Many thanks for visiting. These ponderings have found a new home – please come visit!
It’s a bright winter morning, sunlight pouring in from the east, and I am in a van on my way to jail. We’ve just crossed from Manhattan into the Bronx and are heading north on a wide boulevard. We pass a long line of elegant limestone row houses getting a face-full of morning sun, like princesses just waking, and pause at a light. Next to us looms an imposing edifice – one of those regal government buildings with soaring columns and broad white flanks – an architecture meant to encourage staunch confidence in, even reverence for, the civilizing forces of knowledge and reason. Letters carved on its smooth white side stand out crisply in the morning light:
“GOVERNMENT IS CONTRIVANCE OF HUMAN WISDOM TO PROVIDE FOR ALL HUMAN WANTS. MAN MUST HAVE A RIGHT THAT THESE WANTS SHOULD BE PROVIDED FOR BY THIS WISDOM”
Technically speaking, we are not on our way to jail, but to the court pens, which is where you go directly after arrest.
I am not, however, under arrest.
The van I’m in belongs to the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1844 and granted unique authority to inspect conditions in prisons and jails. The CA’s mission is to “shine a spotlight in the dark corners of the prison system, counter debilitating conditions, and promote effective prison programs.” It does not have punitive power; what changes it wants to see implemented it must coax and convince into place. The CA staff negotiate a balance between working with the Criminal Justice System, without whose cooperation their work is impossible, and pushing against it, appealing sometimes to logic and sometimes to emotion and occasionally to the potential threat of press exposure.
We pull into an alley alongside a large, blank-walled building and climb out of the idling van. We’re ushered in through an inconspicuous door to a narrow hallway squeezed by bulletproof glass. After a pat down we file into a room with a reception desk in the middle where some officers are gathered. The mood seems relaxed and jovial – someone was just telling a joke – and they nod to us welcomingly. The walls of this room are cluttered with signs and notices. “You Too Can Prevent Suicide,” says one. Another illustrates how to hold your hands to avoid injury from hand cuffs. Every sign is in Spanish as well as English except for one, which is maybe Russian (regretfully, I have no idea). There’s also a canvas of abstract art hanging in one corner and someone has gone to some pains with holiday decorations, including covering the doors with metallic green paper, in the aspect of presents. It is through one of these doors that we are led next, into a room much bleaker.
This first chamber has four cells. Each is about nine feet wide and long, with concrete floors and a bench running around three of sides. The cells are similar to the cages that used to be common in zoos before open enclosures meant to evoke natural habitat became popular. In one corner of each cell there’s a small toilet with a low barrier around it, high enough to obscure a user up to about his or her shoulders. Three of the cells are empty, and in the other there’s a young man in a blue sweatshirt slumped against the wall. I have never seen a person behind bars before and my first instinct is to drop my gaze, lest I embarrass him.
The CA staff do their job efficiently and thoroughly. At each floor they spread out among the occupied cells, ask an officer to open them, and step in. They inspect the plumbing, check if the phones work (one of their most significant accomplishments was seeing through a policy that each cell be equipped with a free phone so that detainees could make calls – assuming they have any numbers memorized) and question those inside. “How long have you been here?” (“72 hours!) “Did you receive food?” (“Yeah but I think my milk was bad.” “And they didn’t give us spoons”); were mats offered?; was there drinking water? had the phone been available?; and so forth.
Most of the cells have between nine and twelve people in them. In one, a group of girls who look barely in their teens, though they reassure us they are older, are resigned and calm while their cellmate emits a loud stream of semi-intelligible protests (“She’s been doing that all night”). Some people try to explain their cases to us (“It wasn’t us. It was the people next to us that was making the commotion. But when the cops came, they ran away, and the cops took us instead.”); some people are chatty and eager to register complaints; a few are outraged; some smell unwashed; some are clearly sleeping off drugs or drink. There’s one man in a still-crisp suit with a lavender shirt and nice wool coat. He is standing in the middle of the cell with an expression of mild displeasure, as if he was just waiting for a bus, and is a bit surprised to find the station so unpleasant.
But most of those behind bars just look thoroughly worn out. They sag on the benches or sprawl on the bare floors (mats, it seems, are not distributed as readily as they should be in the Bronx Court Pens). Some cover their heads with their coats, others stare blankly ahead, faces as drained as boiled cabbage. I imagine being in there, cramped with strangers, crushed by a boredom or discomfort so oppressive that even to sleep on bare cement would seem appealing, just for the oblivion it offered.
When we toured the Bronx Court Pens it was the middle of the week and about 11 a.m. At that time there were 172 people detained and every single one was either black or brown.
At the court pens stage of the justice system you are technically guilty of nothing more than attracting police attention to an activity that the police, at their discretion, deem worthy of arrest. One of the CA staff tells me that 75 percent of those arrested are released directly after their 24(ish) hours in the pens. Which is to say that, although to be arrested is to elicit treatment that is at best demeaning, the reasons that account for most people’s arrest are subsequently found to have no further legal clout. Nonetheless, this is the mouth of the legal system. The beast has snapped you up and closed its chipped metal teeth. You potentially face a long grind through the criminal justice track – a process that chews up more people in the U.S. than in any other developed country. And of those who are swallowed up, a vastly disproportionate number are people of color from poor communities.
The statistics: In the United States, black people comprise only 12.6 percent of the population (2010 census), but 39.4 percent of the prison and jail population – and that number would be even higher if it included blacks who identify as Hispanic instead. Although drug use and drug dealing are equal across black / white racial lines, black people are six times more likely to be arrested for, and eleven times more likely to be imprisoned, for drug offenses.
Earlier in the year I’d served on jury duty for the first time and as I learned what that role entailed, I became deeply impressed by the beautiful architecture of our system of justice. Jury duty asks of its participants a certain nobility – that jurors will be thoughtful, level-headed, honest and fair – and it grants a certain dignity – each unique opinion is of equal merit and value as the next. The beauty of the system is in its egalitarianism – as such it not only can survive, but is indeed honed and strengthened by, diversity. The only uniformity required in those selected to serve is in their honorable participation. And the system assumes people can and will rise to that challenge.
I was swiftly impressed by how well founded – at least for our group – that assumption proved to be. We were as random a mix as if a subway car barreling through downtown Brooklyn had accidentally disgorged directly into the court room and because we were a Grand Jury (the purpose of which is to protect people from the calumny of frivolous charges and protect the court system from use as a tool of malice or manipulation) we heard about 50 cases. Most of the jurors were attentive throughout and seemingly no indictment or dismissal was arrived at without sincere consideration.
Towards the middle of our duty we heard the case of a man wanting to prosecute his sister and several of her sons. One of the young men facing charges came in to give his side of the story. He explained the logic that had led to the situation – how his unsavory uncle had long overstayed his welcome, how he’d helped himself to things that were not his, how the tension had escalated eventually into a fight, and how family loyalty had brought the siblings together in defense of their mother. But it was the uncle who had called the cops, and so now it was the uncle who had the advantage. The prosecuting DA completely failed to stir our sympathy for this supposedly wronged uncle, but the uncle’s transgressions, whatever they might have been, where, we were stringently reminded, legally irrelevant. It was the actions of the young man – a high school senior – that we were called upon to evaluate – and we were to do so not according to his logic, but that of the law. The young man replied to the fumbling DA’s sterile, legally ornate questions with an incredulity that bordered on contempt – but he was not without fear. Some of the charges levied against him bore potentially serious penalties.
