Wednesday 24 April 2024

Why Are You Here? Thoughts Inspired by "The Cafe on the Edge of the World"

This post is inspired by John Strelecky’s 2020 bestseller The Cafe on the Edge of the World: A Story About the Meaning of Life. Fran gifted me a copy for my birthday this year and we read it together. It led to some great conversations and I knew from the start I wanted to write about it. I’ll begin by quoting from the back cover blurb.

In a small cafe at a location so remote it stands in the middle of nowhere, John — a man in a hurry — is at a crossroads. Intent only on refueling before moving along on his road trip, he finds sustenance of an entirely different kind. In addition to the specials of the day, the cafe lists three questions all diners are encouraged to consider:

Why are you here?

Do you fear death?

Are you fulfilled?

The principal characters — naive traveller John, cafe owner Mike, and waitress Casey — reminded me of myself, Ellen, Kai, and their festival food stall in one of my short stories, Home Eleven. Strelecky’s didactic approach and emphasis on finding one’s life purpose recall a former favourite writer of mine; Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Illusions, and The Bridge Across Forever.

I was less impressed by the writing itself, which in places struck me as awkward and repetitive. (Casey in particular does an awful lot of smiling.) This was perhaps more noticeable because I was reading the story aloud to Fran, rather than silently to myself. Deficiencies aside, we both found it an engaging read. We read the twenty-six short chapters at a rate of one a day. This gave us time to take on board the story as it unfolded and discuss the ideas it engendered. Early on, we asked each other how we’d answer the three questions. Fran went first.

Why are you here?
Because I love you.

Do you fear death?
No because there is no separation. I will live on in people’s hearts.

Are you fulfilled?
At this point in my life, yes. It feels like I stumbled into it, but I’ve done a lot of work to get here.

I’ll explore my answers in more detail below.

Why are you here?

I struggled massively with the first question. I had no idea how to approach it, not least because “Why are you here?” can be interpreted in various ways.

Why am I here (alive) at all?

Why am I still here (still alive)?

Why am I here, in this place at this time, as opposed to being somewhere else at some other point in time?

That last one is interesting given that Fran and I live on opposite sides of the Atlantic, three thousand miles and five timezones apart. We were nonetheless present on our video calls in the same moment, reading the book and pondering the questions it raised. My answers would be: because I am, because I’ve not died yet, because I’m not somewhere or somewhen else. These might seem disappointingly obvious and banal. They would not, I suspect, impress Mike or Casey. “Yes, Marty,” I can imagine them responding (Casey would be smiling). “But why?“ And that’s the sticking point for me. Because to ask why is to seek a purpose or reason. Indeed, the focus of the book is to help us — as Mike and Casey were attempting to help John — to discover and follow our PFE, our Purpose for Existing.

My problem isn’t that I’ve yet to find my PFE, although it’s true I’ve never had one. No purpose. No life plan. No grand path laid out for me to follow. It’s not even that I’ve been too distracted to seek one out. Strelecky makes a big deal of the dangers of losing oneself in the distractions of everyday life. These include marketing and advertising, and the inconvenience of working at any job or task that doesn’t directly serve your PFE. By extension, I suspect he’d include mainstream media, consumerism, western civilisation itself, and the Internet. I dare say I do allow myself to get distracted by these and other things. My main issue, though, is that I don’t believe such existential meaning or purpose exists, for me or anyone else. I’ll come back to this later.

Do you fear death?

Interestingly, the book scarcely touches on the second question, which I find far more straightforward. Of my own inevitable demise, I can answer simply and honestly; no. I might feel differently about it when the time comes but death isn’t something I’m afraid of. I don’t believe in an after-life, heaven or hell, reincarnation, or rebirth. Dying is the end of existing, of being. A dissolving, one might say, of the patterns of energy we embody. That said, the messiness of death unsettles me a great deal. By that I mean both the physical process of dying, especially where it’s protracted or lived in mental or physical pain, but also the societal aftermath of funerals, wills, the distribution and disposal of possessions, our personal legacy and such. It’s an important topic and one I want to explore more fully another time.

Are you fulfilled?

I struggle with this one for different reasons. I don’t recall exactly what I said to Fran but it would have been something along the lines of “if I knew what fulfilled means I’d have a go at answering it!” I wasn’t trying to be evasive. I’ve struggled all my life over the meanings of words, in particular those people use to label their feelings. It’s only recently that I learned there’s a name for this inability to express one’s emotions: alexithymia. If you’re interested to learn more, check out my two blog posts on the topic: How Do I Feel? and How Do I Feel Now?.

