On Containing More Than Just Toxic Messes

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(FYI: I recently added a “Books” page above. You might want to check it out…)

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kernkraftwerk_Grafenrheinfeld

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The word containment usually carries a pretty serious connotation in most contexts. It is often used in reference to preventing radioactive release in a nuclear facility or, in a military sense, when speaking of  inhibiting the spread of communism.

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When I was a young mother of four children under the age of five, containment of toxic household debris clutter was a serious issue for me.

It became even more serious when we listed our house for sale. We lived in a really nice area where the market was highly competitive. It was in a pristine Canadian neighborhood, and a place where I happened to be the messy, uncultured American who didn’t pull out my stray dandelions from the yard at four in the morning like my OCD-afflicted, achingly polite neighbors did.

The seriousness of mess containment became even more consequential when I discovered that our real estate agent was a true Communist Clutter Officer. A greedy, cruel individual who insisted that top dollar would only be nabbed by homeowners who bowed to the oppression of knick-knack free rooms and sterile countertops.

My real estate Officer’s brutality instilled fear and dread in me. Because my freedom-loving children daily engaged in uninhibited, quasi-democratic playtime, our home’s interior stood as a testament to the effectiveness of a free market system, complete with overflowing clothing items, toys, and foodstuffs.

Circa 1989. The true definition of futility: Organizing the toybox.

Needless to say, our Officer did not appreciate such a capitalistic approach to filling one’s home.

Every time Mr. Officer called to schedule a showing, I would break out in a sweat. I was as motivated to sell our home as he was, but I was convinced there were potential buyers who could overlook our mess and see the value of the place underneath it.

Mr. Officer did not agree. He was a bonafide drama queen, going ballistic at the mere sight of cracker crumbs ground into the carpet or a few innocent socks plugging the toilet. He would fume about such things, insisting that the familiar smell of dirty diapers in the kitchen would lower our home price by two thousand dollars. I politely disagreed, figuring people would be charmed by the “homeyness” of our place. Mr. Officer said “homeyness” was not a word and substituted it with one I would rather not write here.

Agent Officer really needed to get a grip. I mean, it wasn’t my fault that mannerly Canadians have always practiced the unsanitary custom of taking their shoes off at the door. I figured it was their own collective problem if they didn’t protect their stockinged feet from peanut butter globs on hallway tile. I tried to talk to Officer about this, but he merely responded with an upraised clipboard, signaling the end of that conversation.

His dictatorial approach tempted me to fire him on many occasions, but he was, admittedly, one of the most successful real estate agents in the city and we really needed to get our home sold. So, I put up with his clipboard fixation and his perplexing insistence that I rent a storage unit in which to store my children until the home was safely off the market.

I also got creative with last-minute mess elimination. I simply started assigning the older children the task of throwing anything and everything that wasn’t a fixture or piece of furniture into boxes. I would then shove those boxes into the truck camper that was jacked up outside the garage. The camper was the only place that Mr. Officer didn’t show to buyers.

It really was an effective method. I would sweep my arm across a counter or table and just let everything fall into a box. Sugar bowls, dirty dishes, papers, sharp knives, books–all magically dispensed with in one might swoop. Of course, my technique made for some awful sorting-out later, but at least it shut Mr. Officer’s incessant whining up.

So finally, the Day arrived. The Big Day–the Lucrative Showing Day. The day on which Mr. Officer said our most promising buyers so far would be looking at the house. We agreed on a time and I assured Officer that the house would be completely spic-and-spanned from one end to the other. Or, at least look like it was.

I desperately wanted this to be the last showing. My nerves were frayed from having our messy lives continually disrupted and from constantly lugging the detritus of our daily existence back and forth between the house and the truck camper. I was afraid I was losing my mind, especially on the days when the kids were having far too much wild fun. Those were the days when I secretly priced out storage units.

I thought we were ahead of schedule with our bold swooping process on Lucrative Day when the doorbell rang. It was Mr. Officer with our buyers. He was early–drat!

