Grief

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It is both monumental and remarkable to connect in this life with one or even two people who make you feel you are better than you might have otherwise believed yourself to be. Simply knowing them makes you want to be a better person, if for no other reason than to rise to the level of deserving their good company. It is therefore one of the most savage acts of providence when such fine people make a permanent departure.

Beyond finance, fame, or the fulfillment of dreams, we are bound more profoundly to our relationships than to anything else. Be it a friendship gone sour or a life cut short, no amount of preparedness can stay the shock or cut the pain. We are, at our root and core, deeply communal beings.

Grieving is life’s hard lesson. It’s our way of working through the feeling that we’ve been left behind. It is equally unfortunate that the process of grieving has its firmest footing in a foundation of regret. However positively we might accept what the world doles out to us, the loss of anyone dear lays waste to any plans we may have had to confess affection, clarify a misunderstanding, or make amends.

Once those opportunities are lost to us, grief becomes one of the most penetratingly hurtful states of being because we not only dwell in the here and now of its morose oppression, but we spend every sleepless moment burdened by the knowledge that grief will be rudely imposing itself on us for the foreseeable future or until it wears itself out.

There are those so crippled by their grief that they’re actually seduced by its agony and wear circles of dirt in the grass around the graves of loved ones, unable to move forward, often times for many, many years; and then there are those who grieve deeply and profoundly—and yet their lives, about a year or two down the road, begin to regain momentum. Even though they may not be here to see it fulfilled, it is one of the greatest acts of courage and of love to pick one’s self up and actually become the person your dear one saw you to be.

The act of grieving has remarkably curative properties and is one of the very healthiest things we can do for ourselves. It’s a crucial process but, like any powerful medication, if abused, one can easily fall prey to its grim addiction.

A dear friend and very smart man once told me that all sin is rooted in comparison. When we see those good things that others possess and start holding them up to the standard of what we do not have, then begins our descent. It’s our covetous nature that gets us into trouble. This can be true when we witness others enjoying the relationships we do not have.

What we do have are the recollections of all we enjoyed from those we knew back when. The wondrous thing about our best memories is that they travel well. The portability of all we loved about someone dear is such that it moves with us wherever we go.

I miss my mother every day but I have not lost the entirety of her—only the tangibility of her. I still have every gift she ever gave me, every piece of her that was unwittingly bestowed with love. I have the snorkeling sound of her guffaws as she struggled to get a joke told, the baby-talk language she lavished on other people’s pets, the laughter in her eyes when she was so incredibly proud of you she couldn’t find the words to say so, and the profound and earthy optimism she lovingly doled out like candy to anyone in need of a smile. There is much of that magical woman that lives and breathes and laughs in me now. As the song goes, “No, they can’t take that away from me.”

Loss may not seem bearable, but this I know to be true—it is survivable. The trick now is to make the most of being alive and to set myself the happy task of connecting with more good people.

As the ever-insightful Mark Twain once wrote, “Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”

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I made a list that started with dancy melodies from the 1940’s, Belgian waffles, Charlie Chaplin, tuxedo tee shirts, freshly blossomed daffodils, golden delicious apples, live New Orleans jazz, cotton candy-flavored bubble gum, a baby giggling at passing gas in the bathtub, misspelled tattoos, grownups who skip, freshly mown grass, hot air balloon festivals, sparrows drunk on fermented berries doing acrobatic flying, elderly nuns who snort when they laugh, a bag of bright blue jelly beans, a plaid graduation gown, convertible cars, flash mobs of preschoolers, old fashioned hat shops, triple scoop ice cream cones, and balloon animals made from rubber gloves.

Soon the list included Bugs Bunny cartoons, public trees wrapped in white twinkle lights, political activists who mispronounce “nuclear”, steam locomotives, old blue jeans that still fit, racing the meter maid to pop a quarter into a parking meter for a stranger’s car, the aroma of hickory smoke on a rainy day, Christmas tree farms, fireman poles in fire houses, life size bronze statues of horses, Pez candies, and making your own popcorn over a camp fire.

