Trudging through the Mud: Leaning into Your Mess

midnight and indigo literary journal for black writers
Photo credit: Drew Roberts

The alarm pings and the piercing sound reverberates through the walls. My eyes blur to make out that it’s 6:00 am. I slam on the snooze button, praying for just five more minutes. I’ve woken up in a tangle of curls and with a crust of exhaustion around my eyes. I walk to the bathroom in a trance of numbness. I splash my face with cold water and look at myself in the mirror. I immediately hear my mother’s words, Tuck your pockets in your pants. Iron that shirt. Slick your hair down. Don’t look messy.

I tiptoe through my apartment over mounds of clothes that are arranged haphazardly across the floor and sigh as I look at the mountain of dishes that are spilling over in the sink. Again I hear those words, Gosh, you were always so messy. A chuckle often accompanied that statement, but somehow the implication remains etched in my soul as something I couldn’t shake.

Growing up, I was the girl who dove into mud piles and jumped into rain puddles instead of skirting my way around them. I often came home, much to my parents’ dismay, covered in dirt, sparkles, paint, and whatever else we used as supplies in school that day. I rolled down any grass hill I could find, squealing in delight, never thinking twice about the grass stains that would decorate the exterior of my clothing. I sought out thrill and adventure, knowing that the dust could be wiped away and the clothes could be washed, but the joy of leaning into my messiness was not replaceable.

Messy. The idea that everything in life has a particular place, and if not put there, it is deemed socially unacceptable. Frowned upon. A weakness. A crux. A mess signifies that things are outside of order and not confined to the box of perfection.

We are taught to believe that we must “keep up” or be pushed out, in the subtle messages that pervade our existence. Tame that frizzy hair means ‘your hair does not fit the Eurocentric definition of beauty’. Don’t raise your hand too much means ‘your thoughts, your opinions, your voice, your intellect does not matter and is not wanted here.’ Don’t ask for a pay raise means ‘your work is not as valuable as that of your colleagues’. Keep your house tidy means ‘if you’re messy, you’ll never find or keep a man’.

As I began to internalize these messages, I fought vigorously to meet everyone’s needs, praying it would soften life’s disappointments. I often wonder what happened to that carefree girl – the one who wasn’t afraid to get messy.

I often wonder what happened to that carefree girl – the one who wasn’t afraid to get messy.

For as long as I could remember, I was always involved in a host of activities. I threw myself into dance, sports, and took on any leadership position that was open. I clung to titles, chasing after the next shiny and impressive feat. As the world around me felt like it was crumbling, I buried myself in applications, more work, more time at the gym, and creating this image of someone who was void of flaws. I sought after opportunities and people that didn’t serve me because they looked good – they fit this perfect visage of the person I was trying to portray myself as – not as the woman I was growing into. On the outside, everyone saw someone who was put together as I carefully crafted which filters I was going to use as I framed and cropped my life. I was living in a constant state of comparison and spent precious time mindlessly scrolling through the feeds of other’s lives while editing and filtering my own. I aimed for my presence to be seen, rather than felt.

The public saw the degrees, the job promotions, the vacations, the positive quotes, but I didn’t dare post my messiness – the grappling with my mother’s alcoholism, the absence of my birth father, the throwing myself into one-sided, toxic relationships to fill voids, the trauma of inhabiting a woman of color’s body in a society that polices and disrespects my existence.

I thought if I could be perfect or at least appear perfect, I wouldn’t be subject to criticism. That maybe the blow to the fall wouldn’t paralyze my sense of self-esteem, that I would feel accepted and not so alone in a life where I internalized that everyone eventually left because I wasn’t good enough.

I started creating a checklist of everything everyone told me I needed to have to be successful.

A degree.
A career.
A partner.
A family.

But still, the critique came.

I was on a high from praise. My sense of self-worth went out the door with people’s fleeting judgments and opinions.

A conversation with a friend made me finally awake from the trance. As I sat across from her with a glass of red wine in my hand, I griped and complained about not having enough time for myself, how I felt like I couldn’t seem to get away from the criticism, and couldn’t live up to the hype.

“C.,” she mused before taking a deep breath, “when was the last time you let yourself just be? When was the last time you did something for yourself and not because it looked good?”

I went home that night and slept restlessly with those questions. As tears dribbled onto my crumpled sheets, I knew it was time to stop skirting around the messiness and start trudging through the mud.

We often don’t see the failures, the fear, the anxiety. We see how others take their messiness and put a filter on it or crop it out entirely. Life isn’t about evading or dodging the mess – it’s about running headfirst and embracing it. As I started to dig deeper into why I was so afraid of coming to terms with my mess, I realized how unsettling and scary my thoughts were; it was a terrain of unknown. I learned it was my own thoughts that stifled me. I was my own critic. All of the critique and judgment I whispered to myself only showed up around me because I was watering its growing reality. By running away and numbing myself with busy work, I was fueling an ember I could’ve easily extinguished by remembering the little girl who loved to roll in the dirt for no reason other than it made her feel alive.

Life isn’t about evading or dodging the mess – it’s about running headfirst and embracing it.

When we lean into our mess, it opens up the space for others to do the same.

I admire people who are unapologetically messy – the people who dance through the mud as a badge, a recognition, and a celebration that the messiness can be scrubbed, but the overcoming joy cannot be sacrificed. Bring the mess out of the darkness. Find what things no longer serve you as you learn how to shake the dust off more easily. I now know my messiness is nothing to be ashamed of. The specks of dirt may cling to me, but I’m not as frightened. I’ve redefined my understanding of mess.

Messy doesn’t fit within the rigid boxes of a checklist. My checklist doesn’t look much like checks anymore, but rather a series of question marks, squiggles, and erasures.

It now means taking risks, tasting the crisp air of adventure, and finally doing things for me. Not because they look good for anyone else’s momentary pleasure, but because I’m no longer numbing myself to my shortcomings, open to feeling every sensation as I re-teach myself what it means to feel alive.


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Cierra K. Jones

Cierra Kaler-Jones is a graduate student whose research focuses on using storytelling and artistic expression as effective strategies to teach and empower students to have constructive conversations about social justice issues. When she isn’t researching trends in education or speaking to students about the power of sharing their stories, she is dancing professionally or leading free arts workshops.