I cowered as I opened the door to face Mr. Officer and his preapproved-for-a-hefty-mortgage guests. We weren’t ready. Not everything was contained. Even ten more precious minutes would have been enough for me to stow the worst of the clutter.

Worse yet, one of the kids’ boxes had dripped pieces of dirty laundry on its way out to the camper. As I stood facing the polished young couple smiling on my front steps, I tried to keep my gaze up and away from the bra that was right inside the door, sprawled across the entry rug. Keeping my eyes fixed as I greeted the guests, I discreetly hooked the bra with my toe and kicked it behind me. I hoped it would remain out of view long enough for Mr. Officer to usher the guests down to see the lower level of our split level first. Unfortunately, toddler A. picked the bra up, put it across her chest, and started parading gleefully around us as the guests stepped in. Officer gave me a look that could have melted the paint on his Acura. It wouldn’t be the last of such looks I would get that day.

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My Pharisaism made me act like a successful, but dictatorial real estate agent. I made it my life’s ambition to showcase and sell my faith to unbelievers. Thus, I became very annoyed when my freer, uninhibited fellow Christians didn’t keep their lives clean and contained in the ways I believed they should.

I was infected with the same spirit the ancient Pharisees were. Those leaders had worked for centuries to build an exacting and perfect structure of traditions in which to contain their religion. They believed that God lived inside their container and only the Jewish people who carefully adhered to all the regulations could meet Him there.

In a way, the Pharisees determination to create a solid law structure was understandable. Throughout history, the Jewish people had gone through times of rebellion against God and gross idolatry that had resulted in periods of harsh punishment. Several hundred years before Jesus arrived, the seeds of Pharisaism had already been planted by leaders who strove to prevent God’s people from straying so dangerously outside the boundaries of the Law. They felt they had no choice but to set up hedges of traditions to keep their structure ceremonially clean, and to keep the dangerous, unclean pagan stuff out.

However, as I talked about in my last post, the Pharisees lost sight of the fact that God cannot be contained inside anything. Ever. Not even a law structure that they had reinforced and made as impenetrable as a twentieth century nuclear containment building.

There was simply no allowance made for messes on the inside of the Jewish religion. As a result, the Jewish people who wanted a relationship with God had to box up their honest sin clutter and haul it outside whenever the Pharisees came around. The people had to pretend like their lives always looked that clean. It made for a nerve-wracking, manipulative, burdensome faith practice. And it felt to the people like there was no way out. There were stuck in a deep religious rut.

Arriving completely outside of the system, however, Jesus was in a position to pull his worshipers out of their rut. He did it in ways that were so unorthodox to the Pharisees that they absolutely refused to accept him as coming from God.

For one thing, Jesus didn’t just tolerate uncleanness, he faced it, embraced it, loved it, forgave it. That was the point of the Good Samaritan parable. He took a person whom the Pharisees would have viewed as their social enemy–a traitorous, vile, unclean Samaritan–and cast that man as the hero of the story. Jesus illustrated how it would be the outcast, the outsider who would truly love and minister to people in the New Kingdom.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, it was those contained within the scrubbed system–the Jewish religious leaders–who would turn a blind eye to the injured person and walk around his suffering without even a gesture of mercy. The Samaritan, an honest and open sinner, would be the one to sacrifice his time and money to help a needy person.

And so, the only way that I would ever rec0ver from Pharisaism would be to stop adhering to a system of thought that believed it had to be clean and pretty in order to contain God. Like the Apostle Peter when he really thought he was strong enough, righteous enough to always be loyal to God, I would have to face the fact that my heart had hidden weakness and shame lurking just beneath the surface. All it would take is a jolt of unexpected confrontation for it to ploop out, right in the open in front of everyone. And that would actually be a very good thing, because honesty always pays bigger dividends than phoniness ever can.