Finally I wound up with a loveable rescue dog of undetermined breed, bare feet in warm sand, two snails on a large rock whose trails have been side by side turn for turn for 22 and three quarter inches, a row of twelve Jack O’lanterns none of which have been carved with the same face, Bad Wig Day at work, riding bicycles into the supermarket, a photo of yourself at nine that looks exactly like a photo of your father at nine, balancing your checkbook, teaching yourself to juggle three raw eggs, and inventing a crazy new dance that involves wearing a really big hat and not moving from the waist up, etc.

I love et cetera (etc.); and so on, and so on.

Things that make me smile,…. etc.

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Departures

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Dogs have the most wonderful personalities to me. As it turns out, they have no concept of the future whatsoever. Have you noticed they also don’t seem to hold onto past grievances? You can forget your adorable mutt’s breakfast when you’re running late and he still loves you when you return home at night. Aside from learned behavior and instinct, there’s no preoccupation of future or past for them. Everything to a dog is right here, right now. This, according to research, is a statistic. I’d love to see that research and talk to the dogs they actually interviewed to arrive at this. Even though the whole concept of future blindness seems a little iffy, whenever I look at a dog now something in me says, “Yeah. It’s true.”

Humans, as we all know, are the exact and extreme opposite. We hyper-focus on everything except the present. People I’ve known through the years who dreaded their lives also happened to be the ones who lived in fear of their mortality. That final exit is a huge event in anyone’s life but obsessing over it strikes me as an insult to the quality of the life you should be living.

In my twenties I thought of death all the time, as twenty-somethings are inclined to do, because that’s when we’re most uncertain about our aspirations, our future, and what our place in the world might be—which may explain why Goth and other cultures fixate on a dark demise. I really connected with that mindset in my youth but, looking back now, it occurs to me that when my life was actually going well and was full of promise, enthusiasm and opportunity, I never gave death much consideration.

It’s kind of funny how, when the world is falling apart, churches fill up with prayerful masses lamenting their sorry lot in life, but when things are going our way, the glands swell, the brain freezes, and it’s caution to the wind. Reckless as it may seem, this latter tact may be the loftier goal to keep in our sights.

Life is absolutely a gift but it is also a muscle to be exercised. Dwelling on how it could all go away not only allows that muscle to atrophy, but it doesn’t show much appreciation for the gift either. However enlightened we may be, death and dying will continue to drift in and out of our consciousness. It’s in our nature to obsess like that.

While scripture promises “peace that passeth understanding”, why can it not be balanced in life with an understanding that bringeth peace? My take at this advanced stage of the game is that those who immerse themselves in the very real business of being alive will have little time left to fret about that impending dirt nap.

Both Leonardo DaVinci and Monty Python’s Michael Palin sum it all up nicely for me. DaVinci observed that, “A well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”

Palin remarked, “George Harrison’s passing was really sad, but it does make the afterlife seem much more attractive.”

My father is 92 this year and he is the penultimate example of the concept that the secret to dying young is to put it off for as long as possible. He is the youngest, most vital and energetic person I am ever likely to know. He has been my best example by embracing what it is that even dogs seem to get—the knack for living in the here and now and never once looking over his shoulder at what might have been.

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Cathedral

 

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Whether someone  chooses to worship the teachings of Jean Paul Sartre or is convinced that the risen savior is embodied in the plasticine statue in front of Bob’s Big Boy, I cast no aspersions. I may be amused but I would never condescend.

The ever widening diversity of faiths in the world make it clear how prevalent is our hunger to believe. Whether we invest ourselves in an inner power, a higher power, or a philosophy of benevolence, I cannot hold criticism for anyone with a sincere and loving heart who wishes to reach out in their own way to the universe.

The lotus position in the solitude of a wooded glade may be the ideal for some, while others require the tradition and ritual of a large assembly, and still others find their best comfort in the company of a close friend or good book. For many it is the place in which they choose to practice their beliefs that defines the expression of their faith.

