Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.
I heard these lyrics the other night while making dinner and realized it was one of those songs that has left a permanent imprint on me, the kind of song that intertwines with a specific memory or a specific life juncture, when your feelings of happiness, sadness, or confusion collides with music and your sense of life’s fleeting nature becomes acute. I was introduced to Cat Stevens by a girl I had an intense, but brief friendship with in high school back in Iowa in the 1980s. Her name was Sue and she was Canadian. She moved to the United States when her parents got divorced and her dad’s publishing company transferred him from Toronto to Des Moines. At seventeen, having lived my whole life in one state, I no longer felt like I was just watching paint dry. I felt like I was the drying paint. Sue’s arrival was the biggest cultural expansion I had had to date, save my parents bringing me back kimonos from their trip to Japan. Sue introduced me to taboo things like smoking cigarettes at Rocky Rococo Pizza when we were supposed to be in the school cafeteria or improvising vegetarian sandwiches in my kitchen after school. These were rebellious, not-to-be discussed activities for proper, tradition-following girls in the Midwest. I knew I needed to expand my horizons when putting grated carrots in a sandwich felt subversive.
I remember listening to Cat Stevens on a mixed-tape Sue and I kept rewinding from the cassette deck in her light blue Nissan as we blazed down I-35 to Kansas City — without our parents’ knowledge — on a covert prom dress hunting mission. We were Thelma and Louise before the movie came out, except instead of fleeing abusive men, we were fleeing protective conformity. We didn’t know what we were “going to do” in the next chapters of our lives, we just knew it was going to be different. In retrospect, I am astounded at how limited my field of vision for future options was. I thought by getting out of my physical location, I would somehow become more interesting, better. I thought by “blowing this pop stand,” I would be shedding the blase and inhabiting the cool. How I wish I could go back now and tell my burgeoning adult self, you’re misguided. You’re looking for action in the wrong place. How I wish I had had this current generation of young people to beckon me away from the warped definition of success that I and everyone in my generation, X, had been presented with, the one that is all about upward mobility and accumulating things. How I wish I would have developed my young adulthood around what I wanted to leave on this Earth, instead of what I wanted to take.
In retrospect, what I was really craving was less something different than something meaningful, but Sue and I were products of our environment: white, upper middle class girls in suburbia, pre-globalization, pre-Information Age. We knew some things, but we were in the Stone Age in terms of awareness of the problems in the world compared to teenagers today. I wonder how young people feel now when they hear all of us old fogies talk about how much simpler life used to be, how innocent. I wonder if they understand that the innocence we enjoyed was a byproduct of our ignorance. One could argue that things weren’t as bad “then” as they are “now.” But one could also argue that for a lot of people in a lot of parts of the world…oh yes, they were. We just didn’t know, and as a result, we kind of cared less. I volunteered occasionally and processed the gravity of some issues, but I was more enamored with actors than activists. At that time, my privilege blinded me from even conceiving of a life spent fighting for justice. I had no clue that democracy wasn’t something given to me, like a Christmas present, but something I had to keep alive through my actions, in perpetuity.
“I feel really awake,” Thelma says to her soul sister, Louise. “I don’t recall ever feeling this awake. You know? Everything looks different now. You feel like that? You feel like you got something to live for now?”
Whatever plans I had for myself on March 14th, 2018, they were usurped by the thousands of American students spilling out of schools across the country, pleading in solidarity, for an end to the gun violence plaguing their nascent lives. My feelings of despair about America, that we are all just too divided and too powerless to come together to tackle everything we must confront — gun violence, climate crisis, war, racism, sexism, state and corporate propaganda — that feeling took a back seat to the March for Our Lives. Young America’s response to gun violence was just something I had never experienced before. Their coming together was a hybrid protest/piece of performance art, a series of mosaics colored by their diversity and shared purpose. This was a representation of protest unique to their generation, a generation with profound awareness (a burden and a blessing), and, perhaps more importantly, a generation with unparalleled civic responsibility. They are fighting not only for theirfuture, but a future, and as untraditional as it might be, we should let them lead the way. Those of us who did not grow up fearing being shot in the buildings that our parents put us in so that we might learn to become productive citizens should take a back seat now, too. Because our young people have a winning combination of courage, idealism, context, and stakes. They have a different vision of what success looks like, and it is collective, not individual. If progressivism is going to have a much needed coming of age in this nation, we need to toss the keys to the young activists who are coming of age right now.
Meredith Anton is an independent writer living in the mountains of southern Vermont.