When it came time to vote most of us were deeply uncomfortable. “This is a family dispute, it shouldn’t even be in the court system,” one juror said sorrowfully. Many of us, it seemed, felt that the exercise of our reason, judgment, and conscious were being somehow curtailed by the very system that requested it of us. What we were about to did not really feel like justice at all.
One juror, however, felt quite differently. He wanted indictment on every charge. And this juror happened to be, when not living his civilian life, a cop. Thus far he’d been a jolly and irreverent addition, always punctual and always cracking jokes, and useful in explaining the fine differences between degrees of charges. But now many of the other jurors looked at him in near disgust. How could he be so inhumane?
Later, he shared his thoughts. It was strange, he said, to be on this side of the jury, experiencing the system from a civilian’s perspective. He was amazed by our eagerness to let people go. He shook his head. “You know, they’re just going to do it again,” he said. “These are not good characters. I know these guys – I deal with them every day. You give them another chance, they’ll do it again – or maybe worse next time.”
This then is the meat of the matter – a part of the explanation for how in this country we have simultaneously a justice system exquisitely designed for fairness, and incarceration practices that are anything but that.
Many scholars have illuminated the foul play in the incarceration industry (Michele Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness comes highly recommended): how much money prisons and imprisoned people generate for certain populations (not the same populations statistically most likely to also be imprisoned); the ugly benefits some receive from having a huge proportion of poor and minority communities stripped of citizens’ rights (in many states a felony on your record means a permanent ban from voting, many jobs, and many social services); the crippling impact of certain sentencing laws; and how quota systems and other practices encourage police to arrest in populations where they are least likely to meet legal resistance.
The justice system depends, at both the level of jury and police, on individuals make judgments based on information tempered by their personal wisdom – that is, their knowledge of and understanding of the world. That our experiences shape our point of view is assumed. But what the system does not account for is the extent to which our point of view in fact pre-conditions our experiences. Was the cop on our jury guilty of seeing the criminal before the crime? Or were the rest of us just tremendously naïve? The jury system expects the best of people. Police practice expects the worst. And the consequences of both are very real.
Our judicial system is deeply flawed in practice but this is not only because of invidious policies enacted from the top. The beauty of the system is also its weakness. It elevates and respects the judgments of individuals, but if we individuals fail to recognize the limits of our judgments –fail to evaluate the boundaries of and critically assess the forces that shape our experiences and interpretations, then we risk supporting a system which, with better information and full rights to exercise reason and wisdom, we might in fact chose to indict.
I had occasion one time to watch an earnest young man try to design a school that would promote and celebrate traditional dance in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The value of such a school would be to preserve culture and to allow a peaceful structure for the expression of ethnic identity. It was a good idea, a noble idea.
The man, an architect, was not Congolese and did not know the languages spoken there. He studied the country from afar for some time, however, and then visited for ten days. During that time he saw some traditional dance.
A school intended to promote dance should, he decided, aesthetically reflect that dance. So to translate what he’d seen into architectural terms he turned to Greenotation, a codification system that describes dance movements with symbols similar to musical notation. One mark will mean, for example, “left arm up;” others will indicate, “hip swivel slow,” and so forth. The young man based his architectural design on Greennotation symbols that described the dance he’d seen.
In the end, the building he modeled was an elegant thing of swooping roofs, big round theaters, and embellishments that looked like mineral shards springing from the earth. It was certainly beautiful. And it was also completely unlike anything else built by, used by, or familiar to his proposed clients – the people whose dance had inspired him, and for whom the school was intended. It was as difficult to imagine his building being used for an authentic expression of traditional dance as it was picture a digital conference spontaneously occurring in one of the tiny shoe-box-shaped huts typical of the area.
To be fair, the young man’s design was constrained by requirements of the architecture class he was taking, for which this school was an assignment. His project was to be judged primarily for its architectural qualities and less rigorously on its educational or humanitarian merits.
But though this particular project was more fanciful than real, it illustrates a phenomenon not uncommon in the world of development – that is, in the do-good industry, nonprofit and profit, where one group or person tries to make beneficial change in the situation of another. Such efforts are always valuable to the initiator of the change – they provide, or at least promise to provide, either emotional or financial gratification. But of course for most such projects the motivation is also that the proposed change will benefit its receivers too. Who would not be better off with, for example, mosquito nets where there is malaria? Or water pumps where otherwise people have to lug it; or new cooking methods to decrease dependence on wood? Such changes would be improvements. They are good ideas, noble ideas.
And yet the world of development is littered with such projects thwarted, aborted, and fast to fail. Where somewhere between the rosy goal and the actual outcome, something went awry. In some cases the benefits were pirated by unintended recipients. In others an introduced object was used for unintended purposes. New structures are sometimes left empty; new improvements unmaintained. Among the casualties of such failures is cross-cultural goodwill. Optimism sours to cynicism; resentment creeps in insidious as rot.
My parents have been conservation biologists in the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly four decades. For many years they were primarily scientists, gathering data on the Ituri Rainforest’s endemic plants and animals. Increasingly, however, they have been focusing on establishing preserved areas and national parks – a need for which they feel is urgent.
In 1996 war initiated permanent change for Congo’s natural areas and the communities that live in them. Guns poured into the country and feeble border enforcement, combined with burgeoning world demand for the country’s rich array of mineral resources and old-growth mahogany, meant plentiful opportunities for the kind of entrepreneurs who profit from violence and instability. The past decade and half has seen a dramatic increase in the scale and nature of bush meat hunting. In many areas the huge rainforest that stretches across Congo’s northeast, celebrated for its mystery and depth, has been bleached of marvelous animals still barely known to many in the West.
Often, communities long-established in forest have traditional practices and cultural taboos that, when adhered to, prevent the unfettered hunting of the most vulnerable species – okapi, elephants, bonobos, certain monkeys and duikers – animals that are either sparsely distributed or that breed slowly. But market enticement, and sometimes blatant force, overwhelm customs of moderation and automatic weaponry obliterate the physical disadvantage that otherwise keep human hunters in check. People hunt beyond what can be replenished. And although overhunting undermines subsistence by depleting a source of protein that people might not be able to replace, and unrestrained access by outsiders to an area’s natural wealth threatens communities’ integrity, in any given situation there will be some that regret change, and others who find a way to benefit from it.
For preserved areas to be sustainable, two things are required: top down support from a national and perhaps international levels to ensure that park guards’ salaries are paid and offenders to the new rules are punished; and local support – staunch enough cooperation that those who would have it otherwise are resisted.
My parents and their colleagues had spent many months visiting communities in the area of the proposed park, meeting with local elders and authorities, presenting their proposal, and asking for support. Earlier this year, after some long thinking, one chief told them that the park they proposed might be acceptable, but to ensure it, they must hold a Tambiko. A Tambiko is a ceremony that asks for the blessing and sanction of the ancestors.
In total, three Tambikos were held, in three different areas, each lasting more than one day. People gathered from great distances for days and nights of drumming, dancing, sharing of food, and much, much conversation. The elders and leaders talked out, in leisure and depth, all their thoughts, concerns, and hopes for the park. “Usually we are the ones doing all the talking,” my mother said. “This time, we just shut up, and listened.”