The fine lines and foundations of architecture have always held a place of reverence for me, whether it was a mosque, a temple, or the New York Stock Exchange. I am frankly staggered by the imaginative designs of artists and engineers who have given us the likes of the cathedrals at Chartres and Notre Dame. There can be real majesty in a hallowed place of worship, although some buildings make it difficult to discern whether the design sprang from hubris or from humility.

The circumstances and environment help, of that I am certain, but it is worth asking ourselves, “Did I come to this place for its facade or for my faith?” In the end, divinity is something an individual must define for himself.

In the grand manner of ancient monuments to faith where centuries of wounded souls have sought solace, asked forgiveness, and sent their prayers aloft like embers, even a small community church or the quiet corner of a garden can be your cathedral.

It is not the edifice that matters. It is our willingness to be small.

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Brevity

 

I have an affinity for brevity.

It’s not that I’m in a hurry, but neither am I a waster of time. I very much take long, languorous pleasure in my respite and in the aroma of roses, but I equally enjoy the elegant simplicity of being brief. It is the quality of saying much with few words and it requires talent.

Example:

……………………FIRST FIG
……..“My candle burns at both ends.
………It will not last the night.
………But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,
………It gives a lovely light.”
…………………….(Edna St. Vincent Millay)

The collective dwindling of our attention spans aside, I long for the concise, succinct remark while leaving the intellect enlightened and the spirit well fed. Short, compact and pithy—that’s how I like my literature.

Not all poetry is brief (damn those rambling Bard wannabe’s) but brevity in any form, to me, is poetry.

C’est la vie!

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Here Lies a Writer

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A grave marker in a boneyard somewhere in the Tennessee mountains bears this engraving:

HERE LIES A WRITER… AS USUAL.

That very telling and all-too-common characterization is my favorite observation about writers. The truest quote I’ve heard attributed to a writer (don’t ask me who said it first) is this: “I hate writing—but I love having written.”

Therein resides the sum total of all obstacles to this craft—the writer’s own procrastination. Writer’s Block is a myth, an excuse bandied about by those who refuse to sit and do the work. You knock out the pages and you fix it later but you never, never, never stop writing. If you stop then you’re not a writer; you’re a slack jaw, an air biter, a bush-league bench warming bystander. In short, you’re a quitter. It ain’t tactful, what I’m saying here, and it sure ain’t kind. But it’s truthful and writers need a steady diet of truth.

It’s true that a writing life is a hard life and every time I sit down by my solitary lonesome to knock out a few paragraphs of any substance it’s a monumental struggle to come up with words that mean something to me. Every first draft is less than empty and I lean heavily on my talent and training to see me through to the deadline. I write every day, some days more than others. Using my creative muscles builds endurance and develops craft. When I finish a piece it’s not the result of a gift but rather the natural outcome of hard work.

Demanding of myself the regular output of essays is an exercise of endurance and creativity producing weekly posts and a good deal of knuckle cramping—just what I need to run my abilities through their paces. So, as regularly as I am able, I’ll be posting essays focusing on the human condition, which is my keenest area of interest.

“Here lies a writer” indeed. Lies—as in the telling of untruths. Perhaps.

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Play Time

GOIN’ FOR A RIDE
(© 2013 by Michael J. Cahill)

Goin’ for a ride in a shopping cart
And I’m sure Mom will think it’s all right.
I’m goin’ for a ride in a shopping cart
And my brother, Chris, he’s gonna drive.

We’ll take some quick lefts and a last minute right
Then a screech and a spin and a slide.
Then, in the meat section, Chris’ll build up momentum
And hop on to join in the ride.

Now we’ll just miss the canned goods,
Zoom past the vegetables, bargains, and cash-saving deals.
When we get near the eggs, we’ll just hang out our legs
And ’round the corner we’ll go on two wheels.

What a wonderful rush as we pass the Orange Crush
And the Cracker Jacks, oatmeal, and Pop Tarts —
As the customers stare at and point at and glare at
Two grown men… riding aisles… in a shopping cart.

