Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Finding the Lost Generation: To Walk Where They Walked

One of the strangest, most mystical things I have experienced in the places I have lived, worked, or visited, is the way a space is filled with the history of the people who were there before. People sometimes talk about this when they tour some place of historical significance - especially if people once suffered there. To walk through Flanders Fields, so I have heard, is a haunting experience. No doubt, the WWI soldiers of the Lost Generation were among those who suffered the most of their time. 

Walking through old city streets, well known for the generation that once lived there, you sometimes feel the weight of their everyday hopes and fears, even if you don't know what their specific stories were. Sometimes you experience the presence of their stories like you feel humidity - you can't see the dampness, but you can definitely feel it rising off the sidewalks.

The Lost Generation was raised in a world of shadowbox signs lit with Edison bulbs and made their way in the world as adults when neon lit up behind glass window panes. Similarly, Generation X was raised in an analog world and came of age as the digital age began taking over. We are also called a 'lost' generation. We are, as generations go, their kindred spirits.

When I go walking through a neighborhood once lived in by the Lost Generation, I think of the childhoods they had, some beautiful and idyllic, some dark. I picture some of them growing up on farms in small Midwestern towns and some working in cities in factories at a far too young age.

I picture those with good childhoods visiting candy stores like this one, filling up a brown paper bag and riding their little wooden scooter home.

I picture the conversations of the Lost Generation in alleys surrounded by red brick buildings on early summer evening nights. If their generation was also nomadic generation - a 'lost'generation - then what message did they have for Generation X? Since they already lived through a similar time in history, made it to the other side, and are collectively similar to us,

that's the question I keep asking on this one-year journey as I look for the Lost Generation.

What we don't realize as we move through time, as we quietly revolve with the Earth, is that we are leaving a legacy, not just with each passing day, but with each passing hour, in our thoughts, in our intentions, in the words we speak, in the words leave unspoken. We leave a legacy by what we survive, from what we break ourselves away from, by the way we overcome.

I have a few memories of those who were very old when I was very young, though there are too many Lost Generation people in my family that I never got a chance to meet.

The same way the tall flowers in yards once leaned toward turn-of-the-century kitchens to eavesdrop on dinner table conversations, is how I am searching for the words and wisdom of the Lost Generation. Sometimes, beyond the words of T.S. Eliott, or E.E. Cummings, I wonder about those who never were able to put their thoughts down on paper, those whose lives are now just documented by a couple of photographs, some passed on stories, or a digital copy of their 1920 census information.

I remember the fireflies that would dance in the humid summer air in the yard of my great-grandparents' house in Illinois. When the day would come to an end for the Lost Generation, night would fall quietly on their houses, and stories of their lives would lean in golden light against their window panes. That light would slowly make its way to the sidewalks, to the streets, hoping to make its way into the world, wanting to be heard. 

The streets still hold that glow, that golden light, the streets still hold the story of the Lost Generation. 

(c) 2017  Writing by Chloe Koffas all rights reserved, color photos by Chloe (c) 2016, Boise, Idaho 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Finding the Lost Generation: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

A lot of  us Gen Xers, especially Second Wave Xers, have memories of our youth sprinkled with the songs of The Smashing Pumpkins in the background. I started listening to them roughly halfway through high school. I had this little red and orange patch attached to my backpack, Pumpkins posters around my room, and Siamese Dream often found its way into my CD player.

As I blog my way through a year-long journey to find the Lost Generation, (those born around 1885-1900 or soon after) I've noticed that a lot of Gen Xers, also known as a 'lost generation', have a fascination with The Gilded Age (from about the 1870s - around 1900) and the Roaring 1920's. For some, that fascination overlaps with the Victorian Age (1837-1901). This era is seen in the art of the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness album. The imagery from the "Tonight, Tonight" video is from the 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans la LuneBilly Corgan, who wrote almost all the music on the album, drew sketches of his ideas for John Craig, the artist who designed the collage images. Craig was influenced by Dadaism which began around 1915. Inspiration for many of the songs came about while Corgan was on his 1920's era piano.

