When the singer-songwriter Phil Ochs took his own life in 1976 he was a year and a half older than me. It’s hard for some of us to believe he’s been gone 33 years. His music and the ideals he fought for are still so strong. Phil was best known for his anti-war songs. Yet he wrote a different kind of song that continues to grow in importance to me as I near the end of my own life. Like many people my age I’m losing a lot of friends, colleagues and family of late — two in the last month and word that yet another is near the end of her life and entering hospice care. While I remain relatively healthy and carry no dire diagnoses. I’m realistic, I’m not afraid of dying, but ever more conscious that time is getting short and there remains much to do — as there always will be, even when I’m gone.
This song of Phil Ochs doesn’t make me think of the ones who are gone but of the living, especially the young generation. Last night I heard conservative commentator David Brooks say on PBS’s News Hour he was very optimistic about the under thirties. I don’t agree with Brooks about much, but in this case I’m with him. As a Professor I have a lot of contact with that generation and they are a cut above their predecessors. That’s on average, of course. There are many wonderful people of every generation, but this new one has a seriousness of purpose and a deeper understanding that they and their peers are essentially the same underneath the crap their parents piled on them (of which religion is a prime but not sole example). Maybe the openness of a connected and globalized society has done it. I don’t know. But they’ll be the ones to carry on when I’m gone, and I’m optimistic. Which brings me to Phil Ochs’ song, When I’m gone.
There are some wonderful and polished versions on YouTube (try Ani Difranco or Allison Crowe and you can hear Phil sing it himself here). But I selected one by a young folksinger, Kim Ruehl, performed live at a coffeehouse in Seattle just a couple of months ago. There is an innocence and genuineness about it that is very affecting. She’s young. She’s the future. And she and her friends and neighbors and loved ones and fellow citizens of the planet will be here when I’m gone.
But I’m not gone yet. I’m still around. For a while anyway. With my shoulder still to the wheel. Because there’s lots to do. So I guess I better do it while I’m here: