Zombies

There is much in the world that horrifies.

Many people consciously seek out those things that frighten them most. It can be cathartic to face down these fears in order to work out the wrinkles in our emotional fabric. Witness the accelerated enthusiasm of late for the horror genre.

Still the most horrifying things are those outside the realm of fiction and film.

I know that in Japan there is a reverence for the elderly. This Asian culture relies on a deep and abiding respect for the mature and the aged.  Not so much here in the west.

I know any number of older people — energetic, vital, personable people — who have told me time and again that when they walk down the street they are invisible. People look right through them as though they didn’t exist. In the busy-ness of my own day, I have been guilty of this as well.

The same is especially true of the homeless and indigent who humbly implore us for help. Or food. Or work. Even a bit of acknowledgement or recognition. We have become quite practiced at avoiding these animated walkers, shufflers and stumblers — the breathing dead.

Many years back, my daughter was being annoyed at school by a boy who simply wouldn’t leave her alone. When she asked for my advice, I told her to ignore him. She said that wouldn’t work because he never stopped. And then I told her something I probably shouldn’t have.

“Sweetheart, there’s something you need to know about boys — and men, for that matter. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more humiliating and soul-crushing than to be utterly and completely ignored. Trust me, this boy is pestering you to get a reaction. Deny him that reaction, and there’s no payoff. No payoff, he’ll go elsewhere and annoy someone else.”

She took the advice to heart and it worked. She can be a fine actress and she simply behaved as though he truly was completely invisible. She looked right through him. Cut him off mid-sentence to laugh and talk with her friends. Total and complete blackout. The kid ended up feeling so foolish he avoided her for the rest of his school life.

The problem — once we realize we actually have the ability to make people invisible, it opens the door to abuse.

The saddest part is that we all possess the power to deny another human being the precious acknowledgement that they exist. As a socially-dependent culture, this crucial connection to other human beings is a lifeline. This fearsome power we hold over others is abused all too often.

The sluggish, dispirited shuffle of a homeless person reaching out to us on the street can feel zombie-ish and may be one of the reasons zombie films have become so outrageously popular in the last 40 years. Our secret, subliminal wish to do away with this broadly expanding portion of the populace could easily have manifested itself in a fever to erase a similarly unattractive group of creatures in horror stories and film.

Have we really become so disconnected with our fellow beings that our blank stares and dismissive behavior of them has turned us into some of the walking dead as well?

As we navigate our lives in the world each day, there are heartbeats and heartbreaks moving among us. A simple and inexpensive antidote to this epidemic of apathy is a bit of a smile to a face that clearly needs it. Lest we forget that the smile we force for another originates on a face that likely needs it most.

Zombies are real enough. I see them everywhere. And the best way to end the epidemic is to kill them with kindness.

I have always found genuine humanity to be quite infectious.

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Yet

Up ahead, through the forest, behind the mist, and beyond the darkness… is the future.

It is very much in the province of optimism to believe that whatever comes along, it will come with opportunity. It’s as natural to rely on that certainty as it is to trust that when we draw breath there will be air to fill our lungs.

We count on opportunity, otherwise we would have no reason to live. And yet…

I love the word “yet”. It is utterly aromatic with possibility. It can turn a conversation in any number of directions.

The simple use of it twists the intent of a commonplace remark toward the dark abode of disappointment or the luminous realm of noble intent. There is no tedious middle ground with “yet”. It’s a conversation turner.

Literally taken, it can mean so far, despite, up to now, eventually, or in time. While it has been employed with negative connotations, my favorite use of the word “yet” represents an optimistic outlook:

“He wrecked his car, and yet he walked away without a scratch.” Or “Healing is a matter of time, yet it can also be a matter of opportunity.”

“Yet” is no mere literary device — it is the magical moment when steel meets flint and a single microscopic spark ignites a conflagration. It introduces a turn of fortune or lends a positive spin to any situation. There’s a promise of emotion built into it. Grammatically speaking, I can think of no single syllable brimming with more promise and more hope to fuel the drama of our imaginations, which are always inspired by challenge.

Were it not for our challenges, there would be no opportunity for us to overcome them. Exceptional innovations have sprouted from the nastiest of difficulties. To me the word “yet” will always represent opportunity — the door still unopened, the adventure not quite begun.

In its best usage it can be the sunny signpost on the path to everything hopeful.

The fine Russian novelist Boris Pasternak touched on the subject most eloquently — “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, yet it is very easy to miss it.”

Too many times have I reacted to that heartbeat of opportunity with trepidation. I try to remind myself that every uplifting consequence in my life blossomed from a decision to go for love instead of fear. Fear is the scoundrel here. Always will be. How much in my life have I missed out on simply because of the fear of missing out?

