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.  


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




Sunday, January 15, 2017

Finding the Last Lost Generation: The Last Time I'll Ever Read Hemingway

Among the most well-known authors of the last Lost Generation is, of course, Hemingway.   In my one-year journey of finding the last Lost Generation, I hope to bring to light what he and many other of those writers have to tell us about our present situation - the world of the 2010s.  Because Gen X is also considered a Lost Generation, I am especially interested in what they have to say to us. One place I am going on this journey is to the pages of classic books where they consciously left their wisdom for us in print. After all, as Carl Sagan said, "Books break the shackles of time..."

As I opened the first page of The Sun Also Rises, it had the following quote from Ecclesiastes in old King James English:

"One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever....The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose....The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits....All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again."


There is something of a cosmic connection between my life as a Gen Xer and Hemingway, because my great grandmother (who was one of my main connections from the last Lost Generation) and Hemingway were born only a couple of hours and months apart.  What is fascinating to me as a generational writer is that as a child, I was held in the embrace of both maternal and paternal great-grandparents - people born in the 1890s or very soon after, and when I hold my daughter who was born after the millennium, I sometimes pause and feel amazed at the fact that my skin has felt the embrace of people who came from three separate centuries.

Within Hemingway's stories are those deeply affected by WWI; those trying to not remember it.  After the war, there is this partying and bar-hopping lifestyle that many younger people took on as they attempted to blot out the bad memories of the war.  With that lifestyle came this futility, this lack of joy, a realization that excess leads to nowhere.  That may be one of the biggest similarities between the current Lost Generation and the last one: a need to blot out the bad memories

To borrow from another Hemingway book that many of us read in high school, A Farewell to Arms, a story about the young men of WWI, "They were beaten to start with.  They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army.  That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start.  Put him in power and see how wise he is." The deep discontent of the last Lost Generation resonates with the current one, with Generation X.  Society frayed apart throughout our entire youth, more subtly than it did during WWI, but it crumbled, and it left many of us bitter and cynical.   In many cases, it also made us wise.

In The Sun Also Rises, a character says, "Don't you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you're not taking advantage of it?  Do you realize you've lived nearly half the time you have to live already?"

This is the last time I'll read Hemingway.  While our youth is full of firsts, once we reach middle age, we begin to experience all of our lasts.  His words often make me feel like I am standing, completely alone at an empty beach and the person who was supposed to meet there to watch the sunset with me never showed up.

"You are all a lost generation."   -Gertrude Stein

Sometimes, the only hope we have when we are standing completely alone on the shore is that if yesterday was not what we hoped it would be, and if today was even worse, the sun will rise again tomorrow.

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places..." -Hemingway

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(c) 2017 writing and photography by Chloe Koffas - photo at Rockaway Beach, Oregon

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Finding the Last Lost Generation: The Christmas Truce of WWI


To go back in time exactly one century ago, the world found itself at Christmas time, about halfway through WWI.  Because of how the cycles of history go, you can reach back to a similar era to better understand the present one.   As the cycles of generations go, once every four generations is a Lost Generation.  This is what Generation X is, this is what the soldiers of WWI were.


In the spirit of seeing history and time as cyclical and not linear, I am beginning a new project as the year comes to an end.  It is a journey of reaching back to the last Lost Generation to find synchronicity between their generation and Gen X. Beyond that, I want to see what messages, what signposts, they left for us, to help us and to give us hope, because the journey of Generation X is much like theirs.

The main event that defined the last lost generation was WWI.  An extraordinary signpost they gave us very early in that war was the Christmas Truce of 1914.  French, German, British, and other soldiers declared impromptu truces along areas between the English Channel and Switzerland.  Not everyone in the war stopped fighting that Christmas, but individual units dotting the Western Front put down their weapons as a sort of rebellion against the violence of war.  Stepping out of their trenches to exchange a smile or a handshake, to have a drink or smoke together, to sing Christmas carols, and to bury their dead.  Those who chose to participate saw a humanity in each other they could not see before.  Soldiers spoke to each other in broken forms of each other's languages, in every European accent you can think of, to make a genuine connection with the other side.  A similar spontaneous situation took place on the Eastern front, the first move coming from Austro-Hungarian commanders, and Russian soldiers reciprocated.  At Easter 1915, Orthodox troops created truces with the other side as well.

There are times when we find ourselves so lost, the only place we feel even remotely at home is in No Man's Land. Yet, this can be the place where the best of human moments exist, a place where we are the least alone.  In our current political climate,we see an enormous split, where many have dug into ideological trenches.  We can step out of these trenches, these digital veils, and open our hearts to hear the stories and struggles of those on the other side. We can choose to see the faces of those who believe differently than we do as truly human, and know that we all feel anger, fear, heartbreak, and hope in the exact same way.


