Home > Waiting for Something to Burst > “…and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”–Joni Mitchell

“…and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”–Joni Mitchell

September 20, 2005

19680303newhaven.jpg

Outskirts of early anti-Vietnam war demonstration, New Haven CT March 1968.
Photo by Jonathan Sa’adah.

Sometimes I’m not sure I had an adolescence. The personal details of those years seem forever pressed, like a prom corsage, between heavy events: inseparable now without tearing either the pages or the petals.

I was eleven when Kennedy was assassinated: we heard about it over the loudspeaker wired into our sixth-grade classroom. The teacher put her head down on her desk and cried. One girl was terrified to walk home alone because the killer hadn’t been found; someone said, Bonnie, are you nuts, he’s in Texas, do you think he can get to New York State in two hours? I left school and walked my safety-patrol route and went home; later that week my father and I were watching our small black-and-white television when Oswald was shot.

That year we still had girl-only birthday parties where we wore dresses and white ankle socks and danced the twist. The next fall we moved up from the long brick elementary school into the junior/senior high school building — and childhood was over. At another pajama party we squealed over the Beatles, and later the girls whispered in the dark about French kissing and having periods and making babies.

“I think it will be gross,” one of them said.

“I won’t know, I’ll be asleep when he does it,” said another, envied by all of us for already having a boyfriend.

Bob Dylan wrote The Times They are a Changin’ in 1964. I was twelve that summer, when Los Angeles erupted into the Watts riots. Already the bard-poets – Dylan, Simon, Lennon – were planting the idea in my head that vibrant, powerful poetry could grow out of one’s own roots and alienation both.

They called us flower children, but really we were children of the Cold War, raised on fallout and expected conflagration. The explosion finally came in 1968: the My Lai massacre happened in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, Bobby Kennedy in June while we were taking New York State Regents’ exams. I had long hair and wire-rimmed glasses; spent hours listening to music and reading, playing a half-hearted guitar and trying to sing like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. Part of that summer, I knocked on doors in my hometown to campaign for Eugene McCarthy, witnessing the fissures in the country at close range as people I’d known all my life invited me in to talk, or kicked me out of their houses.

The first day of senior year we stood around the black tables of the physics lab and listened to two kids who had managed to go to Woodstock; it wasn’t all that far from where I grew up — in fact, my cousin, a state livestock inspector, used to test the cows for mastitis on Yasgur’s newly-famous farm. That December, just in time to coincide with the deadlines for our college applications, the Selective Service held the first draft lottery for everyone born between 1944 and 1950. We were two years younger, but we knew what was coming: the thunderheads were piling up, the leaves turning upside down in the wind. Country Joe and the Fish sang the Fixin’ to Die Rag; Jimi Hendrix demanded to know if we were experienced. Everyone was going through the motions of SATs, college essays, relationships, career choices, but none of us were sure we’d live to grow up, or what life would be like if we did.

I spent a lot of that year in the library or the art room talking to my friend Kip. In the absence of any AP classes in our high school, we’d both been pulled out of English and American History and were doing those classes as tutorials with two barely-motivated faculty members. It was a loose structure, to say the least; we had big term paper assignments and lots of books to read, but mostly we talked about politics and history, art and poetry, racism and class warfare. Kip wore his poor background like a breastplate and chided me constantly for having come from the middle class. “What do you know?” he’d taunt. “I had rats in my cradle when I was a baby. What makes you think you have anything to say?” He made oil paintings and wrote long Ferlinghetti-inspired poems on the back with lines like “bombshelter brainrooms in crystal and silver”. I argued back, and painted a twice-life-size nude on a cooperative mural that scandalized the cafeteria staff; together he and I edited the yearbook and, without ever saying so, prized our stormy friendship.

In April Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, in May the country blew up over Kent State… and a month later we graduated.

I was bursting with unexpressed feelings, experiences, longings. I wanted to be a writer, but I was enough of a self-critic to know that the stuff I was writing was crap: my voice inauthentic, my eye too close to the lens. Kip’s words would haunt me for another decade and a half, as I struggled to understand the carnage left by Vietnam and the tumultuous trajectory of a personal life emerging, finally, from those dense pages. It would take a new set of mounting injustices, together with a long inward journey, to finally swell the seed planted back in the sixties – the seed with the words inside.

Written by Beth Adams of
the cassandra pages.

  1. September 21, 2005 at 10:47 am

    This is glorious, Beth. I love the sense of readiness and tension that pervades the entire piece, and the ending knocks my socks off. “The seed with the words inside” is such a wonderful phrase.

  2. September 21, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    Magnificent. We all in that time grew up feeling we were carrying seeds of something — or a contagion —

    One of the very weirdest turns of time for me has been to see the 60’s turned into an object of nostalgia, into the good old innocent days — a time, as I experienced it, so heavy with loss and guilt and fury and divided loyalties.

    “What rough beast…?”