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There’s nothing quite like bending the rules well beyond anything that was intended. I personally consider it a mortal sin to relegate to the realm of toddlers and pre-teens all our youthful, wide-eyed wonder about how the world around us works. When was the last time you saw a truly enthusiastic grown up behaving with truly enthusiastic enthusiasm?

I’m not suggesting you sacrifice your maturity. But some of the most mature grown ups I know are unabashedly blessed with a playful nature despite the strictures of many social standards.

I remember in 1989 when I was Christmas shopping and got thrown out of a Toys R Us in Houston. They had these miniature shopping carts for toddlers. One-third scale versions of the real thing and solid metal. Really cool. I couldn’t resist. I put one on each foot and started roller-skating up and down the aisles. The 9-year-olds who had watched me were grinning as I was escorted out. I could tell they liked the idea and, sure enough, a couple minutes later as I was getting in my car, these same kids were being strong-armed out the front door by security. I gave them a thumbs up and they smiled and fired back their own.

No laws were broken and no lives endangered. Yes, I realized the irresponsible nature of such a potentially dangerous example. But it was a calculated risk on my part. For instance, had my four-year-old daughter been with me at the time, I absolutely would not have set such an example. But adolescent boys — hell, yes. I had been one myself some 30 years before and I knew a fun idea when I saw one. Plus I always had extra energy and used to be a stunt man in my 20’s.

Something I’ve always recognized, especially early on, was that most people just need more genuine fun in their lives. I know everyone thinks they want it, but they truly don’t realize how much they absolutely need it.

To this day, whenever I’m in the furniture section of a department store, I still take a running start, jump as high as I can, and land butt first in the middle of a display bed. If a 20-year-old did that, people would just be annoyed. But I’m 58 and folks are actually impressed. It’s incredibly fun. And it never fails to turn heads. Those mattresses have to be checked out, you know. Who better to do it than a potential customer? If the bedding is soft and the point of impact provides suitable resistance, I might just ask them to wrap that sucker up for me. Hey, you don’t buy a car without test driving it. Furniture should be held to the same strict standards.

In 1983 when my wife and I moved to Houston, Hurricane Alisha had us trapped in our 2nd floor apartment for four days with heavy rains and flooding. Our front door faced the parking lot on the inside curve of a horseshoe shaped building and on the third day the wind had died down quite a bit. None of the plumbing or electricity worked and all the residents were out on their porches watching each other try to cool off in the sticky humidity. We were all miserable and sick of the rain.

That’s when I noticed that rainwater was just pouring out the holes in the gutters where the drain pipes had been blown out. I ran inside, stripped down to a pair of cutoffs, grabbed the soap and shampoo, and headed down the steps to the flooded parking lot. My wife at the time knew me well enough to be automatically mortified without any idea what I was up to.

I stepped into the nearest downspout deluge, lathered up and started scrubbing. My wife of course was utterly humiliated with all the neighbors watching me take a shower. She went inside and stayed there.

It wasn’t a full minute before a dozen other residents took my lead and lined up at the other downspout waterfalls to take their own showers. Hey, a good idea is a good idea and none of us had bathed in three days. It just made perfect sense to me. And, damn, that shower felt good!

I’m a pragmatist at heart and if something makes good, simple sense to me then I’m all over it. And if it happens to amuse and entertain the odd passer by, then all the better. One thing I’ve observed with some consistency in my life — people will never cease to be amused by their fellow man caught in the act of simply being their fellow man.

MORAL: Be an advocate of your own fun. Never leave it up to others.

When you get a chance to ride that shopping cart, just be safe, hold on tight, and make the management give you at least three warnings before you thank them with a polite smile and leave. Trust me, even the most humorless and overworked shift manager will be dying to tell everyone she knows about some idiot cart-surfing in the frozen foods section. Plus you’ll have brightened her day a bit as well. Everybody wins.

Or, at the very least,…….. you win.

And that’s all that really matters in the end.

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