“Yet” is the briefest of adverbs. A very small word. There is real power, yearning, and magic it its grasp when utilized by a master raconteur or writer.

Without the shining optimism and promise of expectation this little word adds to my work, I think it would be an effortless thing to drift into despair.

And yet, …

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X Marks the Spot

Left center breast, heart thudding in a panic.

However many saddened souls decry its effect, there is no defying the truth of its power when love comes to call.

Whatever I say here is high grade, raw and unretouched experience. And still I know not a damned thing about it. I’ve come close to love a couple of times but not like the advertising promotes.

The negatarians push their crusty philosophy that it’s not a lack of affection, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages. While both are quite necessary for pheromones to play power politics with the heart, they remain two halves of the same whole. To imply that either friendship or affection alone is responsible for a happy outcome is to discount a vast combination of additional variables. It’s like saying carbon and hydrogen alone make up the earth. But there are 102 other elements involved here, guys. And those are just the ones we know about.

In other words, it’s way more complicated than just two emotional elements — I’m talkin’ to you, Mr. Nietzsche.

There is as much charm as foolishness required for love. As much reason as whimsy, stupidity as sex appeal, grandeur as groveling, and as much patience as rage. Every single blessed one of these gestures of insecure pride are mandatory for the fully realized romantic encounter to take flight.

And what a glorious defiance of gravity it can be. The first blush of love is the thunderous and showy confidence of a roman candle responding to a single desperate flare gun sending a stream of sparks through the night.

Love defies reasonability itself. That’s why the term “romantic comedy” is itself the redundancy of the ages.

I personally am nothing special. I am a singular, unattached mass of intuition who bears no more evidence of these beliefs than the tightly clenched knot of scar tissue in my torso.

And yet it beats.

With hope.

Hope that one day very soon these throbbing little beats of expectation will be met with a perfectly reflective drumming — the sympathetic pulse of another. Yes, dear ones, unlike love, optimism is a more definable, defendable virtue but I’m not prepared to get into that here. Let us simply agree that hope is a happy, healthy puppy and love is a multi-tentacled mythical creature that would confuse the hell out of Medusa.

As Robert Fulghum asserted, “We’re all a little weird. And life is a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall into mutually satisfying weirdness — and call it love — true love.”

Scripture speaks of love being patient and kind. I believe this is true but also radically truncated. For love is many, many more indefinable things. It is cruelly timid, embraceably wicked, fearless, cunning and vain. Love is the substance of so many contradictions that it is impossible to define it singularly for any two people. But for each of us we know too well its powers over us personally.

As the years accumulate I hear more and more loudly the ticking of my watch. I readily wish for complete vulnerability and the absolute fabrication that is romantic alchemy. I secretly seek the unreasonably impossible, with much the same confidence that a six-year-old child trusts in the truth of buried pirate treasure. Fool that I am, I will always invest myself in the mystical belief that X marks the spot.

Now if only I could find a reliable compass.

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Wit

I love it when people speak of things about which they know nothing. My heartiest laughter comes from the commentary of those who are most hilariously mistaken.

It’s rather like looking in a mirror.

In 1984 when I was working in radio, I had the great good fortune to spend one illuminating hour interviewing the acclaimed author of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” Douglas Adams. He was a supremely tall, large-boned, baby-faced gentleman with a quiet sort of unassuming demeanor who spoke in a tone of comradely mischief. He thoroughly enjoyed the lies he told for a living and relished that so many held them dear.

He was kindly tolerant of me in that, at the time, I was wholly unfamiliar with his work but not his reputation. Once again, it was I who was speaking of things I knew not and, as it turned out, I was doing so in the company of a man who felt very much the same about himself, the difference between us being Mr. Adams made a handsome living doing so, and with confidence.

We hit it off well.

We found kinship in our mutual backgrounds in radio. It was his original work with BBC Radio 4 that led to the “Hitchhiker” books. He agreed to turn his original radio series into a book . And then another, and another, and another. And, after being hounded by his publisher for many months to deliver his latest volume, was finally commanded to “Just send what you have.”

Adams described how he had been writing this last manuscript on his Mac computer and had laid it out himself with a font and format of his own devising. In total compliance he simply stopped typing in mid chapter and shipped the little floppy disc off to his publisher. This fellow promptly and unceremoniously sent it straight away to the printer who set, bound, and shipped the book without so much as a how-do-you-do or a spell-check. “And that’s why the book ends so abruptly”, he said almost apologetically.

Apparently Mr. Adams had set down enough of the story to warrant the continued adulation of his followers, who are no doubt still legion. This being the fourth “Hitchhiker” book in his series, and another two-book series behind him, he vowed, “One day I shall try to write a three-book trilogy.”

Although he did manage a few years later to add a fifth volume to the “Hitchhiker” series.

