A Feature Review of
Of Mess and Moxie, Wrangling Delight Out of this Wild and Glorious Life
Reviewed by Carolyn Miller Parr
Jen Hatmaker’s Of Mess and Moxie is the perfect book to pick up when your best friend is unavailable, your husband is buried in his den, and your kids are making you rethink that whole parenting thing. Funny, poignant, and smart, Jen Hatmaker is fully engaged. She likes sex. She is a woman who takes life, but not herself, seriously. The Washington Post calls her “relatable.” (Oct. 31, 2016). She reminds me of a G-rated Anne Lamott. (That’s a high compliment.)
Hatmaker is a pastor’s wife, mother of five children, and a speaker in high demand, especially among Christian women’s groups. She and her family starred in an HGTV series, “My Big Family Renovation” for six months as they remodeled their home.
Oh, yeah. She also writes books. Of Mess and Moxie is her twelfth.
How in the world does she have time to do it all? Clue from the title: her house is a mess. I suspect she walks through life with her iPhone on “Record”, noticing every conversation, cataloging details of her not-pristine kitchen or laundry room, and being fully awake and present to the little ironies that daily present themselves. Then she writes them down.
And she includes what she calls easy and quick recipes which she shares. (Some don’t strike me as either. Fried chicken sliders has eighteen ingredients if you don’t count salt and pepper. Aunt Carol’s Salad has thirteen. Panang Chicken Curry requires Panang curry paste, Kaffir lime powder, and fish sauce you can order on Amazon. Delicious? I’m sure. Quick and easy? Not so much. But I forgive her. Nobody’s perfect.
As a working mom, Hatmaker describes the pull between parenting, her own creativity (“Makers and Dreamers”), and the expectations of others, including her children and their teachers. She has drawn boundaries which some may find controversial (“Moms, We’re Fine”). As a working Mom, I applaud. She’s willing to take the heat for us all. God bless her.
But there’s a deeper meaning to the title. “Mess” is also the hard stuff of life: failure, suffering, loss, doubt. And “Moxie” is an old-fashioned word describing grit and courage and pluck. Resiliency. Our worst days – or our worst behavior – do not define us. We can get up, dust ourselves off, and start over. We’ve got moxie.
And God loves us.
This book is easy to read, a natural for a busy person to pick up and lay down. It can be read straight through or in small bites. The chapters are mostly short, autobiographical snapshots of Hatmaker at her kids’ school, in the supermarket, in the kitchen, being a mom. She describes trying to make time for Jesus and her husband. (See “How to Get in Bible Study Time” and “How to Have a Romantic Evening at Home with your Hubby When you Have Little Kids.”) They are written with authenticity, humor, and vulnerability. They are deeply human and inspire readers to tell their own stories without fear or shame. The unspoken message is “We’re all broken. You are not alone.”
Tongue-in-cheek “How To” lists are scattered throughout the book. They are not only funny but honest. Any woman who has given birth will recognize herself, for instance, in, “How to Go Swimsuit Shopping Three Months Postpartum.” (Forget it. You’ll hate yourself in the store mirror.) “How to Ruin Your Teenager’s Life” includes, “Keep breathing. This assaults the teen psyche more than you might imagine.”
The Hatmakers are pretty open with their children about sex. Another list, “How to Have the Sex Talk with Your Elementary-Aged Kid” ends with her child saying, “I kind of wish I didn’t know that. Thanks for going through that mess to create me, Mom.” And one of the funniest of several verbatim family conversations is an exchange between her two youngest children about “getting the puberties.”
But lest I seem to imply otherwise, this read is not all laughs. Pain, aggravation, and giving and receiving pardon are addressed as well. Hatmaker takes a look at sibling rivalry in her family of origin (“Private Baby”). She celebrates God’s grace in “The Law of Love,” “No Strings Attached,” and “Rewoven.” She gets real about marriage in “Defer and Prefer.” And although countless writers have explored the topic, Hatmaker brings something fresh to “Forgiveness School.”
Grief and loss are named and claimed. In “We Live,” Hatmaker confronts the disease that is crippling her hands. How will she continue to write? Community and faith help her face the fear and loss. She says, “[N]othing in your life is too dead for resurrection.” This is not facile comfort. One feels these words are being refined in the furnace of the author’s personal struggle. In “Rewoven” she tackles the tough issue of suffering and God’s sovereignty without giving any tidy answers. The best she can offer (and perhaps the only totally honest answer possible) is this: “We can trust God entirely until heaven when He vanquishes all tears, all death, all mourning, all crying, all pain … and He fixed it all … and restored it all.”
In a chapter called “Sanctuary” Hatmaker braves controversy in calling out exclusive power structures in the church. She advocates for inclusion of nontraditional families and gay and straight singles. (She has been excoriated for saying elsewhere that she believes gay love can be holy.) She asks how the church can use the gifts of women who deviate from the pattern of docile, married moms? What’s the place for women who are “assertive, academic, breadwinners… seedy past, seedy present?” Is there a role for powerful women? As a powerful writer, speaker, and preacher’s wife, one suspects Hatmaker is describing what she has lived.
A tiny bone to pick: I love that she seems to be moving away from calling women “girls”; some readers may flinch from her unfailing use of masculine pronouns to talk about God. But as I think she’d admit, she is a work in progress.
That said, this is a wonderful book, for men as well as women. Hatmaker writes from a place of humor, transparency, truth, and vulnerability. I loved it.
Carolyn Miller Parr is a writer, mediator, and retired judge. She is co-author of In the Secret Service, The True Story of the Man Who Saved President Reagan’s Life. (Tyndale, 2013.) She is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at www.toughconversations.net.