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In the case of my home marketing efforts, something bad was bound to happen. We couldn’t live in the dishonesty of immaculateness indefinitely and not have something real ploop out eventually. On Lucrative Day, I remember scooping up my lingerie-displaying toddler and racing up to the kitchen while Mr. Officer knowingly ushered the guests downstairs. In a panic, and without an available box within reach, I grabbed anything and everything in sight and stuffed it in the oven. Wincing at the terrible squeaking noise that the oven door had recently developed, I closed it with a mighty shove, thankful that the oven window was dirty enough to hide the google eyes of the stuffed monkey that was peering through it.

I then herded the kids out the back door to wait with me on the patio while the potential buyers inspected every stupid inch of my faux-clean home. They certainly took their sweet time. It seemed like forever that I had to try and amuse the kids with sticks and leaves. (All our outdoor toys were in the front seat of the car.)

Finally, through the open kitchen window, while overhearing Officer Agent regale the benefits of a tiny, er, compact kitchen, I heard a most dreaded sound. It was the awful, terrible screeeech of the oven door. The distinct noise of our grungy mess plooping out for all the world to gaze upon in disgust.

I then listened helplessly to the plinking and rustling of objects hitting the floor and the simultaneous gasps of the observers, followed by ten seconds of complete silence.

My horror was eclipsed with a sudden inner rage. What kind of sick people peer inside an oven when they’re looking at a home for sale? What has this world come to?

I took a moment to gather my wits and then went into the kitchen to try and salvage whatever shred of decency might still be had. I walked in to see the stuffed monkey, a pile of Lego, several dirty socks, various magazines, books, a stray piece of bread, a hairbrush, some plastic cups, a large tennis shoe, and of course, the bra, all spilled out onto the open floor and open door of the oven. It was utterly, excruciatingly embarrassing.

I can’t remember exactly how I tried to verbally mop up the situation. I’ll never, ever forget, though, that those were the people who did buy the house. In spite of Officer Agent’s extreme disapproval. In spite of our goofy mess. In spite of our failed attempt at perfection, the house sold that very day.

Honestly, it was a lucrative day, after all.

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So, now I close today’s post with this thought:  Messes can’t be contained forever, they have to be dealt with.

Has our modern church system, replete with paid clergy and Sunday traditions become dangerously close to the Pharisaical nuclear containment buildings? Have we tried to compress Jesus down to something we can contain within our system?

And if we have, then will we reject Him if He returns outside this system? Will we fail to recognize Him if His methods and politics and love go completely against our theological traditions?

Dare I open this squeaky door?

Dare I even ask such questions?

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The Silencing of The Jacket’s Voice

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Here’s an interesting tidbit I ran across on the Listverse website:

“Joanne Perez, the widow of vaudeville performer Pepito the Spanish Clown, cleaned out the area underneath her bed and discovered the only existing copy of the pilot for the TV series I Love Lucy. Pepito had coached Lucille Ball and had guest-starred in the pilot. Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, had given it to Pepito as a gift in 1951 and it had remained under the bed for thirty years.”  (http://listverse.com/2007/06/30/8-expensive-art-works-found-accidentally/)

Wow! Almost makes me want to go clean underneath my bed.

Not.

I really don’t want to know what’s under there. I’m sure there’s nothing interesting, and besides, the dust bunnies prefer to live in an undisturbed environment where they can grow large enough to self-generate their own static charges and attract more than just dust. That’s when they can collect enough dog hair to scare the dog with his own hair. And when they get big enough to hold a sock off the ground is when we have to get them out with a shotgun instead of a broom. Of course, that’s when things get messier than if we’d just left them until we either move out of the house someday or die and leave them for the kids to kill.

Unlike Pepito the Spanish Clown’s wife, the only surprising thing I’ve ever chanced upon under any bed was certainly not interesting or valuable, and could have even triggered a home evacuation if someone had tipped off the health department. I won’t go into it, but it involved a teenager’s dirty snack dish cache and technicolor mold deposits. (Actually, it was sort of interesting, now that I think about it, considering that the removal of the infectious dishes resulted in a miraculous healing of a certain young person’s pesky nasal drip.)