I struggle to say whether I’m fulfilled because I’m unsure at what level the question’s being asked. Am I somewhat fulfulled? Mostly? Totally? In this moment? At this phase in my life? Permanently? I’ve certainly felt less than totally fulfilled in the past. I think that’s because I’ve linked fulfillment to identifying and following the kind of life purpose I discussed earlier. If I had no PFE, no ultimate sense of meaning, calling, or vocation, how could I possibly be fulfilled? I see now that this is no less a form of social conditioning than those Strelecky denounces in his book. He decries the idea that we can attain meaning, success, and happiness by blindly following the dictates of consumerism and marketing, but replaces it with his own path to enlightemnent. Find your PFE, he asserts, and you too can be fulfilled. This is what I meant earlier when I said I had issues with the book generally.

In the past, I would have lapped it up as I did others at the time. Nowadays, whilst I concede the wisdom in some of the ideas — it’s valid to question where we are in life, what we want, and how we might move towards those goals — signaling you can do anything you set your mind to if you believe in yourself enough is naive at best. At worst, it’s ableist and stigmatising. I’m reminded of a meme I’ve seen on social media several times. I’ve been unable to trace the original author.

Shout-out to disabled people who aren’t “inspirational”, who are unemployed or stuck with a job they don’t like, who didn’t do well academically and/or had to drop out of school, who aren’t in a position to live and take care of themselves independently even if they would like to, who don’t “just get on with things without complaining”, whose lives didn’t work out in the way they were hoping for, who haven’t “overcome” their disability in the way that society tells us we’re supposed to. You exist, you’re worthwhile and you matter.

I’m not alone in feeling this way, as one Amazon reader makes clear in their review (“A thoughtful read but quite blind to privilege”).

More fundamentally, though, I no longer believe — if I ever truly did — in an ultimate Purpose for Existing for any of us. The very idea is absurd to me, in the sense of the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus. I’ve explored Camus’ ideas previously in One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy. The universe exists, and we exist within it, devoid of meaning or purpose. And yet, undoubtedly, we are driven to seek both.Books such as The Cafe on the Edge of the World pander to this existential ache without addressing its futility. It’s possible that Strelecky addresses this elsewhere, Cafe being the first of several he’s written to worldwide acclaim. Despite my reservations, this book gave me plenty to think about and I’m grateful to its author and to Fran for bringing it to my attention. In different ways the three questions have helped to clarify my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about life as I‘m living it.

Why are you here?
To experience the process of living.

Do you fear death?

Are you fulfilled?
My fulfillment is not dependent on identifying my ultimate purpose for existing. There is no such thing. I fill my days, my moments, in ways that are meaningful to me.

I’ll close with a moment of humour that occurred after Fran and I read chapter 15, which describes how advertising tells us we need this and that in order to be happy. “I just need my Marty,” Fran said. I smiled, remembering a recent purchase she’d made. “— and a skort!”


The Cafe on the Edge of the World: A Story About the Meaning of Life by John Strelecky is available at Amazon and all good booksellers. For more information, visit the author’s website.

If you’re interested in some of the other books Fran and I have read together, check out It’s Not Just for Kids: Reading Together for Fun and Friendship.

Photo by Shelby Cohron at Unsplash.


Wednesday 17 April 2024

The Future Will Be Confusing

I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion. — Jack Kerouac

This photograph of a neon sign was taken by my friend Louise Dawson, who kindly gave me permission to use it as the inspiration for a blog post. I initially took it as an engaging yet anonymous display. A little research, however, reveals the sign is part of (or based on) the 2010 series Will Be by UK based artist and writer Tim Etchells. According to the artist’s website, “the words make an uneasy promise about the nature of the future before us.”

I can’t confirm that Etchells originated the phrase, but it clearly has widespread appeal. There’s a 2023 piece of that name by Swiss visual artist Daniele Buetti, comprising a perforated photo in a lightbox with led lights. It’s also the title of two music albums released in 2019, by Jonathan Carmichael (Carmichael313) and Chris Crack, respectively.

I had no idea about all this when I first saw Louise’s photograph. All I knew was that it spoke to me. Why, though? I can begin by admitting a love of neon, such as the THIS IS OUR HAPPY PLACE sign at Room 305 in Whitley Bay which featured in my round-up of 2022 in photos and blog posts.

