The cohort of Americans born between 1928 and 1945 has been called the Silent Generation. I didn’t know that I was a member of the Silent Generation until I wrote the piece below and I looked up “generation” in Wikipedia to see if I was indeed a boomer myself or, maybe, even an undeserving member of what they were calling the Greatest Generation. I found out that I am stuck in between the two. We are hardly noticed by the folks who try to generalize about the behavioral characteristics of people born in certain age cohorts.
I was late coming to the Silent Generation so my adult years were spent with talk everywhere about “boomers.” Marketing and media primarily addressed their needs and preferences. I heard so much about boomers that I subconsciously identified and, in any case, I was very nearly one myself since you could say that I was born on the cusp. But as I read more about those years between 1928 and 1945, I could see how completely my life was in the grip of that history.
What follows is very long. If you decide to read it, you will see that it is laid out like a poem. If it reads like prose to you, at least stop for a beat to think before going to the next line. Each bit of our history is loaded with plenty to think about. Yes, Truman and Eisenhower may not excite you. Ozzie and Harriet may bore you. But the kids who first learned about the world from floor model radios and small black and white screens had much to think about. And we have much to regret.
The piece is a personal project. It was completed during the 2020 election campaign and before the Biden-Harris election results were known. Although it is a hopeful sign, it doesn’t really change much. Having lived through alternating and descending stair steps down into Trump hell, I know that it will take more than a single presidential election to get us heading onward and upward again. But we must continue the struggle.
We came of age in the century of perpetual doom,
we witnessed Hitler, Stalin, world wars, pandemic,
We lay in bed, as children,
paralyzed by fear of the flash of destruction.
We heard parents’ memories of the Great Depression –
the bag of flour left on the doorstep by an anonymous neighbor.
For some, in other places,
it crashed a party they thought would never end.
We tried to learn and teach our way out of the pit of ignorance,
to build a knowing, tolerant, habitable world
where children would no longer
bear arms in the service of powerful men.
We limped across days—no, decades—
of government malpractice, war, and injustice.
We made progress, or thought we did.
It was only imagined, though it felt as real
as the bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor,
Hiroshima, Dresden and Hanoi.
The comparison speaks to our ignorance.
We had not suffered those hellish flames
and cruel concussions ourselves.
Our progress was trivial
compared to the staggering madness
from which we sought to free ourselves.
Our advances were shallow and fragile —
foolishly faithful in our own wisdom.
Then we, the century’s survivors, fell headlong and bewildered
into a new century of imminent and inescapable collapse
In our bright new century,
flowering trumpet vines attached to urban highway retaining walls,
their coral blooms projecting a glorious affirmation
of our duty to be in nature,
their brilliant color screaming out their needs before
wilting beneath the overpass and dying.
The canary, silenced, drops hard to the floor
and the miners keep on mining.
Then came the predator.
Taking its time with us,
the cataclysm this time fell with the weight of time itself,
crushing air and blood from
lovers and beloveds —
from so many that grief, too, succumbed.
There were no eulogies for so many dead.
For a few, obituaries announcing a celebration of the life
at some future date to be determined —
the ponderous tedium of pestilence.
The cutting edge grows dull,
sawing away at the crust unbroken.
Power invests in itself
with death as its currency
and rapacity as its yield.
A desperate weariness exhausts
the human spirit; drained by wars, plagues,
full-flesh devils in camo, golf shirts, dark blue suits—
the pallid violence that bends back toward
slavery, suffocation, loss of history
and delivers a full-frontal breach of every child’s future,
laying it open, watching it die in a pool of heat-worn motor oil
mingling with our own malignant blood
awaiting the fire from the West.
A small congregation of Methodists meets,
separating themselves at carefully measured distance,
masked apostles, listening to a lone tenor voice.
Jesus is all the world to me.
Covered, they pray, filled with witness and love.
They listen to a sermon on friendship
while, having covenanted to stay six feet apart,
nor greet enthusiastically
nor share the body and blood at the altar.
But they will listen
and scrape the definition of friendship
until it hurts and bleeds.
Tell me the story of Jesus.
The state prison ten miles away,
created, they said, to rehabilitate,
becomes another death row.