I did uncover a valuable article once, however, in a clothing hand-me-down bag. Now that was a find. A real treasure.

It happened at a time when I really thought I could be a suave, put-together type of lady if I could just procure the right clothes.  I suspect my synapses weren’t all synapping correctly during those whipper-snapper thirties’ years. I really did think that it was possible to have six kids, live sixty-five miles from the nearest Wal Mart, work on a mail route, tend two woodstoves and still find a way to upgrade from Frumpy Mom to Fab Fashionista. All on a limited budget to boot. It was an impossible dream, one that deep down I knew should be put away. And I almost did.

But one day dawned with a surprising glimmer of hope.

Is was that day. The mid-1990’s day when a dear friend bestowed upon me the mother of all hand-me-downs. It was a very expensive blazer that another friend, a rich friend, had given her, but it hadn’t fit either friend quite right. So, Friend 2 passed it on to me…and it fit me perfect. It was like a gift from heaven.

It wasn’t just any Ross For Less clearance rack blazer, it was a designer brand–a fitted, cream-colored, pristine jacket that spoke softly to me the minute I saw it.

It called to me. It said, “Hi. I’m Meg Ryan. Put me on. I’ll make you look like you’re unable to sleep in Seattle, and I’m yours.”

When I held it up with trembling hands, the understated buttons cooed in unison, “We’ll make you look like a star.”

A star? Clutzy, frazzled Mom Me–look like a star?? It was too good to be true, and yet...it might just be worth a try.

All I needed was the proper occasion on which to unveil my stardom, and as luck would have it, my occasion was already in front of me. Our wedding anniversary was only a few days away and Mike had promised to take me out for a nice meal in Billings to celebrate. I had three days to plan.

And plan I did. I experimented with different skirts and dresses with which to pair the precious jacket. I actually owned one newer dress that really did work well under the blazer. I then experimented with my hair. A low ponytail twisted through and underneath itself did the trick. The results were surprising. I might not have been small, blonde and blue-eyed like Meg, but my brunette, hazel-eyed, beefier self still appeared somewhat trendier than it had in years.

It was the magic of the blazer.

Protecting that blazer then become Job One. But before I continue I need to give a bit of background. (In conversations with Mike, this is when he always sighs.)

I love to drink and drive. Coffee, that is. It’s not just that I like to do it–I am an addict and I must do it. Back when this story was unfolding, we lived twelve miles from town. It was about a fifteen minute drive, but long enough for me to get another precious travel mug of coffee down my gullet while I drove.

The problem was, though, that I drove an old Toyota Tercel station wagon. A five-speed manual stick shift.

Two of the eight Toyota Tercel wagons we have owned over the years.

Not a good choice for someone who cannot safely handle liquids. Even fluids from sealed units such as snow globes and Magic 8 Balls mysteriously spring leaks in my fumbly grasp.

It took years of spilled coffee, stinky car mats, and ruined clothing for me to realize that there is not, and never will be, a travel mug impervious to my spilling habit. I had learned instead to do what all people with disabilities do–I made accommodations for myself. I started wearing large protective bibs in the car. Inspired by earlier visits to my Gramma in the nursing home, I simply draped old towels around my front and clipped them behind my neck with clothespins.

These washable, absorbent bibs freed me from all the negative effects of my drinking, shifting and driving habit. It embarrassed my kids, but that was their problem. As long as I remembered to take the towel off when I got out of the car, I didn’t care if the occasional passing driver saw me. And even when I did forget to take it off when I got out to gas the car once, I figured I just looked like someone who was fleeing from the dentist.

And so the day of my Big Reveal arrived. The plan was for me to meet Mike when he got off work and make the trip to Billings in his car. I took extra time that day to make myself look nice. As I wisped my bangs, twisted my ponytail, and paired my floral cotton dress with flat shoes, I realized that my true goal was to simply be a worthy showcase for the blazer. It would speak for me if I presented it just so. It would tell the world that Willow was sophisticated and fashionable.

