Saturday, December 11, 2010

The past is another country --

"The past is another country; they do things differently there" begins a novel about a middle-aged man who visits a painful time in his own life. The Go-Between, I'm pretty sure, was made up.

Meghan was asking about going back to her real past, and writing about it (Meghan, I say: YES! to the book IF you can stand to go back: I think if you wrote it in your voice, as a novel, kids would love it. Poetry, though? Don't you hate poetry?).

WARNING: the rest of this post is about a time when weird, disturbing things happened.

I graduated from a small, strict boarding school the day of Bobby Kennedy's funeral -- those who took the train into NY for our parties saw the people lining the train tracks to pay their last respects (If you saw the Scorsese Bob Dylan, you've seen them too). Two days later my own father died suddenly. In those days, people didn't get counseling the way they do now and our family dealt with it the way my mother had been brought up. Her favorite sister handed her a drink, saying,
"Here, Sall, drink this."
My mother's chin wobbled and I knew she was about to cry.
"Now, Sall, chin up," her father said, in a steadying voice.
"Aw, let her cry if she wants to," her sister said -- but she didn't.

Later that summer we (my family and I) watched on TV as Chicago police clubbed student protestors at the Democratic convention; that, we did cry over. College started for me - my friends and I went from never having been alone with a boy (well, during the school year anyhow; summer was different) to dorms with no rules -- boys in the bedrooms, bathrooms, etc.....there WERE I suppose chapereones around but they too were affected by the times.

A friend at Sarah Lawrence desribed the President dancing topless at a faculty-student party. Another friend at Barnard (the women's college of Columbia) complained to the Dean about her room-mates's drug use, and the Dean said:
"If the marijuana smoke bothers you, open the window."

If this sounds like my friends and I were merely watchers, not true. We were doing all of it, including rioting. One friend had his arm unbroken during a clash with police in Harvard Square. Another died in his dorm room at Columbia, choked on his own vomit (yes, it was drug related). Others committed suicide.....and meanwhile, in Vietnam (where not one friend of mine went: we were just young enough to avoid the draft so then, as now, it was rare for upper-middle class kids to join the army), Lieutenant Calley ordered his men to massacre an entire village and enough people in the country protested against Calley's conviction and sentence for President Nixon to let him off.

Do I want to relive all this? I kept voluminous (thousands of pages) diaries during those years, and friends have often asked me to; my answer has always been -- only if someone will metaphorically hold my hand while I do it. I'm not going back there alone. Could I find or make up a story in it and shape it into a novel? Would it be interesting to anyone but me and the friends who lived through those years with me?

And would anyone believe it, or would it just seem too weird? When they made that movie about the early days of Rolling Stone, Betsey Johnson (or Mary MacFadden? -- some clothes designer who'd been big in those days) offered them the clothes in her attic -- real clothes from the time. The costume designer for the movie took one look and said no thanks: too weird. No one would believe (or want to look at ) clothes like that.

But -- and this is what makes me want to write about it -- those times were as intensely hopeful and exciting as they were dark and frightening. If you were born later, you just can not imagine how stuffy this country was before it all happened. It really WAS another country.


StephanieV said...

You might like the Patti Smith memoir Just Kids, about her life during the time you speak of and her lifelong friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It's a beautiful book and it depicts this time period with kind of a bittersweet luminosity. Might be a way to dip your toe in and see if you want to add your voice.

Libby Koponen said...

Stephanie! Thanks. That's a really good idea -- I'll order the book today. Thank you!

Meghan McCarthy said...

Libby, I think you should do it! My mom has some crazy stories. She backpacked through Europe with her friend and all sorts of nutty things happened because back then it was okay to hitch hike and stay at strangers' homes. It really was a different time. My dad avoided the draft because he had high blood pressure and a small hole in his heart. He might not be here if he went over! Several of his friends went though.

I don't hate poetry. I used to write it privately all the time. I got into a writing class at RISD by submitting a long poetry piece--it was about a priest who was a cannibal. I wonder if I still have it around?