He possessed a delightful even-tempered confidence that comes only from success mixed with shrugs of genuine humility. A more pleasant, personable, and good natured fellow one could never hope to meet — at least I never hoped to.

Here was a person of immense popularity, upon whom his considerable celebrity appeared to have little or no import. Rather his most sincere interest seemed to reside in people. The man simply wanted to share your company and had more questions about you than you might muster about him. He treated me as more than an equal; in fact I was almost as a guest. What a charming and amiable host he became.

When I am offered definitions of the word “wit”, to this day I cannot summon any image before that of this dearly deft Englishman who happily welcomed me under his umbrella of celebrity that day some twenty-nine years ago.

I have read the works of many pithy writers, and some with nary any pith at all, but none holds so fond a place in my heart as the wit of Douglas Adams.

Guided solely by prejudice, I am only left to offer you the wit and whimsy of the great man himself in the form of his considerable quotations:

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” (Douglas Adams)

“He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife.”  (Douglas Adams)

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.” (Douglas Adams)

“Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” (Douglas Adams)

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” (Douglas Adams)

“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” (Douglas Adams)

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” (Douglas Adams)

“You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” (Douglas Adams)

And finally, a quote I am happy to say he unleashed on me during the course of our interview:

“I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don’t know the answer.” (Douglas Adams)

At the conclusion of our 60 minutes together I declared that this had been the most delightful six hours I’d ever spent and Mr. Adams laughed out loud. He gave me his home address in London and asked me to write. I regret that I never did since I always felt I would have nothing noteworthy to report.

In 2000 I moved to Los Angeles and had no idea Douglas Adams had moved stateside and was just an hour and half north of me in Santa Barbara. On May 11th the next year I cried when I heard he had died.

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Voice

That which is inside the soul must find its way out. For every one of us, expression is a dire and deep desire.

Some constrain it, allowing it to become anger or disappointment, while others cannot contain themselves and sing like nobody’s business.  Many dread to express themselves for fear of being thought the fool. And just as many loose their feelings on the world, embracing foolishness in all its cockeyed glory.

With age our voice finds reason in a variety of forms. But to me the voices of children are the most beautiful of all. To speak out with innocence, candor, and the spontaneous purity of expression is a gift I wish we could all have held onto into our adult years. Never were we more genuine than when we spoke in our youth.

I cringe still when I think back on all the archaic utterances of grown ups who snapped, “Children should be seen and not heard.”

Beyond being callously dismissive, there is hardened cruelty in such a remark. The damage it does to children is immeasurable.

Our voice finds expression in behavior as well as words. Some of the most beautifully eloquent people I have ever known made the very best use of their silence to demonstrate the finest emotions.

For the most part, as true human beings, we need the nuance, warmth, tenor and tone of another person’s voice.

Finally there are the little voices. The whispers that are privy to none but you. Sometimes they terrify and fill you with doubt. But if you listen to the sound of your own voice, your inner voice, you can rise above doubt and judgment.

A few years back, a very dear friend who was a raconteur, singer and performer was about to undergo throat surgery. His vocal cords were his life and there was a distinct probability that this procedure might well leave him mute. In sympathy for his terror and anguish at going under the surgeon’s knife, I composed a bit of verse for him. It goes like this:

A VOICE
(© 2013 Michael J. Cahill)

A voice —
A fertile, fragile thing
It makes to laugh
It makes to sing

It calls the dog
It greets a friend
Its tone can brighten
Or offend

It brings to life
The charm, the wit
Occasionally
The idiot

It makes mistakes
It makes amends
It gets a face slapped
Now and then

But what’s important
In he end
One’s truest voice
Comes from within

A clownish dance
A comic pose
Your underwear
Outside your clothes

An understanding
Nod or stare
A sparkling smile
A poem, a prayer

So fear not
To be absent of
That voice I have
Come best to love

The voice that best
A friend defines
Is found between
The spoken lines
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By the way, my friend survived the surgery handsomely.

And now he won’t shut up. C’est la vie.

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Useful

A year ago a close friend was lamenting the suicide of her 16-year-old nephew. In his crushing despair, the boy had hanged himself. “What a waste”, my friend said. “When my time comes, I hope that my death isn’t in vain.”

No one among us was ever meant to experience a merely commonplace life. Just getting by is not being alive — it is poverty.

I agree it is difficult to identify what we’re intended to do. But I do know in my bones that every living thing needs a sense of purpose or it cannot survive.

I am reminded of some Native American cultures where an elder who has been identified as someone beyond their purpose simply wills themselves to die. And when I worked for the railroad many years ago, I recall countless older engineers who simply lived for their work. But, one after another, when they were forced into retirement at 65, within a week or two of leaving their service, these perfectly healthy men were dead.