Everyone had their chance to speak and in the end, the leaders expressed their solidarity with gestures symbolic of unity and binding. Thus, the park was approved.
And then – that was it. The crowds dispersed.
My parents were concerned. No documents had been signed. No line had been drawn to delineate what was and what was not protected area. The only official record of this historic event were some casually-taken snapshots. In order to secure the support of the government and international agencies, something more was necessary. Signatures. Marks on the trees. Evidence of the agreements in a currency that would resonate with those in the world who might not understand a Tambiko. With some trepidation my parents and their colleagues launched out again to each community in order to secure that kind of evidence. My mother worried that the unity displayed in public at the Tambiko would, in private, and with the pressure of specific commitments, falter.
The opposite was true. Signatures were given and physical boundary marked easily and fast. Although these were the symbols meaningful to non-local powers, for the local ones it was the Tambiko that had been important. “In their minds, the park was already done,” said Terese. “The signatures and the marks on the trees were given almost as an afterthought.”
Of course – there was and still is much work to be done. The machinery of the top-down support for the park must still be accomplished. Included in the auxiliary efforts will be the building of some schools, which several of the communities asked for. In this case though the architecture of such buildings will take second place in priority to measures that ensure consistency in supplies and teacher salaries. One donor proposed that the village women be provided sewing machines so they could have additional income, thereby, hypothetically, further strengthening the communities’ ability to survive without threatening the park. “That’s a good idea,” I heard my mother reply on the phone.
A good idea, noble idea. One that has every chance of working, or of failing miserably, depending on how it is implemented.
Regarding again the school for traditional dance – how different might it have been if the well-intentioned architect had tried first to understand what these dances meant to those that danced them. How they were interpreted, what they signified. If one hears a language that one does not understand, one hears sounds. When one understands that language, one hears meaning. So too with customs and art. Dance is far more than just moves. It has meaning. And if the architect had sought to codify the dance from that perspective instead, the aesthetics suggested might have been quite different. Perhaps the buildings he’d have ended up with would not have garnered much approval in the architectural community of NYC – but perhaps they might have actually been used, successfully, for the good and noble purposes he intended.
The traditional dance that this young architect had seen had been at a welcome celebration thrown in honor of his class’s visit. At that party one of the local leaders had given a speech. “We welcome you,” he had said. “We want a school. We are happy you want to help us. We want to put our minds together with your minds, and to build this school together.”
If you are not familiar with Detroit, and you drive around on a little tour, this is what might, initially, impress you:
The beautiful brick homes – gorgeous homes! Expansive, distinguished, embellished with elaborate woodwork and fanciful touches of stained glass and shingling – now abandoned. They are encroached upon by vines, missing bricks, and their windows are smashed in like teeth punched out of a face.
Learning that you are still well and truly within city limits though you find yourself in a vast field where slender birch have taken hold, the undergrowth thickens quietly, and that feeling of secret richness, distinctive of real woodland, prevails.
Long city blocks void of people; the lone trombone player with a hat out though no one is walking by; the small group gathered in an empty lot around a barrel flickering with fire.
Boarded up schools.
Boarded up churches.
Boarded up skyscrapers. And not just one or two, but long rows of them – petrified husks, drained of life. Though lower sections might be shut with plywood, on dozens of floors above the windows are rigidly open and you see straight through to the other side because there’s nothing to block the way. At night these looming towers are black holes blacker than the night sky.
You might be impressed to learn there’s not a single chain grocery store in this city of 800 thousand. And, indeed, that there are only 800 thousand in a city built to accommodate at least two million. Some people in positions of power propose shutting down parts of city in order to condense the population more efficiently. What that would mean: whole neighborhoods cordoned off and inside, no services. No electricity, no plumbing, no transportation, no police.
But it is one of the options being considered to help revive this city, which has achieved a sort of dubious fame for its catastrophic urban decay. You don’t have to be an artist dreaming of loft space to feel the electricity of “potential” humming through all those unused acres and that unmaintained real estate. Detroit seems poised for development. But the question is how – and implicit in the how is, for whom?
In November I visited a dear friend of mine in Detroit. Diana is the executive director of Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which works on issues of environmental justice and symbiotic community and environmental health. I met some of her friends; I learned about other groups and people she works with. They are a network of Detroit-based organizations, artists, activists, and residents devoted to grassroots development which, as I understood from her explanation, means development that is based in a community such that those already there are empowered by the process, rather than marginalized.
On a frigid afternoon under low clouds as mineral-tinged as soggy ceiling tiles we crisscrossed Detroit’s wide span and she showed me what she means.
A good example: D-town Farms. This four-acre organic farm was started by a prominent community figure and as an initiative of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. It produces enough fresh vegetables for the volunteers that currently maintain it, for selling at farmer’s markets, and to supply a small grocery store that was started by some local residents. D-Town Farms’ growth plan is to use an injection of grant money to hire some key staff so that the farm can produce more vegetables, provide more opportunities for education and extracurricular activities, and create more jobs. These would be not just farm jobs, but also jobs to fulfill created needs for produce transportation, commerce, education, and maintenance of the organization. Grassroots development means taking the seeds of positive potential inherent in any existing situation and nurturing them such that they bloom and spawn more seeds.
It’s an approach to development true to what my friend describes as Detroit’s character – a character born of its history in the last century. In very broad strokes: the booming auto industry mid 1900s made jobs available to African Americans and many moved up from the segregated south and settled in Michigan. A large class of affluent African Americans evolved. In the late 60s, political and social tension – usually described, then and now, along racial lines – resulted in almost all White-owned businesses shutting their doors and moving their operations outside Detroit’s boundaries. This massive evacuation of people and economy led to the situation as we see it now: a primarily Black city impoverished of services and jobs bordered by wealthy suburbs choked with the very sorts of megastores that refuse to establish within city limits.
Decades of survival in difficult conditions, of making do and making it work, have forged a certain gritty resourcefulness that defines Detroit attitude. Detroit residents are proud to be so. They’re tough, they’re realistic, they make what they need with the materials at hand. Urban farming on empty city land is no boutique movement, here. It is a practical response to the fact that for many Detroit residents gas stations are the only grocery option and they have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Diana showed me other community gardens – no fences, managed cooperatively by the families that harvest from them. They were all in neighborhoods that looked far from affluent. And she showed me another entrepreneurial response to the same problem – a resident had become a farmer and uses his yard to supply a whole CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) sector.
Bold resourcefulness defines Detroit aesthetics too. We drove through the Heidelberg Project, which is one artists’ transformation of a block of decayed homes where truly terrible things were happening into a vast and wildly colorful art project. We perused a store where local artists and craftsmen sell their work. Cleverly – and often funnily – re-purposed material was the prevalent theme: old clothes made into hipster purses, scrap metal bent into boxes, thrown-away books fashioned into new, different books. My favorite piece was affixed to the wall of a near-by restaurant – a fountain made of salvaged sinks and tubs. And some days after returning from my trip I heard interviewed the radio another Detroit artist – a 21-year-old fashion designer – whose work seems to embody this Detroit character. She’s come up with a coat that is on the one hand supposed to keep Detroit’s homeless people better protected from the weather and on the other to make jobs for those very same homeless, as they are the ones who will be manufacturing it.
