I recently flew cross-country to attend my high school reunion. Now is there a cooler year to be the graduating class of or WHAT? Well, not only is ’69 a great number, but I think it was the most exciting time ever to be 18 years old. Our country was going through a period of massive social change. Civil rights, assassinations, the war in Viet Nam, “power to the people,” demand for the 18-year-old vote, and, not quite known to us yet, the sleeping giant of feminism about to wake up. I feel the old excitement just thinking about how we were going to change the world. Well, we did! And we didn’t. More on that later. We were aware of these events going on around us but, still relatively helpless in high school, much of it was on the news. We mostly got the trickle-down effect, a big part of which was through music. OMG the music! Some of the best ever. We were from a small city in rural Pennsylvania, but we could get radio stations from New York and Philly. And dominating everything was Motown. The Temptations and Supremes were gonna make you love me, the Four Tops just can’t help themselves. Marvin heard it through the grapevine, Stevie said it’s alright, and of course Aretha demanded her respect. The music was sweet and soulful, hip-shaking and heart-aching, about love and longing and loss. To us mostly white teens, it only added to the evidence that people are people and equality is the right and only way to go. And soon the great crossover bands like Santana, Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic would be making our expanding consciousness explode. This is the music we danced to at our reunion. Maybe not quite as energetically as in ’69, but still pretty amazing considering the extra pounds, medications, and 10 pm bedtimes that have laid many of us low. Saddest of all was the awareness of class members who have not survived this long, something every generation faces. But everywhere were the yearbooks, pictures, stories of high school and beyond. Some people don’t like to remember. They find the pain too great, or they prefer to focus on the future. But I believe in remembering, and here’s why. Ever notice how your grandmother, or great-uncle, or even you, can remember things like how long her first labor and delivery took, or that prank he played on his army buddy that time, or the goodbye letter you wrote to your first love – yet can’t recall what they had for dinner yesterday?! That’s because of how memory works. The more times you revisit a scene, the stronger the synaptic connection in the brain, hence the easier it becomes to recall. She’s remembered that childbirth many times, wincing at the final push and smiling through her tears about who emerged. He’s chuckled to himself over that prank whenever he recalled his friend, thinking, boy that was a good one! And who hasn’t wondered again and again if writing that letter was the right decision, or took from them the best thing they’d ever had? Whereas none of them has given much thought to last night’s dinner! Friends have long praised my memory, and I think I’ve honed it by returning to the events of my life. I revisit them to relive the moments of terror, jubilation and crushing sadness that have shaped me into the person I am. I re-evaluate them to question my actions and whether I want to make changes that will benefit me and my relationships. But most of all, I want to own my own life. I’ve lived my memories with other people, but each of us has our story – mine as unique to me as theirs is to them. As a writer, I want to tell some of it. And that requires that I remember. It helps to keep whatever physical evidence I can. Love letters, special cards. Photos of course. Concert tickets. Articles about people I’ve cared about. And I won’t let a jealous partner or even an unexpected house fire rip them from me! (Although both have almost happened – once.) I figure at the very least, they will entertain me when I finally do have energy for little but the rocking chair. But till then they also help me to remember and share my story. Back to whether we flower children of the ‘60’s, demonstrators with our Afros and peace signs, ever changed the world, of course I think we did. And I’m not alone; Prevention health magazine in its 50th anniversary issue listed our generation as having had the most profound impact on human health and well-being. We have our first African-American president (something I thought I’d never see in my lifetime), and we could have our first woman president (something I hope to see in my lifetime). We have laws against hate crimes, and rape and domestic violence are no longer considered a man’s ‘right.’ There was no revolution, just decades of excruciatingly slow strides – for every two steps forward, one step back and sometimes worse. So that in spite of the progress, people today who still live in poverty, parents who see that their dark-skinned children are still more likely to go to prison, women watching others nap while their reproductive rights are stolen away, it can feel like not a damn thing has changed. But I want to feel hopeful that progress is not just a memory. So I think I’ll go listen to the Impressions tell us to just keep on pushin’.
In my book in progress Licking the Spoon, I explore personal boundaries within relationships – and how only an insecure partner would expect you to throw away your memories and annihilate your own history.