Mary Katherine Backstrom: Holy Hot Mess

Mary Katherine Backstrom shares heartbreaking and hilarious stories of how God uses each “mess” in our lives to bring us closer to Him. She shows us that it’s okay to celebrate exactly where we are right now—holy, hot mess and all.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: You have a new book, out this month titled, Holy Hot Mess about Finding God in the Details of this Weird and Wonderful Life… how did the idea for the topic come about?

Mary Katherine Backstrom: Well, with my viral videos, the most consistent theme that people have continued to point out is that I’m a mess and being a faith-based writer, I always felt like there was a little bit of tension there. Maybe it’s from the traditional church or just growing up and I wanted to kind of combat the tension between being messy and being a person of faith, because I believe that not only is there room for both, but that they’re inextricably connected. What’s the point of grace, if you don’t have mess? And so I wanted to kind of write a humorous, lighthearted book that pointed to mess, but also kind of as a forensic dusting of fingerprints to see what God was doing in our life through that mess.

RM: There is no escaping some mess either, some pretend to have it all together, but it’s just an allusion… we all are messy. Can you expand on this from your perspective?

MKB: Exactly. Yes, I joke in the book and I say, “We all have crumbs under our car seats. Maybe yours is a microscopic speck of goldfish and maybe mine looks like an entire happy meal, but if you’re looking close enough, what you’ll find is there’s mess in everybody’s life.” And I think it’s really important that we talk about it, because there is no genuine community that is forged with this curated perfection, this ideal life that’s very Instagrammable. Or what’s it called? Insta worthy? So when we all come together and we talk about our mess, we bring it to the table and it creates more genuine and authentic relationships. And I think that’s something that our current generation is really struggling with, finding true, deep relationships. And I believe it’s, unfortunately, kind of a side effect, one of the negative view of social media.

RM: It does seem it’s either the really highs or the really lows that are shared on social media.

MKB: Well nobody is crying in their bedroom like, “You know what, I should post this. This is a good time.” But in our real life interactions, we should be having those conversations. Because when I hear that, my friend, like for instance, Amy, is struggling with depression. Well, that opens up the opportunity for me to share that I’ve also had that struggle. And that’s where real, true friendships and relationships are forged, in those conversations about mess.

RM: The book is personal and you share stories, how did you decide which ones to include?

MKB: Well, I told my family members, “There’s some stories that have to wait until they die.” I don’t want to embarrass anybody. So I did not actually set out to write a book that was so retrospective, but when I sat down and started working on this manuscript, it was at the very start of the pandemic. And, frankly, it’s really hard when you’re in the middle of your mess to find God in it. So what I ended up doing was looking back on my life, because it’s a lot easier to see what God was doing in your mess 15 years ago when you’re on the other side of it. And so the book kind of naturally took that direction where I was looking back and finding God in those details. I’m still struggling with what my mess looks like now. I have no idea what he’s doing in this pandemic. And my depression and anxiety, and my audience security issues. I don’t know where God is and all of that. But what I do see and what I’m happy that I was able to create in this manuscript is a pattern that He is there. And if I can just look back and talk about it enough and research it enough, then I’ll trust that He’s here now, too.

RM: The world is so unpredictable. There’s been so many missed expectations within the last year-and-a-half. And those are hard to manage, especially if it makes us even more messy than we were before. What kind of advice or what can we learn or maybe what have you learned from that time?

MKB: Right. I have learned that expectations really set us up for failure. It’s that whole the best laid plans. Any time that you set a bar and you’re waiting for something to clear it, whether it be your husband, you get married and you expect your husband to behave a certain way, or you start working out and you expect a certain type of weight loss. Anytime you set that type of expectation, you’re either going to be happy or disappointed. And those are really your only two choices. But if you remove expectations and say, “Life is going to give me mess. I am going to have some hard left turns that are unexpected,” then you’re able to roll with it. And I just feel like it’s a better attitude, especially since we’ve all realized what little amount of control we really have over the world. That’s the lesson that we’ve gotten in the last year, my goodness, I’m still reeling. I think most of us are. And so what I would say is remove those expectations, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know how things are going to play out.

