Dear Charlie… by
(127 Stories)

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Dear Charlie,

I’m writing to you from a time far beyond your own. Right now, much of your life feels stable, accepted. That’s a good thing. At other times, you will be in desperate need of change and you will pursue new worlds and a new life with a ravenous appetite and unquenchable desire.

At still other times, change will roar past you like a rain-swollen river, sweeping everything in its path and threatening to take you with it. But for now, let’s concentrate on three chapters in your long life, each so different that you may feel, as one builds upon another, that one life can’t possibly embrace them all.

In your first chapter, you won’t feel change, because you’ll have nothing to compare it to. In it, you will know love and food and shelter and play and music. But people will come to your door, people who you don’t know, and they will demand to enter your home. They will ask questions of your mother and father and, although they try to hide it, the fear your parents feel will register with you as shadows.

With the shadows will come a sense of despair that makes no sense to you, largely because despair is something that only grownups feel. But you will apply the energy and excitement of childhood to shove all that aside and continue on your cheerful track, despite the inexplicable darkness that sometimes descends on your home like nightfall on the edge of an abyss.

In your second chapter, you will demand change because the accepted world will become unacceptable. At first you will feel claustrophobia and you will begin to push the smothering mediocrity of acceptance away like a child refusing to eat a hated vegetable. And, like a child, you will begin to detect inequities between people and places and events. “That’s not fair,” you will say, first to yourself.

Watching the impact of these inequities on others will make you feel lonely, even afraid. You will begin to reject aspects of your life — and even your dreams — that seem connected to this cloying acceptance. You will seek out people with voices who point out the inequities that lie beyond your own life but are becoming more intolerable every day.

You will begin to develop a sense of your own power and sense that others, like you, refuse to accept the unacceptable. You will realize with great excitement that you have the power to initiate change of your own, to move into proximity with those like you, and together, you will seek out the tools you will need to — as one person described —bend the arc of history toward justice.

You will meet with opposition from the same forces that met your parents before you, in a time when the fight against poverty, prejudice, and tyranny turned upside down and the forces of justice became the agents of rapidly growing wealth, entitlement, and established power.

But you will have learned your lessons well. Allied with the power of knowledge, the joy of anarchy, and your muscular free will, you will understand that — to stop the violence and the inequity, you will have to fight the post-war hydra, the many heads of a burgeoning hegemony.

You will condemn your skeptically beloved nation as an imperial power, founded by the ruling class of one nation to perpetuate the rule of class and capital in a younger, stronger nation. The romance will remain, you will study the push-pull nature of our touted Constitution, but you will see clear through to the cold steel technocracy that can at one time, shoot rockets to the moon, murder our citizens, and destroy a small agrarian nation halfway around the world.

“Yeah, man,” you will say. “It’s time to tear the roof off the motherfucker,” and you will set out to do just that, using the privilege and entitlement of your race, class, and gender to launch a cultural and political resistance and a variegated rebellion against what you define as the Man, the Machine, and the System. But before you enable a revolution, your exuberant resistance and rebellion will crest and crash down, not in destruction, self or otherwise, but in absorption. Your battles will not foment revolution but will survive to saturate society, the courts, and even the laws. You will replant the seeds of racial and gender equality, nurture a new awareness of our environment, and generate alternative approaches to education, medicine, and industry.

In this time, you won’t be on the front lines in the same way. You’ll find that the adventures you’ve embarked upon, the battles you’ve fought, the lessons you’ve learned — and some you haven’t — will move you forward, upward, even downward. You’ll have to pick yourself up to continue to live and learn, but your ikigai, a Japanese term meaning the reason you get up in the morning, won’t wane.

Your life will become more balanced if not always stable, and you’ll add a new mission — to learn to teach what you have learned to others. You’ll find shelter in cultural enclaves and you’ll be lulled for a time into believing that the road you helped build will continue to broaden. You’ll have to be careful here, Charlie. You may grow to rely on your worldly wisdom too much, and you’ll develop an easy faith in your experience and analytical powers that may not match reality.

The currents of change will have continued to flow across the landscape, digging deeper canyons and finding new pathways across the plain. The old forces of darkness will not have been annihilated and will survive, stubborn, bitter, and still hungry for the old ways, when privilege gave agency to inequality and power. The environment will become a rebellious force more powerful than any social movement and will rear up against its Anthropocene oppressors.

In this milieu, an unlikely catalyst will arise in the form of an outlandish buffoon who will be easy to dismiss. And, as you well know — in spite of your nation’s fetish for celebrity, individuality, and a fixation on leadership — movements are not created by individuals. Movements are created by the many out of need. The buffoon will serve as a lightning rod for the hunger and imbalance that has continued underground — ignorance, racism, and indifference; and above ground — institutionalized greed, hubris, and entitlement.

