It’s a strange day in the Pond when I’m writing about oxen. I’ll start with that. I feel cluttered this week – distracted by so many thoughts, and juggling a growing list of projects and things I want to do with the kids. So, I guess oxen seem to fit right in. When I find myself surrounded by some combination of cluttered activities, cluttered goals, or cluttered thinking, this proverb often floats to the surface. Just a couple of lines from a rich book that stuck some time ago during a meditation. It’s a gentle reminder that brings much needed clarity…
For me, that growing sense of being overtaken by a cluttered spirit starts with the physical environment. I look around and find various buildings sets and racing tracks scattered around the living room. Cups in the sink. Blankets and shoes tossed aside on the floor. The remnant of one of Baby Girl’s craft projects on the table where an Independence Day centerpiece should be. Magazines and books piled up on my desk waiting to inspire me. Cards and prints that need packaging in the studio. Surfaces and spaces. All filled with things out of place. Or things reminding me of something that needs to be done.
Then, it moves to logistics – the thousand responsibilities to juggle in just keeping up. Waiting for Roto-rooter. Waiting for the cable guys. Shuffling to accommodate their maintenance. Juggling meetings. Getting meals together. New client projects. Each sweet little spirit wanting some attention and affirmation – one wanting help with hot glue, one with a tummy ache, one eager to start a new video project. When I look around, I see clothes and toys and mail that need weeding. Not to mention flower beds. Sally needs to go to the vet. My project schedule and supply closet need organizing. We should pull something out of our summer jar today. Someone wants to go swimming. And I might cry because the summer days are halfway gone, now.
And, then the clutter settles into heart matters. It’s a jumble of questions. What are the most important things? Am I spending time on them? How DO I want to spend my days? How am I doing? How are WE doing? A jumble of concerns and hopes and needs. Channeling this heart, who has a perpetual stream of big ideas and a hankering to accomplish them all. Comforting and giving confidence to this heart, who seems to struggle with a nagging fear that won’t let go. Nurturing and capturing the imagination of this heart, who won’t stop growing up, though he’d really like to. How do I manage all the decisions and expectations? How do I filter the influences on them, while preserving the precious spirits inside? How do I juggle the pull between home keeping and growing freelance projects? How do I prioritize my own list of creative pursuits? How do I NOT miss out on this time? Question after question, fueled by a clutter of thoughts and feelings and responsibilities.
That’s when an unlikely proverb about oxen rises to the surface. A gentle reminder of one truth… Life is messy. It just is. All the jobs and responsibilities, the space we create, the things we own, the precious people we love and the dreams we want to chase. They’re messy. The only way to avoid the mess is to avoid the life.
“Where no oxen are, the manger is clean.” Clean, pristine, free of debris and out-of-place fragments. A clean and uncluttered, empty place.
“Much increase comes from the strength of the ox.” It’s a shift in perspective. If the price of clean and neat constraint is emptiness, I don’t want it. I want full! That increase. That fullness. It can’t be achieved when tidiness is the ultimate benchmark. It can’t be experienced when everyone and everything stays in its place. Those narrow constraints of perfection and precision. To embrace the fullness is to embrace the messiness. The clutter. The complicated. The unclear and unkept.
Yes, I can insist on keeping all things tidy. I can reject the unexpected hope or worry or idea or plan in favor of some pristine routine and schedule and kitchen table. I can suck all the life out of our experiences and our time together, our hearts, our home, in service to neat plans, neat feelings and neat rooms. Or I can revel in the ripe energy of the life happening all around me. The friction of each little creative heart and creative pursuit rubbing against each other.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I value an ordered space. I need it. I thrive when I can prioritize what I see all around me with what is beautiful and full of memory and inspiration. So, I’m a big proponent of bringing the spaces we inhabit – where we nurture our family and hearts – to a comfortable place of order. But, I’m learning to balance that order with the freedom to breathe and do and enjoy without holding so tightly to where things ought to be. I hope I’m learning to extend that freedom to my children.
Those things out of place. They’re evidences of activities and games and projects experienced together. They’re the trappings of feeling like you’re at home, where anything goes and speaks and feels. Those logistics. They’re really the easy things. The things with clear expectations. The to-dos that make our home go and my business go. The products of having the freedom to clutch and shift when it’s needed. And, all those heart questions. The cacophony of my own wandering thoughts. They’re what come out when I take the time to stop and look and listen to the other souls around me. They’re the realization that knowing the question is often so much more powerful than knowing the answer.
So, I’m sitting in my studio, typing away on the computer. The Magic School Bus is playing on my tiny television, and Mrs. Frizzle is on her latest field trip. All three children are piled in the room, and I’m struggling to concentrate. Baby Girl has her beanbag heaped in the bay window with pillows and popcorn. Elisha and Travis are sharing the couch with more pillows, kool-aid, and episode commentary. Each one content and insistent that I be involved in the conversation. The work I planned to do isn’t getting done as quickly. But, the work of drawing near. Drawing together. Sharing time and space and the beauty of a messy manger. In this moment, that work seems right on track.