  3. September 21, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    As someone to young to remember the actual decade of the 60s (I was born in ’66), I do remember feeling an odd kind of nostalgia for the period as a kid – and that was without the benefit of much familiarity with the music. Just looking through the Last Whole Earth Catalogue, which my back-to-the-land parents had, I’d feel this sense of longing for, well, not lost innocence exactly, but maybe a sense of sincerity that vanished almost as soon as it was born… sometime in the few months between Woodstock and Altamont. I don’t know. Mind you, I have never been part of the neo-hippie subculture. I’ve never felt that the Woodstock or Rainbow Tribe vision of peace through hedonism had much to offer, and in any case, to boil “the 60s” down to that single ethos always seemed grossly unfair. Many thanks to Beth for this wonderful account from someone with a strong social conscience, then and (I gather) to this day. This more than anything is what seems to be missing from the skewed version of the decade presented for mass consumption.

  4. September 21, 2005 at 4:17 pm

    Wonderful writing, Beth.

  5. September 21, 2005 at 4:35 pm

    Thank you.

    For me, it was always political. The other aspects of the sixties which are glorified now by the neo-hippies were secondary to me and to most of the people I knew who were really concerned about the war – although everybody was living in a sexually free culture, and there was a lot of dope to be had if you wanted it, and of course there was the music. But even that was kind of divided between rock music that was mostly about escape and creating one’s own world (or alienating one’s parents), and rock and folk that was political and about cultural values and alienation. Now, after the sixties, the whole back-to-the-land/Whole Earth thing got big, and here in Vermont it still lingers. That was real, value-based, and rooted in a sincere desire to forge a different way of being and living in greater harmony with the earth – off the grid if necessary. Of course – a lot of the kids who went that route were trust-fund hippies. And some of them also became very successful entrepreneurs. But when I see and hear the present-day version of what was going on, it feels very shallow and as if, well, they just weren’t there. I remember it the way Dale does – as being heavy, ominous, tragic, difficult – but also fascinating. I was deeply engaged in what felt like my whole world, and saw the interconnections — and so did a lot of other people. That’s what make ME nostalgic.

  6. Onduma
    September 22, 2005 at 5:55 am

    Thank you for your evocative reminiscence, Beth. Those few years were volatile indeed.

    Because these are historical as well as personal milestones, let me just mention that Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin'” in 1963 and the Watts Riots occurred in 1965. John Lennon was, in 1964, not yet inspiring us with his poetry, powerful or otherwise, this being the period of “Please Please Me,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “And I Love Her” — ordinary pop rhymes, in other words.

    And by 1966, Dylan had abandoned his strum-a-ching pickety-pluck acoustic tunes about cultural values and social alienation and instead was exhorting, in full electric glory, “Everybody must get stoned!” Lennon graced us with lyrical descriptions of his LSD trips. Paul Simon was writing about a “Red Rubber Ball” and “Feelin’ Groovy,” while Sly and the Family Stone were preparing to take us higher. Not exactly bardic stuff, but what the hell.

    The explosion of the new notwithstanding, it all felt very shallow to me *then*, and I was there, too — enrolled full-time in ’66 at a commuter university in a large midwestern city, working part-time during the school year and full-time every summer, watching friends and fellow students don political activism along with their surplus-store army jackets, hand-tooled leather sandals, and Silvertone guitars from Sears. It was the genesis of the mediated, counter-cultural fashion-statement as identity-marker (“Commodify Your Dissent”).

    Of course, we were more innocent (or naive) and less calculating than today’s reality-TV wannabes, but certainly no less motivated by self-conscious image-making and hormonal adolescent rebellion than any subsequent generation. And once we saw footage of ourselves on the six-o’-clock news and photos of ourselves on the cover of Time, we realized that our facile iconoclasm and instant-karma social protests had won us not the political arena but a far more powerful prize: the marketplace.

    So yes, Dave, it was the (first) decade created by mass consumers for their own mass consumption, and they/we are still buying the re-re-remastered CD boxed sets and the enhanced special-edition DVDs with commentary, and the never-before-shown PBS documentaries, and the crunchy granola breakfast bars, and the natural herbal remedies, and the recycled toilet paper and, and, and…the beat goes on.

  7. September 22, 2005 at 7:05 am

    Assuming that Onduma’s chronology is correct, I think it actually increases my appreciation of Beth’s essay to see how the alembic of memory has altered things, even for someone so focused on the underlying social/political currents and counter-currents. As for myself, it hardly needs to be said that nostalgia is a far-from-accurate way of remembering things.

    If elements of the countercultural movement in the 60s were shallow, what can one say about someone capable of advocating, with no apparent irony, “Ban Beatniks, Not Liberty”?! I am close to someone in the John Birch Society, and it’s interesting to see how far these folks have come in the intervening decades. The JBS philosophy is much more libertarian now, and in some way, I think, that demonstrates just how pervasive have been the changes in perceptions originally spearheaded by those very beatniks the paleo-conservatives once so vehemently deplored.

    I came of age in the eighties, as a metalhead with many punk friends, and I think the issues of rebellion versus commodification were very much alive for us then. We made endless cynical, self-deprecating jokes about rebelling in step, anarchy MY way, etc. Looking back, I would say that that cynicism itself was the worm in the apple. It’s the cynicism that allows us to live with the hypocrisy of continuing to consume while decrying the culture of consumption. I would like to think that I am much more committed to radical vision now that I have shed most of the overt trappings of counter-cultural rebellion and endeavor instead to live each day in the fullest awareness I can muster, to practice radical empathy and hospitality, and to question that most tyrannical of authorities – myself.

