As William F. Buckley, Jr. told the story, five days before his mother, Aloise Steiner Buckley, died
one week (had) gone by without her having said anything, though she clutched the hands of her children and grandchildren as they came to visit, came to say good-bye. (When her) nurse brought her from the bathroom to the armchair and — inflexible rule — put on her lipstick, and the touch of rouge, and the pearls, suddenly, and for the first time since the terminal descent began a fortnight earlier, she reached out for her mirror. With effort she raised it in front of her face, and then said, a teasing smile on her face as she turned to the nurse, “Isn’t it amazing that anyone so old can be so beautiful?”
The answer, clearly, was, Yes. It was amazing that anyone could be so beautiful.
Aloise Steiner Buckley was one of the lucky ones. Gazing into life’s mirror is not always a reminder that we have become old and beautiful. Sometimes, we see only that we are becoming old. The same mirror that reflects the image of a full and well-lived life also may reveal traces of youthful hopes and dreams turned to ashes by the fires of raging reality.
Whatever the nature of the reflection in the mirror, there never is an undoing of what has been. In an often misunderstood statement from his Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner put these words into the mouth of Gavin Stevens: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”. Faulkner’s point is uncomfortable as it is true. The past never simply disappears. It continues to live and resonate, shaping and determining the present in unexpected and unpredictable ways.
Today, watching the aging of a generation – my generation – which struggled toward maturity during one of the most complex eras of our country’s history, I find it instructive to consider what happens when the unprepared or immature are confronted by the possibility that their most cherished convictions and beliefs are unrealistic or even false.
In 1967, in the months leading up to San Francisco’s infamous “Summer of Love”, a significant part of the population had embraced expectations which were cosmically high and exceedingly unrealistic. It was to be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, that time when peace would guide the planets and love would steer the stars, a time whose anthem embedded itself so deeply into my own psyche that it can come rushing back at the sound of a single distinctive chord.
Life, it seems, never is so simple. Events rarely are predictable as the planets; stars do fall. Obstacles loom up, the edge of the cliff appears, and the inattentive or unprepared tumble into the abyss. For a good portion of my generation, the fall over the edge of the 60’s cliff was hard and fast. “Let the sun shine in”, the 5th Dimension sang, but when the sunshine arrived, it came filtered through events that left the mind eclipsed and shadowed. True liberation, it seems, is not so easy to achieve.
Writing in the July 12, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone, Sean Wilentz remembers the ambiguities, contraditions and imminent crises of that Summer of Love.
“It’s New year’s eve, in San Francisco. Country Joe and the Fish play the final set at the Avalon Ballroom, ushering in 1967. That same night, Big Brother and the Holding Company, fronted by Janis Joplin, perform nearby in Golden Gate Park. Two weeks later, 20,000 people pack the park for the first Human Be-In, a foretaste of the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury. Timothy Leary, in a phrase of his own invention, tells the assembled tribe to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
The Age of Aquarius may have been dawning, but so was another, very different age. While the music still was fading at the Avalon, Ronald Reagan stepped forward to take the oath of office as President. Again, Mr. Wilentz:
“Even as the counterculture was helping to transform America into a nation of greater tolerance and freedom, the country was beginning a long-term political shift to the right. The Republican Party was back in force, swearing in forty-seven new congressmen–including a transplanted Connecticut Yankee from Texas named George H.W. Bush. Like Reagan, Bush had endorsed Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Together, the two men would play a prominent role in the conservative resurgence that has reshaped America’s political landscape just as surely as the Summer of Love reshaped the cultural landscape.”
The point here is not the politics of it all, but the twin realities of turmoil and transformation. As Wilentz notes,
“We should remember 1967 not as the time the nation turned on and tuned in but as the moment the United States began hurtling toward a nervous breakdown, riven by conflict that would change the country and the world forever. It was the beginning of an era of intense polarization – one in which, arguably, we are still living. More than a momentous year, 1967 was a seedbed for our own times.”
There is little doubt this nation is reaping what was sown in those tumultuous years, and it can be interesting to ponder what might have happened had the counterculture been more successful. Social critic Theodore Roszak, author of the 1968 exploration The Making of a Counterculture thinks he has the answer. Quoted in the PBS Special The Summer of Love, Roszak says,
“(If the ideals of the Sixties had prevailed,) it would be a world where people lived gently on the planet without the sense that they have to exploit nature or make war upon nature in order to find basic security. It would be a simpler way of life, less urban, less consumption-oriented, and much more concerned about spiritual values, about companionship, friendship, community. Community was one of the great words of this period, getting together with other people, solving problems, enjoying one another’s company, sharing ideas, values, insights.”
Would I like to believe that? Yes. Do I believe that? No. Did I believe that, once? Yes, with every fiber of my being. But years have passed, and new convictions have formed. Good vibrations are not enough; there must be moral goodness for hope to endure. Simple, unconflicted companionship is not enough; a community or relationship unable to sustain complexity or conflict will not long endure. Psyches that remain fragile as flowers, tender and childlike, totally unengaged in struggles for maturity and understanding, always will be aghast and shocked that the world has its own ideas about what will or will not prevail.
As the Summer of Love began, it seemed absolutely clear that love, peace and joy were about to liberate and transform the world. By October 6, 1967, when the “Death of the Hippie” was declared with a symbolic funeral in San Francisco, it was even more clear that the transformative beauties of the Aquarian Age had been slightly delayed. It might as well have been an entire movement left leaning up against the van at the side of the road, clutching its wilted flowers and tasting the sharp, bitter disappointment of unmet expectations.
Even more apparent is an underlying sorrow, a profound grief, a sense that on some unspeakable level life itself had betrayed her promises. The fact that expectations had been too high, too unrealistic, too far removed from the complexities of human life ever to have been achieved is somewhat beside the point. The piper no longer was playing, and the children and clowns were aimlessly drifting. The traveling road show was coming to an end, and heart-sick was not too strong a word to describe those who had succumbed to its allure.
The past, of course, cannot be changed. It only can be remembered, as those of us who lived it smile, speak a word of absolution over our own naiveté, and move on into the future. The Age of Aquarius may have ended, but age has its wisdom. The Summer of Love may be dissolving into the mists of time, but still there is opportunity for a season of mature love, a time for true understanding and compassionate acceptance of the common humanity and common history which continue to resonate and shape our lives today.
Perhaps the time has come to look again into the unbroken mirror of reality and see that, however imperfect the image, there still is beauty to be found. As a generation, we had our moments. We were coddled, crazy, and conflicted. Sometimes we were utterly selfish and without regard for other human beings or the world in which we lived. Nevertheless, as Aquarians continue to age, it still is possible to pick up the mirror, take a long, sober look into the face of another time and echo the conviction of one already gone: “The answer is, Yes. It is amazing that a generation could be so beautiful.”