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Embracing a messy situation

My daughter is messy. I am neat. Her college years produced an uneasy truce, but now she's home for the summer and hostilities have resumed. Over more than a decade of pitched battle, we have honed our weapons of destruction; mine is an emphatic way of speaking, which my children like to call yelling. Hers is clutter.

"How can you live this way?" I ask.

"Messiness is next to Godliness," she says.

She is a brilliant, talented young woman who is kind to everyone and loves animals. But her genius at creating chaos continues to amaze me. I'm not always orderly. Sometimes I leave the dishes in the sink or forget to make my bed. My son is as careless as any teenage boy. My daughter generates her own ecology.

Within an hour she can transform a tidy room into a jumble of damp, dirty clothes and crumpled paper, punctuated with half empty Diet Coke bottles and opened boxes of pet food. Where does she get the confetti of shredded gum wrappers, receipts and scrawled notes, which trails behind her and forms drifts under her bed? She says she only drinks eight cups of coffee a day, but somehow she leaves 10 or 11 half-filled mugs of scummy leftover caffeine on windowsills and under bureaus. Dozens of books, their pages hanging out and their spines split, provide a bottom layer for geological striations of discarded containers, wet towels and shopping bags exploding with groceries or papers. Occasionally I'll forget and buy her something beautiful like a cashmere shawl, only to find it crunched into a ball under some sweaty gym clothes and being used as a bed by her incontinent guinea pig.

"That cost a fortune!" I'll howl.

"I thought it was a gift," she retorts.

On good days, I shut my mouth and avert my eyes. On bad days, I have a tendency to launch into diatribes featuring words like slovenly, and concepts like consideration. "In the civilized world," I sputter, pushed past my limit by finding the last cereal bowl in the house stuffed with a linen towel and inhabited by Romulus and Remus, her pet mice. "In the civilized world we ... " but I don't even know where to start. "Smart people are messy," a friend of mine says. "At least I'm smart enough to pick up after myself," I shoot back.

Fifteen years ago, I thought this messiness was directed at me. If my daughter wasn't making a mess on purpose, how come her homework wasn't messy? In those days, her messes made me furious. They felt like a reproach; they felt personal. When she went to college I had to change my thinking. For one thing, her dorm room was messy whether I was there or not. For another thing, I was so overjoyed to have her visit home that I bit my tongue.

We live in a neat, neat world. We like order; disorder is scary. We control our disorderly bodies with diets and plastic surgery. We control our politicians by reducing them to sound bites. We control our environment with feng shui and interior decoration. There are even self-help groups like Messies Anonymous for people who don't fit in. We call some kinds of messiness Attention Deficit Disorder -- a disease which requires treatment. We don't tolerate late trains or late students. We count it a virtue to have neat lives and to raise obedient children who share our orderly family values. Whether they are trying to turn the world upside down, or whether it just looks that way, messy people challenge our comfortable ideas about the way things should be.

So I am trying to embrace messiness. At least, I'm trying not to yell so much. I don't like my daughter's clutter, but I really don't like the self-righteous scold it can bring out in me. Furthermore, my criticisms and appeals have emphatically not worked. Now, I listen when a friend tells me that a messy exterior is a sign of an "organized soul." I remember that the best cook I know is also the messiest. Out of layers of broken egg shells and trashed cartons, she produces ambrosia. Life is messy; I know that.

Perhaps my daughter is a prophet, a woman ahead of her time. Perhaps we'll look back on messy people with gratitude one of these days. They kept the faith. They understood the value of complexity. Maybe there should be more of a place for disorder in our world. In the meantime I'm thinking about a cleaning lady.

-- Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Domestic Bliss will return next week.

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