Beyond that, the words caught my attention as much by what they don’t say as what they do. Note that they say nothing about the future itself, only that we will be confused by it. And it’s will be, not is. We may or may not be confused now, thinking about what the future might hold, but that’s not the point being made. We will be confused. By the future. In the future. When it gets here. And there’s a lot of future out there. It would be wise to get used to the idea of being confused.

Confusion isn’t necessarily something to fear. It happens when our go-to patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving no longer work the way we’re used to them working. Something has changed, either in the outside world in which we’re acting, or inside us. Or both. If we’re open to it, this can be a moment of great potential. A paradigm shift, with all the opportunities for growth that affords. In this sense, confusion is the antidote to stifling certainty and arrogance. It teaches humility and patience, and encourages us to stretch our minds, attitudes, and practices.

I’ve experienced this twice in the past six months. The first was when I encountered the work of French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, specifically his concept of the Absurd Man. I explored my response in One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man. Camus brought me face-to-face with the confusion I’d long experienced, in never having found my place in the world or my PFE (Purpose for Existing, a phrase borrowed from John Strelecky’s book The Cafe on the Edge of the World). In Camus’ ideas I saw the potential of this existential confusion, which arises from our relentless search for meaning and purpose in a universe devoid of both. Absurdism doesn’t dismiss the confusion. It confronts it for what it is. In doing so, it grants us permission to find our own answers, our own sense of what it means to live meaningfully in a meaningless universe.

The second moment of clarity came when I learned about alexithymia, a condition characterised by finding it hard to express feelings and emotions in words. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, despite all the poetry, stories, essays, books, and blog posts I’ve written. Recognising that this difficulty itself has a label — alexithymia — reassures me that there’s nothing wrong with me, and that I’m not alone.

Confusion has its dark sides too. I have no direct knowledge or experience of psychosis, but from many conversations with friends I recognise how distressing, disturbing, and dangerous its effects can be. There’s also the inevitable decline in mental capacity and adaptability as we get older. As many of us know from our parents, grandparents, and other older friends and family members, this can take many forms. Some are devastatingly traumatic, others almost benign.

One elderly relative is living her sunset years contentedly disconnected from reality. She’s generally present and engaged with those around her. She recognises her family in person and on the phone, and maintains a great sense of humour and delight in life. At the same time, she’ll happily recount conversations with friends and family who’ve long deceased as though they happened only days ago. Past and present overlap gently for her. If she’s confused, it’s a state I wouldn’t fear for myself.

In stark contrast, my mother’s final years were characterised by distress, anxiety, and guilt that neither medical treatment nor the reassurance of loved ones could allay. A friend close to my own age — I’ve just turned sixty-three — is living with what appear to be the early signs of dementia. She finds herself increasingly forgetful and confused over dates and appointments. Even more distressing are the false memories; things she’s convinced have occurred which didn’t happen the way she recalls them, or at all.

None of us knows what’s coming, but it behoves us to do our best to minimise the risks. Fran and I discussed this recently and she expressed it well. “I’m living now in ways that increase the chance of having more years of good health.”

No matter our age or health, the rate of change in the world makes it increasingly difficult to keep pace with what’s going on. This is true whether we’re talking about advances in technology, climate change, or geopolitical instability. In such times, confusion is an understandable state. This is expressed well in an article on the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair by Sabine Peschel for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“The Future Will Be Confusing” was written on a banner at the fair — an idea echoed by director Jürgen Boos [who] said. “What we are experiencing is a kind of complexity that cannot be easily understood. We are observing a new one-dimensionality in political views, where national and religious identities are pitted against each other.”

What can we do in the face of such complexity and change? It’s easy to react by running away or grabbing at apparent certainties. Camus rejected the flight into despair or dependence on religious or social dogma as physical or intellectual suicide. I agree. For me, the right response is to face doubt and uncertainty head on. To look inside myself, not for some ultimate purpose and meaning, but for a way of living that works for me. That enriches the lives of those who share the present and will share the future with me. May we face that future with hope, despite the promise of confusion.

I can think of no better way to close than with these words from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.


Photo of Hockley Social Club, Birmingham by Louise Dawson


Wednesday 10 April 2024

We Are Only Asked to Love: Celebrating 18 Years of TWLOHA

We are only asked to love, to offer hope to the many hopeless.