Punishments once measured in years
now add disease,
torturing inmates with
racking coughs, pains, and fevers.
They ache with thoughts of those they love outside the walls,
their sole remaining joy.
Even these are smothered in the fear of impending loss of breath.
no knee on the neck
is needed for the state to deliver its final sacrilege to their humanity –
standing by while the third-party predator snuffs
their throw-away lives.
Tell me the story of Jesus.
Father forgive them,
I can’t breathe.
Newspapers pile in the corner.
Cable news shouts competing versions of fact and fantasy,
each side cranking up the volume to be heard.
We watch the world as it burns.
Storms lash out
punishing the air’s abusers and innocents alike.
We watch the people crossing borders to lands where the earth
has not yet been sucked dry.
Received as criminals, they find
life on the other side much like the life they left.
We watch helplessly as autocracy creeps
into the life of every nation.
We watch as another child claims his American
right to kill as proof of his refined malevolence.
The number left bleeding and dying
is the measure of achievement that moves him.
He acts out of the darkest depths of loneliness,
armed with the power
he shares with God, to take life, inflict grief
and penetrate the hearts of men with a leaden
message he has already spelled out
in ephemeral digital epistles,
keyed with his trigger finger and its left-hand mate —
puking a gospel of hate learned in late night sessions
in a lonely bedroom
his mother designed to be a nice white boy’s dream.
How sadly and profoundly
she missed the metastasizing of
Tell me the story of Jesus.
A downtown church blends a hundred voices electronically,
precisely synchronous to flow melodiously from the computer screen.
No exposure — each voice sung solo at home and submitted to the
mercies of the sound engineer.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
No exposure to virus,
no exposure to shooters.
But their harmonies will never glory the ear of the one who needs their music most.
Death is measured now in frequencies, waves and rhythms.
No more sad musings over noble biographies
of heroes, mothers, faithful employees, veterans,
nurses, teachers, grocery sackers,
retired firemen or even
the lady who took in stray cats and loved puzzles or
the boy whose Eagle project, meant to last a lifetime,
had been taken down, forgotten.
No boring details.
Just numbers, charts and graphs.
The line goes up.
The line goes down.
No one knows what moves the line.
Crisis piles on crisis, consensus shatters.
“There went y’alls better angels,”
tweets Gooneybird two minutes after midnight.
Governments give up on governing;
there are no taxes to collect.
There is no use for city halls, capitols or legislative chambers;
people will not obey.
Officeholding provides no stage for prideful strut or preening glory,
only the wrenching, melancholic duties of the servant,
with long losing seasons to be endured
and petty wars to be fought –
until One comes along who understands that strutting and preening
are enough for a dulled and witless people.
He can have His clown show, the people will pay for it,
and everything He does, says or tweets
is given undeserved breaking news coverage on the ironically named news channel chryon.
Death by pestilence is no longer reported, each passing so complicated.
Tropical storms, wildfires, industrial pollution,
failing health care systems, growing poverty and hunger
and, now, those dreadful little wars by undisciplined bands of gangster soldiers.
Our comorbidities abound.
The ponderous tedium of pestilence.
Jesus is all the world to me.
But, for those who at last are learning to read,
it is the Old Testament that speaks to them with
stories of mankind’s sin and God’s retribution.
He is not, after all, a vengeful god,
but simply one who yielded to temptation,
and made avatars of himself so he could feel
life on the beautiful earth he made.
He shared the power of creation
with his imperfect likeness
made from the muddy floor of Eden
and the sweet breath of the virgin earth.
Nested into his creation was the power to destroy,
yet always with the seeds of hope —
hope for life outside of Eden,
hope for freedom in a promised land,
hope for the company of brethren species after the flood.
The weeping of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah –
none of them lamented more deeply, if more quietly,
than children of the new century.
Ezekiel reached for the mystery in the wind.
But then … the loneliness of our century,
as the child awakens to a distant, clangorous alarm,
and looks out on a gray dawn of imminent, eternal lockdown,
not of the town, the marketplace nor the places of worship,
but of a species entrapped in its own suffocating web of greed.
May the children be blessed
with visions of the mystery in the wind.
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart …
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light,
lest a century dissolve to black —
victim of our silence.