Finger-painting can be either therapeutic or sensory overload. For my 21-month old daughter, it is sometimes the latter. I watch her outside from the window, touching the paint with trepidation, only allowing her fingertips to retain the stain. Her eyes look as horrified and mystified as my German Shepherd’s, who is standing a safe distance away as she spreads the color even more in spite of her attempts to clean off dirty little hands. A bigger mess ensues until tears end the activity. I bring her inside and put her in the bathtub. This is our routine after nearly every meal, where sticky fingers and a sticky tray prompt a meltdown.
Recently, I saw a hack on Pinterest with a baited title – “no mess finger-painting.” Of course I clicked and immediately grabbed supplies—paint, a gallon zip-lock bag and tape. Sure enough, the new canvas taped to the window was a hit and provided ample protection from the slimy colors trapped inside the bag. This new activity gave me plenty of time to make dinner undisturbed.
When I cook, I may as well have splattered paint everywhere. I’ve tried the whole “put everything back as soon as you’re done with it” trick. It just stifles me. My culinary prowess is characterized by cluttered countertops, a sticky stove and crumbs underfoot. It almost makes the process not even worth it. Almost.
Because then, I plate the masterpiece. If my plate looks good and smells good, the sizeable monster of a mess in the kitchen shrinks just a little bit. Explain that logic to my husband next time you see him.
Being a mom has only increased my love of working in the kitchen. In a world of sticky fingers, cheerios, dirty bottoms and bubbly bathwater, sit-down meals are a sanctuary. Working with fresh food is an art, the plate is my canvas and my husband has become the curator of my collection. My passion for creating with food is only encouraged by the brief bursts of time I have to dedicate to this craft.
Sometimes I wish I could bag up my kitchen, tape it to the window, and get after it. I’ll call it “cooking in a controlled environment.” Perhaps my finished product will look the same, but the process was different – no clouds of flour dusting my hair, no drops of batter on the countertop begging my fingers to swipe them up to my tongue. Just like my daughter experienced, I was creating art without letting the mess touch me or taint me.
Contain the chaos. As mothers, we try so hard to accomplish this. Most days I feel like I’m stuck inside Nintendo64 – my daughter is racing around the house with a bag of blocks, dropping them like bombs that explode under my feet. Those little boogers hurt like fire. The ones I do manage to dodge, I’m left to circle back around and pick up, leaving me with sweaty armpits and an achy back.
My kitchen is a disaster today because I’ve spent all day grocery shopping and cooking for some friends who just had a baby. I’m making Coconut Chicken Curry, which really is a labor of love. Make the broth. Cook the chicken. Saute the veggies. Combine all with the broth. Sit, wait, and smell. As it simmers, the flavors meld and change, and my house documents the wonder of its transformation as each hour reveals surprising new fragrances. I sit, allowing my senses to be touched by what I have created, allowing myself a reprieve from the work and the mess. I survey my living room floor. It’s a minefield.
The kids are napping, and I realize that while I was crafting heavenly aromas, my children were partaking in World War III. We have company coming over tonight, and I still have to deliver this meal while also trying to make a play-date.
What a day.
My daughter wakes up and immediately runs to the window with the ziplock baggie full of paint. Her finger swipes up and down, mixing the colors and making a mess – a contained mess. She looks at me and says “dodo.” Her little, hopeful eyes and mouth desire me to open the bag. I remind her that she doesn’t like how it feels and how she is out of control at the mercy of the wet, sticky paint. She asks again, confident that there is something wondrous stuck inside that perfectly clean container.
If I never tore up the kitchen, I may have never realized how good that Coconut Chicken Curry could be. I wouldn’t be able to share it, and I certainly wouldn’t have allowed my children to play unrestrained while I was occupied. The chaos invites us into its core to experience life unfettered.
All the blocks, the stains, the flour dust, the splatters of paint – all of these things invite us to experience more fully, to live more freely and to love what we do for the sake of just doing it. Sometimes it’s worth foregoing control of the process in order to enjoy the whirlwind that can sweep you up as you reach for your end goal.
I text my friend who’s coming later. I tell her about the mess and my busy day– that there’s no time to clean up…but that I still want her to come over. And she immediately messages back…
“I’m glad we’re those kinds of friends.”
The kind of friend who’s invited into the chaos, to share in the beauty that hides within it.