For human beings, purpose is everything.

And just making money, kids, is not a purpose and has precious little to do with the quality of any life. I laugh at the bumper stickers that read, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Just try taking those toys with you or cashing them in for a family that loves you.

Monetary gain is the ideal deceiver of a person’s true worth. The sticker should read: “Whoever dies with the most toys is still dead.”

So what’s the secret? How do we discover our true north? Well, ask yourself this one question: “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?”

When you finally arrive at an answer that makes sense of this question, then you will have found your life’s purpose.

While that discovery is no easy feat, of course, that new information becomes your jumping off point to greater things. Ralph Waldo Emerson held that, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Examining the fears that hold us back is key to identifying our purpose. Personally I have known the pain of loss. Without that knowledge I’d have no compassion for others.

All of us have a place in history. Whatever happens to even the smallest among us becomes a resource. Our humiliations, misfortunes, losses and gains — these are our contributions to a history of mankind.

When people tell me they’re unhappy, my first reaction is that only people with no purpose are unhappy.

I contend that what I am living for and what I would die for are really the same question. When I reach the end of my days and look back, I will know if my life had purpose by one simple measurement — whether I have lived in despair or not. If I have followed my heart, then I trust that I will have found and fulfilled a purpose. Hopefully a noteworthy one.

The final measure of a person’s sense of purpose hasn’t so much to do with where we are but rather in what direction we are headed. One of my favorite definitions of devotion is this: Love is not two people looking into each other’s eyes. It is two people traveling in the same direction.

That communal sense of forward momentum holds in itself a glorious sense of purpose. If we are only meant to just be there for one other person — for some that is purpose enough. I know personally many folks who are worth it.

Passion is your finest barometer for your purpose. Whatever it is in this life that excites you to do your best work, let it lead you to your purpose.

My friend’s lament that her nephew may have died in vain made me wonder about the absence of purpose in his life.

For me the greater sin would be to have lived in vain.

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Traveler

When she was four and a half I took my daughter to her first movie in a theater. Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound”. Five minutes into the film the momma fox is hiding her pup in the forest to protect him. Upon hearing the approach of hunters, she dashes off to lead them away from her little one.

The cute, confused face of the baby fox.

A distant gunshot.

And silence.

Uh oh….

Courtney looked up at me, unblinking. “What happened to the mommy, Daddy?”

Do I lie? God, look at that little face. I want her to be able to trust me. No, I think she can take it. She’ll understand. Be honest — gentle, but honest.

“She…… died, honey.”

“Waaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!”

There was no consoling her and we had to leave. So much for candor.

The disappearance of a dear one from our life will never be a feat of ease for those who must reckon with it. About six months later we found a dead finch in the yard and she started asking me about death.

“Am I going to die someday?”

“Every living thing has a beginning, a time to be, and an end. It happens to everyone, sweetheart.”

“Are you going to die someday?”

Do I break her heart again? Those adorable eyes…..

“Yes.”

Long thoughtful look at my face. Then finally, “Where will you go when you die?”

“Well, I’m kinda hoping I’ll get to go to heaven.”

“Where’s heaven?”

And that kicked it all off. I thought she would have been satisfied with a stock Sunday school answer. But she had to take it further and I was suddenly on unsteady turf.

At this point in my life I hadn’t really warmed to any kind of faith and her question got me thinking. There she was with those precious, searching eyes, waiting for an answer. Barely five years old and so curious about the big issues. When I was five I was lucky if I could figure out how the bathroom doorknob worked.

But still, that’s the eternal question, isn’t it — Where do we go? The answer I finally gave her is the answer I still hold to today.

When my mother passed away two years ago, I kept hearing my daughter’s question returning from 21 years before — “Where’s heaven?” For weeks after the funeral I could only think of all the wonderful things my mother had been to me — a personable, kind, morally decent, insightful, generous and witty woman who read aloud to her children. Also the single funniest person I ever met.

In my reminiscence of her, I tried to consider how Mom might have answered my daughter’s question had I been sharp enough to ask it of her myself. This is how I imagine she would have explained it…..

Going Places
(© 2013 Michael J. Cahill)

“Where Shall We Go?” has always been
My favorite game with you
When you were small upon my knee
What traveling we would do

The yard beyond our windowsill — ?
An icy mountain steep
Or a Viking ocean full of storm
Or a jungle forest deep

The universe was ours to roam
By land and sea and air
By hawk and mule and rocket fuel
What journey’s we would share

There is one voyage separate
From all that we will take
But oh, my love, though by myself
I will not you forsake

Yes, by and by, one day I’ll die
As all God’s creatures must
But I shall spend eternity
As something more than dust

And if I go to heaven
We will not be far apart
For don’t you know, my darling child
That heaven’s in your heart

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