Sunday, December 31, 2017

Messages from the Lost Generation to Generation X: A One Year Journey

Gen X's Connection to the Lost Generation

While the late wave of the Lost Generation experienced the last years of their lives, Generation X experienced their earliest years. They were the red leaves that had hung on through the worst heat of summer, while we were the green blades of grass shooting up toward the sun, only just realizing how cold the coming winter would become. As I've been on a one-year journey to find the Lost Generation, I have sought their wisdom. And I have realized that these leaves, this generation, even as they fell, were often trying to protect us or give to us in whatever way they could. When I was a small child, my Lost Generation great-grandfather had brought me a seedling tree from Illinois, down Highway 35, and across I-40, and planted it in our front yard. In the summer, it had shadowed me as my pinwheel blew in the soft breeze and, when fall came, it dropped its leaves in the street like little treasures.

When Ethan Hawke's character picks up the phone in Reality Bites and says, "Hello, you've reached the winter of our discontent," he isn't just alluding to the crisis that Gen X remembers as kids, he is reaching back in some way to Steinbeck.

Sinclair Lewis summed up the experience of the Lost Generation: "Winter is not a season, it's an occupation." As generations go, every four cycles is a 'lost generation', and the history that goes with those cycles is always winter, always discontent. This was life for the Lost Generation, this has, in many ways, been life for Generation X.

Why it matters to understand a previous generation is that it helps to better understand our own. Why it matters to study history is so that we don't keep repeating the same mistakes. We are still very much affected today by issues of the Lost Generation. History, as we experience it, is even continuously altered by WWI. One all too real example of this is that many bombs, designed to explode on impact, were left behind in the fields of Europe as the tired arms of soldiers sometimes laid them in the grass and walked away. Today, as farmers plow fields, or as people walk by, those bombs sometimes explode and those people are sometimes injured or killed, even though it is now a hundred years later. This is known, darkly, as the Iron Harvest.

Another chilling example of our connection to the Lost Generation is H1N1. In the winter of 2009, this virus was constantly in the news as a potential pandemic. We stood in line at a clinic for shots in the freezing cold, while volunteers handed us warm blankets. The Red Cross sign on the side of their truck had me thinking about the way they had helped relief efforts during WWI, but I did not know that what we were about to get immunized for was a variation of the same flu that wiped out a large number of the world's population a century before. Sadly, the Lost Generation was born during years that made them more susceptible to this horrible virus because of a different flu they had gotten as children. 

If you are Generation X, you may have known and loved people from the Lost Generation - I surely did. One thing that became more and more clear to me through this year of searching for them, for their wisdom, for their messages left to us, is that they saw our suffering, and knew our suffering because it was painstakingly familiar to them. Their lives were coming to an end as ours were beginning so they were often unable to intervene in our lives or help us in a way they could have if they had been younger, though I think they often did what they were able to in the time they had left.

The Lost Generation lived through a similar pattern of history, and therefore had a similar struggle that Gen X has now, and any wisdom or hope they left behind helps us on our own long journeys. Some of those messages are quoted on this blog over the past year. Beyond that wisdom, these are the two messages I found from them that have affected me the most....

How to Fight

One of those messages is the example they left us of how to fight. There were two well-known truces that took place during WWI: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (which would have been a day that would have the most meaning to soldiers on the Western Front) and the Easter Truce of 1916 (a day that would have the most meaning to soldiers on the Eastern Front). In both cases, soldiers stepped out of their trenches and broke bread with the other side, an act that included both risk and profound love. Many other small, localized truces took place during the war as well. This was a powerful message from the Lost Generation to us: we should always take a moment to see those we consider an enemy as truly human, or even if just for a moment, as brothers and sisters.

How to Have Hope

C.S. Lewis, one of the brightest voices of the Lost Generation, told us the reason our heart yearns for something earth can't supply is proof that heaven must be our home. This is the ultimate hope and the ultimate explanation for why we feel lost, because we are not yet home. This image of hope and light shows up in different ways in the writing of the Lost Generation - it was the green light that the Great Gatsby reached toward over the water, it is the lighthouse that Virginia Woolf told us to look toward.

Here's to the coming new year, when we look toward hope. It will be exactly one century from the year that WWI came to an end. In November of 2018, a centennial memorial for American WWI veterans will finally be opened. Up until now, the veterans of every other major war have been given a monument in Washington D.C., the Lost Generation has not. This is exactly what it means to be a lost generation.

May the Lost Generation rest in peace. And while we've said it for generations, it is always worth saying it again:
Peace on earth.

(c) writing by Chloe Koffas 2017, photos by Chloe, Portland, Oregon


Time Magazine: Solving the Mystery Flu That Killed 50 Million People
WWI Centennial Memorial Info and a link to donate
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Wikipedia: Iron Harvest 
An Easter Truce, 1916: Gateways to the First World War

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Speed of History - Finding the Lost Generation: A One Year Journey

The Lost Generation (born about 1883-1900 or soon after) lived through momentous world history and enormous change - like they were on a speeding train as the years of their lives went by. They saw the New York subway open the same year as the Trans-Siberian Railway (1904). They experienced the first wireless transmission making it across the Atlantic (1901) and they experienced the tragedy when the Titanic did not (1912).

