Note: By definition, discussions of generational experience entail generalizations. The following perspective is mine only, and I acknowledge those who have very different experiences. I invite you to share yours. – C.N.
For me, the death of David Crosby in January came as a powerful loss and got me thinking about generational tasks and gifts.
The Greatest Generation – those Americans whose young lives were shaped by WWII – is currently passing away like a glorious sun setting on the western horizon. It’s hard to overstate the epic challenges they faced in their lifetimes. At age 18, my father was on a Navy ship in the Pacific; my mother was losing farm boys from her small hometown in Nebraska. Their generational task was clear: Defeat at all costs a global force of genocide and dictatorship. Their generational gifts seem equally clear: A framework of religion, patriotism, determination, and survival that sustained them throughout their lives. After the Great Depression and a world war, the Greatest Generation learned the kind of humility that comes from knowing that there are forces greater than ourselves.
My own generation, the Baby Boomers, can hardly be described as humble. Our defining era was more like a righteous revolution – the 1960’s and 1970’s – when a fight for civil rights, social justice and an end to war broke upon the American landscape. Apparently, the task of our generation was to tear down the sturdy framework of the last generation, as almost every aspect of it was questioned and challenged. Conventional notions were rejected as we fought to pull off the societal masks that hid racism, inequality, hypocrisy, violence and greed. Peace, love and freedom were our mottos. We had idealism on our side; is there any force greater than this? Clearly, we didn’t think so.
It’s easy to look back on that time and wonder what lasting value our generational story has at this late stage of our lives. We didn’t defeat war, injustice, racism or pollution. Our utopian notions of “peace and love” not only didn’t come true, but they also seem almost surreal in today’s internet-fueled climate of conflict and acrimony. In that context, losing an icon like David Crosby feels like one more piece of a once-meaningful vision that has broken off and sunk to the bottom of a murky sea. With the formative ideas of our generation looking outdated if not downright corny, what kind of legacy do we leave? Is there anything left to believe in as we approach our own old age?
Despite the drastic changes in our life spans, I would argue that the spiritual heartbeat of our generation is actually alive and well. While it’s true Boomers did not usher in the Age of Peace and Love, I believe that we did change the world as we knew it. We came together as no other generation before us to stop a war, demand institutional change and stand up for justice. This unity and determination – this empowerment – is our generational gift, the “power greater than ourselves,” and it lives on in all of us as a shared experience. Maybe without even realizing it, that spirit continues to inform and inspire us as we grow older, as it does others.
When I look around Port Townsend, I see this empowerment as the strong spine of a vibrant community. I see it in pioneer women shipwrights mentoring young women in the trades, in craftspeople passing along traditional skills and arts at the boat yard. I see it in determined, diverse efforts to build housing for people who so desperately need it. At Fort Worden, I see musicians and artists and writers sharing their knowledge and passion through performance and teaching. Empowerment is alive in community gardens across our area, producing fresh vegetables for local food banks. It flourishes at KPTZ, the local community radio station, at Jefferson Immigrant Rights Advocates, and so many more thriving organizations.
Port Townsend is a civically active town, and it’s no accident that it’s rich in older folks. For decades, people moved here not to “retire” from life but to practice the meaningful art of participating in community. That way of life continues to be inspired by those of us who are empowered by our generational ideals – and who’s to say we’re not creating love and peace?
Apparently, David Crosby was working on a new album and tour until the day he died, collaborating with fellow band members, mentoring and sharing his passion for music. He may have been 81 years old, but the energy of his spirit was ageless, and we can follow his example, right to the end. As another tireless, timeless bard from our generation once said:
May you have a strong foundation as the winds of changes shift,
may your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung.
May you stay forever young.
60s Collage by Felix Boiseh check his work out at About FelixBoiseh | DeviantArt