Sarla’s birthday was July 28th. She would have been 70. She was prone to offering random commentaries, one of which was that “life is messy.” Though I didn’t always agree with her, and “life is messy” isn’t her originally coined phrase, her assertion proved true. She wasn’t one for keeping things buttoned down and calm. She could get loud while licking her wounds, those of an adult from a broken family of origin. She stirred the pot, advocating for her non-traditional point of view. I was never lacking for someone to bump up against.
Grief is messy. If the griever sobs, the milk that person poured on cereal is apt to flow out of their nose. My grief in relationship to Sarla’s death has been delayed and complex. In my recent dreams Sarla appears consistently radiant and calm. I can relate to the radiant part because it’s a throwback to before cancer began tearing her body down. But the steady, peaceful part is inconsistent with the person I knew. She broke more rules than she abided. Sarla’s challenges were messy, especially when her illness began to rule the roost.
I love my dog, Lola, but she’s messy. She has dirt magnets in her paws. Every grain of sand and dirt on the ground at campsites where she steps sticks to her paws and makes its way into our rig. A whisk broom and hand vacuum cleaner are tools of the trade without which I’d be up to my ankles in decomposed granules of organic matter. Three days ago I camped next to a couple with three dogs in a motorhome that’s the same size as mine. One was the sweetest and most handsome border collie ever, but his shedding coat adds to the pile of debris that his keepers get to remove from all of the rig surfaces on which their dogs are allowed. I sensed relief that I only have one golden doodle who doesn’t shed. To their credit, the owners of the 3 dog pack had a nonchalant attitude about traveling with their canine brood. They rolled with the mess.
Emotions are messy. Though treated as opposites, laughter and crying come from the same emotional center. Both are releases. You can laugh so hard that it’ll make you cry. In “The Other Side of Town,” John Prine wrote, “A clown puts his makeup on upside down, so he wears a smile even when he wears a frown.” Robin Williams, without whom the world would have smiled and laughed less, was besieged by internal difficulties beneath the surface of his brilliant humor. He drew an extraordinary following. I count myself among his admirers. The astonishment and hilarity that I felt for his artistry was equalled by the pain and sadness I felt when his life ended so abruptly. Life is messy.
I’m in a beautiful spot 14 miles north of Bayfield, Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Superior. Last night’s rain makes today’s air quality even better. While composing this missive, I observed a man walking his dog in the spectacular, cool morning air. The man’s gait was compromised by what might have been a degenerative muscle disease or an accident that screwed up his carriage. I’m grateful that my legs work, that my skeleton isn’t in disrepair. Though I was taught not to stare when I was young, not looking away is equally important. Life is messy.
A lesson I learned from being a retailer and then working in commercial real estate was that a busy street corner with a traffic signal was prime retail real estate. As a result, I chose the corner of Poplar and Evergreen in Memphis for a location in 1988 for my business, Squash Blossom Market. The trash in my parking lot was relentless, precisely because I was on a prime street corner with a traffic signal, a perfect locale for disposition of assorted objects while awaiting the change of the signal from red to green. During my outside clean up each morning, I cursed the sons-of-bitches who littered my property until one day I realized that my ire was neither going to stop the litter nor help me feel better. It dawned on me that I could bless the unfortunate people who didn’t know better than to throw their fast food wrappers onto my pavement. Life is messy but a blessed son-of-a-bitch is better than a cursed one.
If you still think that life is tidy, then love someone, get a dog, adore artists until they die, laugh so hard that you cry, observe the afflicted, and bless the person who litters while you pick up their trash.