In just three minutes, this powerful clip gives you a glimpse into that extraordinary day that changed history because of human kindness.  (Or search YouTube for Sainsbury's official 2014 Christmas ad).



When we can climb out of our trenches, and extend a hand, we can see the divine in others, and they can see the divine in us.  May we all have moments this season where we show kindness that we, in some way, change history.



Joyeux Noël
Fröliche Weihnachten
Vrolijk Kerstfeest
Buon Natale
счастливого Рождества
Boldog Karácsonyt

  Merry Christmas.  



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(c) Chloe Koffas 2016

sources: Wikipedia, History.com



Sunday, November 6, 2016

In Spite of Everything


In Spite of Everything, by Susan Gregory Thomas, is a memoir I read recently that is a reflection on the larger collective experience of Generation X.  While her thoughtful honesty and humor drew me in, there was this painful familiarity I felt as her story echoed the experiences of my own life and many Gen Xers I have known.

She mentions in the book that according to U.S. census and other data, almost half of all Generation X children's families split and 40 percent were latchkey kids. She makes the point that the "benign neglect" concept that was commonly embraced by Boomer parents in how they raised Gen Xers during the '70s and '80s wasn't so benign after all, and in many cases, it was truly just neglect.

There is a lot of insight in the book on how the difficult childhoods of many Gen Xers has made us want to give our kids what we didn't have, and has made us become the kind of parents we wish we could've had, and how in spite of everything, our best intentions don't always lead us to where we thought we were going. She does a beautiful job of telling her story as part of our larger generational story: her parents divorced the same year mine did.





With extensive knowledge of classic literature, she makes references to everything from Greek mythology to Proust to illustrate her struggles, and to a large extent the struggle of the lives of many Xers as we have tried to recover from childhood wounds and to hold our relationships together in the present.  Among the timeless literature she references, she points to the Bible and sees scripture as a way of finding peace among the stress, confusion, and loneliness of our lives.  She mentions the technique of Lectio Divina, which she began to use when going through a dark point in her life.  She points to God as a place of solace, she points to Christ as "the very definition of hard-core punk." No doubt that is the highest compliment a Gen Xer could give -- I have always felt that way, too.

An excerpt from the book that explains what has defined each generation over the last several decades:

"It is a hard truism that each generation is shaped by its war.  The Greatest Generation was forged by WWII; Baby Boomers were defined by Vietnam and the civil rights and antiwar movements. Generation X's war, I would argue, was the ultimate war at home: divorce.  We didn't get Purple Hearts or red badges of courage, nothing that could be culturally shared or healed.  Our injuries were private, secret, solitary..."

The hope that rises from her suffering is that in spite of the fear that we all are randomly in orbit around some larger force out of our control, we may actually be deeply connected because all matter in the universe is made of the same substance.  In spite of our fear that we are ultimately alone, it may be that we are far more connected to one another -- much than we ever would've imagined.  






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(c) 2016 by Chloe Koffas 



Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ben Cooper and Collegeville: The Retro Halloween Costumes of Gen X

Staring at the illustrations on the costume box and admiring the mask through the clear cellophane just before I pulled out what I would wear for Halloween was a ritual that I remember with so much happiness. These memories come from the late 1970s and very early 1980s, yet I can still feel the fiber of the thin cardboard box against my small hands and I can still smell the vinyl as I would first pull the costume out of the box.  

And the Magic-Glo - there was nothing like the soft green glow coming from kid's costumes as the smell of caramel, chocolate, licorice, Blow Pops, and pop culture would come wafting from the plastic pumpkin shaped buckets or the super hero pillow cases little Gen Xers would use to hold their candy.  





At the time I never noticed the Ben Cooper brand on these costumes, though now that name is the perfect search term for looking up pictures of Gen Xers in Halloween costumes through the years as we grew up.  Considering how easily these types of costumes would fall apart if you tried to wear them more than just on Halloween night, I guess this company saw a market for "sturdy" costumes you could wear over and over, like when you just can't wait for Halloween, and maybe even when it's already Thanksgiving.  I have a vague memory of seeing this cardboard box in a fellow Gen Xer's toy box when I was very small:






Collegeville was the other main competing company to Ben Cooper at the time.  This is another good search term for looking up pictures of Gen Xers dressed as all the cartoon characters we used to watch.




