I was writing a novel about a professor who taught reading at a community college. He himself loved to read, which you’d think made a good match with the subject he was assigned to teach. But the reading he taught and the reading he loved to do resided in two completely different worlds. For example, thestudents  he taught came to him with such weak reading skills that even the simplest page could be torture for them, while he (Dr. George Schmerzler), was passionately engaged in a study of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past.

It’s not that George’s students couldn’t read. It’s that most of them had faced inequities in every aspect of their schooling up to that point. They were often underprepared and unsure of themselves as readers. Perhaps even more important to George, and a source of enduring agony for him, was his sense that they found no pleasure in the undertaking.

And so, having created this professional and personal challenge for George, I came to feel that my novel had something to do with hope. How does one maintain hope in the face of almost insurmountable challenges? This question seemed to apply to George as well as his students, who had chosen to continue their education beyond the state-mandated years, and despite the pain and misery that hovered for them around the classroom experience. It bears mentioning here that in the real world of community colleges, passing the developmental reading course, formerly known as remedial reading, is a mandatory hurdle for people who arrive with very low reading scores. Success rates related to this course are also extremely low. Hopes and dreams, and their nearest sibling, despair, seem to hover around this situation.

One summer afternoon while I was in the midst of this novel-writing, I attended my block party—a town-sanctioned event during which we close off the street for a day and hope to connect with those who live beside us. For years, I have been one of the organizers of this event—getting the petition signed, taking it to the appropriate village department, sending out announcements.

On our block, we never have a large crowd but we have a congenial group, and I fell into conversation with a neighbor. Lou has lived one house away from me for decades and is a sociology professor. Year after year, he brings the same wonderful homemade mid-afternoon appetizer—bread with melted mozzarella layered on tomato and fresh basil from his garden. Trying to connect, we discovered that he, too, was working up a project related to hope—in his case, it applied to Italian immigrants of the early 20th century. What role did hope play in their desire for a better life, if not for them, then for their children, as they struggled and scraped in deadening, dangerous factory jobs to find their way into a language and culture that likely didn’t value their visions and longings and losses?

Lou had a view of hope that he thought I might not want to hear: it was a mind-trap imposed by the rich and powerful to keep people passive and, well, hoping. If the downtrodden and abused actually got together, he said, and began talking about what they might DO to improve their lives, and if in the talking they found ways to work together strategically and communally, the rich and powerful surmised that their hold on things could be in trouble.

Aha. So in the sometimes-awkward muddle of human conversation, Lou and I found a subject we could both care about and manage. Maybe a little higher level than what you’d expect from a block party—with the kids’ bicycle parade and the bounce house and the wine tasting and the wobbly yard chairs, and the preoccupation with swatting flies away from the communal food, and the blinking adults who may have lived side by side for years but rarely engaged with their neighbors.

“Let’s get together to talk about this some more,” I said. And Lou agreed. I didn’t know at the time that he disliked block parties—saw them as a societal convention imposed to promote an illusion of communality for people who preferred the privacy of their own four walls. And neither of us knew that these discussions would lead to a series of small gatherings of neighbors that felt like real community.

Thus, on two or three Friday mornings, I went to his house, where he made coffee in a little espresso pot and put out a plate of cookies or cakes, and we sat in his living room. I talked a lot about writing—what could be more hopeless, or hopeful, depending on how you looked at it, than writing a novel? I mentioned the Isak Dinesen quote via Ray Carver: “I try to write a little every day without hope and without despair.” Please note the word try in that quote, as this is not an easy goal to accomplish. He talked about Italian immigrants, showed me old census records tracing address changes in the Italian neighborhoods, an indicator of upward mobility. He worked out his thesis: that hope can pull people out of distressing circumstances but that it has predominantly kept people in their place at the bottom of the immigration hierarchy. Only when people or immigrants shed these hegemonic or dominant-group conceptions of hope and see how best to proceed on their own terms (or how best to live their lives) do they then gain more control of their destiny.

As a novelist, I didn’t need a thesis. I needed to build a world full of living, breathing people, and in that world, each person (character) could see or use or discard hope any which way. So, I found I wanted to hear what others had to say on the topic.

Coincidentally, in my life as an editor, I was editing a book about positive psychology, and hope was an important area of research in that field, including a whole body of scholarship around something called hope theory. Lou (recall that he’s a sociologist) doesn’t fully believe in psychology (or he doesn’t believe in the concept of individual personalities), so he wasn’t too interested in what the positive psychologists had to say. Meanwhile, for the novel, I was actually more interested in individual experience than scholarship or theory, so I turned to two people I thought might have something to say about hope. First, Peter. He’s a 20-something-year-old man who lives a few blocks down from me. Peter suffered a spinal cord injury during his sophomore year in college, leaving him paralyzed, ending his goal of becoming a physical therapist (his professors didn’t think he’d be able to manage it), but spurring him to become a biology teacher. Second, Jamika, in her 30s or 40s, who grew up on the south side of Chicago (the notorious Englewood, for those who know Chicago). Despite many difficulties and setbacks, Jamika was doing restorative work in her community, teaching young women to reupholster furniture. But she wasn’t only teaching a skill; she believed that in repairing and giving a new life to a piece of furniture, her women might reflect on repairing and giving new life to themselves.

When I asked Peter what he thought about hope, he described a continuum, with emotion at one end and strategies/logic at the other. In his view, hope sits closer to the emotional end of the continuum, while he sits closer to the strategies/logic end. As he explained this, he demonstrated the equipment he uses to electrically stimulate the muscles in his legs and to hoist him into a standing position so he can put weight on his bones. The idea is that when science and technology find a way to mend his broken nerves, his bones and muscles will be ready and sufficiently intact to allow him to walk again. Hope may play a role here, he admits, as an energizer or spark, but on its own, it would be meaningless.