While two volumes of the album - Dawn to Dusk and Twilight to Starlight - fit on a double CD,  it is actually takes up 3 on vinyl. Mellon Collie was released October 24, 1995 - my freshman year in college and became album of the year. "1979" was the band's biggest hit single ever. We are quick to turn up the volume when it's charming rhythm comes on the radio, though the melancholy side of it is the way our Gen X youth and our mortality are intertwined.

When the band went on tour for the Mellon Collie album in 1996, I was a sophomore at University of Houston. It was a balmy early December when my friend and I went to see them at The Summit. It was an amazing show and I needed a memento to take with me - my zero shirt.

1996 was a year when the yuppie values of the older generation felt like they still overshadowed us as we tried to make our way into the adult world, causing many of us to think more about what we could give the world than what we could take from it. For me, wearing this shirt was an antithetical rebellion to their narcissistic success. Boomer businessmen, some of them my relatives, would look at me when I'd wear this shirt with expressions ranging from confusion to pure disdain. Fellow Xers would see wearing this and give me an approving nod. I'd walk down the street with that School House Rock song stuck in my head, "My Hero, Zero."

I'd borrowed my friend's CD set of this album around the time of the Mellon Collie tour, and the music from that album will always hold the memories of those mid-'90s days, but I never got my own copy of the album until the 2012 reissue. One afternoon when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I took the train to Everyday Music, a small, local music store, because I knew the album would be there. Standing in line to pay, I waved the album in the air and excitedly made an announcement to the entire store that after waiting for years, I was finally buying the Mellon Collie album. Flannel-clad Gen Xers from around the store clapped for me, Gen Xers squatting down looking at bins of retro vinyl stood up and and cheered for me. Everyone in the store from other generations looked at me blankly.

I'm thankful to my fellow Xers in Houston for the approving nods during the Mellon Collie tour when seeing me walk by in this black, long sleeved shirt with Doc Martens in 90 degree heat. And thanks, fellow Xers in Portland, for cheering me on when I finally bought the album reissue over fifteen years later. Your cheers and applause brought an enormous smile to my face as I went outside the music store to tear the cellophane off this album under the misty clouds, walking toward the Willamette River....

Some have called this an 'end of an era' album, some have called it The Wall for Generation X. What I can say is that there is something significant about this album, culturally, generationally, and otherwise.

While this album is full of justifiable rage and sorrow, there are bits and pieces of hope. Referring to the song, Tonight, Tonight, in the sleeve of the 2012 reissue that I have, Corgan said "That's just one of those songs that really connects with people - the chords, the message, everything. And somehow the song continues to hold that power."

These words have held a lot of power for us as a generation, they elevated us through the '90's when a changing millennium was at our door, and when the wounds of youth were still fresh on our skin:   " can're not stuck in vain."

One of the many things this expansive album captures is the residual pain of growing up in the most anti-child phase in modern history. Billy Corgan's childhood was an excruciating one, it was full of a lot of the same abuse and agony that a lot of Gen X knew in our most impressionable years. To take a look at his online blog from several years back is to walk down a dark, familiar alley of a common Gen X childhood. Some of the most heartbreaking and most resonating words I've ever heard from a Gen Xer are contained within the song "To Forgive:"

...I sensed my loss before I even learned to talk
And I remember my birthdays
Empty party afternoons won't come back...

When I hear earlier songs of Smashing Pumpkins, I get that pulsing energy of my earlier 1990's teenage years in my veins, when I hear Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,  I feel this deep sense of loss in the lyrics of this album. My first look at those lyrics in the mid-90's was when I first just began to realize that loss was a collective loss - a generational one. Maybe the reason many of us felt a connection to Billy Corgan is that he expressed our own grief. He was as angry and tired as any of us, and yet he has still given to us words of hope, even through the most mournful of his music. And maybe we Gen Xers need that message now as much as we needed it in the 1990's:

Life can change, we're not stuck in vain. 

