The '60s: No Need for Nostalgia

THERE is abroad in the land today a certain nostalgia for the 1960s; in the young, it takes the form of a fondness for tie-dye and the Doors; in their elders, a kind of rueful dream about a time when we all seemed better than our usual selves - more high-minded. I was a young woman in the '60s. When I look back on that decade now, I feel a whole range of emotions for the callow girl I was and the experiences I had. Nostalgia, however, is not among them.

I went to college when the war in Vietnam raged at its worst. I was 19 the year of the Tet offensive. I studied ``Paradise Lost'' the spring Dr. King was assassinated. Did I strike then, or two years later when Richard Nixon's incursion into Cambodia caused campuses all over the country to erupt? I did not. I was a student of literature then, of Carlyle and Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson: I knew what those men said about the infectiousness of popular movements. In my own small way I protested, though. I fasted for three days once in the belief that doing so would connect me somehow with victims of oppression everywhere. I hung peace posters on my walls, and followed the war from my dorm room. I wrote earnest papers.

I had big plans for my life after college. I wanted to tour Europe and cast an appraising eye on their old institutions; then do graduate work and have a look at our own. Next I meant to settle down to perfecting the world.

One June halfway to that goal, I rented my first apartment in the tiny home in Cambridge where former Speaker of the House John McCormack was born.

I took this coincidence as a kind of omen: Together with my sister at a Kennedy rally years before, I'd sat through an address that man delivered in the fall of 1960. We slumped sleepily in the front row of that smoky old hall, and at one point in his speech, the Speaker looked down, indicated the two of us with his long finger, and boomed, ``...these little ladies here...!'' I had no idea in what context he was using us as examples; but I felt singled out all the same. And now here I was living in his birthplace.

Bobby Kennedy was shot the morning we moved in. The next night, my sister had an emergency and I was drafted to take her place as bridesmaid in our cousin's wedding. I wore a gown that didn't fit and had the eerie sense of being poised between two worlds: the student one I inhabited now; and, just out of sight in the future, an adult world of marriage and jobs and responsibility to others.

The next day, I met a boy at my new summer job. Two years later, very nearly to the day, with the ink still wet on my diploma, I married him. It was June of 1970; the '60s were over.

I ended up teaching high school English for the better part of a decade to street-smart city kids whose credo at first seemed a cross between ``Prove it'' and ``Says who?'' I never went for that PhD. I never found my way to Europe. I no longer even teach. What I do do is write and sell a column to several dozen newspapers here in the East. I spend the evenings with my children, coloring, and subtracting and helping outline ``three cohesive paragraphs.'' I listen to practice sessions on wind instruments. And I don't feel the least nostalgia for the '60s.

Nostalgia is felt, by definition, for an age or experience irrevocably past. If you can recapture it, you can't feel nostalgia for it. I am not sure that the idealism we felt in the '60s is dead. Thus, it may be that what we sense moving among us now may not be nostalgia at all but the first shoots of a fresh flowering of idealism that will carry us through the closing decade of this century and set us on a right course for the next.

From one viewpoint, the principles fought for in the '60s as revolutionary ``truths'' have become the stuff of conventional wisdom. Students, for example, have a guaranteed right of access to their records.

This year we close a decade of material well-being and unprecedented selfishness. Many of us are doing fine, in homes stocked with the goods and gadgets of a high-tech culture. But many are not doing so well, and some have no homes at all to stock with the barest necessities for survival. The Children's Defense Fund reports that 1 American child in 4 now lives in poverty; that since 1981 there has been a 41 percent increase in the child poverty rate.

I am ashamed for us all, reading this statistic, and living in this fat country that could do so much to alleviate hunger and want; and I will be glad to put this era of prosperous self-indulgence behind me.

In my years of teaching, the students who at first seemed tough turned out to be carrying within them the innocence of all children, and a sweet and unspoiled brand of spirituality. They were looking for love, they said. They still say as much, cabdrivers and carpenters and accountants that they are now. We all have a vision of what right living looks like in a society. Those younger than I certainly have it. Those older than I hold it as well.

When I give speeches, as any small-town celebrity is asked to do now and then, I tell funny stories and talk about the things that seem to me to be important. When I describe what I see as the future for this infant race of ours, a lot of people nod vigorously; some even weep. The point is this: The idealism we knew in the '60s is not behind us as a nation; it is within us, only sleeping.

I look back at the girl I was, coming of age with the sound of the assassin's bullet and the chant of protest all around me. A good man once pointed to me and invoked his vision for the future. To recall John Donne's lines about those tolling bells, we need not ask to whom history looks for justice and the vindication of suffering; it looks to us all.

Twenty years ago, at my cousin's wedding, I wore a dress that didn't fit and sensed sharply my unreadiness to inhabit the garments of a larger responsibility. I guess most such garments feel this way until we grow into them. We are on the brink now, as I was then, and balanced between two worlds.

Can we regain today the idealism we knew in the '60s? Can we make a difference, even one of us, by living a right life and speaking up for the fair and the just?

You bet we can, says this former dorm-room activist; you bet your tie-dyed T-shirt.

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