Making a Good Mess

Playing with shaving cream

What the wha?! You may ask upon reading this title. ‘Well, I’ll tell ya’ — as my favorite Mainer joke begins — it all started with an afterschool job at a school in Oakland. I was about two weeks into a job with Girls, Inc. — a blend of academic support, girls empowerment, and creative exploratory learning — when another Program Leader and I decided to do an activity with the girls after lunch.

It was a long day and the girls were in kindergarten and first grade and, two weeks into the school year, trying to teach a literacy lesson no matter how engaging it was just wasn’t going to happen. So, with a bunch of old t-shirts I had stored on my cart used as smocks, we let the girls play with shaving cream for an hour. No tarps, no rules outside of “the shaving cream stays on the table,” in someone else’s classroom. Good times.

Understandably, my co-leader was a little anxious. I thought it wasn’t a problem and it would be fine, but, still, about 10 minutes into the activity, the girls had tables piled high with shaving cream — I’d given each of them at least a half a can to play with. [As an aside, if you’ve never played with shaving cream you are seriously missing out. Not only is the texture fantastic, but it also cleans whatever surface it is used on. It’s the dream of anyone that works with lots of small children.] In the world of elementary school , the world I inhabited at the time, where every surface is a veritable petri dish of at least 5 million bacteria and viruses, this activity was both functional and fun. Things went really well, the girls were suited up, there were regular shrieks of delight, and I learned that day that shaving cream castles are the first thing my girls had to make before they’d anything else with shaving cream — aside from squishing it between their fingers, which is really a given no matter what age you are.

The activity went FAR longer than it should have (but everyone was having so much fun, how could I cut that off especially the second week of school?), and after wiping all of the desks free of shaving cream, they were not only spotless, but squeaky clean. It reminded me of the good old days when my best friend and I would strap on sponges and skate across the floor to mop it (sigh)…good times…but I digress.

How is this a metaphor for life? Well, frankly I have no idea….I suppose, though, that the concept of a substance which can make such huge mess, and also has the capacity to clean so well is an interesting one. As I collect stories for People Stories, the more I hear people’s stories of support and help, the more I am seeing how essential it is that we have each other to help us process pain. In hearing these stories, and reflecting on my own, I am more and more convinced that things need to get a little messy (sometimes a lot messy) before we can dust ourselves off and move on. We are by no means tables in need of cleaning, but the process of relating through pain with another human being heals us and helps us stitch ourselves back together. Yeah, we won’t look the same or be quite the same person afterward, but when we connect with others we heal. So often, in the process of this healing, we become more compassionate, open, honest, and real. And, really, couldn’t the world use a whole lot more compassion and wholeheartedness right now?

Life is messy, but when we embrace the mess, good stuff comes. Whether it’s 24 five and six-year-olds shrieking with delight or simply the knowledge that we are not the only person who doesn’t have it all figured out — and that, in and of itself, is a BIG deal. Messy can be productive, and sometimes, it can, dare I say, be fun.

Making messy fun