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Leah Perrault: Making space for living amid the mess

  • March 18, 2021

Mess is not a new way of living for our family, but moving has a way of making figurative messes real. Our house is full of boxes, waiting for certainty that we will not need to move again soon.

It’s been a welcome change to living in a house staged for showing. As we finished the packing, my son exclaimed, “I cannot wait to live in a house that isn’t clean all the time!” And here we are, living in the mess.

We are making forts amidst the boxes, playing hide and seek in empty storage spaces and losing the few unpacked dishes to everyone having a different spot to put things away. Discovering the quirks of a different house is becoming a game. Which light switches turn on the right lights? The third one I try. How hard do we need to pull on the door to lock the deadbolt? Harder than I can do with full hands. Can we, sitting in the kitchen, hear the kids screaming at the top of their lungs from the farthest corner of the basement? Yes, but only in a muffled tone, because Jesus loves me.

For the first 10 days, the dishwasher didn’t work. And though they grumbled a bit about it, the kids picked up the towel for their turn at drying dishes. The repair guy showed up right before supper time, and I made dinner stepping over him lying on the floor. Turns out we know some of the same people. Small world.

Over the last four years, maybe one of my biggest learnings is that the mess is not just a place to clean up or avoid. Hiding it away (whether for showing a house or perpetuating my denial) doesn’t make it any less real. The mess waits, bides its time, slowly seeps out of the cracks of inevitable imperfection. The mess is a space we live in. Because the alternative is to suspend our living while we wade through the mess.

Packing and unpacking have given me so many moments to remember the last several years. I held the painting my neighbour gave me when we lost my daughter Claire to miscarriage. The box holds my tears with the watercolour sunflower. I packed all the pairs of my sister Abbie’s shoes that I have used as decor since her feet were too big for me to wear them. And I traced my fingers over the doorknob I closed behind her the last time I hugged her. I washed the floor I birthed our son on. 

Grief forced me to choose: life or death in the mess. I had to crawl through many of the days, doing the very little that was possible. Staying present to my people, to what was absolutely required was life. I suspended my own overdeveloped (and the broader human) desire to make meaning out of everything. One minute, one hour, one day at a time. Grief made a mess of my memory. 

So many of the specifics are lost. Pictures trace sparks from the three-year-old girl who cooked with me in a toque to the evenings we passed at the park. Songs come on the radio and I remember a drive to a favourite place and a purple sunset. Living in the moment comes with a resistance to trying to cling to every memory. It opened me to the miracle of what is and then letting it go to make room for the next present moment and the next.

But as we sit around our dinner table in this new house, the fruit of living through the mess of the last several years is a feast for my heart. The kids are laughing about things that are hard. They are encouraging each other that hard things get easier. They are having a good cry and then picking up the crayons to draw monsters to put up on their new bedroom walls. The mess is not a hole we have gotten lost in, but a place we have learned to uncover unexpected gifts. We have jumped and God has caught us, but that doesn’t mean it was neat, tidy or comfortable.

We have arrived in the fledgling days of a new season and they are not much more settled than the end of the last one. But there are puddles to jump in, frosty windows to scrape in the morning and new songs to sing at bedtime, courtesy of the beautiful new daycare. There is so much life here in the mess of it. I am so grateful for the practice.

(Perrault works in Catholic health care in Saskatchewan and writes and speaks about faith. Her website is

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