Jamika is on a different continuum. She’s a completely spiritual person, often referring to choices that “felt right to her soul” or to the sense that she is being guided by a higher power. To her, hope is a sketchy concept. “If I say I hope something is going to happen,” she tells me, “it feels more iffy than when I say I have faith something is going to happen.” When I tell this to Lou, he tells me that hope is the secular version of faith.

In the background, I noticed how many other people were talking and writing about hope. Once the word was on my radar, I heard and saw it everywhere, many times in one day. Former US president Barack Obama (Audacity of Hope); Nobel laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (Art of Inventing Hope); educator Jeff Duncan-Andrade (“Why Critical Hope May be the Resource Kids Need Most from Their Teachers”). Tune into the word, and you’ll see what I mean, including how hard it is to get through a conversation or email without using it (“hope you’re doing well”).

By now, it was time to start planning the next block party.  Lou’s wife, Alison, and I are generally the prime movers. As we hashed out our ideas for the day, I proposed that somewhere alongside the bounce house but after the kid’s bicycle parade and water-balloon toss, and before the strategies-for-reducing-food-waste session, the wine tasting, the potluck dinner, and the neighborhood rock band, we put “First Annual Lombard Avenue Hope Symposium” on the agenda. Alison looked dubious, but thought it might be worth a try, so we slotted it in at 2:00. I sent out an email to my neighbors titled “Hope: What is it, and what (if anything) is it worth?” Therein, I pasted a few choice quotes, the one from Peter about the continuum, the one from Jamika about hope/faith, and this one:

The idea that hope alone will transform the world . . . is an excellent route to hopelessness, pessimism, and fatalism. But the attempt to do without hope, in the struggle to improve the world . . .  is a frivolous illusion.

– Paulo Freire, 1997 (Brazilian educator and philosopher)

I also added this one, noting that it was obviously an extreme example, as the author was held hostage by Somali pirates for over two years:

“Hope was a cycle, and after a while, it became a destructive cycle. People say, “Well, how did you hang onto hope for two years and eight months?” And the fact is: I didn’t. I learned to live without hope. So having your hopes raised and then dashed every two weeks, which is what the guards tried to do—they would say, “Michael, don’t worry, you’re going to be out in two weeks, or a month” or something—was devastating. It was actually no way to live. And so I had to find a different level of existing. And it turns out you can live without hope. … Any Hallmark-like quotes to the contrary are wrong.”

– Michael Scott Moore, The Desert and the Sea

On the day of the block party, at 2:00, Lou and I set out our chairs in a shady spot, and gradually, a circle of people and their chairs formed. The circle grew larger, beyond anything I had imagined, and so we began.

Lou and I summarized our hope discussions, and everyone had something to say in response—a personal story, an insight from professional experience, a new angle on our ideas. No one dominated. We talked about the role of religion in hope–two neighbors are religiously observant; others are completely anti-religious. We talked about maintaining hope in the face of aging, depression related to work and family, Peter’s hope-versus-strategies continuum, the immigrant experience, varieties of hope, including false hope (e.g., that offered by the Somali pirates). When it came time to move to the next item on the block party agenda (reducing food waste, as explained by a local environmental activist), people were reluctant to end the discussion, so I said I would carry it on.

I sent emails with new quotes I found. I asked neighbors to consider the difference between hope, want, and need. For example, why would I say “I hope my novel gets published” rather than “I want my novel to be published,” or “I need my novel to be published.” I had a few more meetings with Lou, joined by Harry, who had since faced a life-threatening health crisis but was now getting stronger and had to decide whether to renew his motorcycle license (what a surprise, to learn he had a motorcycle!).

In other meetings, more neighbors joined. The conversations grew increasingly personal. One couple revealed a troubling challenge they had faced in their relationship. One woman voiced her concerns about her daughter’s risky choice to pursue a career in the arts. I told a memory from when I was a little girl, about a painful lesson my father had taught me about want versus need. The issue of fathers carried forward, and Harry told a story about his, as did my husband. Fathers, these complex people who had shaped us and our sense of hope and despair, our worth in the world, how life should be lived. People cried. I worried that it was too much.

Lou, from an old Italian family, told about visiting cousins in southern Italy the summer before. The cousins lived in a small town, and the family had a long table they set out, where the neighbors gathered regularly, bringing food and wine.

“Someday I’m going to get a long table,” Lou said. To him, this was a more authentic way of coming together with neighbors than the institutionally approved block party. And so, shortly before his birthday, an email from his wife, Alison, disclosed the secret that she’d bought a long table. It was to be delivered to their yard on Lou’s birthday, and we (the hope contingent) were invited to gather around it at 5:00.

And so, we did. And we have continued to do so. Wine, olives, cheese, bread. Twice, Alison invited friends who don’t live on our block: a minister writing a book about hope and an infectious disease doctor who looks into the faces of dying patients and their families every day. Sometimes I write a summary of the meetings and distribute to the group. Sometimes Lou suggests a reading or poses questions for discussion. For example, “Name one thing, large or small, that you have never done but still could do that would make your life more complete? What keeps you from doing it?”

What, Lou and Alison’s teenaged daughter asked, does that have to do with hope? A lot, I would say, if you think, as does Lou, that legitimate hope comes up from the grassroots, from the people themselves, thinking and talking together, finding their way toward what they want, which in this case seems to be community and connection.

And what, you might ask, happened to the novel about the community college professor? What happened to Dr. George Schmerzler? Ugh. Don’t ask.