My favorite Ben Cooper costume that I wore was Casper the Friendly Ghost.  Apparently both Ben Cooper and Collegeville had the commercial rights to Casper...here's what was going on behind the scenes for retailers who were thinking of selling the costumes in their stores that we bought and took home as little kids: 





Happy Halloween, Generation X.  



Saturday, September 17, 2016

River Phoenix - I Don't Want to Stand Where He Died

It's hard to choose just one person as a the symbol or voice of a generation.  For Generation X, many say it was Kurt Cobain, many others say it was River Phoenix.  Strangely, Kurt and River died within just five months of each other.  Gen Xers barely had time to grieve River when we heard the news of Kurt.  I distinctly remember walking between classes in high school, the weight of the books in my backpack heavy on my shoulders, staring up at a pale blue sky and thinking how unreal it was that they were both gone.  River was 23 when he took his last breath.

We were in town a week ago for my husband's 20th high school reunion, sitting in the driveway of his parents' house in a suburb of L.A., he was ready to drive our rental car to Sunset Boulevard where we had planned for a long time to go where River Phoenix experienced his last day in 1993.  As we set up the GPS with the address for the Viper Room, I realized I didn't want to make that journey.  I realized that I don't want to be near the place on the sidewalk where River passed away, at least not for now.  So instead, the next day, I decided to scramble for a window seat on the plane going back home and to think of River on the journey.   Instead of Sunset Boulevard, it was the Pacific Ocean, and lapping beaches, and sandy mountains covered in Redwoods.   So much of River's history took place from Southern to Northern California, it made sense to remember him this way.




People say there was something about him, that there was this bright spark in his soul.  He had this extra large portion of kindness and gentleness that radiated from him.  This is how I picture him leaving this earth: ascending quickly from the crowded shores of L.A. and then more slowly over open blue waters looking down at a thousand circling fish, watching the L.A. haze diffuse into the peaceful fog that hangs over the Pacific, and then realizing for the first time, he was utterly free of everything.

River was, by all accounts, Generation X.  He was born in 1970, right in the middle of the first wave and the second wave of X. The first time I ever saw him was on VHS in my 4th grade classroom.  Our teacher had us watch Stand By Me. It seems strange now -- 4th graders watching an R-rated movie in our classroom, a script full of so many heavy subjects, but we were a generation that grew up fast.

I mentioned River at my husband's reunion while catching up with people at Roxanne's - an Old Hollywood style bar in Long Beach. People would have to pause to remember who he was for a moment, or they would mention that no one talks about River Phoenix much anymore.

Whether we are still alive, or whether we have gone to the other side, whether we find ourselves at our high school reunions or are sending a message online to an old best friend that we grew up with, we don't want to be forgotten. 

As our flight came near its end, I looked down on the mountains of Northern California.  I felt a world away from Southern California, and a lifetime away from that day in 1993 when we lost River.

As the decades go by, I hope that he is never forgotten, I hope the bright spark within him is always remembered.  He was an animal rights, political, and environmental activist.  I imagine that his hope was (and is) that the things he was passionate about are never forgotten.

As I was getting ready for the trip, I read Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind by Gavin Edwards. Going through these pages made it clear there was a lot of suffering in River's life.  It sounds like, as he grew older, he took movie roles mainly just to pay the bills to take care of his family, that he wanted out of the business, that he wanted to pursue music instead.  Edwards shows how River left a mark on pop culture and on Hollywood, I'll add that he left an enormous mark on Generation X.  Even if Xers have to pause a moment to remember him, they remember him.

Given that River had quintessentially Boomer parents, this led, as it often does, to a quintessential Gen X experience.  Sadly, the package that came with this Gen X experience for many was growing up far too fast, and sometimes, living far too fast, and dying far too young.

Sometimes, when I'm in LA, I look around at the way the palm trees lean silent in front of the sunsets, as cool evening breezes flow above the heat rising from the concrete, and think about the way Hollywood makes people, and then breaks them.  

As one of the Orthodox priests officiating at the funeral of my husband's family matriarch in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery last year said,

"Nothing is forever, 
especially not Hollywood."  

    
No doubt that's true about this world, that nothing is forever; it's something Gen X knew innately even before we watched R-rated movies as fourth graders, it's something we felt intensely the day we lost River.
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(c) 2016 - all photos and writing by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved. 



Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our Stories

In addition to the writing I do on this blog, I have recently become a regular contributor over at Are You There God? It's me Generation X.  My first piece is about telling our story to overcome lies with truth both in our own lives and together as a generation.

Feeling very excited about what the future holds for all of us Gen Xers as we tell our stories more, and as more of us tell our stories....








Head on over to read the piece: