November 1971. I’m a pudgy, pimply sixteen-year-old lying on the back sofabed of an off-brand Winnebago. My father’s driving, happy on the move. My mother’s uncharacteristically silent. My little brother rolls matchbox cars around the table. I should be in high school. But my parents sold everything they owned and yanked me out of junior year. We are rolling west from New Jersey. Too late to be pioneers, too old to be hippies, chasing that clichéd fantasy known as the West. I stare at Illinois’ aching tedium and ponder everything behind me. Gone. Unable envision what lies ahead. We don’t even have a forwarding address.

John Lennon’s “Imagine” comes on the radio. It floats across mid-America’s airwaves, more vapid than the pale, powder sky. No heaven, no hell, no countries, nothing. Immediately, I hate the song, even more than the flat expanse of I-70 west of Effingham.

Upon first listen, “Imagine” was a litany of nothingness enshrouded by silver strings, simultaneously aesthete and opulent. Lyrics that celebrate nothing cannot move a lonely teenager with little more than a pile of clothes, a sketch pad, and a bicycle hanging off the back of rolling tin.

Time passed. We settled—in Oklahoma. I grabbed at the instant adhesives of busyness and youth: new school, new friends, new job. I wasted no time contemplating my parent’s bizarre mid-life action, especially when the geographical cure didn’t assuage whatever ailed them. Nor did I consider whether I was happier or better off than in Jersey, though in retrospect both were true. I was an empty shell of a human at a formative point. I raised my hand in every class. I joined every group. I believed in heaven, and possessions, and the need to claim my own place in world. I focused on the future, trying to figure out what I thought would be worth killing and dying for.

In the intervening forty-nine years, “Imagine” has not changed. The You Tube video is the exact same recording I heard outside of Effingham. Therefore, the change must have occurred within me, because today I think “Imagine’ is an incredible song; the anthem to a time when we will no longer need anthems.

Since I first traversed West I have become a more patient, more thoughtful, more considerate, more confident. Unfortunately, the country I inhabit has become less in all these qualities. Every one of our institutions is weaker than it was then: our churches, our government, our social clubs, our unions. Maybe not our corporations, but perhaps they ought to be. This institutional tearing down frightens those who need their support, and relies on them for answers, even as their answers are self-serving and regressive.

When we utter Machiavelli’s well-worn phrase, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, we usually ascribe it to men. But the phrase is equally valid for our institutions. In fact, it applies to all of our social systems.

Property zoning was a noble endeavor to provide light and air to places of dwelling and work. Zoning helped eliminate tenements. Then it got contorted by banker’s redlining. Now it’s become an instrument of property-owner control.

Dutch gilds were a wonderful way to promote craft; their descendent labor unions provide necessary employee protections, until, like police unions, they become part of the problem by protecting abhorrent behavior.

Which is not to say Machiavelli doesn’t still speak to the power of men. The ultimate perpetrator of personal corruption, Donald Trump, seeks more power than any American leader. Ever.


Which leads us back to “Imagine.” The world John Lennon envisions is a scary prospect for anyone who inhabits a world of fear, including sixteen-year-old boys clutching for anything to make sense. People in fear need institutions to prop up—and nuture—their fears. A world of us versus them, a world of externally delivered answers, is easier to navigate than one premised on amorphous harmony.

We have so much to strip away to get to the point of “living for today.” But we really have no choice. We must try. The alternative is an earlier John Lennon song. Not nearly as convincing. Revolution.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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2 Responses to Imagine

  1. Paul Lewis says:

    Love this tribute to one of my favorite songwriters. And using this song as a springboard to much else.

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