work ahead to sort it all out. Ah, the middle space where faith is enacted. So true. In the middle of it all with you, diet coke in hand!

    1. Closets are the worst! Solidarity sister. (I have a couple closets I need to get to as well.) Clinking Diet Coke cans with you, love!

  2. I always have to remind myself that it took days, weeks, and months for most messes to pile up. I shouldn’t be surprised if I can’t clean them up in a few hours!

    1. A good reminder. Realistic statements like that generally have no place in my psyche. Instead, my brain says, “Seven hours without the kids?! You should be able to write an entire book chapter, clean every room in the house, and make a healthy dinner!” Must work on that…

  3. Love this. Sometimes its easy to believe that we are the only ones in the middle-mess. It’s comforting to know that not only are others in it, but they’ve also found ways to learn from it.

    1. Yes. It always makes me breathe easier when I discover I’m not the only one with a mess on my hands. Thankful for the people in my life who are willing to be honest and transparent about their “Basement Rooms.” Thanks Alyssa!

  4. I get this completely. It makes me think about how when I’m in a mess that is as complicated as this, I’m so focused on sorting it all out. But when I do the amount of satisfaction I get isn’t really equivalent to the amount of work I put in. Usually I’m just mildly pleased for a bit, but then I’m right back in the middle of fixing the next mess. And that makes me wonder about all the sorting out I feel like I’m doing with my faith and what exactly I think it will look like when I do have it all neatly packed into tupperwares. Because I think that’s the unspoken goal I feel like I haven’t achieved. Which is, of course, an impossible goal. I’m pretty confident Rubbermaid doesn’t make a god-sized bin.

    And it makes me wonder if I don’t value enough the work I’m putting in here in the messy middle.

    Thanks for this great post.

  5. “The middle stretches long and exhausting and tedious, and this is where you do the good, real work of life.” That’s a line worth carrying around in my heart and seeing how it might change me. Wonderful. Thank you, Addie.

  6. Beautifully honest. Have you read “Still”, by Lauren Winner? I just finished it – it’s a great story of middles, if you’re looking for something to dig into.

    1. It’s on my list (along with about 25 other books. Seriously. My stack of Must Reads is debilitatingly huge these days). Thanks for the rec though, and for the kind comment!

  7. I am getting ready to sell my house and have been de-cluttering for a year. When I look at what still needs to be done it’s easy to get overwhelmed, so it’s important for me to remind myself of the progress that I’ve made. Or, as a rock climbing friend of mine like’s to put it “Don’t think about how far you are from the top, think about how high you are above the bolt.”

  8. I also began sifting through my own kind of mess, and began to de-clutter my old blog – sorting out what needed to be thrown out. Without being able to articulate it at that moment, I felt a dissonance that perplexed me and it had to do with what you, Addie were referring to about cutting out the messy middle. I wanted each post to glow with victory and so it sounded so contrived and false.

    A friend sent me some verses that describe what this messy middle looks like from the inside out… I thought you’d appreciate them since your blog has been a beacon of light to me in this way….

    “If self-awareness carries the assumption

    that we see ourselves clearly; can it not also carry the assumption

    that we see ourselves dimly, with blind-spots? Like looking into

    the reflection of a worn mirror.

    Would not this realisation move us to feel compassion for others –

    seeing them blinded by blind-spots?

    What if this new self-awareness led us to be humble?

    Would not this kind of humility be truly humane?”

    ~ Kelly Hartland

  9. I just helped my daughters switch bedrooms, which was a HUGE job, so I know exactly what you’re talking about! And I love this:

    “Look at enough Before and Afters held side-by-side on Pinterest, and you’ll forget about this eternity of in-between.”

    We do seem to want everything to happen so quickly these days. We want instant results. But the messy middle—the right now—is where it’s at. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. Thank you! I’ve been reading a lot of your posts this past evening and have usually resisted the urge to comment because I didn’t want to appear like too much of a stalker (I read a LOT of posts). But I simply had to comment on this post and I’ll try to converge all my feelings into this one comment. I can relate to you in a lot of ways from how I was raised on Christy Miller and a missions trip to the Dominican Republic, to breaking out of Christian subculture with a kamikaze jump off the bridge, to hating what I saw as “plastic people” Christians with all their cliches and meeting my husband at Bible college and then that slow falling love back into God and understanding that this life is a whole lot more simple and complicated than church often makes it out to be. With all that said, I needed this post, these words. They speak to me where I am in my messy middle. I’m too impatient for things to become perfect (both in my life and even in cleaning my apartment haha) but sometimes the messy middle lasts an awful long time. Thank you for the reminder that it’s okay to not “be there” yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top