Ideal development in Detroit, Diana explains, does not preclude new people coming in. Indeed more money, more people, more businesses and more creative power can only be good. But what this coalition of Detroit residents wants is that development nurture the people and the culture that’s planted here already. They want people hired locally. They want to see more revival and restoration than clear-away and bring-in-new. They want to see the stuff and soul of Detroit, the material born of its past, used with respect and creativity in the fashioning of a future that’s beautiful, useful, re-newed.
The last thing Diana showed me was Central Michigan Train Station – built 1913, nonoperational since 1988. Ruins of remarkable beauty, it looked like dark lace pressed against the white sky. The grime on the stone façade only made the elaborate carving stand out in sharper relief. On the very top someone had graffitied “SAVE THE DEPOT” but at first I read “Save the People.”
Some one had done some landscaping out in front – long red boxes with grass in them. They didn’t look bad, just neutral – like something you’d expect embellishing an upscale strip mall. “Guess how much those cost,” Diana says. It was an out-of-town developer, she warns me. I guess, and I am off by a long shot. “Forty thousand,” she corrects me. Yes, forty grand. And the developer didn’t use a local landscaper, or local material, or local labor. Not even the grass is native.
Note: The photos in this post are from three photographers, and I found them on line. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre are from France and came to Detroit to see and record the spectacular ruins. They were tourists, as was I, with my outsider’s perspective. Kevin Bauman is a Detroit resident and his series, http://www.100abandonedhouses.com/, has been lauded for its sensitivity and gentleness.
I welcome photographs of Detroit, for publication here. I am interested in both the views of visitors and of residents – and in putting them side by side. It is the philosophy of this site that all perspectives tell A truth, which is primarily interesting in juxtaposition with other truths.
Passing Strange, a Broadway theater production also immortalized in film by Spike Lee, tells the story of a young African American man, a single son of a single mother, from an affluent Black community in the suburbs of L.A. The play opens when Main Character is in his teens and suffering severe disgust with just about everything around him. He finds the culture he is immersed in oppressive, the conventional aspirations and expectations repellent, and most of the people around him unbearably “phony.” He launches into punk music but finds even his fellow band members disappointingly tepid. He flees the US; he plunges into Europe. Here, for some years, he shifts from one country, community, and relationship to the next. The satisfaction he is looking for proves elusive. Until, not without tragedy, he at last realizes that what he has been seeking in the world out there can, in fact, only be found within.
It is an excellent play: funny; emotionally precise; trenchantly observant of nuances in behavior and contradictions in culture. It seems impossible that one could watch it without gaining greater understanding – and perhaps compassion, and perhaps gentleness – for certain sorts of human suffering.
And, it is a story built entirely of nostalgia. It is told as an autobiography. Main Character in grown-up form (played by the artist known as Stew, also the performance’s creator) is the minstrel and narrates the story as we see it unfold on stage. It is essentially a series of highlight moments in his life – moments that felt significant to him then and the ones that, in hindsight, have become imbued with meaning. In light of his eventual revelations about self-acceptance and unconditional love, Main Character sees how he failed to appreciate the potential in various relationships and people he abandoned to the past. His story is particularly rich in women of exceptional beauty and generosity who, he now recognizes, had offered him exactly the love and validation he sought, but at the time could not see. If only he had known then what he knows now, if only, if only…
Except, that’s not actually what’s going on at all.
What struck me about this play is that the nostalgia it is full of is of a different nature entirely than the nostalgia I have encountered most frequently in these past several weeks of conversation and sharing with people on this topic. What I have learned is that although some trappings of nostalgia have a pleasant whiff, for many people the feeling is an uncomfortable one. It correlates often with a feeling of unease in the present and seems by nature a futile yearning. But if looked at closely, that which we are nostalgic for is not impossible to obtain. It is not facts and events that we long for from the past, but emotions. We remember people and places in the way that we do because they are distilled representations of feeling. And, as it is our feelings of the present that determine our interpretation of the memories, I would venture to say that we don’t feel what we feel because of what we remember, but rather we remember what we remember because of what we feel. Nostalgia is, therefore, quite often a recommendation for change: change in attitude, or behavior, or situation – such that one can feel in the present that feeling one attributes to the past.
But in this play, nostalgia is not a red flag for change. Of course I do not know Stew, but I’d say the wisdom revealed by his ability to write such a piece suggests that he now has access to the sense of peace that eluded him so long. Whether or not he acts in accordance all the time is another matter but he certainly gets it – gets what love is, gets happiness. The characters that populate his nostalgia are transparently caricatures (how else explain how such angelic women could find the Main Character-as-youth – abuzz with self justification as he is – anything more than pitiable?). The nostalgia of this play does not reveal dissatisfaction, but rather satisfaction. It is the raw material used by a complete and (at least potentially) content mind to build something that could potentially help others arrive at a greater sense of contentment, as well.
And what I take from this is that the past – the experiences and people that loom in our mind and resonate with emotion of one kind or another – can always be made into something of beauty, worth, and utility in the present, and for the future.
** Emma **
My name is Emma. I am in St. Paul, Minnesota, going to school at Macalester.
I think the feeling of nostalgia is something that tends to take up a large portion of my brainspace on a regular basis. It comes through in my writing a lot: so far I’ve taken three creative writing courses in school (intro, fiction, and poetry) and have heard at least once in each class from my peers that my writing feels nostalgic. Somehow I have this need for things to feel nostalgic or bittersweet in order for them to feel meaningful, which I think is sort of detrimental in that it prevents me from focusing clearheadedly on what’s happening right now and causes me instead to give more credibility to the way I feel after an event takes place. If I feel nostalgic, it means that whatever happened was important or significant. If I don’t, it lessens the importance of that event in my mind.
The things I feel most nostalgic about are my junior and senior years of high school, when I met the people who will be my best friends forever; and a certain 18-month portion of my life, right up until this past July, when a really big relationship I’d been in came to an end.
A list of more specific things that invoke nostalgia in me: Polaroid photos, Lake Superior, most songs written by Devendra Banhart, chamomile tea, Nag Champa incense, tree-climbing, letter-writing, winter biking, and breakfast potatoes.
Is there such a condition as chronic nostalgia? I know it’s not the same as depression even though some might say otherwise. Maybe it just needs its own name.
I am realizing that nostalgia is very confusing. Everything about it contradicts everything else about it. Bittersweet is one big oxymoron.
The things I love the most are the things that make me feel nostalgic. (This is confusing to me.)
I tend to focus on the past a lot more than the future, but my basic plan for the next couple of years is to, first, finish school. Second, take at least a year off before I make any sort of dramatic move. I am torn between doing something practical but maybe unfulfilling, like going to nursing school, and doing something really difficult but most likely very fulfilling, like starting a commune or living on a farm. This is as far as I know at this point. I want to feel satisfied and purposeful. I want to love and be loved. I don’t want to feel confused or bitter or unsatisfied.
Me: What do you do?
Mitch: Same job as I had when i was 27: Professor of journalism at NYU – though I have done quite a few other things when not teaching, during summers or on sabbaticals. etc.
How old are you?
What would you like to transpire in your life in the next 3 to 10ish years?
Same as I’ve wanted since I was 17: see and do more, worry less.
