Marlo Thomas’ 1972 release, part of a compendium of music for children, has been ringing in my ears lately along with Christmas music. I remember, clearly, the excitement I felt when I first heard this song, as it seemed to signal the beginning of a new age—the age of Aquarius, which happens to be my birth sign.
I never saw the title written and so I was unaware of those three crucial dots separating “you and me.”
As it turned out, of course—and nearly everybody would not have been surprised, no matter how disappointed—the freedom to be me was an illusion that often contradicted the freedom to be you. Freedom is perhaps only gained in social vacuum but that tends to be haunted by demons.
For a while, though, there was magic in the air. If one could ignore what was going on in Vietnam and concentrate on domestic happiness and health, it seemed possible that freedom, at least for some people, was just around the corner. This was a time when Joan Didion could board a commercial airline barefooted—maybe they made her put shoes on later.
It was also the time when many parents began beseeching their children to “have fun.” If school was a drag, find other ways to have fun, or maybe drop out. The drug culture was growing wings and a tail and it seemed at first as though law enforcement was looking the other way. Streets in certain city neighborhoods were drenched in pot fumes, and a lot of teenagers were sleeping on sofas somewhere. It took a while for us grownups to realize that if this was freedom, it was going to be costly.
Then it all changed, not overnight, but slowly, imperceptibly, stealthily. New laws forbade possession of illegal substances and jail sentences became suddenly imaginable for middle-class white people. The first euphoria and the first political gains of the women’s liberation movement began to erode, and not always from the outside; our deep and unquestioned bonds to our men made outright rebellion seem like betrayal—which of course it was. The first generation of women warriors was getting older, even the staunch activists were tired. And the press, as always, found ways to discredit what we were accomplishing: it was a movement of well-off white women, excluding the working class and dark-skinned women, true only to the degree that activism for any change in the culture demands that its supporters have free time.
So finally only the song seemed to remain, on the turntables of the past.
There was of course a large group of people who had always known, because of their history, the freedom not gained through struggle is illusion, and their music, then and now, reminds me that earthly existence has been called a veil of tears.
“Nobody know the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”
“Been down so long it looks like up to me.”
That hard-earned wisdom is always with us, particularly in the deep wailing and throbbing beat of the blues.
One of the top ten Blues recordings of this year is Kurt Fletcher’s Hold On. A track called “Two Steps Forward” reminds me of the sometimes forced optimism of the twelve-step programs, which might suggest that two steps forward are followed by only one step back.
I think what in dawning now, on the tip of 2019, is not the Age of Aquarius with its inevitable narcissism but the Age of Engagement. Here in New Mexico, which turned entirely blue in this last election for the first time in its history—and women, Hispanics and Native Americans were large parts of that wave—we will be witnessing laws introduced in the January legislature that reflect a progressive agenda: prison reform, a permanent solution for homelessness, relief for the sufferers on the border, support for Dreamers, preservation of our wild lands and curtailment of the ravages of the oil and gas industries—perhaps even a cap on the grotesque amount of commercial and residential building around here, none of which addresses our need for affordable housing since developers are allowed to buy their way out of a state-mandated commitment. We have a Democratic majority in the House and a Democratic governor who has already voiced her support for some of these initiatives, so there is hope.
Maybe it’s possible to hold on to the lightheartedness, if not the light-headedness, of “Free to Be… You and Me.”