by Jerry Waxler
When I landed at the University of Wisconsin in 1965 I was a virgin, never smoked dope, had never been drunk, and had never heard of Vietnam. Even if I knew we were at war, it wouldn’t have bothered me. War preserves our freedom, right? Within weeks, I saw a picket line, my first warning that life was about to change. Soon I grew long hair and visited the record store every day hoping for new albums by the Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan.
Our cultural fever was fearless and far ranging. We hated war and poverty. We intended to eliminate them. We hated the stupid rules that restricted sex, so we ignored them. We were going to change consciousness itself. With the help of marijuana, I broke loose from old fashioned notions of personal responsibility. Money? Who needs it? When I read my first book by Alan Watts, I saw exactly what he meant. All of life is an illusion and we young people were reinventing it. What an exciting time!
Sweaty palms and gut wrenching drama: confronting “The Man”
To convince The Man of our new truths, we locked arms outside classrooms and refused to let anyone in. When police stormed the building, beating us with clubs, we ran in disbelief, furious and confused. Didn’t they see we were right? That conflict between two opposing desires is the basis for the dramatic tension that has driven stories since the beginning of time. It is the reason many of us know we lived through some good stories.
However, despite all the story material provided by those colorful times, memoir writers seem to be avoiding the era. After reading hundreds of memoirs, I can only think of two that took me all the way into the mentality. **
Where are all the other boomers who will provide their own experience during that time? Recently, I found a fascinating stash, like an archeological treasure buried in the minds of its authors. It’s a collection of short stories and poems called The Times They Were a Changing, co-edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. I settled back and went for the ride, turning the pages from one good story to the next. The stories not only took me into the past. They offered me the wisdom and uplift that I gain when I set aside my own point of view and see the world through other eyes.
Women Wanted to Change the World, Too
In these stories, I learn that women needed to confront the Man in a very different way than I did. They had to confront him when they asked their fathers what subject they were allowed to major in. They had to confront him when they asked for permission to leave their dorms at night or which job they were permitted to perform. But these women had drunk the potion of “we can change the world.” Why not change gender relationships too?
Like the war protestors, they discovered that The Man fought back. When Dorothy Alexander tells her dad that she is no longer restricted by the old ways, he screams at her. Get out of my house. I never want to see you again. Reading that scene, I vicariously feel her anger, pride, and fear, every bit as much as when I stood in front of a club-wielding cop. I turn the page. Tell me more!
Before I started gathering my past into a memoir, the sixties felt like a big, fascinating, mess, during which I joined a generation who thought that the path to wisdom required that we destroy the path. What did we end up with after all that drama? Most of our pipe dreams went up in smoke. We didn’t eliminate poverty or war, and drugs turned out to be less groovy than they first appeared. And in just six years, from 1965 to 1971, I effectively dismantled my life, forcing me to start over.
During my journey back to wholeness, I discovered that the best way to improve my relationship to the world was to tune in to the stories people tell about themselves and each other. For example, this method helped me improve my relationship with my older sister.
She seemed to be angry with me all the time, but I could never figure out why. I asked her to meet me for lunch so we could try to get to the bottom of it. The clatter of the restaurant faded into the background as we began to tell each other about childhood. She revealed her resentment about the way Dad gave his sons more freedom to choose schools and majors than he gave her. I was surprised and told her I had never noticed he was granting us more privilege. She was surprised by my lack of complicity. Now, years later, I finally saw the pain his preferences had caused.
Our conversation helped me understand why my sister resented me, and gave me my first personal understanding of what it felt like to be a woman before the shift. How could I have missed the whole thing? I couldn’t answer that question until I read the following story in The Times They Were a Changing.
Author Judith Barrington describes a crowded party, with loud music, booze and dancing. All the participants are female, bursting with the power of expressing themselves without worrying about the opinions of men. They wear blue jeans and some of them have even disrobed in an expression of defiance against all the crap about their bodies imposed by men. There is a commotion at the door. Two women have just entered dressed in fashionable dresses, makeup, coiffed hair and other symbols of male domination. The chatter in the crowd turns to a commentary about this turn of events. Why are they here? These aren’t feminists. Maybe they aren’t women at all. Maybe they are men dressed as women in order to crash our party. One of the women in the crowd says disdainfully, “Bloody men think they belong everywhere.”
The comment yanked me out of the story and brought me back to my body, where I found myself in an awkward position. I am a man. I can’t change my gender. Does that mean I’m not even welcome to keep reading? Of course not, I thought. That’s the power of reading. We set ourselves aside and go for the ride. So I climbed back into the story. Inside I see men as the enemy. In my state as an empathetic reader, I find that interesting, even mind expanding. I open my mind and drink in the mood of the time.
When I finish reading, I know more than I ever did back then. And my ignorance now makes better sense. If such parties were taking place at the University of Wisconsin, I certainly didn’t know about them. And if women were meeting to demand their rights, I didn’t know a thing about it. Despite the many benefits I have enjoyed as a male in a post-liberation world, I had no clear image of how we arrived here, nor was I able to empathize with the situations that women experienced during that turmoil.
Sharing stories heals wounds. After my sister and I processed the sins of our father, I told her that even though flying from Philadelphia to Madison may have looked glamorous, I regretted that I had more freedom than I knew how to handle. She had never realized how lost I felt there. By the end of the conversation, we understood each other. We’ve been good friends ever since.
After reading The Times They Were a Changing, I now have a much better understanding of the experiences of women in my generation. And even though I didn’t have a chance to witness the transition when it was first happening, now through the magic of memoirs, I am invited as a guest with a front row seat.
The Times are Changing Again
The title of this collection is for me a double entendre. In addition to the obvious meaning that the times back then were changing, I am fascinated by the changes today. The Memoir Revolution, in which we are participating right now, has fewer photo-opportunities. I doubt that I would watch a movie about a crowd of writers sitting at their desks. But inwardly this revolution overflows with all the drama that life has to offer. A million aspiring memoir writers are collecting their lives into the shape of a Story and imagining the possibility of sharing those stories with each other. Our new revolution liberates us from silence, lets us step out of our cliques and pains and ushers in an era of cultural dialog, with mutual respect and the exhilarating power of page turning stories.
What time in your life are you convinced “no one will ever understand.” Even if you can’t imagine ever writing it, set aside your doubts and try writing one scene. Think of any time related to that experience even if it seems too trivial to bother with, or at the other extreme, even if it seems too intense to ever capture in words. Write that scene by simply reporting what you were seeing, feeling, and thinking. Free-write. Don’t worry about excellence. It’s just a first draft. When you finish writing that scene, consider the powerful result. You have begun to translate a memory into a story. Later, by learning to polish and revise it, you can develop it into something with a beginning, middle and end, or you can add it as a chapter to a longer work. Feel free to type your brief episode into the comments below.
Look for memoirs that describe events similar to the one you experienced. Read the memoir, and then think about how that author translated life into story. If you want to ask about a memoir related to your situation, feel free to leave it in the comment section. Perhaps I or another commenter can offer a suggestion.
Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.
** Memoirs I’ve reviewed about the sixties: Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days, takes me into his over-the-top war protests. Read my essay: in Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist? And Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God offers a look at growing up in a Christian commune named L’Abri in Switzerland. Read my essay, Memoir of a commune stirs hope for a healthier world
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.