I use walking sticks when I walk nowadays, kind of like crosscountry skiing in late summer, but I had no idea doing so would connect me with a guy named Joe and open a flow of aching love and the deep desire to matter.
“Can I give you a cane?” he asked.
This was in the alley two blocks from my house. I was pushing myself along—I love to walk in alleys for some reason, maybe because I never know what I’ll come upon— and I passed an older guy (around my age, that is) whose garage door was open. He was working at his bandsaw. As I walked past him, he turned and called out his cane offer to me.
I stopped, shrugged. In my 75 years on Planet Earth, no one had ever offered me a free cane before. We stood looking at each other. “Hi,” I said. We introduced ourselves. He stepped away from his bandsaw and I explained that I already had a cane but thanked him. “This is what I do,” he said. “I make stuff. I give it away.”
Then he started spilling out his soul. He’s an abandoned child from Central Kansas. He grew up in chaos. The trade he found for himself as a young man was beating people up for hire, he became an alcoholic. He was lost beyond belief, until . . . until . . . I have no idea how he did so, but he reclaimed himself. This was a five-minute conversation in a Chicago alley! I found myself speechless.
“People don’t use the word ‘love’ enough when they talk,” he said. Then another guy showed up. They were working on a project together. Joe and I said goodbye. We gave one another a knuckle doink. I continued my walk to nowhere in particular and let the wonder of meeting him splash around inside me—and then my thoughts drifted to the book I’m trying to write, draft-titled The Possible Future. There it was again, alive, and so, so slippery, this book about . . . something: the creation of peace, the coming of awareness, the politicization of moral intelligence.
When I’m in an anxiety-free state of mind—you know, when I’m not actually sitting at my computer, trying to write—my sense of what the book is about is all-consuming. It’s almost as though the book is writing itself, not with words but sheerly with enthusiasm. All I need to do is live my life, keep my eyes open, stay conscious and insights flicker. The human condition seems as malleable as a lump of clay. Yeah, the world is changing and I’m a participant. This is evolution.
The book is everywhere . . .
I heard it in Joe’s voice, in the five minutes of his life story that he told me, just as I hear it in every shooting that makes the news, every drone strike, every border dehumanization, and every human action that stands up to this. Even more so, the book’s presence cries out to me every time people listen to one another, especially when they disagree.
The book is everywhere, but then the dark side of this mantra asserts itself . . . until I try to write it.
That doesn’t mean I’m not writing it. I’ve got chapters spread everywhere. Almost every weekly column addresses it, but the column has several advantages over the book: It has a deadline and a word limit. I can’t tell you how much these limitations matter. They allow me to compromise with my own quest for truth, or rather, with the flickers and teases that seem to beckon me toward the truth (excuse me, The Truth). I can stop short of that and find satisfaction in simply presenting an interesting possibility or shattering a cliché—putting a splash of verbal color on the page.
After I left Joe the other day and continued my walk, I started thinking about a brief passage in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Blood Rites, which I quoted in my column recently. In the passage, she pointed out that a thousand years ago the Crusades served “to cement the fusion of the cross and the sword.”
This leaves a helluva gash across my psyche, and opens up a question I hope to touch—at least touch—in my unwritable book. How can “love” be such a limited concept that it surrenders to the sword; that, as soon as things get complex with others, we decide our best option is to love the sword, and begin using it? The sword became, or perhaps it always has been (though I don’t believe this), not simply our primary means of self-defense but the center of our social infrastructure. “Love” is still the religious rule, but it compliantly steps aside when it becomes time to conquer and kill. There is nothing in the common understanding of the word that surmounts militarism by defining a saner, more complex, more courageous course of action toward a potential enemy. But it’s in there!
“People don’t use the word ‘love’ enough when they talk,” Joe said, as we stood in the alley talking. I could tell, by looking into his eyes, that he wasn’t using the word superficially. He knew what he was talking about. He had surrendered his sword to that word.
This is what the book wants to be about.
Robert Koehler is a Chicago-based awardwinning journalist and editor, and the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.