School House Rock: "My Hero, Zero":

(c) Images: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness 2012 reissue album liner by 
The Smashing Pumpkins/Billy Corgan, John Craig, Virgin Records. 
School House Rock (c) Bob Dorough, 1973

Writing by Chloe Koffas (c) 2017 


God, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Christian Music

Christ and Pop Culture: Billy Corgan, God, and Rock Music

10 Crazy Facts You Didn't Know About Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Saturday, May 27, 2017

An Open Letter to U2: Their Impact on a Lost Generation

To Bono, Adam, Edge, and Larry:

Each night throughout The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, as the colored stage lights shine like sun through stained glass upon the crowd, the majority of us will be from Generation X. Taking The Joshua Tree back on tour is not only significant, it is truly epic -- specifically to a generation of Americans who grew up in a Crisis Era. From the days you were a garage band, Generation X has watched society fall apart -- from corporate greed to recession, from scandals to toxic meltdowns, from riots to war -- it has all been part of continued Crisis for us.

A few years ago, I visited the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California -- a testament to the suffering of Gen X owing to the turbulent events of his presidency that spanned our formative years. It was a painful walk through a wasteland of our youth. Within this building were images reminding me of living my childhood under the threat of nuclear annihilation, an exhibit reminding me that as a five-year-old, I had to try to understand what the term "assassination attempt" meant, and a picture with a few poetic words reminding me that America had hand picked seven heroes to send into space for its children to love, and then let us watch them perish on live TV. It was Mourning in America in our youth and, strangely, it feels a whole lot like that now. In recent years, whenever I hear Mothers of the Disappeared, I think about how all those children who disappeared in the 1980's were Generation X.

If Reagan was the grandfather we didn't quite understand, but tried to love because our family told us we should, Trump is the stepfather we hoped would never unpack his bags in our house. Reagan was inaugurated when many of us Gen Xers were still too young to vote, and most Gen Xers I hang out with voted for anyone but Trump. You understand we are dealing with resurgent issues our generation first confronted in the 1980's. You already know that in some ways, it feels that our society has taken a step backwards.

On this tour, as your fervent voice fills the stadiums and the ethereally pure sound of the Edge's guitar sends lightening through our cells, for many Gen Xers, The Joshua Tree is still playing in the background of our lives. As you know, some say Still Haven't Found is the anthem of our generation. For a lot of us, you have been our favorite band for as long as anyone can have one. The rifts of Adam's bass are forever etched into our consciousness. The rhythms of Larry's drums formed a musical foundation during our most impressionable years. Thank you for creating the soundtrack of a generation.

If we were raised with a weak moral compass, your music helped us calibrate it. You opened our eyes to those around the world who have suffered even more than we have. If we were taught to value 80's materialism, you opened our eyes to famine and suffering around the world. In a decade when it was tempting to be consumed with fashion and image, you shifted our thoughts to the pain of The Troubles in Ireland, to the wounds from Apartheid in South Africa, to the injustice and suffering in Latin America. Even now, your messages of women's rights, extreme poverty, and ending HIV in our generation encourage us to keep raising our voices, to keep fighting the good fight. In 2013, I did a photographic pilgrimage to the Mojave Desert about The Joshua Tree album. What it got me thinking about is that we should do all we can as a generation to leave this desert a better place than we found it, to work to alleviate the suffering of others, to pass on glimpses of hope as we get glimpses of it ourselves.

The tragedy, beyond Gen X growing up in a Crisis Era, is that we have always lived in one. And all the while, as the story of our lives unfolded, your music played on the radio, on our record players, cassette players, CD players, and eventually our MP3 players and smartphones. You played your music for a 'lost' generation, a fatherless latchkey generation, a 'throwaway' generation. And that agony we felt is essentially what punk is a response to, and what your roots are, which may be why you understood us so well. If there was nothing consistent in our lives, at least your music was. Thank you for giving us the full circle of this music, especially if we missed it the first time around....

