Be the Change
A man cannot step into the same river twice.
– Heraclitis of Ephesus
I came of age in the late ’60s, the era of the first man on the moon, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, free love, civil rights marches, and the assassinations of iconic figures including Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. It was a time 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 believed we could “change the world”: end war and poverty, achieve racial equality, bring literacy to the illiterate, and recreate the Paradise from which we felt we had fallen long ago. We could do it. My generation. Us, not them.
I finished high school in 1969 and that year discovered the poetry of William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Bly. These poet radicals became my role models. Much of my first year in college I spent attending concerts by topical protest singers, encircling draft boards, demonstrating on college campuses and in Washington, D.C. But by the time the war ended, I knew I wasn’t cut out for the life of a political radical, not even a poet radical. I was still motivated to “change the world” – but how?
I became a seeker and a drifter. I briefly lived on a farm owned by an environmental design professor from the University at Buffalo who wanted to build affordable houses from indigenous materials, a project that ended when he died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. I took a two-month motorcycle trip around the northeast and landed, eventually, in Manhattan. Still hunting for a way to “change the world,” I found work there as a reporter for weekly newspapers and as a part-time art teacher at the Brooklyn Museum. For five years, I wandered New York’s streets and subways, my camera, tape recorder, and notepad at the ready. I developed a writing/photography style 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.
I moved from documentary to fiction writing and returned to grad school, first in creative writing and later in English. During a lengthy recovery from a brush with death, my search for a way to “change the world” shifted again, toward more intimate and individual connection, and I eventually found psychotherapy. A close friend ends every email to me saying he hopes I’m still “saving the world one client at a time.”
I have felt purposeful in all these things. Yet I have also mourned the loss of the vision my generation had of a different world – until, that is, a recent vacation in Germany, where I spent a few days in the former East Berlin. In my last hour there, as I looked for somewhere to have lunch, a young man with a goatee and long blonde hair grabbed my shoulder and said, “Did you go to Woodstock?”
“Well, as a matter of fact I did.”
Triumphantly turning to companions seated nearby, he exclaimed, “See! I told you!”
Another young man, darker complexioned, hair in a topknot and holding a beer in one hand, said, “Can I give you a hug?”
I paused, suspicious of pickpockets, then nodded. “Sure, why not?”
They were a foursome: The one who had asked me about Woodstock was Swedish, the hugger was Italian, and a young couple was from L.A. Like the majority of the people I had seen in East Berlin, they were all in their mid-20s. The young woman asked me what my most lasting impression was from Woodstock. “When I arrived at the festival and saw half a million people like me, I felt that we could change everything,” I said. “But things didn’t really go that way, in the end. After a generational blip, they’ve more or less gone back to how they were.”
She shook her head. “But you did make a difference!” she said. She gestured around the table. “We’re all continuing what you started. You’re like our Founding Fathers!”
For half an hour, we talked about how my generation had influenced theirs. For the Italian, inherited change was simply to be able to drink beer on the street and dress however he wanted; for the Swede, to make and listen to whatever music he liked; for the two Americans, to do creative design and to congregate in East Berlin where, with others like themselves, they might forge their own Woodstock Nation.
That brief encounter has stayed with me. Maybe our attempt to “change the world” didn’t die with the ’60s after all. Maybe it is alive, in its own form, in the generation that succeeded us. Maybe what we planted still grows and we shall all, one day, reap its harvest.
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