It rained for days on our hundred-year-old house. We noticed the odor first, like rotten cabbage rising from the basement. Approaching the stairs, a nasal assault of metal and diarrhea stopped us in our tracks. Sewage had infiltrated the place where I was scared to go. My brothers and I stood, mouths agape (partly to breathe), while Dad surveyed the scene. Brown liquid saturated the carpeted stairs, as if the earth spewed tobacco chew at our feet. Mom rolled her pant legs to her knees and yelled for each of us to get to work. We stared at the brown sludge rising, our nostrils burning. “Grab a bucket,” Dad said.
Snapped from our trance, we sprang to action: filling pails, climbing steps, and dumping the muck down storm drains in the street. Few times in life find us at the intersection of disgust and joy, but that is what I felt. I was the youngest of four and the only girl, yet crap proved to be a great equalizer…and a galvanizing force. It didn't take long for us to coalesce into a single, six-person breath, a bustling organism with synchronized legs and arms and pails that wagged unsteadily from our sides as we forged ahead, singular in aim. Blood thrumming, muscles aching, adrenaline surging. We bonded through shared purpose, hard work, and the sheer repugnance of excrement. A rhythm emerged: slosh, slush, spill, slosh, slush, spill. The typical chaos that was a mainstay of my childhood vanished in the muck; that sewage unified us.
Still, it took a toll. Eventually, while wondering if we would ever see the basement floor again, we cheered at the appearance of a small man in a gray uniform, sump pump in tow. He smiled wide, his teeth sparkling. We thanked him as if he’d saved our lives before he lifted a hand to do a thing, then went upstairs to peel off our clothes and shower. Relief blossomed through us. Fresh air untwisted our faces.
That day stays with me, vivid in my memory like few others from my childhood. Beyond the smell and the danger, the thrill of the catalyzing crap, it held a lesson that was mine for the noticing. No one chose to have the sludge unleashed upon us. Or to wade, knee-deep, in gunk. But the mess found us, and we plunged forward. There was something holy in the act of slogging through it together.
I’ve encountered some messes. I’m a survivor of cancer, the 70s, marriage, parenthood, and a brain that functions best while medicated. What I’ve discovered is that inside the mess is the holy thing, if we can pause and notice (or seek and find) it. Alongside the profane lies the sacred, albeit sometimes hidden beneath a smelly, thick slime. It is ours for the excavating.
And beyond the mess, when we reach out, is a community of others who have drudged through it too. When we share our stories, when we shape the narrative intentionally, something bigger, and maybe even sacred, emerges.
Holy Mess is a place of truth-telling, messy living, and meaning-making. It is a place to feel less alone when wading through the goo seems futile. A place to ask questions that don’t have easy answers (and may not have answers at all).
On this site, you'll find writing prompts, a serial memoir about my cancer experience at the age of 33, a well-spring of resources for messy living, and services I offer to support humans in their journeys of messy living. If you’ve survived anything, you’re part of the tribe. Thanks for showing up.