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William Wordsworth, from Wikimedia Commons

“. . . trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home . . .”

Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” offers perhaps the strongest explanation of the types of nostalgia that I’ve been exploring in recent posts.

Wordsworth’s poem is famous because he describes a universal sensation, the inkling that once—when?—we connected more deeply with life’s mysteries. That time at the beach, holding Mom’s hand, when we clambered out over the rocks—why is that scene stuck in the mind? what was it we saw or said? Or on that summer sidewalk in a far-off city, in the flickering leaf-shadows under a street lamp, we felt a stirring that seemed almost to tell us—

Uh-huh. Wherever quavers like that were tugging us, most of us never quite made the connection, and in time we got busy and ceased to think about it. That’s certainly true of me. In fact, I discount most of my adolescent mysticism as the fumes of an overheated sexual furnace. And yet, when I take time to reflect, I miss feeling that way. In my notes for a recent story, I jotted that the protagonist was “yearning for yearning,” that is, wishing he could once more experience the unfulfilled urges that drove him crazy as a young man.

Recently I had a chance to read a draft of Byblos, an extraordinary novel-in-progress by a friend, Miriam Seidel. It tells two stories that on the surface seem widely disparate: the burning of the great Alexandria library in the time of Caesar and Cleopatra (and, yes, those characters appear in the novel); and the personal travails of Nina, a female dot.com entrepreneur in the early twenty-first century. The modern-day plot takes Nina back to her childhood home in upstate New York, where she experiences mystical connections not only to her younger self but also to a kind of spiritual zone that ultimately connects the two plots. She realizes that, in some way, numinous sensations like these sustained her through her difficult years of growing up in a discombobulated family.

Normally I have minimal tolerance 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 creatures. At the old homestead, we get a vivid sense of the tangled trumpet vines, the pallid mushrooms, the worms, the stones, the mucky pond with its slimy frogs, the cicadas screeching in the summer heat—along with Nina’s attempt to rediscover something important from her childhood that has gone missing. Heading for the pond, she rips her legs on a patch of brambles. Opening herself to all of this, she reaches out tentatively to sense the hidden links that bind the people and animals and rocks and plants together. She can’t name or describe these links, but she ends up putting her sensations to use by—well, I’m not going to reveal the end of the novel.

This kind of mysticism is grounded enough, literally and figuratively, for me to appreciate, and I believe that Miriam’s version is truer than Wordsworth’s because it blends the ugly with the pleasant, the hostile with the welcoming, the scummy pond with the pretty trees.

Old Willie did have talent, though, and I don’t mean to diss him. He’s worth quoting for the final words on the subject:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

It’s usually a chance sensory experience that kicks off nostalgia—a sight, smell, sound, an odd trace of breeze on the skin. Or it could be an encounter with a long-neglected object: that old shirt in the closet, a broken watch in a dresser drawer.

It seems nostalgia is more and more in vogue, maybe because our population is aging, or perhaps because we’re so sick of the present (an emotion that kicks in powerfully during election season). Yet most of us don’t think hard about the objects that have disappeared from our lives, or about the behaviors and feelings that went with them. One remedy is Ann de Forest’s blog Obsolescing, which focuses on fading technologies and their attendant experiences. Ranging over subjects as diverse as vinyl records and incandescent light bulbs, she points out

the distress and sorrow we feel as the objects of our life, the utilitarian technologies that once surrounded and defined us, fade into memory. News of a past technology’s demise makes us suddenly, desperately long to hold, to touch, to smell, to hear the things of our past. Like Orpheus leading his beloved from the Underworld, we look back to reassure ourselves that the everyday things we have known and loved and remember still exist in their full corporeal presence. (That’s why we revel in the sensory details—the typewriter’s clacking keys, the mimeograph ink’s distinctive scent.)

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t throw things out, you have abundant opportunities for such feelings as you wander through your own house. See the photo above for evidence.

Our "dry sink"

For me, the items with meaning tend to be ones that were used by others: for instance, the dry sink in our dining room at which my grandmother used to wash dishes in her own grandmother’s house. The very term dry sink is so outmoded it sounds like an oxymoron. Yet I picture her there as a girl—with a basin of water, I guess, and a towel, and harsh soap—in the drafty wooden home in a tiny riverside town. I try to imagine what she might have been thinking. It’s the mystery that draws me, the realization that I’ll never know that girl’s experiences.

As for my own old junk, I’m not terribly distressed at this point. That old typewriter that we bought when we started our business in 1982—the only piece of technology we needed then!—holds no deep resonance for me. It’s just there because sometime in 2042 I may need to type a mailing label (if mail still exists then). Similarly, an old telephone lurks in the closet because we may someday donate it for use as a theater prop. Or because plastic will become scarce after the apocalypse.

I suspect, though, that if I weren’t so busy—if I had time to stop and really contemplate these old objects, as Ann has been doing—I’d have more serious pangs. When we stop using a certain technology, we change our patterns of behavior, our ways of thinking, and so, to some degree, it’s the mystery of our own selves that we’re losing.

P.S. Thanks to Mayowa Atte at the Pens With Cojones blog for the fine review of my novel The Shame of What We Are. He found the book “weirdly enlightening” to read. It was that way to write as well.

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.