This is a picture of one of my favorite places on the planet. Piper’s Alley, in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, circa around 1970.
It was a place of Hippies, great music, inclusion (heck, I had been going there for a couple of years by that time, and I was only 12 in 1970), and was active all night long.
I would leave my house around 9:00 pm on a Friday or Saturday night and walk the few blocks to the start of the Lake Street El, and for twenty-five cents, it would take me there.
What you can’t see from this picture is that just beyond the Piper’s Alley sign would emerge an open-air bizarre.
Dozens of people of all ages sitting around talking, singing, playing music, writing, and doing other things that are not the topic of this piece. LOL.
Everyone knew everyone by name, and if you didn’t know them when you first arrived, you did by the time you left.
(Author’s Note: At this point in the story, my partner, Dr. Chris, begins to roll her eyes and to discuss the pros and cons (mostly cons) of why one so young was allowed to get on the EL and go into the city at 9:00 pm and…..let’s say I was born at a very old age. But, I digress.)
One night, I think it was in 1971, I was sitting talking to a friend, Kafka, not his real name, but since he was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, that was what everyone knew him as, asked me a question.
I did not realize it at the time, but this question would, eventually, provide direction to my life. It seemed like an odd question, but Kafka was a strange sort who usually had a bong in his hand.
Before I could answer, he stopped me, pulled out a piece of paper and a pen from his backpack, and told me to begin to write down all my heroes, without thinking.
He instructed me that the first time I had to stop and think about the next name to write, I should drop the pen.
So, I began.
I got 11 names written down and, when I hesitated on number 12, Kafka said, “Ok, Fip, you are done.”
Then he gave me these instructions, “Don’t look at this list until tomorrow. When you do look at it, think about the one or two words that come to mind that describe why the person made your list.
Find the through line, the points of what these heroes of yours have in most common. THAT is where your passion lies. That is what your life should be about.”
With that, Kafka packed up his bong, put his backpack behind his head, and drifted off to sleep.
Of course, we all know I did not wait until the next day. I didn’t even wait an hour. As soon as I sat down in that EL seat heading home, I took the paper out of my pocket and began to analyze it.
What I found was eye-opening. I hadn’t been thinking when I was writing the list, but with the possible exception of the very first name (Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub), all ten of the others were men and women of peace.
All had dedicated their lives to peace and collaboration among people.
There were Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela, Mother Teresa, Schweitzer, Einstein, Robert Kennedy, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, and all had dedicated all, or almost all, of their lives to peace, reconciliation, and collaboration.
Those were my passions, what I needed my life to be about.
Over the years, I haven’t always been faithful to that calling. There have been long spans where life got in the way and, I didn’t think of the list.
But, even during those times, something would make me restless and unfulfilled.
That is what passion does. It moves you, even if you don’t realize it is there in the background, nudging you, poking at you.
So, I am challenging each of you. Over this long (in the US) Labor Day weekend, get a pen and some paper. Without thinking, write down your heroes.The first time you have to hesitate to come up with the next name, stop.
Then take a look at the list. What is YOUR through line? What is YOUR passion?
When you have found it, please write to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know a little about your story.