If you’ve glanced in the arts section of any newspaper or walked by the front window of a bookstore lately, you know that Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Eating Animals, etc.) recently put out his first novel in eleven years, Here I Am. This isn’t going to be a review of that novel, though if it were, it would be a R-A-V-E --- and, another thing, if it takes any of us eleven years to create something this masterful, let that be a note of encouragement to those of us who expect creativity to be a faster, less brutal process. There are a thousand thoughts I could share on how this book was beautiful, painful, real, difficult (I could go on and on), one thing of many that really stuck with me from this story of a struggling family was this:

You can have a perfect home, but you can’t live in it.

This line is attributed to Julia, wife of Jacob and mother of three boys, Sam, Max and Benjy. It was running through her head when she was managing her to-do list on her day off. This to-do list, never ending, was arranged around the needs of four other people who love her and depend on her. There’s nothing wrong with being needed and there’s even less wrong with the traditional roles of being a wife and mother. Even while things were falling apart around her and even when she contributed to things falling apart, it is my understanding that she was thinking this as a reassurance, or resignation, that not everything can always go perfectly. That no matter how hard you work to correct all of the things that need correcting, something, literally or not literally, will still be out of place.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this. It wasn’t the entire point of the book even a little bit and yet it perfectly summed up a lot of the struggle these characters faced. They were fighting the reality of their lives and themselves, at times with such unnecessary vigilance, that they just couldn’t be happy with what life actually was: messy, complicated, full of unpredictable problems. And even though I haven’t lived through almost any of the situations the Bloch family encountered, something really spoke to me about their need to avoid the truth in order to preserve some unattainable goal of perceived perfection.

"For me, every hour is grace." - Elie Wiesel

In my own adult life, I have to admit there’s something very appealing to me about everything being just so, nothing out of place, in order, on time, etc. And while I think it’s a positive thing to hold yourself to a certain standard, I think it’s equally important how we respond when things don’t work out as planned. Which, if you’re willing to be realistic about it, is usually most of the time. Sometimes things will go better than expected, sure. More often, things go awry.

You can have a perfect home, but you can’t live in it.

You can could take this very literally, of course, which is as it was intended in the context of the story. Julia was observing the things that needed to be done around the home and in the immediate physical vicinity of her life. These things were many. It would never stop. No matter how many times you clean, the mess reforms, whatever that mess may be.

The mess means we live here. The mess means we’re alive.

This isn’t a flippant wave at allowing us all to live like animals and to give up all semblance of order, internal or external. Rather, it’s a reminder to make us grateful, instead of anxious, when we look at the mess that surrounds us. The mess means we live here. The mess means we’re alive. Participating in putting it all back together is part of our responsibility. And we’ll keep doing that, rebuilding in different ways, learning to let go of other things, and moving forward.

You can have a perfect home, but you can’t live in it.

The mess is what makes it worth doing. The mess is what makes life rich and surprising and funny and memorable. The mess is what teaches us. The mess is what shows us what we couldn’t otherwise see. The mess is our formation, our moments of revelation and silence and deciding what to leave behind. The mess frees us from needing to choose one side of ourselves over another. It meets us perfectly in the middle. It reminds us, be here now. Now is all there is.


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Helen Williams is a Colorado transplant who is passionate about cooking and writing and combining the two on her vegetarian and vegan food blog, green girl eats. She strives, every day, to be less sorry. When she's not in the kitchen or working on her startup project Best One Yet (a vegan ice cream Vespa, coming soon to Boulder, CO) you can find her reading, loving the community at Holstee or trying to pet your dog.

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This article is part of our series on the theme of Gratitude.

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