And before you see the end, Charlie, you will see the world, once again turned upside down. But you will not be taken in by false equivalents and you will quickly learn that those who charge the barricades in this new time will bear no resemblance to you when you charged the barricades. And the children of those who once oppressed will, in good faith, answer the call to protect. And so, once again, you will find a new and different reality intolerable, and you will join once again with others who feel the same as you. But this time, you will be part of a broader, more diverse, and more powerful movement for change. One more time, you will nudge the Great Toad of Social Progress down the log, bump by bump by bump.

I’m writing to you from a time far beyond your own.
Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Wonderful letter, Charlie! I wonder what your younger self at any of these stages would have thought if he had read it. Of course, the third stage, with the outlandish buffoon, is now, so you are writing from the future. That’s good news, because it suggests that our civilization will survive beyond the current craziness.

    • Thanks, Suzy. Wouldn’t it be odd to have access to an overview of our lives? When would we open the document? Would it be a document? Or flashes and snippets of our lives to be? How would knowing our destiny impact our lives? I mean, jeez…

  2. Marian says:

    Amazing, Charles, your ikigai is plain to see and your story an inspiration to us all.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Such a clear-eyed letter, Charlie. Your undercurrents are vivid and carry you through so much as you rise up, stagger a bit, find others with whom to make communion and grow in your conviction. You convey the shadow of fear in young Charlie so well, brought on by the evils of the HUAC, which you might not have understood, but could not escape the feeling.

    I love the phrase “muscular free will” and watch your progression which unfortunately brings us to the buffoon today and this week’s travesty. So many of the TV talking heads wanted to liken the “protests” to the Vietnam era, but those who were there rebuffed the analogy. I’m glad that Charlie, who was an eyewitness, did too. No whataboutism here. Just a clear vision of right and wrong. Let’s move forward.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    This letter is so powerful, Charlie. Life does seem to come full circle, from the shadow of McCarthyism and Roy Cohn in your childhood to Cohn’s “prodigy,” Trump. Your younger self could feel the bad vibes, and now you (like many of us) will try to encourage a future world that is more diverse, accepting, and inclusive. Great piece of writing!

    • Thanks, Laurie. I’m glad you registered the Cohn link between McCarthy and Trump. It’s too bad Trump didn’t drink himself to death a la McCarthy. But on a more positive note, I think we’re about to witness at least the beginning of a sea change. The tide rises, the tide falls, but never the same way twice.

  5. A powerful ocean of a story, Charles, and a veritable voyage. Land ho? I don’t think so.

    • I don’t know if we’ll ever find a true or lasting safe harbor, but I do believe we are at the beginning of a pendulum swing that might bring about positive change. Hey… the last swing (to the right) started with Reagan, forty years ago. I think we could get a lot done in the next 40 years or so. But how the hell will I know?!

  6. I’m not convinced that “little Charlie” could have benefited from this epistle back when he was so young! But I’m certain that many of us (including me) find it a wonderful and thought-provoking look-back over several decades that have involved many of us in personal turmoil as well as social/cultural/political turbulence out in “the world.”

  7. Thanx Charlie for the sprawling road map of one good man’s far-from-finished life journey.

    Keep bumping that toad down the log.

    • Thanks, Dana. Glad you enjoyed the triptych! I plan to be around for a while… too much that needs fixin’ to drop out now. Reading your sage advice, I guess the line shoulda been that I keep bumpin’ that toad down the road.

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    You did a great job Charlie, capturing the mood of the times. I appreciated the discussion of the false equivalence between anti-war, anti-racist and anti-inequity demonstrations, and the storming of the Capitol. I find myself with ever deeper admiration for the steadfast leadership largely from African-Americans, and grassroots movement for voting rights (Georgia!!) and justice. I also appreciate that you mentioned the need to mitigate the Anthropocene as best we can. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Khati, for your generous and supportive words. I’m not sure the examples from my time on the barricades is as relevant to this discussion as the admirable work of BLM and so many other groups and causes from our present day. I do know that as dear old Victor Hugo once said, “[there is] nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

  9. John Shutkin says:

    As others have said, Charlie, just an incredibly wise letter and beautifully told in each of its parts. Little I can add to the prior comments other than that the “false equivalence” reference particularly resonated and I, too, loved the “musclar free will” phrase.

    And yes, perhaps with all of our stories on this prompt, I wonder how our younger selves would have reacted to our advice. And, indeed, our very presumptuousness in offering it up.

  10. Thanks, John. How would I have reacted to my own advice? Hmmm. Good question. I would have been openly skeptical of all the prophesies and — at my most self-assured, I would probably assume that the good revolution would have taken place and that all would be well with the world. Although if I expressed that notion to my older self, I probably would have qualified the revolution vision. By 1970, I had come to understand that, again, in Dylan’s words, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” You’d have to have been as big an idiot as those who stormed the Capitol last week to think otherwise, although we did share a beautiful and strong-hearted dream without poisoning it with hate.

    As regards false equivalents, I think the recent BLM protests with related coalitions most effectively discourage false equivalents. Even WaPo is picking up on that at . Beyond that, an excerpt from my work-in-progress, that began as a Retro post carries some of the elements of our efforts to “storm the barricades.”

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