Let me know if you want to discuss nostalgia — a subject upon which I do have some thoughts. (Including the thought, borrowed from Milan Kundera, that it is an indulgence of the young.)
(from an email)
I’m moving around a bit – this is the only weekend home out of five. Trying, in a kind of reverse nostalgia, to put something woodsy, untamed and unloud into my present/future, through the purchase of a weekend home in a socialist cooperative 50 miles to the north. (Reverse nostalgia should, perhaps, be the indulgence of the old.) Trying to gain purchase on a writing project or two. Drinking with a bit more enthusiasm (which makes me wonder if it isn’t substituting for other enthusiasms). Not liking, for the first time, an Edith Wharton. Wondering, as I do, whether I can still place myself in front of a room and be good at teaching.
I still succumb to nostalgia on occasion, of course: reconnecting with a college buddy recently, for example. It makes for good guy talk. Then I went out of my way a couple of weeks ago to revisit Isla Vista, CA, where I spent an important, often idyllic (cept for the identity and romantic issues with which I was struggling) 9 months when 20.
My visual memory of places is strong, and I like to lay past and future images up against each other in my head. I also have interest in this person who apparently was me (and was much more interested in the subject of what that meant) and so it’s useful, upon occasion, to follow his tracks. However, I feel, on nostalgia in general that whatever need it filled when I was young has eased. Not sure it has to do with emotion. I remain rather emotional. Perhaps it is the need for some sort of grounding. Maybe the accumulation of past and the assemblage of credentials and human connections eases that particular need. Perhaps the answer is mathematical: when the past is in short supply it gains value. Now it is the future that feels skimpy.
I want… to talk to you about nostalgia, and warm bright things from the past, and soft dark things, and cello strings, panning mountain vistas, and a dress that my mother used to wear.
Me: Tell me something about yourself, for context
Ezra: I am 23. I am external; I am reflections of what I like or dislike about others. I make images in the same way, hoping that applying some sort of filter to the things immediate to me makes them more interesting to others, and that I can frame my perspective. These images (to me) consist of primarily two things: temperature and composition. Temperature is a patina, where warmth is overexposed, and is fondness. Things that are cold are unsure, and require some optimism. “This glass of shit is half-full.” In the future, I hope that I am able to pair overwhelming extremes (fondness, insecurity, precariousness, closeness) with the more mundane of feelings. Give them some root, or datum, that allows me to actually consider them real.
Quick writing about Momma, my most nostalgic subject:
Breezes blow branches, and the spotty shade from the leaves filter through every window in the house. Most windows, anyway, besides the ones that we brag are always in the shadow of the mountains. I sit at the dining room table, eating garden vegetables and cheese that your friend’s goat provides. You are working at the wood cookstove, humming.
When you hum, it’s almost recognizable, but you are off of the tune somewhat. Off, but you understand music, so you correct your forgetting in a pleasant way, so that I hear comforting tunes that are unknown although familiar. After all, they’re the same songs that I hear you play on your turntable every day. Flour filters up from the bread that you’re baking, and I see every particle in the afternoon light; the first time that I recognize luminance as something tangible, and something that I care for. But, really, I just care for being there while you do this cooking thing.
Your dress literally swishes, and it is the only thing that I can hear as you motion to me for silence, and point out the fox outside the kitchen’s picture window. A fly lazily buzzes past, because all windows are open here, and all things are welcome. You point at me and laugh because I can’t see over the counter, but hand me a wooden spoon as consolation.
This is real life, what you do to keep your children fed.
Really, you love it all, but you love your shop as well. Scores of wood-fired pieces of pottery line the walls, drying from creation or drying from glazing. These are given to myself, and to my friends, upon any occasion that can be found for a gift (dozens of friends still mention having them, decades later). You mention that violins are beauty created from tension: Wood dried and shaped from its natural form, screamed across by tense, removed horse-hair. I try, even at that young age, to think of this as what “art” may be (both parents are artists). But then I watch you at the potter’s wheel, turning a slab of wet earth. Literally turning, with a fascination set into every rotation, fingers playing across its surface as it cycles around again, each time with a small success or new attempt. Your hand draws away from the pot, pulling a lip with it as if it were a utilitarian gestural drawing.
There is no tension in this art, there is only use of what the ground provides. You do not disagree with the clay, or the flour, sunlight, the tune you hum, or the fox. You only notice what you love there, and coax it out, carefully and patiently. While you alter everything you touch, you don’t distort anything; you only provide your view. You alter nothing, you only change its shape and use.
You are my mother, your voice is always even, your laugh is always ready, and your hand is always warm. And I am your favorite clay.
I am an out-of-work college-prep history teacher. I was laid off due to budgetary belt-tightening not performance. This hit me kind of hard because I was well-liked by both admin and students when I was let go. I always thought that were I to prove myself a competent and valuable member of the faculty, I would be safe. I did not realize something as arbitrary as “seniority” was going to be the winnowing artifact used in situations like this. It has caused me great distress and has been the catalyst for some serious soul-searching as to whether or not teaching at prep-schools is, in fact, the occupation for me. It has also caused me to take stock in my life and ask “am I truly happy” where I am and as the person I am.
Me: What changes would you like to see in next 3-5 years
Dominic: I would like to see myself happy. Whatever that means. If it means having a family – then I’d like to have one. If it means starting my own business – then I’d like to do that. If it means leaving my wife and embracing bachelorhood – then it appears it’s time to do so. I really don’t know what I want the trappings of my life to be at this point, so much of it is up in the air. I just know that whatever I am doing I want to be true to my ethos of what a meaningful life is and then live it.
…It has been my observation that for those of us with a predilection for this condition, the pull of nostalgia grows stronger the older we get. And yet, there are people wholly devoid of this feeling. I married a woman unencumbered by the same pangs of nostalgia to which I am increasingly subjected. She has no idea the envy I feel, for I have come to regard nostalgia as an indicator that all is not well in one’s psyche. It is a veil we throw over our eyes that obstructs our ability to perceive, it is a shackle that renders us immobile in our own body.
I first remember feeling true nostalgia in 8th grade – apparently I was doomed from an early age to live my life in rewind. I was a relay runner and long-jumper on our middle school track team. We were undefeated and about to have the last meet of the season against another undefeated team, which also happened to be our long-term league rival. This match-up between our two schools was mythical in its scope. It permeated our middle school’s culture whenever our two teams were in opposition, regardless of the sport. I recall thinking, on the cusp of the competition’s start, that this experience was similar to an episode of my favorite TV show from my youth. In that episode, it was the final showdown between the story’s two opposing forces; and only one could emerge victorious and supreme. The show was a cartoon called Star Blazers; a show imported from Japan and translated into English. I watched it religiously in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, from the ages of about 5-7. Star Blazers eventually went off the air and was replaced in the warehouse of my childhood’s imagination by other toys and serialized cartoons. I hadn’t given the show a moment’s thought from that point until that time when I was 13 and about to go off to “battle.” I remember thinking it was odd that I remembered that show at that moment before the meet. I also remember thinking about how foreign it felt to experience two seemingly oppositional emotions at the same time; which I later learned are – for me, at least – integral to this sentiment. On one hand I relived the sweet and wonderful excitement I felt whenever the show was on or when I was pretending to be one of the main characters, and on the other hand, I felt real sadness knowing it was no longer in my life.
