NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Change” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Change: Be the change
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
I came of age in the late 1960s, the time of the first man on the moon, the war in Vietnam, Woodstock, free love, the Age of Aquarius, the War on Poverty, civil rights marches, and the assassinations of iconic figures including Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. It was the era of reinventing the mores, values, and attitudes of the Depression-era parents who raised us. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’” was our anthem – and our hope. We didn’t trust anyone over 30 to do the job.
And we believed we truly could “change the world.” We could end war and poverty, achieve racial equality, bring literacy to the illiterate, equalize wealth worldwide, and in effect recreate the Paradise we so long ago must have fallen from. We could do it. My generation. Us, not them.
It was in 1969, the year I finished high school, that I discovered the poetry of Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, and William Blake. They became role models, the poet radicals. Much of my first year in college I spent attending concerts by topical protest singers, encircling draft boards and chanting “Hell no, we won’t go!”, getting tear-gassed on college campuses and at demonstrations, and helping to shut down Cornell University to make time for ending the Vietnam War.
But by the time the war did come to a close, I knew I wasn’t really cut out for the life of a political radical, not even a poet radical. I was not a pontificator. I was not a debater. My knowledge of politics and history was sketchy at best. I was not much of a poet. And I was not one to take the law into my own hands comfortably.
I was still motivated to “change the world,” but how? The world was big and I was small, and even my Baby Boomer generation did not seem powerful or coordinated enough to halt the reversal of change already taking place. The death penalty was on its way back. The gap between rich and poor continued to widen. Radical movements were growing tame or being integrated into the System. Other senseless wars would follow Vietnam. The times they were a changin’ – back.
I became a seeker and a drifter. After college, I briefly lived and worked on a farm whose owner, an architecture professor from the University at Buffalo, was interested in building alternative houses from affordable, indigenous materials. That project ended when he had a brain hemorrhage and died shortly thereafter.
I took a two-month motorcycle trip around the northeast, then followed my college girlfriend to New York City. Still on the hunt for a way to “change the world,” I found work as a stringer for small Manhattan newspapers and as a part-time teacher at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I developed what I thought of as “slow journalism,” modeled on the work of Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Studs Terkel’s Working. For five years, I meandered through the streets and subways with three cameras, a notebook, and a tape recorder, ready to document whatever I encountered. My subjects included pimps, prostitutes, bums, bag ladies, Moonies, and con men, along with entertainers, vendors, and others who made a more legitimate living on the street. I was trying, through words and photographs, to restore humanity to the people most of us walked by without noticing, and from whom I felt separated only by the narrowest of Grace-of-God margins. The book came heartbreakingly close to publication by Scribners’, at the time the preeminent literary publishing house in New York, but it was killed by Charles Scribner IV himself. “Such a book should never be published,” he was reported to have said.
Over time I shifted from documentary to fiction writing and also more toward a teaching career. My eyes had been opened by literature and my life transformed by it; I wanted to pass on to others a distillation of what had most inspired me. I returned to grad school, first in creative writing and later in English. By then it was clear that Woodstock Nation had not emerged, but I still hoped to realize some fragment of that dream. My near-death experience and lengthy recovery further refined this commitment and led, eventually, to my becoming a therapist, which a close friend equates to “saving the world one client at a time.”
I have felt solace in doing all these things. Yet for the four decades since my college graduation, I have also mourned the loss of the vision many in my generation had of a different and better world. Until this year.
Recently, I spent a few days in the former East Berlin, whose metamorphosis is still ongoing two decades since the Wall came down. I was invigorated by the changes I saw happening around me in what felt like a cross between Paris and the Greenwich Village of the 60s and early 70s. An hour before I planned to take the bus to the airport to return home, I was out looking for somewhere to have lunch when a young man with a goatee and long blonde hair said to me, “Did you go to Woodstock?”
“Me?” I said.
“Yeah, you,” he said.
“Well, as a matter of fact I did,” I said.
“See!” the young man said, triumphantly turning to his three companions. “I told you!”
Another young man, seated across from him, darker complexioned, hair in a topknot and holding a beer in one hand, said, “Can I give you a hug?”
I paused a moment, then nodded. “Sure, why not?”
They were a foursome: Dag, who had asked me about Woodstock, was from Sweden; Jacopo, who had hugged me, was from Italy; and Chris and Alexis were from L.A. All were in their mid-twenties, like so many of the people I had seen in this neighborhood. We talked for half an hour. They interviewed me about my generation, I asked them about theirs, with Woodstock, then, and Berlin, now, as the focal points of our conversation.
Alexis asked me what my most lasting impression was from the Woodstock era. I said that when I arrived at the festival and saw half a million people who seemed a lot like me all in one place, I felt then that we could change everything. “But things didn’t really change much,” I said. “After our little generational blip, they went back to how they were, more or less.”
Alexis looked stunned. “But you did make a difference!” she said. Her friends agreed. Each named something they saw as a consequence of the work the Woodstock generation had begun. For Jacopo, it was simply to be able to drink beer on the street and dress however he wanted; for Dag, to make and listen to whatever music he chose; for Alexis and Chris, to do creative design and to congregate in East Berlin with others like themselves. Each expressed how they were beneficiaries of my generation, and how, in his or her own way, they were continuing in our tradition. “You are like our Founding Fathers,” Alexis said.
That brief encounter was not only the highlight of my stay in Berlin, but also woke me to how neither the values of my generation nor our attempt to “change the world” had died with the end of the 60s. It was alive and thriving in the generation that succeeded us. It was their heritage.
I continue to believe this. I trust that what we planted still grows and that we shall all, some day, reap its harvest.