— Jamie Tworkowski, “To Write Love on Her Arms”

It’s a commonplace that wearing t-shirts is not enough. It takes more than a pithy slogan or eye-catching design to effect real and lasting change in the world. That said, mental health merchandise can prove a conversation starter, and open the door to genuine and open exchange. I’ve acquired quite a collection over the years. Mostly t-shirts but I also have two excellent hoodies from BOYS GET SAD TOO. I wear them all with pride, but I figured I didn’t need any more. But when an ad by mental health non-profit To Write Love On Her Arms crossed my screen recently, I couldn’t resist.

I knew very little about the organisation, but I placed my order within minutes. The t-shirt arrived a week or so later. The carefully packed box included a bookmark and a booklet describing what TWLOHA are all about. The shirt itself is undoubtedly eye-catching. As well as the main message — How Are You REALLY Doing? — in huge letters on the front there’s a smaller reminder (“You deserve the space to be honest.”) and the TWLOHA logo on the back.

Less expected were the words printed inside the garment.

Your feelings are allowed to exist without judgment. You are more than the pain and trauma you may have inherited. You are living proof of generational hope and resilience, of strength and community carried through the years. Your honest and vulnerable self is worth loving, and your voice deserves to be heard.

It’s the kind of touch that tells me they’re not just on the mental health merchandise bandwagon. They know what they’re doing. And they care. A visit to their website reveals their mission statement.

To Write Love On Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.

The TWLOHA journey began with a story. Literally, in that their name comes from the title of a story written by founder Jamie Tworkowski about helping a friend deal with addiction, depression, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts. The story is full of Christian imagery which I personally find difficult. However, the website makes it clear that it’s not a religious or faith-based organisation. “TWLOHA believes that mental health care should be available and accessible to all regardless of religion, belief, gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, or financial status.”

Religious overtones aside, Jamie’s telling of his friend’s story is powerful and moving. There’s a good deal I can relate to, from my experience being a supportive friend to Fran and others. They‘re clearly doing something right because TWLOHA has just celebrated its eighteenth anniversary and is active in many areas. There’s too much for me to cover in detail, but I’ll highlight a few things that caught my attention.

The TWLOHA Store
In addition to t-shirts and hoodies, they sell a wide range of garments and merchandise. These include stickers, greetings cards, mugs, magnets, keyring, and journals. They offer gift cards if you want to treat a friend but aren’t sure what they’d choose.

According to their website, TWLOHA has shared over 1,100 blog posts, and their weekly blog is well worth a visit. They welcome guest submissions, see their FAQ page for details.

The TWLOHA Podcast
Recent podcast episodes include such topics as suicide loss and sibling grief, the woes of using fashion as a mental health check, therapy deserts, body dysmorphia, and burnout.

It’s great to see a page devoted to self-care ideas and techniques. These include suggestions you can try in the moment, as well as longer term strategies to take care of yourself.

Find Help
The main search tool on their Find Help page is US-based, but there’s also a link to international support organisations. For the UK, this is the crisis text line SHOUT, and the Samaritans.

The Hopeful
TWLOHA have their own free (and ad-free) app called The Hopeful, focused on self-care, awareness, and connection. There are links to TWLOHA blog posts and podcast episodes, a mood and gratitude journal, and the option of daily notifications and reminders. I’ve only used it for a couple of days but I like the layout and I can see it being a helpful and accessible resource.

All in all, I’m incredibly impressed by everything that TWLOHA have achieved in the past eighteen years and wish them all success in the future. It’s clear from the feedback on their social media posts that they have a brilliant rapport and connection with their supporters. That’s great to see. On a personal note, I commented on one of their posts the other day to congratulate TWLOHA on their anniversary and received a very warm reply. That kind of engagement is incredibly important. I look forward to exploring their content more fully, and perhaps submiting something for their blog.

I’ll close with an excerpt from an article I wrote back in 2020 titled Wearing T-Shirts Is Not Enough. The message is no less relevant to me today and I believe it speaks to the spirit and vision of TWLOHA.

I will go on supporting Fran in all she does and sharing our story because the story of how a well one and an ill one manage their friendship needs to be heard. I will champion all who are doing their own amazing things. I will call out stigma and discrimination wherever I find it. And I will wear my t-shirts with pride. It isn’t enough, no. Not on its own. But it can be part of enough. Because you never know when a KEEP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH shirt might spark a conversation; might give someone confidence and permission to open up or ask for help.

You can find TWLOHA on their website, Twitter/X, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.


Photo by Shaira Dela Peña on Unsplash.