The problem was, it wasn’t me. The type of person who would normally wear that jacket probably wouldn’t have been driving a 1983 Toyota Tercel wagon while wearing a huge towel bib, and besides that, several yards’ worth of unsullied cream-colored material draped over my person was a set-up for disaster.

Until that blazer came into our home, I had always shied away from white or light-colored shirts in the fear that I might spill bright liquids on myself or incur a sudden nosebleed. The fact that I’ve rarely ever had a nosebleed didn’t diminish my fear, but only made me worry that the odds were stacking against me. Yet because this blazer–this Sleepless in Seattle Blazer–promised so much, I recklessly ignored all my previous worries and fears.

Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I gingerly placed the clean-as-the-driven-snow jacket on the back seat of the Tercel and smiled at my own keen foresightedness. It looked lovely, pressed and resting serenely in a protected spot, far behind me and my coffee. I could drink, shift, and drive, and then put the blazer on when I got to town. Hmm. Maybe clothes really do make the woman. I felt smarter than I had in years.

Feeling smart is not the same as being smart, however.

Being smart would have involved remembering that my fears were not irrational. They were based on history.

And so, my sad and sorry spilling history now includes that day’s incident. If my annals of time were written somewhere in literal form, that day’s entry would go something like this:

“2:00 PM – Willow begins driving down dirt lane toward highway to town, glances back in rearview mirror to admire awesome jacket on back seat, veers slightly off road, brakes to slow down, places coffee mug in center console to free her holding hand to shift down, hits a large rock in road which jars her shifting arm and causes her right elbow to jerk back. Elbow hits coffee mug hard, sends mug flying backward through the air where it lands squarely on jacket on back seat and vomits its entire staining contents onto once-beautiful blazer. Blazer receives full force of coffee, leaving seat, mats, and Willow’s bib untouched. Willow stops car, gets out, yells, kicks rock off road, hurts her toes inside flimsy shoes, and shakes fist at the gravity gods.”

My movie didn’t end well that day. But then, clutzes who insist on drinking and driving shouldn’t expect happy endings.

Ever.

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My Pharisaism disease kept me in a constant state of determination. It was a determination to make my faith look smart and sophisticated. I thought it was my duty to fancy-up the world’s image of Christianity, and so I constantly looked for ways to make my beliefs look more special than the pagans’ beliefs. I thought God looked best to the world when presented by someone wearing their “gift” like a tailored jacket.

In Matthew 23, Jesus talked about how the Pharisees put on clothes that were specifically designed to make them look smarter than the average Joe. Jesus states: “Everything they [the Pharisees] do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries [prayer boxes worn on the forehead and arm] wide and the tassels on their garments long…” (NIV)

In other words, the Pharisees dressed for celebrity and success. It was quite opposite of how Jesus dressed and presented himself. He wore plain clothing that didn’t say anything about him except that he was ordinary. Instead, he let his actions–specifically his love for people–speak for him. And that was anything but ordinary.

Churches that are infected with Pharisaism will gussy things up to try and impress the world, too. Unfortunately, that brings with it a constant need to protect that fancy image as well. And that, then, launches the potential for the image to get sullied and for people to get mad at each other.

Do we really need any more special Christian “clothing?” Are we protecting our precious gatherings to the point where our whole reputation will be ruined if something goes wrong? Do we really need any more fights over the accoutrements of our Sunday morning club meetings?

Jesus solved the problem of image promotion by giving the Pharisees such a bumpy ride they spilled their coffee all over their coats. They got mad, not realizing it was good for them.

As it turned out, it was good for me to give up on my blazer project. I went home, changed into my usual clothes and proceeded to have a really nice date with Mike. Mike didn’t need or want Meg Ryan. She was a total stranger to him.

He just wanted the plain woman he married to spend some time with him…even if she did end up spilling hot coffee in his lap and searing the skin underneath his jeans.

I’m so lucky he’s such a forgiving guy.