For those of us old enough to be able to put down ‘hippie’ in our resume of life, there are certain points in time that epitomize an exhilarating shift in the collective global mind. Woodstock 1969 was the quintessential metaphor for my generation. It wasn’t just a concert. It stands out as the concert of the century. Never before or since has a single concert assumed the identity of a movement. All you have to do is say, Woodstock, and everyone immediately understands.
It was supposed to be a gathering of 50,000 people which, in itself, would have made a statement. But, instead, nearly a half million people showed up to Max Yasgur’s little farm in upstate New York.
The logistics of dealing with this unexpected influx of people had to have been a nightmare in epic proportions. Dealing with the human waste of nearly 500,000 people is a far cry from 50,ooo. Food, water, emergency services, communication, ad nauseum, had to be improvised on the spot. But Max rolled with it.
Let’s face it, the fact that Woodstock was an epic party was a huge draw–but I’m sure it was only a way the gods sweetened their invitation to an entire generation to show up and be counted. If there were accidental pilgrims, all the better. No one who was there left the same as they’d come.
The fact that it didn’t turn out to be a major humanitarian disaster is evidence of a shift in consciousness of my generation and the mark of a new form of activism that characterized us ‘hippies’. Everyone pitched in. Everyone took on a job, picked up a soup ladle, organized everyone else. We were united in our common disgust with the war in Vietnam, in our parent’s repressive sexuality, in the materialism that grew out of the prosperity of post-WWII, in the roles we were supposed to play and the attitudes we were supposed to adopt from our parents. We were a generation that began thinking for ourselves. We were idealistic, defiant, and incredulous about inhumane events. We weren’t afraid of anything new. We shocked our parents by hanging out with people who weren’t the same color or class that we were. We flipped the bird to our parent’s generation by growing our hair long, refusing charm school, reading Marx, demonstrating in the streets for civil rights and smoking pot. We pursued dreams and schemes, started movements, raised conscientiousness about our environment, equality, education, freedom and more. We embodied the essence of the original ideals of this nation. Thomas Jefferson would have been proud. We discovered our government was lying to us and that pissed us off. We witnessed our most promising leadership shot down literally in cold blood to silence our movement toward not only peace, but humanity. Ultimately, we stood for what is just and right in any society.
Probably the single most unifying element of my hippie generation was the music which broke all the molds from previous generations. And Woodstock 1969 was the proof. With a venue that would immortalize the musical artists who showed up, every song represented some important aspect of our generation. Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Credence Clearwater, Jimi Hendrix, just to name a few. And the ones who didn’t show up, like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin must had kicked themselves in the ass for the rest of their lives. Only Joni Mitchell had the humility and the guts to publicly regret it. There is irony that Joni Mitchell’s song, Woodstock, immortalized the festival because she’d turned down the gig so she could make an appearence on the Dick Cavett. Show. The gods have a wicked sense of humor sometimes. The fact that the songs from those three days are still full of life only confirms the sincerity of my generation of hippies who felt entitled to a world where love, justice, fairness, and peace are the elements that bind us together as one people.
If we face all of the same old tired issues still in this country and world, it isn’t because the ‘movement’ failed. It’s because it takes time to turn something as big as a planet onto a new orbit.
In 1971, my last year in high school, I ended up in special English class of one with a reading list that needed my parent’s permission.
Some of the books on that list were: Franny & Zooey, Catcher in the Rye, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Lord of the Flies, Bless the Beast & the Children, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings…. pretty sophisticated stuff for a 17-year-old by the standards of the day.
But actually not too sophisticated at all. Adults like to perpetuate the myth of their own wisdom by underestimating the adolescent’s ability to think symbolically. Catcher In The Rye is a perfect example, both in the story itself, and in the book’s history as the number-one most banned book in schools, even to this day.
I confess that even now, I relate to Holden Caulfield. But it’s clear that most people miss Salinger’s message entirely. Caulfield is alienated—that much any half-wit can see. But what alienates him is missed entirely. The key to his depression is how absolutely normal ‘phony-ness’ is in the world around him. He goes into detail to describe what he thinks phony-ness is—the utter lack of compassion for others — among his schoolmates, among the movie-makers in Hollywood, among his parents’ generation, who seem to value all the wrong things.
What Holden values is so utterly simple that it is easy to miss. It is all embodied in his dead little brother, Allie who was sweet, kind, and interested in those around him. Allie was pure love. Holden prefers being with those his loves in such unadorned situations like hanging out with his little sister to just about any other activity in life. He longs for a genuine, authentic exchange between people—one that overlooks pimples and shyness because it recognizes the true value of the person. Their real heroism, integrity and courage.
When he describes the grisly taunting that led to James Castle jumping to his death rather than admitting to being a coward, it becomes clear that Holden sees what no one else wants to see — that if we bend to the tyranny of bullies of our society, we die. When no one at Pencer will go close to Castle’s burst and bloody remains, they accuse themselves of being his murderers. When Mr. Antolini appears on the scene and checks for a pulse, then covers Castle’s gory body with his own coat to carry it inside, Holden is deeply touched. Antolini’s lack of concern for his expensive coat in lieu of covering Castle’s very intimate and private viscera splattered all over the steps and sidewalk, strikes Holden as the response that should be normal. The fact that it is the exception in our society rather than the rule is what depresses and alienates Holden. And he is absolutely correct to be depressed. It is an appropriate response to Man’s inhumanity towards Man.
Holden doesn’t want to be part of that world and as he realizes that there is no escaping it, he begins to retreat behind his fantasies and can only be brought to his senses when he sees how the consequences of this choice are affecting his little sister.
The fact that Holden’s style of resistance is passive may bother people who need things spelled out for them. But what other choice does a 16-year-old have who is prematurely enlightened by the death of his little brother?
Disbelief by Robin King
In the real shoes of someone who has had a loved one prematurely snatched out of their lives, the overwhelming sensation is “This does not make sense…” The griever cannot stop asking, why? why? why? The powerlessness, the unfairness, the utter lack of logic that one feels after the sudden death of a loved one is totally alienating. But it doesn’t feel like those expectations are misplaced, but rather that there is something very wrong with the world. It is like getting a pair of glasses for the first time in your life.
The fact that within our society, there is no acknowledgment of how utterly unfair, incorrect, inhuman, and wrong it is to lose a loved one, makes the shock of the loss even worse. Not only do you feel like half of a person, but everyone around you is talking to you as if nothing is wrong. It’s sheer crazy-making. Plain and simple. And Holden’s only form of defiance, of protest, is to passively not participate. He lives in a world where his opinions and preferences do not count to the decision-makers of his life. Like all children, he has a limited number of responses available to him to get his point across. Flunking out of prep school sends the message loud and clear.
What is the societal “normal” versus what should be the norm? Salinger constantly revisits this theme in his work — Franny & Zooey explores the same territory — and his subsequent withdrawal from the public world after his disastrous and disappointing brush with success, are really the quintessential leitmotif of his oeuvre:
What passes for insanity in our culture is often a sane reaction to an insane thing.
One day, while I was working in my garden, a neighbor, (I’ll call her Linda) walked by and asked if she could help. I’d seen her around, had said hello, knew she lived down the block, but that was it. We’d never even had coffee together.
Linda was a tough old broad who carried herself like a stevedore right off the docks. Her rough edges said she’d duked it out with life and lost most of the battles. But I took her offer as a kind gesture, considering I was covered in mud trying to move some earth around to make a rise in that part of the garden.
Gardening to me is a sort of meditation where I find myself thinking of nothing but what is in front of me. It’s my way of calming my monkey-mind to focus my energy, but that day, I welcomed her into my inner sanctuary without thinking. As we worked along side each other, she talked about her life, her past, the gossip in the ‘hood, her opinion of other neighbors, yada yada yada… I began to regret opening the gate into my little world since it took real effort to stay focused on my mud while listening to her.
After the first half hour, she began to speak about her family. “I just know you’ll understand this,” she started this next phase of conversation and inside I groaned. I seem to have some mysterious ‘open for business’ sign on my forehead that gives people permission to tell me their darkest secrets–whether I want to know them or not. It’s always been awkward finding myself in possession of someone else’s secrets. But, I didn’t have the heart to interrupt her and she wasted no time in getting to the juicy parts.
“I had two older brothers who’d never leave me alone. I couldn’t even take a bath without ’em hassling me…they thought it was pretty damned funny to bust in and piss in my bath water…” I stopped in mid-air with my shovel, trying to reconcile the word hassle as a description of this scene. But she didn’t notice and continued talking as she dug beside me. “They’d make me stay in the dirty water, laughing their asses off… sometimes, one of ’em would even shit in the water… thought it was pretty f–king funny too. And they’d say, ‘Go on, wash up…”
I was now entirely immobile with this information. I didn’t even know this woman’s last name, and now I had a horrific image stamped in my mind. I must have mumbled something inane like, “That’s horrible…” but I could see that to her, it was absolutely normal— something all brothers did to little sisters. I suppressed the urge to signal a big T for time-out. Her matter-of-fact tone made it that much more obscene, but what was truly disturbing was that it was clear she had never had any sort of professional help with it. Still, I asked if she’d ever gone to therapy and she just snorted, “Shit, no!” as if I was implying something even more undesirable than what had happened to her.
I couldn’t get her story out of my mind. The image of a little girl sitting in a bath tub full of water while her brothers pissed and shat into it stuck like Tar-Baby for a week. But something else bothered me: I was actually angry at her. I felt threatened. Claustrophobic even. Out of all the possible reactions I could have–pity, compassion, sadness, why anger? In principle, I felt these things, but not in fact. Something else threatened me. Some part of me was deeply insulted. Was I insulted for her?I asked myself. No, I was insulted byher telling me this story when we did not have enough history between to actually have a relationship.
But what was the threat? Finally, I realized that by revealing this horrific secret, she was, albeit unconsciously, trying to fast-track a friendship with me and call upon the kind of intimacy that is only built over years. By making me a keeper of her secret, however reluctant I was, she had assumed a closeness with me that wasn’t there. Moreover, it was a Tar-Baby because it came with an unspoken demand for me to reveal something equally secret about my own past. Ah hah! I thought, this is why I’m angry. I felt cornered and stripped of all those tiny choices made over time that forge a close relationship.
In ‘The Ways We Lie’, when I write about omission, I am talking about a very different thing
—to omit a critical piece of information. But the operative word here is ‘critical’. For example, to invite a close girlfriend over for dinner and fail to mention that you’d also invited her nemesis ex-boyfriend is a form of deception. It strips her of her choices.
Boundaries, on the other hand, should not be confused with omission. Boundaries are self-protection. They are wise. They decide whom to let close to you, how close and when. They’re dependent on authentic relationships built over time, when the real measure of the other person can be determined. For example, I rarely reveal that I am a writer to acquaintances and neighbors. I have found that often, people treat me differently and put me on an unearned pedestal. Writing is, to me, just the work I do, no different than teaching, building bridges or selling widgets. It doesn’t make me a better neighbor. I’m still a horrible housekeeper. I can still be a pain in the ass when I’m grouchy. But this boundary protects me from the kind of isolation that celebrity-worship imposes. Does that make me a liar? No. Because it isn’t a piece of information that these acquaintances need to know. It’s not critical to our relationship.
Linda’s lack of boundaries had nothing to do with revealing critical information to me. This was the kind of thing you tell someone who can do something about it and I certainly couldn’t. I’m no social worker. Had we been friends over time, become equals and built trust between us, I would have felt very differently—I would have felt compassion, pity, sadness for her. But as it was, it was a form of manipulation on her part. Now, I would have to treat her like a close friend when she was not.
The most uncomfortable part was about to come with Linda. Several times that week, she’d knocked on my door, asking me for a cigarette or a cup of sugar and I obliged her. But, then, one day, I came out to do my daily deadheading and discovered her sitting in the private little alcove where I drank my tea and wrote in my journal. My knee-jerk response was to ask her what she was doing in my yard. She was deeply insulted. Immediately, I wanted to apologize for being harsh, but some wiser part of me zipped that reaction. This was a person who’d taken an inch and had set her sights on taking a mile very soon. I didn’t appreciate her assumptions. I did not want to be buddies. And I did not feel it was necessary to explain myself. Awful as this sounds, even to me, I knew that it was a choice that I was entitled to make for myself. I had drawn a line in the sand. That’s a boundary.
I always liked to think I was tough. Not mushy or sentimental.
It’s a useful delusion.
But there are these sobs that ambush me sometimes, like little muggers jumping out of a dark alley .I know most of them by now…
bieger & farah
the Star Spangled Banner at a ball game…
a picture of an American soldier…
the song Danny Boy or the sound of bagpipes…
any baby picture of my kids…
Steph & Jim
a photograph of me and my late husband laughing.
And just about any of the photographs from September 11th, 2001.
I’ve come to understand it to be the sweet side of grief. The part that made me more human.
The Wall at Ground Zero
To all of those who lost their precious lives 10 years ago, to their families who have lived with an empty place at the table, to all of those firemen and police who risked everything to save the few they could, I want you to know that I wept for weeks 10 years ago, and even now, a sob for you still catches me off guard.
Part of a series in tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11
Years ago, I saw the documentary by Wide Angle (PBS) entitled, Ladies First, about the women of Rwanda putting their country back together. One of the most striking segments of the film was about the role that contrition and forgiveness was playing in healing the devastating wounds left over, not only among the Tutsi survivors, but among the Hutu as well. With the majority of the Hutu men in prison for their war crimes and the majority of the Tutsi men dead by the hands of these Hutu men, women had to run their lives, their communities, their economy and their government without them. There was no choice—they would pull their lives and country together or perish.
How did they accomplish this? They had been mortal enemies. There had been enough atrocities committed by neighbor against neighbor that it’s inconceivable to imagine how the Tutsi and Hutu women could have even sat in the same room, much less worked together and cooperated for their collective welfare. They did something that is unimaginable to most of us… the Hutu women asked the Tutsi women for forgiveness for the atrocities their men committed. And the Tutsi women forgave them. I’m not saying that it happened in one day. Or that it was readily accepted. It happened over time, begun by a few individuals.
Another documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, chronicles the journey of the women of Liberia, who’d had enough of the years of war, of losing their children and men, of starving, of living in fear twenty-four hours a day. They determined together to put an end to it. They achieved this the way that women always do—by working together. Christian and the Muslim women put aside their differences and discovered they had more in common than they imagined. They stopped the violence with non-violent protests. They refused to be silent any longer, refused to be intimidated by the men, and even refused to sleep with their husbands until the violence ended. They used prayer, chanting and non-violent sit-ins. They did not back down. They would not go away. This is how they ended the war in their country.
It made me wonder. What if mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers all said, “Enough!”? Enough violence. Enough sending our sons and husbands off to die. Enough wasting our country’s time and resources on wars that never end.
What would happen if the mothers of Israel and Palestine stood together and said, “Enough”?
Better yet, what if the women of the entire world simply refused to cook or clean or have sex with their men until the war ended everywhere?
I’m sure women across the world have smiled to themselves during a quiet moment stirring a pot of soup, and fantasized about what might actually happen if all women, everywhere, were to simply stop—even for one day—taking care of minor things—like food, shelter, clothing, and raising children. How well could men run all those the important things, like politics, government and business?