A line from a timeless Crosby Stills and Nash song came to me the other day, as if from nowhere. The line was “your father’s hell/ did slowly go by,” from the Graham Nash song, “Teach Your Children.” I started singing what I could remember, and remembering a few lines made me curious about the rest.
The lyric resonates right now for many reasons. One is that I’ve been reading Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives, by James Hollis. The book is a brief (and still somewhat wordy) exploration of the way our genetic and cultural heritage—the mistaken notions and broken dreams of our ancestors, parents, families, teachers and culture—are foundational and pivotal to the assumptions and belief systems that underlie and drive our individual attitudes and decisions.
When a gasoline engine is running out of gas there is a point when it races for a moment, as the fuel/ air mixture “leans out” just before it quits. Many of us go through these times and survive, but when the lean-out is combined with age, overworked internal organs, and general weariness, it sharpens the argument that one of these periods will be the last. I’ve been there with my parents and other friends. It’s different for each of us, but I know it’s big, no matter what. I’m aware this will be me and my kids, in another blink.
The second half of “Teach Your Children” shifts perspective to the children. “You of tender years/ can’t know the fears/ that your elders grew by.” Here’s the other side, the invitation to consider that youth needs humility as well. Maybe your elders have done as well as they can, under trying circumstances.
The turnabout comes as we look at one another across the ages with understanding and open-minded humility. I am you and I’m not you; there is no conflict here unless we lock down on one side of that continuum. Our individual dreams can feed both ways. Just as elders have to recognize that children have to go through their own hell in order to pick a dream they’ll know life by, children do well to respect that their elders had to do the same thing—and it probably didn’t come out as they hoped, or planned.
The same invitation closes the children’s part of the song as did the elders’: “Look at them and sigh. Know they love you.” Sometimes words won’t do what love will.
Art and Practice
Don Freas is an artist, writer, and poet in Olympia, Washington.