We know it when we see it. Stephen Parrish attempts to define it.
Charisma is a hard word to define. Before I met my friend Blake I thought of the word as just another way of saying magnetism, the natural ability to attract people. Its etymology is “grace conferred by God.” I could go along with that.
Blake certainly attracted people. Wherever he went he was surrounded by friends. Oddly enough, none of them ever felt part of a crowd.
I would always look for him when attending a function, typically something to do with my daughter (he had one the same age). He was as tall as me, so finding him was easy: I’d just scan the room or playground and catch sight of his head bobbing above the crowd. Our eyes would meet. We’d navigate separate paths to a bench or table. We’d talk.
I’d have his full attention, but the interaction went beyond that: In his presence I was the only person who existed in the world. His other friends told me, at his funeral, they’d had the same relationship with him, some of them sharing the same auditoriums and playgrounds where I thought I was the only adult he paid attention to.
I’d witnessed the trait once before. It happened during a presentation, at the end of a four day conference. The conference had been an emotional experience, and as the presenter wrapped things up and said goodbye, he looked straight at me. Stared at me through the whole farewell. Spoke directly to me, and only me. Later, talking to other attendees on the sidewalk, I discovered they’d had the same experience, they’d come to the same conclusion. Some of them from the opposite side of the room.
At Blake’s funeral the chapel filled to capacity. The standing space in the back overflowed. People spilled onto the street outside. They huddled in the November chill, waiting in silent devotion through a ninety minute service, not a word of which they could hear. They just wanted to be present. Afterward I told Blake’s daughter, my daughter’s friend, to remember the size of that crowd. One way to judge a man is to count his friends, and one way to count his friends is to count how many show up at the end. I told her to remember this about her dad’s funeral service: fewer than half the people who attended could even fit inside the room.
Blake died at 37, of a heart attack. I spoke to him hours beforehand. In a sea of people. Yet all alone in his presence. He asked me to do him a favor the next morning. I agreed. Then he said goodbye, went home to bed, and never woke up.
I visit him often. If charisma is the natural ability to attract people, the ultimate charisma might be the natural ability to attract people from the grave. But I’ll always think of it as the practice of making people feel they’re the sole object of one’s attention. No doubt scores of friends and family visit Blake’s grave like I do, but in all the times I’ve been there, I’ve never laid eyes on another living soul. Even today he makes me feel like I’m the only person in his field of view.
Tall pines dwarf his small marker, a boulder hauled from a stream. His name is carved into the boulder. When he was born, when he died. Neighboring tombstones, granite behemoths, bring attention to themselves rather than to the person beneath. Blake’s marker is authentic, as all markers should be.
The charismatic man is a study in authenticity. His interactions with others are direct, unpretentious. He employs simple devices: Eye contact. Listening. Silence.
I don’t think words can summarize a man’s life, or do justice to the end of it. Music is better. Not complicated music, rather simple melodies, even solitary notes. Blake’s marker is no hallelujah chorus. But probably that’s how all lives should be commemorated, how all fanfares should sound.
One note. One long note, played by every instrument in the orchestra, sung by every singer in the choir. One note, held for as long as the human voice can hold it, lifted from the bottom of the lungs, from the depths of a grieving heart. One note, heralded to the towering pines, scattering birds like messengers on the wind. One passionate note that by its power and fury proclaims, a charismatic man walked among us, and we are better for it.
Photo: Daniel Thornton/Flickr