When the first Joshua tour took place, I was just a kid in New Mexico who didn't have enough allowance money for a ticket, and no one to drive me west to Tempe or south to Las Cruces. That's part of why this tour, this second chance is so incredible. And for those Xers who can't make it to any of the Joshua concerts this time because of the weight of life, perhaps you could perform spontaneously in some city as they commute home from work. As you did in  LA or here in San Francisco in 1987... maybe rock and roll can stop the traffic once again.

It took a few miracles, but I somehow found my place up front during your recent Santa Clara show. As I stood between the branches of the Joshua Tree shaped stage, the show was everything I hoped it would be. More than once my veins were filled with adrenaline. More than once my eyes were filled with tears. It was worth the 30 year wait.

Our cell phones will be lighting up arenas like ten thousand candles - a reflection of the light you brought to us. And if the last three decades have worn us down, if your performance of some song or another is not quite as strong as before, know that the rhythm and chords of our lives will lift like incense to the top rows of stadiums in these upcoming summer nights and we will sing the words for you. We know those words well, because those words have carried us, you have carried us, let us carry you.

To second chances and grace,

Chloe Koffas
San Jose, CA

(c) Writing and photos by Chloe - The Mojave Desert, 
U2's The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, CA

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Finding the Lost Generation: Of Intelligence and Infinite Hope

One of the most influential thoughts that F. Scott Fitzgerald ever shared is this:

"The test of a first rate-intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time..."

Of all the wisdom Fitzgerald is known for, this quote from The Great Gatsby both strikes me and resonates with me the most:

"Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope."

At first glance, the two quotes above are unrelated. Look back again. I believe that among the wisdom that can be found in Fitzgerald's writing, the second quote is the most true incarnation of the original quote.

As we get to know people, their rough edges emerge, and if those edges are extremely rough, we find ourselves constantly scraped up and wounded by being in their life, and walking away is necessary. In other situations, we decide to stay, or to stay in touch, and to show forgiveness when a person's shortcomings surface (as we hope they will do in return). To hold the knowledge that every person we know is flawed yet to remember that those flaws probably come from the fact that we live in a very flawed world, is to be a loving person.

To know that when people hurt us, that it might not even be personal, it might be that they are lashing out at how someone else hurt them, is to show grace. When we can avoid judging others in those initial moments of forming an opinion of them when we first meet them, or even when we've known them for a lifetime, we participate in something truly infinite.

When it comes to quotes by Fitzgerald and the expatriate friends he drank wine with in Parisian cafes, I am only somewhat interested in the thoughts they had about human intellect, maybe because of all the spiritual and philosophical issues that exist among a generation, and of all the wisdom that can be passed on from one lost generation to another, I am much more interested in the limitless of the human soul. And if we look back to the wisdom of generations that came from saints or philosophers or artists from all the centuries that led us to this moment, they all left a certain reverberating message for us. It's in the leaning stones in the British Isles, and in the chipped, antiquated marble of the statues of the Mediterranean, and in the hieroglyphics of the caves of Northern Africa, and maybe even in the gilded edges of California buildings of the 1920's. And the message is this:

 The human soul is infinite.  

(c) 2017 writing by Chloe Koffas all right reserved 
photography by Chloe - The Saint Claire Hotel,  built 1926, San Jose, CA

Huffington Post's article: why you should re-read The Great Gatsby as an adult

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Finding the Lost Generation: Of Hunger and Hoovervilles

When her picture was published in newspapers, it caused an emotional stir across the country. The U.S. federal government sent thousands of pounds of food to the camp where her photo was taken, but by the time it arrived she and her family had already left to look for work elsewhere. The pea fields at that farm had frozen, which meant no work and no pay for migrant workers. Near the end of her life, almost fifty years later, her son put an appeal in the San Jose Mercury newspaper for people to send money to help with her overwhelming medical expenses as she was struggling with multiple health issues. Letters with money came in the mail from all over, much of it in the form of crumpled one-dollar bills. People responded because they had not forgotten her.  There was a connection they had always felt to her because of her picture.