It is embarrassing, really, to admit what makes me nostalgic…
…Anime and sci-fi stories in which I wholly subsumed my waking existence… switches and dials on console panels… sounds and lights the buttons made when they were “engaged,” the arcing paths of contrails left from missiles and jets scattering through space, the battle scars on the bodies of Y-wings, and the blocky polygons that made up space suits, robots, fighter planes, and laser guns. When I see the SDF-1, or the Reliant, or the Autobot insignia, or the wild eyes and hair of characters like Lufy, Yuri and Kei, or Max Sterling, or watch the gleam of reflected light off Priss’s motorcycle and Wildstar’s Cosmo Zero fighter, I feel an intense longing to travel back in time and reinhabit myself at a time when I’m busy daydreaming about the worlds in which those things inhabit…
…Girls. And the travails that were inexorably linked to currying their favor. Though I am never nostalgic about the “good times” (with one important exception). I’m usually remembering when things were going horribly awry. Not the arguments, but the moments when cues were missed, opportunities were missed, courage was not sufficiently summoned, or courage was summoned and interest demonstrated but not returned.
My first car, “The Babe Magnet.”
…It was around nineteen when I waded into the deep-end of the musical pool and began to swim around.
Stereolab is my year in Japan. Lake Trout is an extended visit to DC with my good friend from Australia. 10,000 Maniacs is my first, failed attempt to earn a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Death Ships is my frustration in the final year of teaching at a boarding school in West Virginia, while Lefty’s Deceiver is the sadness I felt at being away from my home and friends in Philly during that time. But it is The Church, first heard at sixteen, that makes me most nostalgic…
I feel happy and pleasant when recollecting such memories… The most powerful of each serves as the “bridge moment,” the one experience that leaps me forward into the next stage of my development… So if these eras are the emotional frontiers of my development and are filled with events that represent my life’s watershed moments, why do I eventually feel sadness when I dwell on them for too long?
Once you do something, you cannot do it “for the first time,” again. Eating from the tree of knowledge means you gain worldliness but lose your innocence. To have knowledge and familiarity of a thing is to no longer be surprised by it. What this universe and all the experiences in it “could be” becomes replaced by what it actually “is.” As a kid I so desperately wanted to see far away worlds while flying around in my veritech fighter. However, the reality of my adult existence is there are no Zentradi, I’m scared when I fly as a passenger on commercial craft, and I lack the financial resources to actually own and maintain a plane of my own. While marriage is a wonderful, healthy state, I doubt I will be able to fall in love again “for the first time” with my wife. In the coming years our love will change and take on new dimensions; which sounds wonderful and I expectorantly look forward to it. But that “first time” excitement of finding a new love is now in the past. Music genres are blending together and are more and more familiar the more I listen to them. It is becoming less and less frequent that I find a sound that isn’t completely surprising in its newness, yet is still appealing. When I find new music I like, it more often than not is evocative of something else I heard years ago.
So it appears that, for me, nostalgia is the recognition of the loss of innocence and the lack of frontiers in my life. The pleasantness of those old memories is really just the lingering afterglow of the excitement I felt when I existed in a razor-thin sliver of consciousness; located between being wholly aware that I was living something new and permanent, yet unaware of how I would experience it. The world was fresh, new and unpredictable. It was open for exploration by me alone.
Cormac McCarthy wrote how there is violence in nostalgia. Paraphrasing his sentiment, he believes people are nostalgic because a nostalgic person has unattended business left in their past…I think for Cormac, the violence he speaks of is just an umbrella emotion that really shields the emotion that exists a level below. The violence he speaks of is really just sadness. Sadness at the fact that we are often unaware of our life’s happiest moments until they have passed us by… Sadness that most of our childhood dreams are unable to survive in the hostile atmosphere and harsh light of this physical plane of existence… Sadness that we were once vital, enthusiastic creatures and that our present day-to-day routine, which we may have slid into so effortlessly and unwillingly, is boring the shit out of us…
I am still gathering and sorting through the beautiful nostalgia missives that people have sent me. Some will be up shortly. In the meanwhile, an interlude….
Biking has changed my perspective on New York City.
It has become simultaneously bigger and more complex, and smaller and easier. I travel into parts of the map previously unimaginable and marvel at how it just goes on and on, one neighborhood-village unfolding into the next, little universes fully equipped, as disconnected from one another in architecture and language as they are connected by that je ne sais quoi – that membrane – that ties this city into a single body and makes New York New York. On my bike, every artery opens. The full stretch and depth yield to my reach. It’s a small city, for being so huge. And a huge city, in such a small space.
The first time I biked to Washington Heights, most of it along the Hudson on that wonderful bike path, I was flank to flank with the setting sun. In Chelsea, models tanned. Twenty minutes later, above 125th, whole families had turned out to fish, and barbeque smoke and snatches of bachata wafted across the path. It was after midnight when I made my way home and the streets were deliciously empty, smooth, and sheened with light. I took Broadway for the rush of the long downhill. Even at that hour, on each meridian there were people gathered – old men mostly – sitting on folding chairs and watching the street.
And another time at Jefferson I turned right instead of left and went deep into Bed-Stuy. Into its miles and mils of brownstones and overflowing flower boxes, sycamores leaning across the street, and empty lots transformed into gardens where people plucked the last of the tomatoes.
A bike allows you to observe without engaging. You can stare because you don’t stop. One is invisible in the same way as starlings and stray cats. Responsible, yes, for your vulnerable body in the crush of machines on the road – but otherwise unfettered, contained by few boundaries and even fewer rules.
Biking has made the variety of this city palpable, and the density and uniqueness of lives. To bike through it is to be reminded of each individual’s absorption in the stuff of his or her specific existence, which I glimpse fleetingly: her stepping off the curb, him frowning over something in the store window, them gesticulating urgently to a crying child. I drift by, a daydreaming snorkeler over the reef.
Also, biking has provided me a whole new nomenclature for the categorization of people. The first time I rode in Manhattan I felt a giddy camaraderie with all other bikers. By the second or third time I’d graduated beyond the neophyte’s dangerous habit of hugging curb and realized I made everyone’s life easier if I claimed some space on the road. I developed a haughty indignation at those who rode against traffic, though I did it often myself, and chagrin before those who wore helmets (I don’t yet, but I respect those who do). I learned to calculate the red lights I could go through and the ones I could not and, interestingly, I’d realized that behavior at red lights is telling indicator of a person’s character.
On a recent Friday evening I decided to take advantage of something I have so far missed: weekend late night hours at the Met, when they also play music.
I started north around 6ish. It was warm, but the October sun was on its way out.
My favorite way to bike is in skirt and heels. There is something particularly satisfying about going very fast, very far, while looking like you shouldn’t be able to.
So, it’s down Dekalb first, then a right turn after the hospital, bisect the projects, and up on to the bridge. The Manhattan Bridge is a space for wordless communication. Bikers pass one another in droves, and there’s opportunity for eye contact, nods, the occasional smile, sometimes a disapproving glower. This is where you see the whole range of two-wheel types. I pass one poor man over-ambitiously trying to lug a carpet on his hipster single speed, then I slow down for the boys biking side-by-side balancing skateboards and wobbling all over the place. There go the usual unsmiling hard-core types with messenger bags and heavy chains round their waists; and the racer, the dragonfly in our midst, in aggressively colored lycra and iridescent sunglasses; and the many upright commuters (of which I am one) with rubber bands keeping slacks tight to ankle and briefcases in baskets out front.
