Remember our twenties, the know-everything years?
We charged into adulthood believing we were destined to run the country – and the world – so much better once we got in power. At the very least, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes as our parents. A month after my 20th birthday I got married, certain it would be forever, priding myself in waiting two years longer than my mother when she took the unsuccessful plunge. Brimming over with book learning, post-adolescent freedom, and Civil Rights Movement fervor I smoked, drank, wrote, challenged racial and gender barriers, and had two children before the decade ended. I preferred the company of people several years older than me, but not necessarily to listen at their feet. I couldn’t shut up; I had so many revolutionary ideas I thought they needed to hear.
Once the thirties kicked in we seemed to warp into a do-everything blur of responsibilities and quests, bending and breaking rules in our professional and private lives. We chased “what next”, “there must be something more,” and “maybe this is it” experiences, often losing track of ourselves in the process.
And then came the forties; how quickly the pages turned.
Nests emptied, or filled – or both. Marriages and partnerships were reassessed. We started losing people who were dear to us. Life forced us to let go of some things; others we couldn’t wait to cast away. Many of us crashed, and burned, and resurrected– more than once – before the decade of reshaping was done.
In the feel-everything fifties we started spiritual triage on our finances, our health, and our relationships. Maturity began to peel away that shield of invincibility. Now we’re making peace with the dichotomies of life.
The sixties is the decade of aging grace.
Yes, we may feel sandwiched in between the expectations of ailing parents and adult children, between the societal pressure to look and act forever young and to just disappear. Yes, we can’t do it all, and maybe we shouldn’t, even if we could. As a generation we’ve changed some things, and we’ve made some mistakes. Growing older means we accept that we will never fix everything. But that doesn’t mean a solution isn’t possible, or that we don’t keep trying.
In many ways our survival this long through society’s shifting uncertain sands has given us the firmer footing needed for navigating today’s richly troubled soil. The challenge now is how to pass some of our knowledge along.
Every generation has the same burden – the problems of its “historical moment” as Robert Penn Warren called it in Segregation: Inner Turmoil of the South, a little-known homage to racial change, controversial in its own turbulent time. The noted poet and novelist and son of the South wrote the 65-page collection of reflections in 1956 during his travels through southern states in the U.S. in the wake of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision which kicked off the civil rights movement of our era. Stopping at stores and cafes and homes, he held impromptu conversations with people on both sides of the color line on their misgivings about what the future held for race relations.
They wrestled with conflicting attitudes and so did he, going from being a proponent of segregation to declaring that desegregation was inevitable – strong fighting words from a White southerner of that time. He saw a pattern of brutal assaults, public outrages, and discriminatory practices, as a moral problem that keeps us locked in a “national rhythm of complacency and panic.”
In the end, he concluded, the best we can do “Is try to plug along in a way to make [the younger generation] think we – the old folks – did the best we could for justice, as we could understand it.”
Perhaps our role as the generation that survived the turbulent 1960s is to impart lessons we have learned, and cautionary tales. Our children may not get it – yet – but just give them a few decades. Besides, that’s why they made grandchildren for us to regale.
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