I saw an article several months ago that claimed people quit looking for new music after they turn thirty. The study went back to 2015 and talked about neurological reasons we get dug in and cultural ones as well.
The article came to mind again as I was thinking about W. S. Merwin’s death and what it feels like to lose another formative voice in my life. So many of the voices I listen to have been with me a long time: Madeleine L’Engle, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, John Berger, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jimmy Santiago Baca, James Carroll. That is not an exhaustive list by any means.
When I taught high school English, our reading lists leaned into the oldies as well—many of them books I read when I was a teenager: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, The Old Man and the Sea, The Scarlet Letter. (I hope that list doesn’t cause any unintentional trauma for anyone.) Adding new books was difficult because no one wanted to quit reading the tried-and-true favorites.
As I watch the way-too-early presidential race begin, I am frustrated by the oldies-but-goodies that feel compelled to run. I don’t want someone older than me to be president. It’s time for the Baby Boomers to step aside. I don’t mean we all have to quit what we are doing, or that we can’t contribute; I do mean we no longer need to be in charge.
Somewhere along the way in the last year or so, in the discussions around patriarchy and white fragility, I learned an acronym that has been helpful to my own growth: WAIT—Why Am I Talking. In discussions about how we can make life more equitable and hopeful for all, the best thing I can do is to WAIT—to listen and learn and pay attention. I can speak up later, but I don’t need to be the one who drives the agenda, particularly when we are talking about how to get straight white men to quit controlling the agenda.
Back when he was one of the young voices, Billy Joel wrote
I guess that these are not the best of times
but they’re the only times I’ve ever known
and I believe there is a time for meditation
in cathedrals of our own
If those words ring true—and I believe they do—then they apply to the generations that have come after us who don’t necessarily know all the words to “Piano Man.”
I love the staying power of words and music. I am still moved by my Beatles records, even as I still love to read The Great Gatsby. And I love that Paul Simon and John Prine both had new albums last year and they are both in their seventies. I’m listening to a Karla Bonoff record as I write this. Then I catch myself still thinking of U2 as a new band because they came to light after I was out of seminary—and they’ve been making records for forty years. When familiar books and music feed enrich our connections to our memories and to one another, they are powerful. At the same time, the line between nostalgia and a sense of generational superiority is a thin one.
One of the choices I have made over the years is to read as much as I can of people who don’t write from an identified Christian perspective. John Berger is a good example. As far as labels go, he was a British art critic, labor activist, communist, and compassionate thinker. His writing has fed my life for many years. He asked questions in ways familiar voices did not, so I took it on myself to become friends with him through his writing. I wanted him to influence me. This year, I made a conscious decision to read theologians who are people of color for much the same reason. I want to hear from someone who asks different questions.
I am aging and I can keep growing.
I suppose that last sentence may sound antithetical to my opening premise that Joe and Bernie needs to get out of the way, but that’s not how I see it. Part of growing is letting go. One of the big lessons for me to learn is how not to be in charge. Instead of singing lead, it’s time to sing harmony, or maybe just to listen until I am invited to sing along.
In my work as an editor, most of the writers I work with are younger than I am. They have a lot to say. I am grateful that I get to learn from them and help them shape what they have to say. They see things in a way I had not—until I read their words, which is how I felt when I first read L’Engle and Buechner. There is more light yet to break forth and it will come from new light bearers.
“Sing to the Lord a new song,” sang the psalmist—ancient words that carry contemporary wisdom: let’s not quit looking for new songs to sing.
PS—This song came to mind as a good way to close.