“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.”