Crossing this bridge is, every time, a reason for exhilaration. Here we go, soaring over the river v-ed by boats, the craggy skyline stretched out in front, pure blues and browns, and glass facades to amplify the glorious expanse of sky.
Then, it’s down over the Chinatown market which, at this time of day, is pungent with trash.
The Met is on the east side. No Hudson River this time then. It’s up along 1st Avenue instead, where one contends with turning taxis, squealing buses, produce trucks squatting in the path, and the stoic delivery guys who follow a code of conduct wholly divorced from conventional street law.
The Met, as always, is completely worthwhile. First, I seek out portraits from the Gilded Era, USA. Then, art from the Yuan Dynasty, China. A brief tour though the Picasso section and, eventually, a linger in “Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance.” On this particular night, I also get a VIP tour of the Starn brother exhibit on the roof. After 9 pm, when the other patrons have been hustled out, I am allowed to kick off those heels of mine and climb barefoot through the bamboo sculpture. At the top one sees the stars over Central Park. They look like lit windows, detached from the buildings below and floating out of place.
On the way home:
At the 60-something streets two men shout in a rage at a taxi driver. They get out, they slam the door, one kicks it fiercely. At impact of foot and metal the taxi lurches forward as if hurt and inches out, an illegal turn into traffic, leaving the righteous men yelling curses in its wake.
The East Village on Friday night: a misery of sharp-heeled faunlets stumbling into the bike lane without looking and flush-faced boys with unbuttoned shirts and manic confidence in their expression.
After a careful crossing of Delancy there’s the relief of the dark and quiet stretch leading to the illuminated bridge.
And now on the home stretch. I pass the Masonic temple. A crowd is gathered in front. A Goth festival of sorts, I think – I glimpse a lot of platform boots and inky-colored hair. I watch as a man with boysenberry lipstick makes the wry “What-Ever” face to two companions and then laughs in a very deep voice.
On the steps of the church at the block’s end a couple has retreated to fight. The man, skinny, bleached hair stiff as ice, bends over to scream in the face of his seated partner. I see the whites of her eyes, darkly framed as they are by mascara and liner. She’s looking sideways as I float past, and inhaling on her cigarette, deeply.
“the few people who have truly passed through us and us through them, until the dreams, images, memories are past sorting out, these people become precious links to our continuity.” -Gail Sheehy
My nostalgia had been acting up all summer, coloring my escapades with love, sex, and life choices. I had recently ended an odd, 5-year marriage that seemed to occur out of time and the trajectory of my life. It had left me with endless questions, much doubt, two small children, and roiling bouts of longing for my life before marriage.
Sarah and Zoe, two of my closest friends (on a side note: all of my closest friends are those who have attended boarding school. I think it has something to do with the depth of connection that can be risked when one has the total assurance that nobody is going anywhere until everyone graduates) had invited me on a shared camping trip to upstate New York. It was a nebulous idea. All we knew for sure was that we longed to see each other, to escape the respective contexts of our present lives, and reflect on the direction those lives were taking.
Our communication became more frequent as we planned the trip, and as we caught each other up on the details of our lives some patterns emerged. All three of us found ourselves looking back as well as forward. We were questioning past decisions. We were wondering who-would-we-be-if. We were rereading old love letters and journals and sketchbooks, amazed at the immediacy of the memories they brought up. Each of us had her own reasons for this mining of the past, and though we knew it was a solitary task, we also knew it would be more pleasant in the warm presence of friends. And so we decided to frame our trip together around the question of nostalgia, to examine it mercilessly, to wallow in it and deconstruct it.
This was a vital and overdue task for me. My marriage had been so disconnected from everything that came before that I felt insubstantial, unsure of how the person I am now was related to the person I’d been. There was precious little continuity, which led to a sense of disorientation and aimlessness. I had begun to view my own past as a sort of holy land, a country I’d governed with wit, youth, and beauty. There was no way back there—or so I told myself; I was certain that a series of mistakes had burnt every bridge. I wanted to see if connections could be rewoven, if I could somehow thicken my narrative and integrate all the pieces of my life into something fuller.
So, we traveled together to Sarah’s family’s isolated cabin in upstate New York, a cabin outfitted with a wood-fired sauna and perched on the edge of a spring-fed pond. Zoe and I had brought along love letters from our first loves; Sarah had old photo albums and sketchbooks. We dove into a few days of committed, deep nostalgia. We tirelessly worked and reworked the past, evaluating first love from every possible angle, exhaustively analyzing the mistakes and motivations of our earlier selves. We offered up ideas and insights as we read each other’s letters and heard each other’s stories: the difficulty and pain of re-establishing contact with lovers who once meant so much; the struggle to build relationships in the present that felt as important and urgent as those that happened long ago. When our mouths grew dry from too much talking, we would refuel with wine or dips in the pond and nearby river. We cooked elaborate dinners and ate by candlelight. We sweat in the sauna and lay under the stars. We laughed breathlessly over the revelation that we would, in time, probably grow nostalgic for our nostalgia-fest.
Sarah’s younger sister Jojo shared the house with us, and became something of a cipher for me.
She was embarking on that stage of life I was now reviewing through letters and journals. She was deeply involved in her first love, willing to discuss it, willing to let all of our intricate and self-involved narratives wash over her and then offer back the perspective of someone as yet relatively unafflicted by nostalgia. Her real life was just there, just in front of us, demonstrating that the magic isn’t in youth itself. It is in the nimble work our minds do to selectively enshrine it. I think her presence anchored me and held me to honesty.
And this was vital! Because I learned, over the course of these leisurely and delicious days, that my memory is almost frighteningly mutable. I learned that I constantly revise the past to serve my present life, to the extent that I no longer know the difference between a true memory and a fiction. In rereading my letters I found that I had almost comically misinterpreted much of what went on in my life. How had I been so oblivious to what was really happening in my relationships? Am I, still? Does the involvement of the present obscure our clear thinking? Is that what nostalgia is all about, the ability finally to see an interaction for what it genuinely was?
Our time drew to an end, as it had to. Zoe and I drove away from that beautiful house, Jojo and Sarah waving in the door. I know that this picture will linger in my memory as a representative snapshot. And it will inevitably be altered, fictionalized, layered with extra meaning and symbolism over time.
On the plane home I felt hollowed out, as though much of what made me up was memory, memory that had been cleaned out and washed away. There was a dizzying sense of room. I felt the full weight of responsibility for the only life I ever had, the life I am living now.
But all of that dedicated navel-gazing had paid off. We had managed to rebuild some bridges, my friends and I. They had been my friends in the days I was remembering and they were my friends now. By listening to my stories of the intervening years they had woven themselves into those too. And as a result, my life had continuity again. That continuity– that broader, more encompassing idea of what my life is– allowed me to reframe those twists of life I’d termed ‘mistakes’. I saw them now for what they were: just experiences that held in their very complication a far richer potential than any of my original plans.
