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We’re in the messy middle
We all are. And it’s beautiful.
I painted my dining room this weekend. It took several hours over two days to finish, time stolen during toddler naps and Sesame Street episodes.
Now that the job is done, I’m happy with it. The walls are a moody, muted blue, a color that sets the room apart from adjoining spaces. And although I can’t help but spot a few imperfections, the paint looks crisp and even. Anyone walking into the room would think that it’s always been this way.
But it wasn’t. Just a few days before, our dining room walls were a boring greige—the color of every single room in this house when we moved in. They were scuffed and cracked. There were paint drips on the trim and signs of wear and tear everywhere you looked.
Then, for most of this weekend, the walls were half painted. The windows and trim were covered in painter’s tape, the floor haphazardly protected by plastic sheeting. There were bits of paint tracked on the hardwood, furniture pushed aside, and a sleeping baby in the room next door. And there was sweaty me, in the middle of it all, doubting the color I chose, cursing the rickety step stool I was using, and feeling like the painting would never end.
It was the messy middle. The part we never see.
During my painting marathon, I caught up on Glennon Doyle’s podcast, We Can Do Hard Things. After a few relatively lighthearted episodes, focused on topics like joy and pet peeves, there was an update that grabbed my full attention. Glennon revealed that she experienced an eating disorder relapse—a struggle she’s battled for years and is once again working through.
What stood out to me was the place from where Glennon was recording this podcast. You could hear in her voice, from her words, that the experience was fresh. She wasn’t yet on the other side of things.
“My friend Nadia Bolz-Weber says we don’t write from our wounds, our open wounds,” Glennon said. “We write from our scars. Meaning we wait, right? Until pain has turned into wisdom because otherwise things just seem like a cry for help instead of an act of service or a piece of art.”
At this moment, Glennon was ignoring her friend’s advice. She went on to say that for all of life’s rules, “you have to learn them and know them and get them in your bones, so that you know when to break them.” Glennon added that because she has a history of recovery and a solid support system, she felt comfortable sharing at such a vulnerable time.
“Like, I know how to do this. I am someone who’s been to rock bottom a few times in terms of alcoholism, in terms of mental illness, in terms of all of it, eating disorder stuff. Although I feel very scared because, when you’re in the middle of it, you kind of forget that you’re going to get out.
I can look back on my life and know that I will because I have, because I trust myself. So I am speaking from an open wound, but also one that I’ve seen scar over so many times that I trust the process enough to speak right now.”
I thought it was brave and beautiful.
I’ve dabbled with writing a book a few times. I’ve spoken with agents, drafted a few chapters, and began putting together a book proposal. But it never felt right. Every time I’ve started the process of writing and pitching a book, I’ve felt an unspoken pressure to write from my scars: a healed place where I can confidently share my lessons with others.
But I never seem to reach that place. Grief, like love, goes on. So does life. Every time I feel like I might have hit a stable plateau, either in processing grief or trauma, or finding my footing in my current life, I eventually stumble and slip. Before I know it, there’s something else to work through—a new wound not yet healed.
This is why I love writing this newsletter. It keeps me accountable. It gives me the space to share some wisdom of the moment, while giving me the freedom to counteract that wisdom in the future. Some weeks, I have plenty to say. Others, I have only a few words. And through it all, miraculously, you all keep showing up.
We don’t have a ton of examples of what the messy middle looks like—or how to best navigate it ourselves. We might reach out to others during the before, or at that rock-bottom moment when we need immediate help, but we often retreat during the middle. That’s where the hard work happens, where we make just as many steps as missteps. It’s where things get messy.
For most of my glorious 20s, I had a blog dedicated to home improvements and other life updates. I kept things mostly light and cheery because, well, my life was mostly light and cheery. I meticulously documented projects around the house and loved nothing more than a good before-and-after reveal.
Looking back, I now view those blogging days as my “before.” I was young and hadn’t yet experienced much hardship. It was only after my dad died, when I was 28, that updating my blog felt like a chore. Trying to maintain a cheerful tone while I was experiencing grief felt inauthentic, but I didn’t know how to write any other way. At the time, I’m not even sure I recognized what I was going through as grief.
By the year that Jamie died, when I was 31, I was barely keeping up with blog posts. I’d update the site every so often with a chipper apology and a few photos, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore.
And then, everything fell apart in the most spectacular way. At some point, in the haze of posthumous paperwork and logistics that every widowed spouse must face, I remembered my blog. I felt sick at the prospect of having to share an update that Jamie—the incredible man who helped me with all those house projects over the years—had died, suddenly and without warning.
I couldn’t do it. I deleted my blog and all of its many posts and photos.
At the time, I wondered if I’d regret that bold decision. But now, years later, I feel free. Having to perform life in a certain way and share a particular tone of cheerfulness was exhausting. The fact that my blog felt like a burden during some of my hardest times spoke volumes. It was a fun outlet when life was light and carefree, but when things got real, it no longer served me.
I started My Sweet Dumb Brain on September 5, 2018—one year, seven months, and one day after Jamie died. My life today looks much different than it did then, but it’s just as ever full of lessons to be learned.
Turns out, I love writing from the messy middle. Sure, it can be hard to be consistently vulnerable, and sometimes I wish I could undergo notable life events without considering how I’ll write about them later. But, overall, sharing those journeys here in this newsletter is an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Writing from this place—not quite an open wound, not quite a scar—has taught me so much. It reminds me that it’s normal to not have all of the answers. It keeps me grounded in the hard, but important truth that life will always be full of ups and downs. As soon as we feel like we have everything together, it will all fall apart again. And that’s ok.
Whether or not we realize it, we are all living in the messy middle. There may be some parts of our lives that we think we have figured out, but there are plenty, plenty more things that are unfinished, unrefined, and unknown. We are all sweaty, uncertain messes, wondering if we made the right choices about our dining room paint, or how to raise our children, or whether we should have turned down that job offer. We are all muddling through, as best as we can.
And you know what? It’s beautiful.