There are certain images that have been ingrained onto the consciousness of the past few generations - one of these would be "Migrant Mother." It is not only the most iconic picture from the Great Depression, it is one of the most significant images of the 20th century. I thought until recently that the legendary woman in this photo was still anonymous, but near the end of her life she was identified as Florence Owens Thompson. Until now, I never saw the baby in her arms.

Dorthea Lange/Library of Congress/Public Domain

Why we cannot get over this photo is not just because of the mental exhaustion on her face or the creases on her brow that should not yet be present on the skin of a woman only 32 years old. It is more so because we see the inestimable greatness that is in her. In this woman's eyes is a strength that goes beyond Greek myth, in her face is the wisdom rooted in her Native blood, in her composition is fear wrestling with profound courage. Florence Leona Christie Owens Thompson could pick 500 pounds of cotton in one day, which was more than most of the men who worked the fields with her. This is a mother who raised ten children, and who worked any kind of job she could in fields, waiting tables, bar-tending, or doing factory work. Her father abandoned her even before she was born. She was already a widow at the time this picture was taken in 1936. Her family history was connected to the Trail of Tears. If anyone has ever known the depths of heartache, this soul did. And you can see it all in her immortally beautiful face. 

Lange/Public Domain
"Hoovervilles" were groups of shacks located on the edges of cities during the Great Depression. These shacks were often made from cardboard or scrap wood. The same name was applied to roadside temporary shelters that destitute families looking for work erected as they tried to escape the Dust Bowl and migrate to California. These shelters could be made of bed sheets or canvas and could be held up with tree branches.

In this same area, even now, Hoovervilles still exist, even if they go by a different name. As my husband was driving us onto a freeway recently, I looked over the edge to a reservoir, to where people go for water, and community, and to pitch tents on the grass. What I saw that day was a man sitting in a red folding lawn chair in a florescent yellow shirt, the morning sunlight falling onto his tired blue eyes staring off into the distance, much like the tired gray eyes of the migrant mother. The man was clearly Generation X. He is probably someone's father. If not, he is someone's son. A man in a neon yellow shirt in front of the backdrop of brightly colored, modern-day camping tents can seem so far away from the black-and-white images of the Depression Era. We see the agonizing images of poverty in America almost a century ago and want to believe this kind of suffering is safely in the distant past. Kerosene lamps have been replaced by solar powered flashlights, and tin pie pans have been replaced by plastic containers. Everything was different between the man in the red folding chair and the image of the migrant mother sitting on a wooden box, yet everything was hauntingly the same.  

Florence Thompson, was asked once, "Did you ever lose hope?'

She responded, "Nope, If I'd'a lost hope, this country never would have made it."

Her words tell us to never give up hope, because your hope sustains not only you and your own family,  your own individual hope is what sustains us all collectively.

May we never give up hope that tomorrow can be better, or next year, or that the next decade can be better. May we never stop hoping that our children will have a better life than we did.

Let's not forget the suffering of the migrant mother and her family. Let's not forget the man who sleeps tonight on the cold ground in Silicon Valley, in the shadow of affluence, by the reservoir on the side of the freeway.  


Black and white photography by Dorthea Lange, 1936, Nipomo Valley, California
Color photography by Chloe Koffas, 2016, Napa Valley, California
Writing (c) 2017 by Chloe, all rights reserved


A large number of the parents during the Great Depression were from the Lost Generation. A large number of the children were from the G.I. Generation. Being from a generation is partly about the year you were born, though I feel it is much more about your life experiences. Florence Thompson was born in 1903, and while I consider her part of the Lost Generation, by some definitions this would make her part of the G.I. (Greatest) Generation. Either way, she is legendary and I send her my love across space and time.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Finding the Last Lost Generation: Emma Forever

When she walked, history walked with her. With every step she took, she moved one step further away from the Dust Bowl. Stories she told me of her youth were tinged with beauty and sorrow. She had Oklahoma roots and got married at the heart of The Great Depression.

