Nostalgia, Part 1: Diaries and Heroes

October 30, 2010

After Marcy Casterline O’Rourke posted a rave review of my novel The Shame of What We Are on Amazon, I wondered who she was and why she liked the book so much. Exploring her own blog entries, I realized that we’ve both been pondering the past lately, and maybe that’s what first attracted her to Shame, which is set in the 1950s and 1960s. (Though this doesn’t explain her lofty rating of the novel; for that, we’d need to know what she was smoking.)

One of Marcy’s blogs focuses on her late husband, the actor Tom O’Rourke, and she talks about reading a diary he left behind, using it to fill in details of his life before she met him and puzzle out facets of his character that, after decades of marriage, she still didn’t understand. “The Great Mystery of Tom,” she titles one post. Her musings are both pointed and poignant.

Oddly (or perhaps not) I’ve just finished the first draft of a short story about a man who rediscovers his own adolescent diary. This proved difficult to write, because for me nostalgia is often painful. Beyond the poignancy and bittersweet pang, it leads to a deep sense of embarrassment about my younger self, and that happens in this new story, in which the character becomes ashamed of the young man he unearths.

Joanie & Bobby in 1963

Here’s another—not fictional but all-too-real—case in point: Last night I reconnected with a major icon from my youth. Our niece Anna, for no reason that we can fathom, has become a fan of folk music, and her greatest star, higher in the pantheon even than Pete Seeger, is Joan Baez. Hence we went with Anna and her family to Joanie’s concert last night in Philadelphia. Anna wore a handmade T-shirt with a 1960s image of our favorite folk diva; it must have taken her hours to draw with permanent markers.

So, there was the bittersweet sensation of remembering when Joanie (who looked a bit stiff and sore) was a young barefoot maid, and we too were young, and the music meant that the times they were a-changin’, that the deep achy yearning that swelled in our souls could find its place in the world and we would somehow connect not only with the zeitgeist but with the oversoul, the mystery at the heart of things.

It’s bad enough remembering inchoate hopes like that. But here’s where it gets really rough for me. The first time I saw Joan Baez in concert, she was indeed in her barefoot-maid stage, and a heckler yelled at her from the audience, “Why don’t you wear shoes?” She shot back, “That would spoil my image.” Today that seems a perfectly apt, funny reply. To my idealistic younger self, however, it was like a slap in the face. I wanted to believe, I guess, that she chose to go barefoot in the simple, honest, pure way in which I might grab a jacket out of the closet: “Hmm, it’s over 65 degrees and I’ll be on stage most of the night, so I won’t need shoes.” To realize that she might consider something as crass and commercial as her “image,” even with an ironic twist, shocked my entire belief system.

It’s painful to remember being that naive, that stupid. And to make matters worse, Joan sang the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne.” Not only was that once my favorite song, but I considered it truly poetic, profound, inspirational. A woman who dresses in rags and feathers and leads you to a mysterious river/harbor where you meditate upon Jesus walking on the water—heavy stuff, man! But today when I hear lines like “you know that you can trust her / For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” I feel the opposite of trust. Sloppy, simple-minded, juvenile, semi-fake spiritualism, I call it now.

So, picture me at the concert in a balcony cheap seat, uncomfortable with memories of idealizing Joanie, growing more restive as Cohen’s pseudo-poetry wafts in ethereal waves over the rapt audience. … My wife reaches over and lays her hand on mind. I squeeze back in reluctant acknowledgment. Then she leans in and whispers, “Remember when you used to sing ‘Suzanne’ to me? Will you sing it to me tonight?”

I want to hide under my chair.

Luckily, though, we’re old enough that, after the long concert, a bus ride to our neighborhood, a short hike to our door in the brisk fall air, we fall harmlessly asleep.

3 Responses to “Nostalgia, Part 1: Diaries and Heroes”

  1. […] for mysticism, especially if it comes too easily (see my grumpy comments about “Suzanne” in “Nostalgia, Part 1″). But Miriam grounds her spiritual flights in a deep sensory appreciation of the earth and its […]


  2. Dear Mr. Gridley,

    Thank you so much for your kind mention of my blog and your very generous and much appreciated praise.

    I loved your book because I love reading your writing and the vivid world you evoke, and the touchingly honest and vulnerable main character’s story. So much that is written about the fifties is so clichéd. Your book was so much more than that. And I love the way you write sentences; your turn of thought and observations are original and thought provoking. I read constantly, but am usually so disappointed by the literature that wins the prizes. It often seems effete and self absorbed, needlessly calling attention to its literariness. And often the literary tricks are the only real content or reason to read the book. This is not the case with your book. I thought it was simple and arresting, and you definitely have a story to tell.

    I am becoming a big fan of yours. Good writers are hard to find.

    My blog is a new thing for me. And my husband’s diary, (he kept lots of them) has left me much to ponder. I seem to be discovering my story as I write it, which is probably not the best way to write, but now that I’ve started that way, I’m stuck.

    I know what you mean about the Joan Baez concert feeling. I, not so very long ago, was trying to introduce my son to some of the literature of my youth. He’s quite a reader of fiction, and I thought I’d show him some real heavy duty writing. I went to the library and took out “Look Homeward Angel” by Thomas Wolfe, my idol in college. I read everything he wrote, every long winded, self consciously classical tome of his struck me as brilliance beyond normal earthly powers. I got the book home, opened it, read a little and was totally mortified. He’s a good writer, but far, far from the God I remembered. My son’s comment when he demanded to read a little was ‘you really like this?’. Yeah. Well. But someday he will be just as embarrassed by some of his youthful choices. And I think that’s part of the horrible agony of maturing, you realize you used to be such a doofus, but probably, at least in your case, a sweet doofus. Me, no. I was more like Cruella DeVille doofus. But I think I’ve mellowed, some.

    We share such a wealth of past memories. I loved Joan Baez too. I met Bob Dylan once and didn’t wash my hand for a week, much to my husband’s vast amusement. He thought Bob Dylan’s voice was joke. He was the total Elvis guy. And truthfully, Elvis was a better vocalist, I believe.

    Anyway thanks for the mention. I only just found your blog. This blog stuff is very new for me. Everyday I make discoveries. I’d like to subscribe to your blog. Is that possible? Let me know.


    • Sam Gridley Says:

      Marcy, WordPress sent a message that you had subscribed, so I guess you figured out how to do it. According to the message, you’ll get an e-mail every time I post something–which you’ll soon come to regret, I’m sure.
      By the way, are you available for a cloning experiment? The country definitely needs more readers like you. 🙂


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