RM: I think that’s so important, especially when so much of those expectations can come from other people placing them on you.

MKB: Oh, my goodness. Yes. A very good point is where do we even get these ideas from, that there’s supposed to be some standard of perfection that we’re living up to? Because the reality is none of us do. And what you’re seeing on social media is the tip of the iceberg. “I’m going to post a selfie with my friend, but I’m not going to take a picture of me crying in the bathroom.” Again, you don’t see all of it. And I love the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I think that we have to stop looking left and right to kind of figure out what life is supposed to look like, because we all have our own paths and they’re going to have different types of mess. Back to the car seat analogy. My car is a dumpster fire on wheels and I have a friend whose car looks like it was bought yesterday. And if I were comparing my life to hers, that would make me feel like a failure, but we’re different types of messy and that’s okay.

RM: Speaking of stories and expectations, something that you did not expect when you recorded yourself sharing a story about Christmas spirit, was that it would be watched 80 million times. Talk to me a little bit about this video that went viral and even landed you on The Ellen Show. What stands out about that whole experience?

MKB: I will tell you that was the beginning of, I think, the Holy Hot Mess idea, because what I learned is… And just as a little recap, I’m a huge fan of Christmas and I was full of the spirit of Christmas and I went to the gas station, bought my ginger ale and walked out and saw a man cleaning my windshield. And I was so touched by that kind gesture that I went and wrapped him up in a hug and told him that I loved Christmas and humanity so much. And it was in that moment that I realized he was washing his own windshield. It was not my car. So that’s a mess right there. And so I sat down in my car and laughing with tears streaming down my face, I recounted the story and I figured my mom would get a good kick out of it, and a couple of friends.

I went home and a couple hours later, it was already at a million views and that really took me by surprise. Three days later, it was at 50 million views. And so what I learned from that experience, and especially being invited on Ellen, because she stressed this to me, is that so many of the comments were like, “This is something I would do.” And it’s funny, when you lead with your mess, when you lead with your funny stories and you’re vulnerable about the fact that your life is not perfect, there are so many people that immediately come forward and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I thought I was the only one.” And so it was my first experience realizing that people don’t want to hear my stories of self-help and how I pulled things up by the bootstraps. What they really want to see is more of what they’re experiencing, which is imperfect, hilarious mess. It’s a situation that you can put yourself in, that you can imagine are happening to you. It’s not a stretch, real life is funny enough; this stuff writes itself. You don’t have to stretch far.

RM: How did your love for writing develop and your confidence to share yourself? Because I don’t want that to go unmissed here, it does take a certain level of bravery, starting could have been scary…

MKB: Starting is always scary. I’ve always been a creative person. I did not excel in the math and science realm in school. I was always patted on the back by my English teacher. And so early on in life, I got a lot of affirmation that I was good at telling stories. And so your confidence is built a lot by those teachers in your life. And I was lucky to have so many good teachers. So my confidence has built up quite a bit as a creative and as a writer, as a child. And then when I had my first child, Benjamin, I was struggling really bad with postpartum depression. And I was never able to go out with my typical hobbies of playing music out at open mic nights and seeing my friends. So I found myself, sitting down at my computer one day and just started typing out my feelings and I hit publish.

And my audience was small at the time. But what I found was I got a lot of solidarity and support in sharing those vulnerable moments. And it was very scary at first, but every time you dip your toe in the water of vulnerability, I think that there’s a lot of positive feedback. You get the stronger friendships, the more authentic support. And so it became kind of like, “I’m going to share more, because I’m getting more of this supportive feedback and it feels good to be seen and be loved.” And then, of course, therapy. Therapy, therapy, therapy — and that teaches you what you should and shouldn’t share.

RM: And it’s important to have a little structure around it too, because you can overshare. We don’t want that.

MKB: That’s a boundary that now I have to manage. Because I started out not feeling like I should share anything, and now it’s like, “Reel it in, Mary Katherine!”

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