A few months after her husband died in the early 1980's, I moved onto her street. What had brought my family to this small New Mexico town was an oil boom, it was probably something similar that had brought her family there in the 1940's. Her name was Emma and she was all that was good about the last Lost Generation.

       A House Full of the 20th Century

The photo of her as a young woman on an Art Deco dresser celebrated her flapper-style hair - a symbol of the Gilded Age. She had a turn-of-the-century typewriter with yellowed keys that I'd softly touch in order not to break them. She had a classic phonograph with a stack of records neatly stacked inside brown paper envelopes. I would lift the lid to peak inside, imagining the ragtime, jazz, and all of the roaring '20s that would've emerged from it.

When I'd come over, my 1980's bright pink school bag would lay against her tired blue 1940's couch. I'd set down my Houghton Mifflin readers on her Mid-Century end tables, stacked with piles of 1970's Reader's Digest magazines. She had collected furniture from the 1920's through the 1950's until the year came when the house was fully furnished. Knickknacks from every decade up until the 1960's congregated in her rooms until the day came when the shelves no longer held any space.

As if the Whole 20th Century Lived at One Address...

Her rotary phone would spin around with a soft tat tat tat as she would call a friend. I would finish my homework and watch Leave It to Beaver after turning through the channels with a loud clack clack clack on her monolithic TV. For 30 minutes, I could experience an idealized Golden Era American family in black-and-white pixels after eating peanut butter on saltine crackers. She would make me iced tea on hot days in 1950's aluminum cups and hot chocolate on cold days from 1920's Fiestaware cups.

As a child, it felt as if all of space and time of the 20th century came together in her post-war house, where I would sit at the breakfast bar of her retro kitchen, and on a gold-speckled, Atomic-Age laminate counter top I would eat a bowl of her Depression-Era stew, and feel full, and loved. And when I sat there, next to her piles of letters and Christmas cards, I was connected to all of the decades, and to the people who had lived in those decades, and to their sorrows and joys.

She had a faraway, foreboding look in her eyes when tornadoes ripped across the land. That same look reappeared when she spoke of the dust storms that had devastated Midwest farms in the 1930's. When the sky would go dark and the twisters would touch down, we would hide in the closet in the middle of the house. May 27, 1982, was one of those days. The red, handheld transistor radio in her shaking hands gave us the news that twin tornadoes were ripping through our small town.  Her quiet strength sustained us because she had survived things like this before and could survive it all again.

She and most of her friends lived in Texas-style ranch houses.  And always above them was the pure blue New Mexico sky, the desert sun, and the brightest pink sunsets in the evenings. I would walk the blond brick edging of her front yard like a tight rope. Tiny pink blossoms would emerge on her trees as the grass would tenaciously turn back to green after a long winter.

That town had gone through many phases of boom and bust long before I ever got there, and continued in this pattern long after I left there all those decades ago. Twenty-somethings now put sub-woofers in their houses where old Victrolas used to sit, and what the younger generations do not know - but that they will soon come to know - is that there is nothing new under the sun.

Emma's life was beautifully ascetic. For her, every season was Lent. She was quick to give away a meal she was about to eat if someone else needed it, like the selfless heroes Steinbeck wrote of who had once lived in Hoovervilles.

The Golden Years and Little Golden Books 

She was an incredibly altruistic caregiver to her friends in their final stages of life - some men, mostly women, many widowed. Some of them were in hospitals or nursing homes, most of them chose to die at home. She would be babysitting me on those after-school afternoons or long summer days, so she would take me with her to their houses. I remember their post-war kitchens,
pink and blue monuments to a delayed American dream. 

Some mornings, we would pop over to a friend's house and put sugar cubes in melamine cups to the comforting bubbly sound of a percolating coffee pot as we'd chat at their kitchen tables. 

Some days at lunch time, we would take them hot dogs and fries with root beer or fried chicken and mashed potatoes with cream soda.

