Now is the time when we get to turn back the clock. It’s the end of Daylight Savings (It happens here in Europe a week before America). But I have been doing this in my writing all my life, imagining myself in times and places I have never been, and re-imagining myself as a child and young adult. So it seems natural for me to wander back in time, and remember some of the most affecting moments in my life.
It has been fifty years since Simon & Garfunkel’s album ‘Bookends’ was released. This happened at a perilous time in America’s history – 1968, and I am thinking about it now because we seem to be at a similarly perilous time again. The album had several songs that attempted to capture the essence of uncertainty in the air. Most famously, there is ‘Mrs. Robinson’ with its line about ‘going to the candidates debate / laugh about it, shout about it / when you have to choose / anyway you look at it, you lose’. There’s ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ talking about dissatisfaction (‘…time, time, time / look what’s become of me’) and ‘Old Friends’ with its lyric about age (‘Can you imagine us years from today / sharing a park bench quietly / how terribly strange to be seventy’).
But the centerpiece of the recording, and the most poignant song across time, is ‘America’. The lyrics aren’t really about the country; it’s more of a short story of sorts – about two people, a young man and a woman named Kathy, hitchhiking from Michigan to New York for….what? – a new life, a chance to save or extend their relationship, an unrealized opportunity. The lyrics are an intoxicating mix of particularity and poetry. On the one hand, there’s Mrs. Wagner’s pies, Saginaw, and the New Jersey Turnpike, and on the other, there’s the line about the moment when ‘…. the moon rose over an open field’ or when the narrator cries out ‘Kathy, I’m lost, I said / though I knew she was sleeping.’
There is the sense that the singer is lamenting both the loss of a love and the loss of an ideal. The poignancy was aching then (literally: there’s another line where the young man says ‘I’m aching and lonely and I don’t know why’) and it is even more aching now, when fifty years of our lives filled with heartache and hope and promises and tragedy, have passed and left a trail writ in water, to quote Keats’ gravestone.
Paul Simon did revisit this theme again, a few years later, with his song ‘American Tune’. He wrote it in 1973, right after Richard Nixon was elected, and it advances the vague sense of unease of ‘America’ into something more definitively tragic:
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower,
We come on the ship that sailed the moon,
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it's all right, it's all right,
You can't be forever blessed.
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day,
And I'm trying to get some rest --
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest.
Paul Simon is seventy-seven now, and I’m sixty-three, and the nation we were born into and grew up in and (at least, in my case) still feel some affinity for despite living a thousand miles away seems in some respects in as uncertain a place as it was all those years ago.
But the urge to instruct, to enlighten, and to create remains (again, at least for me. I can’t speak for Mr. Simon). I keep on writing, and trying, with my writing, to understand and learn from history, to offer love and hope, and to make the world of my imagination a model for the real thing.