A little over a year ago, my friend Robert Ellis Gordon posted an open letter to President Obama here at HuffPost in response to a query sent out by David Plouffe. The Obama campaign was searching for stories chronicling Americans' experiences with their healthcare system, and the challenges they've encountered along the way.
As someone who had struggled with a chronic illness for over twenty years, Robert was certainly familiar with the battle to survive inside a system that scoured the books for every conceivable excuse to ignore him. Yet even as he was being referred to hospice care, it wasn't himself on whom he chose to focus in his letter. Instead, he urged President Obama to consider the moral, rather than the political, implications of the health care crisis -- to feel, with visceral empathy, the stories of the human beings whose lives his policies would affect.
In that letter, Robert quoted a note he wrote to his doctor about his plans for his final months:
"I have a book to complete before I die. It is different from the others. I want to leave something behind that may serve as a source of solace to a reader here or there; a reader who wrestles with despair during this era of incomprehensible suffering."
Through tremendous force of will (and no small amount of fortune) Robert has endured long enough to finish that book -- a novel called Humping Credenzas With The Late Bobby Kennedy: A Convict's True Account, which was released today through Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, and is available here through Amazon.com.
In the book, Bobby Kennedy comes back to life as a moving man who is sentenced to prison for attempted murder. While in solitary confinement, he undergoes a series of revelations about his role in the world -- and his fictional furniture-hauling partner, Stanley V. Higgins, a.k.a. The Outlaw, is charged with telling the tale.
I am twenty four years old. I don't know the first thing about Bobby Kennedy, or Jack Kennedy, or Marilyn Monroe, or any of the more famous characters the narrative of his book revolves around. As a work of historical or political fiction, Robert's novel overlaps only tangentially with any subject matter of any interest whatsoever to me. Yet I find myself compelled by this book, driven to action by it in a curious and uniquely generational way. Indeed, Humping Credenzas resonates with me on a more fundamental level than almost anything I have ever read. And finally, I think, I understand why.
It all comes back to the letter to Obama.
What Robert understood is that despite being more media-saturated than at any other time in history -- despite being inundated with arguments over every conceivable policy point -- our dialogue remains silent with regard to the moral imperatives those policies entail. Indeed, the term "moral issue" has come to connote a stance on something like gay marriage, abortion, or whether to build a mosque in the vague vicinity of Ground Zero.
But immigration is a moral issue. Health care is a moral issue. Wars are moral issues. Natural disasters -- whether they're in New Orleans, Haiti, China, the Philippines, or anywhere -- are all moral issues. Even something as technical-sounding and minutiae-intensive as the global financial crisis, the collapse of the housing market, the skyrocketing deficit -- every single one of these things is a moral issue, because every single one of these things affects human beings whose lives are made and broken by circumstances that are all too easy to analyze into abstraction.
Robert's Bobby Kennedy understands the human element inherent in every single network-news sound-byte. Robert's Bobby Kennedy understands that the anguish suffered by a single child who watches a puppy get beaten to death for pissing on a rug is the same anguish suffered by a sick person forced to choose between medicine or groceries, the same anguish suffered by an immigrant forced to work seventy-hour weeks under the looming threat of deportation. Cordoned off from the Kennedy name and the fast-paced whirlwind of Washington and the White House, Bobby -- the 'recycled' Bobby -- connects the dots between the lofty world of policy and the day-to-day world of people.
For all I know, the actual Bobby Kennedy exhibited none of these characteristics. Then again, maybe he embodied every single one. To me, that's not the point. What is the point is something Robert and I discussed over dinner one evening as I helped him recover from yet another of his eight-hour blackouts, Leonard Cohen playing in the background and a pair of fans whirring violently in the blink of the fading sun.
"If you are the fire, I am the wood."
According to Cohen, that's what Joan of Arc said to God as the flames approached, and she understood. For me as a deist, I tended to think of her sacrifice as more of an unfortunate caprice of fate than as a central cog in some divine machine -- and, to be fair, I am paraphrasing Cohen a little bit. But for Robert, as a mystical Catholic who had undergone no small amount of suffering, her realization took a more personal bent.
"God is the fire," he says to me, his eyes fluttering as he reclines against the armrest of his couch. "Well -- God's plan, which we cannot divine, is the fire. If we say 'yes' to life we are the wood. We are here to take care of one another. It is all a sacrifice. It's up to us to reshape ourselves or reshape the fire or reshape God. The name doesn't really matter."
He leans back on the couch, reaches for his guitar. I sit there and stare at him. He remains on the couch. His guitar remains on the floor. In the background a dog barks and a car's horn blares.
"This is what I am trying to say," Robert continues. "All these words for this." His voice is barely perceptable -- yet it is strong, resolute, filled with more conviction than any politician's speech.
"It is our job to extinguish the fire," he says. "Transform it into a caress."