How Soap Saved My Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because cleanliness is next to godliness.
Everything I ever needed to know I learned by watching people die.
I sat in the back of ambulances holding people’s hands and breathing my air into their lungs; I said good-bye to Marine brethren whose birthdays were canceled in Afghanistan. I was a Navy corpsman, a combat medic. As a term of respect, I’m called a “doc.” It’s my profession to keep people alive despite being full of holes made by bullets and bombs, and I loved my job. Death is a motherfucker of a teacher, and if you can bear the lesson, it’ll change the way you do everything.
“Enjoy the suck!” was what you said in the Corps when things go sideways. Enjoy the suck when the hill turns to a mountain, and then turns to a swamp, and the radio is busted, so the resupply of chow ain’t coming. Enjoy when your old lady starts fucking someone else because you’re always gone being a tough guy, or too distant when you’re home. Your business is to endure. You ain’t the first, you won’t be the last.
You know what makes warriors warriors first? Suffering in bondage as a group. That’s it. All the fight skill happens after weeks and months of sorting out the quitters, and tormenting the strong, until looking at all the shaved-head recruits like yourself, you realize you either made a terrible life choice/mistake or you just joined some strange and fantastic order of magnificent killers. Maybe a little of both. Enjoy the suck becomes a mantra, and it’s a reminder that you have a choice, a reminder that your attitude and spirit are unbreakable, should you choose. Should you have a sense of humor at the abject pointlessness of it as it’s sold and described, you may find your own deeper personal experience in the midst of it all.
When you’re ice-skating across land mines as a full-time job, in a wasteland of heat and misery? You better have that little Jedi mind trick locked down tight. It’s going to suck, and folks are going to die. In the words of the great samurai Musashi: “The way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.” Musashi never said your death, his death, their deaths. Just accept. It’s coming. Be ready. Smile. Wash your ass.
I made it through six combat tours by keeping to a specific routine in the madness. Stay fluid, while keeping to a discipline. Clean your rifle before you clean your teeth, and find a moment and a little water for a quick bath every day I could. My nightmare wasn’t dying; it was dying as a stinking mess. The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae were bathing when the Persians first saw them. Samurai would burn incense in their helmets before battle. Warriors across time made a point of getting clean as one of the few controllable actions you can do before stepping into chaos.
But then you know what happens? Despite being ready, being unafraid of death? You load up your rucksack and climb onto a plane that has ice and clean water and a flushing toilet, and you return home. I was incredibly overwhelmed with joy, but unexpectedly there was this nagging depression that followed me to the land of freeways, free sex and air-conditioning. I felt like I’d been robbed, cheated out of the good death I was ready for.
So I came home, and had to get used to living. I had to reset my death clock. I was still haunting fight gyms and mixed martial arts (MMA) studios, looking for a beating but bored. The depression got worse. My mother died. Her house burned down. My job evaporated. I was definitely not enjoying the suck anymore. I was out of gas. So, after a rough week, I paused. I took my Glock out of my mouth and took a shower, and I started looking for a fresh fight.
I went back to that place in my memory of the joy of getting clean, and for whatever reason, I started making soap. It was something to keep my hands busy. It kept me from drinking and drugging.
And then everything got really weird.
People started liking the soap and insisting on paying me for my soap. I started finding marginalized combat vets on Skid Row who were living nasty and needed the soap to prevent disease while living outdoors. And then things got weird all over again. I started Maxwell’s Soaps as a business. The BBC comes to interview my company for an international story. An online store is born. I build a small soap factory in Los Angeles and start giving soap away to the homeless every time I sell a bar.
I’ve found my new fight: I sell soap so that I can help get homeless people clean. I bring that same bit of humanity and dignity to them that I needed when life sucked and I was losing my mind. And that takes us to here. Here I am. Presently writing this little essay for you all as a vat of soap boils in the next room. Unafraid of dying, yes, but also unafraid of loving people deeply with all my heart, like I might live past next week.
This story was originally published in March 2016.