They experienced the first World Series (1903). Norman Rockwell painted moments of their lives that we still remember them by. The second wave of the Lost Generation would have, with small hands, colored with the very first Crayola crayons images of an unfolding modern world that seemed like wonderful things might be possible, at least at first....

As they came of age, if they did not lose someone they loved from the Balkan Wars (1912-13) or WWI (1914-18), they lost someone from the flu pandemic of 1918 which took away a substantial piece of the world's population and even shortened the Lost Generation's life expectancy.

WWI veterans came home to America, Britain, and other places to become disillusioned with a post-war society that did not always welcome them back. Many of them, including some of the most well-known Lost Gen writers, became expatriates and were known in France as Generation au Feu - the "Generation in Flames." For many, a war's impact on their body and psyche lasts a lifetime. And it goes far beyond that. I have seen that trauma get passed down through multiple generations. WWI soldiers felt a hatred for their leaders who had sent them into the trenches to die and this was, and is, a piece of the bigger picture of how each lost generation loses hope in leaders and institutions.

In the early days of the Lost Generation, Russian Czars still ruled over snow-covered villages. Immigrants from around the world came in waves through Ellis Island as Orphan Trains transported children from poverty on big city streets of Eastern American cities across golden plains to farms in the Midwest. Some of those Lost Generation orphans found themselves in good families and some went through terrible abuse. Some of those orphans grew up to become well-known and successful, some eventually had to leave the Midwest Dust Bowl and head west once again to look for work during the Great Depression.

The Industrial Revolution's long, dark shadow was still casting itself across the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of cities in the Western world and many of the Lost Generation worked in factories as children and could not finish school. Yet, in their adulthood, many of them fought for public benefits, specifically those that were part of the New Deal, even knowing that most of them would never be the recipient of those benefits themselves. They had suffered enormously under the Great Depression, and didn't want future generations to experience this again. Any lost generation becomes the clear-eyed managers for the older generations ahead of them and the selfless protectors of the younger generations coming behind them.

The skyscraper became the icon of the Roaring Twenties, even while people lived in 'poor houses'. As teenagers and twenty-somethings, the Lost Generation built American railways and rebuilt San Francisco from the devastating 1906 earthquake.

The Lost Generation bought their first radios to hear George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin gracing the sound waves. By the late 1920's they were gathering around their radios to listen to westerns, soap operas, and detective shows. In mid-life, they would have sat by those same radios to hear FDR's fireside chats.

While Al Capone and Mae West became household names, and speakeasies popped up in back alleys during Prohibition, and while the parties of the 1920's were known for being big, elaborate, and full of champagne, not everyone lived a life of the nouveau riche. Many people worked in sweat shots in 'valleys of ashes' or lived simple lives in small towns. If having fun during the Roaring Twenties was a response to WWI, then eventually living a life of simplicity with a disdain for over-indulgence became the Lost Generations' regretful response to the 1920's.

After a long struggle, women in the West filled out their first ballots (1920). Women like Golda Meir, Dorothy Parker and Virginia Wolfe began to find their voices. Flappers pushed the boundaries of social class, which ultimately paved the way for Gen X to be known as the first generation to exist outside of social class.

In the early years of the Lost Generation, the first Nobel prizes were given and society worked to push itself forward. All the while, as if a strange shadow of the Dark Ages still reached over them, they suffered in Hoovervilles, in TB clinics, in asylums. So many books have been written about their suffering and a thousand of their stories still wait to be told.

While many of them were born just as X-rays were invented, they eventually saw the first PCs making their way into their younger neighbors' homes. As the Lost Generation came of age, they experienced WWI and then the Roaring Twenties, followed by The Great Depression and WWII in their midlife. In their older years, they saw both the building and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. While they watched Amelia Earhart fly solo over the Atlantic ocean in their youth, as their hair began to turn gray, they saw the first moon landing. No wonder they were tired by the time we met them.

While I have been on a one year journey to find the Lost Generation and have written month-by-month of their lives, this has all just been a small slice of their experience. I have looked at their art deco furniture and their San Francisco skyscrapers. I have spent time with their writers.

 I have remembered those from the Lost Generation that I loved. As I began this journey a year ago, there was one last known Lost Generation soul still alive in the Western World named Emma and she passed away in Italy in April 2017. The Lost Generation soul who had the biggest impact on my life was also named Emma, who had survived the Great Depression by leaving Oklahoma and going West, which is where I met her as a child. The last Lost Gen soul in America was the adorable Susannah Mushatt Jones. The oldest living Lost Gen man is Celino Jaramillo in Chile, while the Olympics were held in Athens -- he is believed to be 121. I am in awe in of how much history he has experienced. The last Lost Generation woman now still alive is Nabi Tajima,Nabi Tajima born in 1899, the year of the first Hague Convention. I send her my respect and love over the Pacific from California to Japan. I can hardly imagine what memories she must hold in her heart and mind. She and Celino are the last known people in the world born in the 1800s. Here's to the wisdom and beauty of Nabi Tajima, here's to the amazing Lost Generation.

(c) 2017 all right reserved - writing by Chloe Koffas - all photos taken 1923 or before: fair use, other historic photos - public domain, newer photos by Chloe: Downtown San Francisco, Rockaway Beach, Oregon, Downtown Boise  


Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe (c) 1991
(All other sources are linked to within the piece)