  8. September 22, 2005 at 9:52 am

    Onduma, you’re quite right, ad thank you for the corrections – I looked up all the dates and apparently made a mistake about Watts when I translated from the actual year to my age during those years. Dylan’s album The Times they Are a’Changin has a copyright/release date of 1964, but the song itself was written in 1963.

    You express something which is probably true for all tumultuous times: our perception depends on so much more than the shared, large events. I lived in a family sympathetic to the liberal political cause and attended a university that was a hotbed of political activism; my boyfrend at the time as a child of New York, Jewish, working class intellectuals who had been socialist party members…so those aspects were at the forefront for me, while for many others, the “turn on, tune in, drop out” and free love culture were the big things, alogn with the long hair, army jackets, and tie-dye. My husband’s brother served in Vietnam so his family was very affected by the war at the time, and its effects continue in that family down to this day. Plenty of other families and people remained relatively unscathed and untouched.

    The point you make about “self-conscious image-making and hormonal adolescent rebellion” and its translation during the 60s into the marketplace of consumerism is right on the money, so to speak. The number of people who were really committed for the long haul – to a lifetime of rebellion against the status quo and making real sacrifices once the romanticism was over – that number was small, and nearly all of us made compromises. Part of what I’m doing now is trying to extricate myself from some of those compromises – but more along the lines Dave suggests in his very thoughtful final sentence, just above.

  9. sally
    September 23, 2005 at 6:28 pm

    Those of us just slightly older-about ten years or so-remember the shock of it all. We were the last of the generation who bought into the Leave it to Beaver myth.
    That suddenly people could say out loud what had been smoldering in our heads for so long was unbearably painful for those of us with baby barf on our shoulders.
    I remember THE moment when I decided that The War in Vietnam was hideous. It was Thanksgiving time and we were treated to the stock “turkey and all the trimmings” being served to those poor bastards out there in godknowswhere, and I thought to myself, THIS IS CRAP!!! It took a while, granted, but from that moment on I slowly, gradually and often painfully began moving out of the cocoon of Ozzie and Harriet alone and afraid in a world I never made. It took maybe 20 years for me to discover that the world I had been prepared to live in was a mirage, and that the person I thought I should become was a shadow on the wall of the cave.

  10. Onduma
    September 23, 2005 at 9:29 pm

    Well, we were mere children, and what we in our naive hubris mistook for a sociopolitical revolution was really just a passing, youthful rave made large by electronic media coverage, the novel impact of which initially mesmerized and ultimately fractured an entire populace. I haven’t visited the United States since 1984, but from the little I hear or read (as an expatriate who lacks regular access to the usual sources of information), it seems that radical political change anywhere in the world can occur only after total collapse of the global economic infrastructure, so until then, individual transformation (as you and Dave describe) would seem the most intelligent, if not sole, option.

    Good luck with this collaborative publication, Beth, et al. It’s a pleasure to encounter such thoughtfully articulate prose. An associate with whom I’m residing for a few days gave me an enlightening tour of the blogging universe (I’m using his computer to write this), and your group’s pages stand out as the most remarkably enjoyable to read. Many thanks to all of you.

  11. September 24, 2005 at 8:13 am

    Sally – thank you for such a thoughtful comment, extending our collective memory of those years. It is wonderful to have you here! Thank God you and so many other women DID wake up to pave the way for women like me who were a bit younger. (It’s amazing to think of you, of all people, as a shadow on the wall.) Maybe you’d consider writing a post for this blog sometime??

    Onduma – thank you for reading and for continuing the conversation, and for your compliment on this group blog effort. It’s very much appreciated. I hope that after you leave your friend’s place you can find a way to continue your tour of blogs and that you’ll be back here often. Your contributions to the conversation will always be welcome. We especially want to foster a dialogue that includes voices from around the world, not just present-day Americans and English native speakers. Ex-patriates, immigrants, and people from world cultures need to be talking with each other and building understanding. This is one small way to encourage that.

  12. September 30, 2005 at 1:06 am

    This post brings back memories. I was in kindergarten when JFK was assassinated but old enough to understand what had happened. The 60s terrified me — my grade school concentrated on current events; my mother taught in the “inner-city” and came home with hair-raising stories. I honestly didn’t expect to survive high school.

    My grade school literary magazine has extraordinary poetry by young children writing about war and the end of the world.

  13. October 11, 2005 at 6:44 am

    As with everyone else who has commented here, the 60’s represents a tapestry of conflicted emotions.

    I lived near Watts with my uncle, aunt and cousins while the fires were burning and the first of William Parker’s helicopters
    began circling overhead. It was the second major ambushing of my innocence (the first being the Kennedy assassination).
    I knew from the panic-stricken faces of my aunt and uncle that I would never be safe in this world.

    But then there was all that music! What would we have done without the soundtrack?

    This is a terrific piece you’ve written. I’m glad I’ve found you.

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