Hands covered in finger paintLife is messy. We spend our time trying to organize the chaos into something recognizable, but messiness will always be part of it, especially when starting something new.

Mixing bold color on a thin palette, we cringe at that first messy brushstroke across our perfect blank canvas. Stone fragments pelt the feet as one chisels the hard marble of life to free the grand statue within. Even the architect, with her blueprint masterpiece, must raze the ground to scatter dirt and debris into messy piles before she can raise her dream into the sky.

Every day, we make progress. An image takes shape, an outline emerges, the gleaming steel and glass structure lifts into a welcoming sky. Hope soars as the world begins to make sense.

But sometimes, forces sweep in to make our world a mess again… a failed endeavor, a broken heart, a worldwide pandemic.

April 1988. Monaco at midnight. I wobbled down the pier with duffel bag on back, orders in hand. Exhausted from almost 60 hours with no sleep, traveling alone from North Carolina to Philadelphia to Italy to France to Monaco, I stopped and stared at the U.S.S. Peterson, over five hundred and fifty feet of destroyer anchored in the calm harbor, and where I’d spend the next two years of my life. Another ship floated nearby, the Onassis yacht, but it looked a galaxy away from the haze gray world that waited for me.


Monaco at night

At the bottom of the gangplank leaning on a small ferry boat, a young sailor on watch stared at me.

“You joining the Pete?” he asked?

I nodded.

“My advice to you?” he said. “Run. Run now while you have the chance.”

“I’m too tired to run,” I said, then walked past him to climb the gangplank.

But the truth was, I couldn’t run. Where and what would I run toward? I’d recently left college, another far galaxy, one filled with friends, fun, and festivities that piled up two years of messy grades. True exhaustion skews your reasoning, but through the fog in my brain, I still recognized horrible advice. Over thirty years later, it’s still the worst advice anyone has given me.

That young sailor though, let’s call him Davis, must have believed it good advice. He disappeared some time later. Word on the ship was he went AWOL.

Before he disappeared, I spent months working beside him. We had little in common, other than both being from North Carolina. Davis was assigned to a different division on the ship, so it’s unlikely we’d have interacted much had we both not had the unfortunate honor of mess duty.

Mess duty, or cranking as it’s unaffectionately called by most on a naval vessel, is where each division loans its lowest ranked enlisted guy to work in the ship’s galley. While the culinary specialists cook, the mess cranks peel potatoes, scrape uneaten slop off trays, wash dishes and silverware, clean the galley from top to bottom, perform endless sweepings of the mess deck, and then mop it at the end of the day.

dirty mop on blue wall
My best friend for three months

Up at 4 am each day to prep for the breakfast rush, you’re lucky to get in bed at 10 pm. Except for the nights you have to wax. Then it’s hours scrubbing the mess deck and passageways on your hands and knees before using a tiny sponge to apply the wax back and forth Mr. Miyagi style. Those nights you collapsed in your bunk around 2 am before starting the whole process over in two hours. Mess duty is three months of pure exhaustion and to this day I can’t look at a shiny waxed floor without my gut twisting into a knot.

When I first started, Davis and I were cleaning the mess deck after the last meal of the day. We’d cleaned off the tables, refilled the condiments, and swept. Mopping was next. Davis had his bucket and mop and I had mine. Starting in the center, we both worked toward to the opposite doorways. I eased my mop into the soapy water and carefully wrung it out several times until very little water dripped from it. I mopped a small section of the deck, focusing under some tables on the side. I eased the mop back into the water, and started the whole process over, wringing the mop thoroughly before spreading it over the deck. I made it almost a quarter of the way to my doorway when Davis appeared in it. 

“What are you doing?” I asked, irritated he was goofing off. I turned around expecting an unfinished effort, but his section of blue laminate squares glistened. He crossed to me and took my mop.

“Let me show you how it’s done.”

 Davis plunged the mop into the bucket, sloshing water over the edge, then swirled it around. With a quick wring, he pushed the wheeled bucket behind him with his foot, then spun the mop sending more water to the deck as the braids whirled and plopped to the surface where he began long arcs back and forth. His movement looked more dance choreography than work effort.

“Sometimes,” he said, lost in the motion, “you gotta make a mess to make something beautiful.” He plunged the mop back into the bucket and swirled it around sloshing more water to the deck. “My grandmother said that all the time,” he added. Davis finished mopping for me. But afterward, every time the deck needed mopping, I made a mess before I made it beautiful.

Over the years, that gem surfaces often. If I’m frustrated by my mess of a first draft, or as my Zenergy team and I struggling with the messy tangles of a new project, I remind myself that sometimes you gotta make a mess before you make something beautiful. In those moments, I remember a rare gift uttered from the same person who gave me the worst advice ever.

Sometimes, you also have to sift through a mess to find what’s beautiful.

I don’t like the mess we’re in at the current moment and I don’t know anyone who does. Stark fear, disrupted lives, hateful polarizations, lost loved ones. It’s all a mess right now. But I know this… when it’s over, something beautiful will follow. If you look in the right direction. Until it arrives, embrace whatever mess you’re making in your life. It’s a necessary part of living, and vital to being human. If you keep moving forward, you’ll make something beautiful. 

Fingerpainted Rainbow

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