Notes from Karl’s Bench: “Enjoy the lilacs while you can.”

My friend, neighbor and Soul Asylum co-founder Karl Mueller died 11 years ago this month.

I think about him every time I go by the house he shared with his wife, Mary Beth, who launched the nonprofit Kill Kancer ( after Karl passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 42. I think about the funny punk rock things we talked about, and about his great band, and about how much fun it looked like he was having as he rocked and played his way through life.

I’m lucky to have been in regular conversation with Karl over the years, drawn as I have been to his memorial bench in the Rose Gardens, which I land at with my bike and dog at least a couple times a week. I always mutter a “Hey, Karl” as I settle in to write, read, and meditate, and without fail his memory and this bench puts me in the mood for some peaceful rumination on life and death and all sorts of loss that we the tender-hearted human race endure daily.

It’s been a lot lately, but Karl’s bench demands gratitude and mindfulness. The plaque reads “In Memory Karl Mueller Loved and Missed,” and were I to add anything after all these visits, it’d be something Karl told me not long before he died, after I’d asked him what he’d learned from fighting for his life, and what message he’d like to impart: “I’d say to people just live the best you can. Enjoy the lilacs while you can and slow down.”

So I try to do as Karl said, making sure I don’t take this rich life for granted, but I also admit it’s been tough to stop and smell the roses of late, sitting here as I have, thinking of all my friends and family who have suffered life-altering losses, and of all the losses to come, and of the big mystery it all amounts to. The good news is that, poignantly and hilariously, all that reflection on grief — along with the macro sorrows of the world and the hourly chaos of the newsfeed — gets interrupted by life itself.

To wit:

As I write, a wiffle ball just hit me in the head. The party responsible for the bonk, a bunch of summer-psyched rug rats, is running wild behind me in an exuberant game of wiffle ball and they’re still laughing at the weird man on the bench they just clocked with a foul ball. My dog is going crazy, barking at the sights and sounds of the game, and now one kid has just taken my pup for a stroll to get a sip of water at the drinking fountain a few feet away.

As careful readers know by now, I bear witness to the quiet magic of the Rose Gardens regularly, and I’ll continue to sing its praises from Karl’s bench. People come here from all over, to drink in the 4,000 plants and 250 species of flora and to take photos and selfies amid the roses, dozens of strains of which fill the summer breeze with the scent of life itself. All around me these days, summer vacationing kids hang in hammocks in a canopy made of heritage trees — the Cucumber Magnolia, River Birch, Golden Larch, Mugo Pine, White Fir, Austrian Pine, Japanese Yew, and Water Ash — that will likely outlive every last one of us.

Like a one-stop slice of life from Utopia or Narnia, the view from Karl’s bench takes in the Peace Garden, sunset, and a nonstop parade of multi-culti humanity. Today alone I’m sharing the park with Mexican, Jamaican, African-American, Caucasian, and Japanese gawkers, and over the years from this perch I’ve witnessed so many inspiring yoga classes, dance performances, plays, and ridiculously beautiful Hmong and Somali weddings, I’ve lost count.

What’s more, across the way sits the Heffelfinger Fountain, whose top pedestal features a cast of water-spewing harpies and satyrs and a dolphin-surfing cherub. Carved into the base is a progression of human faces, signifying the natural process of growing and growing older. A sundial next to the fountain reminds, “Count only the sunny days,” and hell if you can’t catch a whiff of those lilacs Karl was talking about.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]