Some afternoons, Emma sat at their bedsides to comfort them in their final days as I would thumb through sets of Little Golden Books that had once belonged to their children or grandchildren, or I would play on their rusty backyard swing sets next to patches of dirt that had once been victory gardens. She had so many friends, many of them a decade or so older than her, and so many of them were dying. 

Two Kinds of Death

Some of their deaths were peaceful, as if they were looking back on their lives and the love they had given and were satisfied. You could see in their eyes they were looking past the horizon, to the other side, as they began to ascend from this world. They were reflecting on the grace of the story of their lives, and seemed to be moving miraculously beyond whatever scars life had left on them.  As days passed, even as their breaths became more shallow, their joy became more deep. Sometimes they would look at my young face with this radiant love, telling me I was the hope of the future. Sometimes they would give my hand a gentle squeeze as if to physically pass on some encrypted ancient wisdom for humanity to carry on.  They knew, as I did, that I was deeply fortunate to stand in their holy space as they began the journey from this life to the next.

And some of her dying friends would hint that I should not have come along to visit...that I had no understanding of their suffering. Some of them looked at me, as we would walk into the painful space of where they were struggling to exit this world like I had no right to be there. And maybe I didn't. What did I know of the factories they had worked in as children, or the poor houses they had lived in as teenagers, or the soup lines they had stood in as adults, even after surviving the Great War? Sometimes, as Emma took care of them, I was asked to leave the room for a while, and though it was not easy for her to do, she would hear their final confessions. I would go from looking at the amber plastic prescription bottles on the TV trays in their bedrooms, to the 1940's green jadeite dishes on the shelves of their living rooms.

Some of the deaths of Emma's friends were not peaceful. They were angry, even bitter, and in a place of palpable loneliness that maybe they had created for themselves, or maybe because most everyone they loved was already gone. Sometimes their curtains were closed tightly even while sunlight waited disheartened by their window. They would be shivering with cold though the intense heat of summer was hanging in the street. It was hard to understand with my child-mind why they were like this, but life eventually takes us all to the edges of despondency at one time or another so that it is hard to let any light into the room at all. In those days, I quietly learned the significance of letting go of hate, because seeing hate in a dying person's eyes, the kind they were completely unwilling to let go of, may be the worst thing I'd ever seen.

It was a fiercely beautiful and and intensely ugly experience to watch all these people in their final days. As a young elementary school child, I watched the Lost Generation die.  

Sometimes, we would stop by someone's house and we would find her dying friends watching game shows. I remember her saying that when you are dying, it may be time to turn the TV off.  As a nine year old, game shows became synonymous in my mind with a reckless diversion - getting to the end of our time on earth and avoiding the unfinished business of our lives. To this day, when a game show is on, I get this intense anxiety that I am neglecting the inner work of my soul. While it could seem morbid or unhealthy that I was exposed to so much death at such a young age, it was a profound gift. It made me realize that each person around us is precious and temporary, that we should use every ounce of our energy to serve others and every resource we have to help one another as well. As a child, she taught me the greatest lesson ever: how to live in the right way so that I may someday die in the right way.

Sitting on the Back Row

When I would stay at her house over the weekend, she took me to the First Christian Church. We would sit on the back row together, and open the hymnals, her sweet voice wavering from age as it soared across the songs that had steadied generations who needed hope. Those hymns, as she sang them, made me understand the way one faltering generation passes on their faith to another.  

 After a few short years in a desert county, the early 80's oil boom was over, and we were leaving town along with most everyone else. I did not know when I hugged her goodbye that it would be our last embrace, I only knew that it hurt me fiercely to leave her behind.  But she had seen the Dust Bowl and the desert, and everything in between. She was a survivor because she was from a lost generation.  

I wrote Emma a letter many years later to tell her that her selflessness had stayed with me and that she'd inadvertently had an enormous impact on the person I became and the faith I had. She was, and still is, from my perspective, a saint. If we can have just one person like this in our lives during our formative years, it can sustain us through a lifetime. She was a true embodiment of the Lost Generation, and because of the enormous amount of time she and her friends spent with me in my most formative years, I can say that I was, to a large extent, raised by the Lost Generation.  