My life has opened up in the intervening weeks. I have turned to art with exuberance, acting and painting and sewing and writing poetry. I feel a divine burn once more, that painful interaction with the heart of life that is at once harrowing and beautiful. I have an odd certainty that the best is yet to come. The past relationship that had consumed me finally feels finished: perhaps this is because I got up the courage to call the fellow in question and bring our interaction into the present, where it belongs. But I suspect it is because shining the floodlight of direct attention on my nostalgia showed it to be a thing of no substance.
I have learned that nothing makes me happier than to be in control of the way I frame my past experiences. I have learned that some things live only in the past, and cannot be resurrected. I have learned that there is nothing better than a good friend–one who, by knowing me, by watching my evolution, provides an anchor and a witness to the ceaseless change.
You get no sweetness in the summer
Beneath your hasty feet all crushing down
Sticky, wasted, not worth the tasting
‘Til death is here, and the grass goes brown
Slow walkers find you slowly then—
Glowing, perfect, a song in the cold.
BLACK RIVER, BOONVILLE
We ask, and ask, and ask, and ask
The way the wind turns every leaf
The way the river turns each stone.
And in a forward rush I placed
One perfect print of cautious feet
And buried deep to tell them:
I was here
I was here
I was here.
As the slant of the summer sun shifts, there is less heat in its light. Tufts of foliage stiffen and leaf edges are laced in brown. The air now is clearer, dryer. There’s no mistaking it, autumn is moving in. Each day is imbued with a complex mixture: the aliveness and expansive thrill of transition, and the mourning of summer’s ripening and generosity.
When the three of us set out for Red Pond, the last traces of summer lushness still hung in the air. Its humidity plumpened the peaches and corn we dined on, kept the river and ponds inviting. Yet the cicadas had already ceded to crickets; the berries along the side of the driveway had mostly been picked off by birds. There could be no better time than the golden light of August to look back into the summer of our youth and see what shadows it cast, to wade among the tangled reeds of nostalgia and see what dwelled in the deeps.
There was some natural rhythm afoot of returning and pausing for all three of us. Lissa had just been home for a family wedding, and back to her beloved northeast kingdom for the first time in about seven years. I had come back to this country to live again after fifteen years overseas, and finally all of my belongings had survived nine months in either storage units or freight-liners and were miraculously resting in one place. And it was to Sarah’s parental home (minus parents) to which we embarked, an apparent constant of a cottage for a colorful family that twirled about the globe. It was perhaps then inevitable, that we should all find nostalgia so bewitching.
Lissa and I were armed with love letters, and from the very first night, we opened the stacks and began reading one another’s cherished whisperings, melodramatic love poems, everyday musings that were saturated with read-between-the-lines adoration and puppy love. I wondered if we were breaking some unwritten code that forbid you from ever sharing a deep intimacy like a love letter. But it felt so incredibly good. Weights I’d been unaware of melted away. I had forgotten how much these letters had meant to me. I am someone who has saved ALL of my letters for my whole life, and clearly have felt some compulsion to keep a record, to collect these shards. My first love had at some point sent me all of the letters I had written to him, so here I had the complete symphony, the volley of ooohs and aaahs as we delighted in one another, and the excruciating twists of bewilderment as we took everything personally. For the next decade, this first love had become synonymous only with rejection, betrayal and heartbreak. Now I could look at these letters and see who we had been, two minnows in a net, mere mortals with a healthy adolescent supply of hormones and a shared penchant for escaping. I could see how unequivocal his declarations of love had been, how vulnerable he made himself, how reserved and guarded I had been. As we sifted through our love letters the three of us wondered if we were longing for the lover or longing for who we had been then.
Sarah, Lissa and I were engaged in fierce debate about the value of revisiting the past, about how much and when to communicate with past loves. I lamented for us and younger generations to come, so embedded in webs like facebook, which made it almost impossible to lose touch. And therefore, perhaps, more difficult to let go. We pondered how to make these choices and negotiate our boundaries as we stepped into saunas. We were like snakes wriggling from old skins, casting off clothes for skinny-dipping and saunas, making ourselves vulnerable to one another, purging our pasts.
After Red Pond, steeped in nostalgia and bolstered by the support of friends, I returned again to my own present life. Nostalgia was strong, it was a brute, and it continued to affect my life in a few ways over the next week. I was disoriented. It had fostered in me a desire for life to be again melodramatic and to thread my life with a more linear narrative. I could feel the momentum still building, I was thirsty for some epiphany of climax, for the fruit of all my loves. A heated restlessness had stirred. In fact, my life and loves have had no shortage of dramas or epiphanies. My love now is richer than all my imaginings could muster, yet I had to step back down to earth, to my present. The first night back, a midnight walk around the block to cool my mind and unwind the squirming desires that had been stirred. I felt the challenge before me to climb back out of myself and recognize the other live human being before me.
Opening the last of thirty boxes that had traversed a few oceans to my crowded hallway floor, I discovered all the rest of my letter collection – about 200 of them. It took me more than a week of diligently sitting on the floor and reading togo through them all. Many of them were correspondences I’d completely forgotten, and some letters which had borne a great weight but now seemed frivolous. After ten days of sorting through letters, I felt dizzy, it was like condensing the journey of my entire life. There were even letters I’d inherited from my mother, written to her as a young woman, well before my birth. It was surprisingly easy to know which letters to let go of. And there were three bundles of letters I chose not to read at all: Letters from my mother, who passed away nine years ago – I have no doubts there is more for me to discover in those letters – and letters from a childhood friend, one I actually have managed to lose touch with, due to a falling out and I also sensed there is more for me to return to and process in the future. Also, I did not need to re-read letters from Sarah and Lissa. We had just shared such a close time together, I felt no need to be reminded of their presences, and felt sure I wanted to preserve them for a future reminiscence fest in some back woods cabin.
As for my complete set of first love letters, I felt truly ready to let them go. Which made me ask myself what was different, what I needed to be able to let go. I concluded I needed these key ingredients: a deep and solid sense of my own core, knowing I will still be me and hold the same value without them and I can find what they offer me integrated within my own present self. Nostalgia invites us to “relive” the past. It must be relived and revived as the past is no longer with us, it is lost, each memory a tiny loss, a thousand miniscule deaths. The urge for pause and reflection is me seeking integration, processing the loss (often the loss of my former self), and mining the past for insights on my present.
Now that I had decided to let these love letters go the question was how. Do I shunt them into the recycling bin, do I ritualistically burn them, do I send them back to whence they came? I used the very tool I had disdained, facebook, to offer them out to my old lover first. (Plan B was a big pyre). Somewhat to my surprise, he was genuinely interested in having them. So I set about writing one last letter, conveying many of these thoughts. The letter seemed to take some time, and then it was hard to fit in a trip to the post office. Finally, it was Saturday morning, labor day weekend. I couldn’t bare to have the letters in my possession anymore. I literally ran to make it to the post office, arriving just five minutes before their midday closure. I had to test four different envelopes to find one that fit them well. Do they need padding or protection? Should I send them to arrive earlier, or certified or with insurance? I was the very last person in the post office. I giddily explained to the patient postal worker that I was sending out all of my first love’s letters. I felt buoyant, handing him the package, sending them out as regular mail, entrusting them to other forces. Turning at last to leave the post office, I asked if someone needed to unlock the door for me but he replied “No, the door will lock behind you.”