The riptide of The Revolution went out with the same force it had surged in with, the ferocious undertow proportionate to the onetime hopes.
– Todd Gitlin[i]
Everything changed; the world turned holy;
and nothing changed:
There being nothing to change or needing
change; and everything
Still to change and be changed….
– Thomas McGrath[ii]
In The Limey (1999), a Steven Soderbergh film set in contemporary Los Angeles, Peter Fonda plays Terry Valentine, an aging pop music producer, now cynical and corrupt, for whom the idealism of the Sixties is a very distant memory. His young girlfriend asks him what it was really like back then. “Mmm,” she murmurs. “It must have been a time, huh. A golden moment.”
Lem Dobbs’ fine script gives Valentine a wistful reply. “Have you ever dreamed about a place you never really recalled being to before? A place that maybe only really exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half-remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew the way around. That was the Sixties.” He pauses, frowning slightly as his disillusion kicks in. “No. It wasn’t that either. It was just ’66––and early ’67. That’s all it was.”
When did “the Sixties” end? Kent State (1970)? The Summer of Love (1967)? Or in the helter skelter of Charles Manson (1969), when we “looked into Manson’s eyes and saw in those dark caves what we most feared within ourselves, the paranoia of what might happen if you go too far.”[iii]
On New Year’s Eve, 1969, I fled an uninspired party and drove to the beach. I wanted to give the last hours of the Sixties my undivided attention. I parked in one of those big empty lots in Santa Monica, in a pool of lamplight where the asphalt meets the sand. I propped my journal against the steering wheel and began to write whatever I could remember about my own Sixties. Out in the darkness, a hundred yards away, the tide was going out, wave by wave.
Just before midnight, a police car pulled up next to me. The officer got out, walked over to my window, and aimed a flashlight at my face. In those days, the Zodiac Killer was on the loose, and a single young man parked all alone at the beach on New Year’s Eve was a definite person of interest.
– What are you doing out here?
– Writing in my journal.
– Mind if I take a look?
– Sure. Why not?
Even then, I was eager for readers. He flipped the pages, reading a few lines out loud. He smiled faintly and shook his head. Lucky for me, it wasn’t the sort of thing a serial killer would write. He handed back my journal and wished me a Happy New Year. By then it was 1970.
Whenever the Sixties did end, and the high tide of cultural upheaval, political activism, youthful idealism and millennial hope began to run out, many were left to wonder what it had all meant. Was it a dead end, or a door opening into something larger and more lasting? Did it change the world? Did it change our lives?
Writing about the utopian social experiments of Haight-Ashbury, Charles Perry asked, “How did you deal with the fact that the million visions of the possibilities of life you saw were humiliatingly tied to the perversely unchanging self you brought into the experience?”[iv] And in soliciting the reflections of Sixties people 20 years after the Summer of Love, Annie Gottlieb tried to address her own questions about the decade’s long-term effects on their lives: “Where are the millions of comrades in each other’s arms, the warm bodies that packed every rock concert, college campus, and demonstration, the tattered and colorful armies of love? Forever dispersed into castles of bourgeois comfort and pockets of principled despair?”[v] 8
But as many of us have learned, resignation and despair are not the only options. We may have lost our innocence about the world––and about the traces of darkness in our own hearts––but we are still prisoners of hope. Our formative glimpses of a new heaven and a new earth may have come and gone, but their influence still lingers. However chastened or weary we may be, a sense of expectation remains. What Jesus called the Kingdom of God is a future of human flourishing and divine blessing that still pulls on us with gravitational force. Its current absence doesn’t dim our faith. It only intensifies our longing.
So when I consider the transformative dimension of the Sixties, and the ache of its disappearing, I call to mind a late summer morning in 1969, when I was awakened at dawn by a pounding on my door. It was the Rev. Craig Hammond, one of my colleagues in campus ministry at the University of Michigan. “The circus is in town!” he said. “If we help them raise the tent this morning, they’ll give us free tickets for tonight’s show.” I threw on some clothes and hurried to join my friends at the circus grounds. And so it was that I was admitted that night––absolutely free––to a world of wonders and impossibilities.
One of the things I remember most is my sense of letdown the next day, after the circus moved on. Where I had seen trapeze artists defy physical law and visual probability, and witnessed clowns die and rise again, there was now but an empty field. Like the Kingdom of God, the circus comes and goes. Its appearance is sudden and brief. And you can’t hold on to it. You can only look for its coming again.
At our campus worship service the following Sunday, I reflected on this analogous relationship:
It’s nearly useless to talk about it now. In a matter of days, it has faded like a dream. The powers set free within its tents seem but idle fancies. The attempt to talk now about the CIRCUS, so soon after its vanishing, comes with a price––acknowledgement of my separation from it.
And yet, it touched us as it passed, its mad motions opened a space between the calm routines and resignations of our everyday lives, allowing us the briefest glimpse of the darkness and the dance of divinity.
But the kingdom is not yet, and we are condemned for the moment to remain audience only. The circus priests of pain an laughter stand on the other side of an unbridgeable divide, though for a day and a night they seemed so very near. When the next morning found no trace of them, we tried to forget as best we could.
But we didn’t forget. Not really. In fact, when our worship team was invited soon afterward to curate a liturgy for a special “General Convention” of the Episcopal Church in South Bend, Indiana, we were inspired to employ circus imagery and metaphors in the construction of the ritual.
In the ordinary round of Episcopal business, a national gathering of clergy and lay representatives happens every three years, but this Convention was summoned in an off-year to address critical issues and questions posed to the Church by the struggles and tensions of the Sixties. The discussions would focus particularly on race, women, and war. A certain amount of disagreement and polarization was anticipated, and we had been given the mission of making ritual to move people from a place of difference into an experience of shared celebration.
We were scheduled to follow an evening concert in a coffeehouse setting, where about 400 people were seated around large tables. There were no obvious signs that a liturgy was about to happen––no procession forming at the back of the hall, no clergy vested in bright robes, no worship booklets distributed. Some began to wonder whether the liturgy, publicized only by mimes handing out flyers at lunchtime, was just an unfounded rumor.
Then the lights went down. A spotlight shone on the stage, where a lone figure came from behind the curtain to give the Ringmaster’s pitch: Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! See the eschaton under the big top! Three rings of grace! Come one, come all, everybody welcome! It seemed meet and right that this Ringmaster, a priest from Washington, D.C., happened to be P.T. Barnum’s great-grandson.
The spotlight switched off, and in the darkness an anonymous voice (in fact the Presiding Bishop, John Hines), read the gathering prayer: God of the Circus, Lord of the Dance, open our eyes to see your show when it comes to town. Amen.
The sermon featured a projection of photographs I had taken at the circus mixed with images of the human condition in the great circus of history, set to the music of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” At communion, the reception of bread and wine was followed by an anointing of each communicant with white clown makeup. Finally, after singing “I Shall Be Released,” we made a joyous communal dance.
Afterward, I wrote in my journal:
Now all of us had become the circus––we ourselves were the elephants, the high wire artists, the clowns––the circus in us, the circus through us. I saw monks weeping and bishops dancing, and for one bright moment there were a great many things which no longer mattered very much in the light of this One Big Thing.
All the photographs were taken July 20th at “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll,” featuring a wealth of artifacts on the 50th anniversary of the Summmer of Love. It continues at San Francisco’s De Young Museum, close to Haight-Ashbury, through August 20th. Pilgrims will be richly rewarded.
[i] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 420.
[ii] Thomas McGrath, Letter to an Imaginary Friend (Chicago: Swallow, 1970, p. 95), q. in Gitlin, p. 420.
[iii] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 215.
[iv] Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History (New York: Wenner Books, 2005), 263-4
[v] Annie Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic? The Second Coming of the Sixties Generation (New York: Times Books, 1987), 8.