Sweetest Emma, you were an example of profound compassion, a light in my darkness. I will stand beside you again, on some back row, where we sing to God with voices no longer fragile and wavering, but with voices that are eternal. Some from your generation died with regrets, yet you died knowing you gave every moment you could to others. Your embrace made an enormous hole in my heart disappear, even if just for a moment in time.

Emma who we loved.

Emma Forever.

(c) 2017 by Chloe Koffas.  All rights reserved.  

As of this writing, there is only one known person still alive from the last Lost Generation. Her name is also Emma and she was born as the trees dropped gold and red leaves in the autumn of 1899.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Finding the Last Lost Generation: Langston Hughes and the Deep of Rivers

In my quest to reach back to the last Lost Generation (those who would've been roughly the age that Generation X is now, a century ago) I am looking back to see what advice, hope, or wisdom they left for us. An essential voice from among that generation was Langston Hughes. Not only was he part of the Harlem Renaissance, he was a contributor to classic literature that has since been read and studied by multiple generations.

My favorite people have this way of balancing wit and the heaviness of life with grace. Through my growing-up years, pieces of Langston Hughes' poetry would pop up in the literature classes I took. For weeks afterwards, his message would resonate in my mind. With each piece, he would would open my eyes more and more to the suffering endured by African Americans.  More recently, I made my way through the perceptive and unshakable poetry he wrote through the earlier decades of the 20th century.  Hughes' words and stories, like his ancestral heritage, covered a wide range of American geography and beyond. He wrote of the stress and frustration of the people in crowded cities struggling to pay their rent and of the pain and isolation of people in small rural towns, tired from working the land.  

In my first experience of the Mississippi River as a nine-year-old, I stood in awe of the potent water as I floated across it on a ferry.  It was powerful and magnificent, and I could feel the history of it emanating all around me: an intense sorrow and a thousand untold stories lifting from it, mixing with the heavy summer humidity.

I felt something similar as a college student the first time I saw the Kansas River from the window of a plane as it wound through the frozen winter circles and squares of farmland, like the patches on a threadbare quilt. Not so long after that, I saw Lawrence, Kansas for the first time where Langston Hughes spent most of his childhood and walked the same streets that my paternal grandfather from the GI Generation had walked during his days as a professor at the University of Kansas. How strange it is to walk where someone walked that you feel you know on some level, yet their life ended before yours began.  Sometimes it seems that we can get a glimpse (or maybe some fleeting electrical impulse) of the connection we have to those people by walking where they walked, by opening the door of some small shop on some busy street, hoping their hand once touched the same door handle.  Of antiquated doors that I pulled open to small shops or buildings around the university - on Massachusetts Street, or Tennessee Street, or Kentucky Street in Lawrence, Kansas, I can only hope that my grandfather, or that Langston, opened one of those same doors.

...I've known rivers: 
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins. 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers...

When a generation, a Lost Generation in particular, who grows up and lives most of their life in a time of Crisis, what we can do is to take what wisdom we have gained from our suffering and to use it to make the world more just, with our stories, with our voices. Hughes wanted an America where everyone is free and equal, and his words are just as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. His writing is one of the reasons that we see classic literature as necessary to culture - it is a way to remind of us of what wrongs we are likely to fall back into as a society if we are not vigilant.  In fact, many of the things that were wrong with society when he wrote his words are still wrong.  Hughes stressed racial consciousness in his writing and that message is just as needed now as it was a century ago.   

It sometimes seems that when you stand by a river, you can feel, even if just for a moment, everyone who has stood there at that same place before you. I know it's true of the Kansas River and of the Mississippi, I imagine it is true of the Euphrates and the Nile. It is the experience of standing quietly, intently, by rivers, and in searching for the wisdom of previous generations that our souls can grow deeper.  Let your soul grow deep.  


(c) 2017 All rights reserved.  Writing and and photography by Chloe Koffas.  Photo: Boise River, Idaho