Night, canvass for city’s dashes, strokes;
lights, sharp or soft gestures in dark like
greetings tacked onto daylight farewells
as I explore alleys that curl and strike
through each block traversed.
These were scarred caverns, warehouses
where now entrepreneurs set up shop,
and housing, the sips ‘n eats and chic ice cream
along shiny parkways: like a giant bullhorn
it shouts new new new. I regret and accept this.
Every corner hawks its lore, ferments ideas.
Emptied lots host food cart delights,
a window is a doorway to other doors,
old industry is broken into new lines
that frame present and future,
each a step removed from the past.
Rubble can be made cutting edge,
even if not buried under thirty floors.
This big brightness of prosperity
hums in the night like a forgotten
tune reworked; it catches my ear.
I want to hum, too, though progress
may spurn a romance like mine.
But this is my rose; I’ve come to adore it.
My city has brought me to its embrace
through rains (and pain) that shatter air,
heat (and longing) that leaches greenness,
dirt and smog (and anger) that get into my house
like a pestilence. And then those winds–
they play every chime as if made of silver
and gold, spells of joy by day and an
alarm in odd, fang-studded nights.
Some voices that cry out are human flares.
I need this familiar and strange beauty,
even weeping, snarling. Prayer and love in shadows.
I carry my heart on and off the streets
to find people, a glory of sights,
twisty tales with more to come.
We all have our hands out, minds ajar.
No one gets away without something
to tuck into, to take back somewhere.
We slide by one another, eyes sweet
or lost in the kindness of lamp light.
We are who we wish under veil of night
in the deep wells of our city,
inside this Northwestern flower, its
perfumes that wreathe steel and glass,
wonders which will make way for others
beneath the vast presidio of mountains.
This essay is not truly about dogs so don’t be disappointed if you read on. I, rather, was thinking of finding or creating a quiz: when a person has such and such traits, what sort of animal would they be most like? Or would they want to be like if you asked them? We do at times compare people to non-human creatures, let’s be honest–either due to physical characteristics or their natures. We may even feel pull to a certain animal, or a connection that moves us. Although I noted dogs in the title, I’m not sure I would be one if there was a choice but sometimes I do feel the desire to yelp, pounce, bark and growl, act funny and be tricky, hide, sneak and bite–rather, those human equivalents. Not every day is a cuddly kind of day, to say the least.
At times I think a wolf is closer to what I imagine choosing to become. Yes, I know, that has nearly become boring; most people have a thing for (or against) our resurgence of grey wolves. They are majestic: intelligent strategizing, fine physical prowess, loyalty to the pack, team predatory skills and beautiful songs.
But on the other side of the fence, so to speak, there are black panthers with their trademark grace and sly ferocity, nocturnal sensory equipment and precise hunting skills. Who cannot admire such stealth and power, the wondrous design of their sleekness? Plus, they even live in the Amazon, a place I have been drawn to all my life.
What draws me in the end–how do I connect to them? Mysterious and wild (so different from me) and strong, smart, spectacular to watch and hear. So I consider both wild canine, wild feline. I could be more creative in choices but these two mammals have long fascinated me. Among others…I seem to feel a tug to many. I am easily mesmerized by other beings in the world. Birds, insects, ocean life of all sorts and so on: I have a wide ranging passion for Mother Nature and her critters.
So I want to note that the other day there was a familiar piercing/whistling call in a neighborhood park. I looked up, stood riveted for a good fifteen minutes. I had thought at first they were ospreys. Oh, to be a bird! My eyes were trained on treetops as people passed me by. But a couple stopped; we watched three beautiful, powerful birds fly back and forth far above, calling to one another. A park staff person later corrected me–they were Cooper’s hawks, which excited me even more. They were nesting in our park? I had only seen them from afar in the country. Amazing. But it seemed similar enough to an osprey call that I looked up them up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. To my delight, I discovered it was a specific call heralding food delivery to the nest.
Yes, I might wish to be a bird, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk.
Still, have been thinking more about dogs since caring for daughter’s very young cat a couple of months. I sometimes daydream about finally getting another dog. Still, I don’t currently have a dog as I believe domesticated animals are happier outdoors rather than indoors or at least both. I live in an apartment. Maybe I’m projecting my preferences…but my last was a Brittany Springer spaniel, twenty-five years ago.
I do like cats overall despite being allergic and disliking being scratched. I’ve lived with a few. The last was a temperamental (are there any other sorts) calico the same daughter chose as a young teen. Mandy-Cat was lovely and irritating, not so affectionate but intensely loyal. My current guest cat, Hyundai, named for the car under which it somehow hitched a 45 minute ride and emerged without a scratch, is a feisty and possibly feral male of perhaps five months. He likes to skitter up to the top of a balcony screen door and sniff about wildly; run ramrod over couch and chairs at midnight; make capturing a tea towel from the refrigerator handle into a Herculean challenge. He takes possession of one nylon shopping bag as if it were his perfect prey or a comfy abode, whichever he deigns to make it.
I might not choose to be this cat. On the other hand, he is imbued with a grand spirit of adventure, a certain charming meow, and we chat with one another throughout the day with a few positive results. Perhaps it was Hyundai who has inspired me to think again about the nature of people versus the nature of other animals. And what all that means, after all, since I am not an animal behaviorist, just a mere retired human mental health clinician. So it is natural I examine my personal attitudes and actions, ferreting out why I am who I am–and how humans are so unlike one another despite sharing so many traits. (Likely other animals are also more alike than different but a zoologist would likely prove me wrong.)
I love what dog shows call “the working dog group”. I admire huskies because they are hard working, energetic and alert with superior endurance and stamina, friendly and playful and smart as well as being furry-attractive (lovely eyes, too). They’re team workers, fleet of foot, eminently trainable and love to do a great job. I also admire German shepherds for similar qualities as well as others, though perhaps they might be less readily sociable I have high regard for their capability of working within dangerous situations, their intelligent behaviors. They’re very loyal, thus excellent guard dogs. They also can certainly attack and bite. I imagine all dogs do at times–fear being a trigger and territoriality–but it appears that huskies are far less likely than German shepherds to react aggressively, according to statistics about serious dog bites (they are perhaps third or fourth on lists I’ve read). Still, they can make fine companions as do huskies. They are simply different dogs.
So what does all this have to do with my musings? Its about reactions to stimuli in part. Other animals seem to be more straight forward about things, do exactly what they need to do and are clean and simple about it. I would like to be more like that some days. To the absolute point but smarter about matters, especially complex ones….a human debacle.
I’ve been mulling over a few situations the past months wherein I responded with feelings and words that were not altogether comfortable for me. Nor, I suspect, the receivers of those responses. I have instincts like any other animal so can sniff out any danger, find weak spots in my life, seek to minimize unnecessary discomfort and maximize well being. I am protective of those I love; work hard to seek and maintain the aspects of life I welcome and enjoy; adapt to the randomness the best I can and try to learn well from it. People have called me courageous, intimidating, loyal, dominating, compassionate and nonjudgmental, insightful, powerful when angry and intense if distressed. I am unable to lay claim on any of these without scrupulous, ongoing self-examination. But I do know many of my weaknesses as well as some of my strengths and a few ring a bell.
We all have our “hot buttons.” I suspect that something perceived as an intrusion into the hallowed realms of family or friends is close to the top of the list. Another would be when we feel attacked at an emotionally vulnerable place (and, of course, physically unwanted touch). Yet another might be when we feel our basic dignity is being disregarded. And also if we feel betrayed by someone well and long trusted. Misunderstandings of various sorts come and go; tempers are sure to flare a bit. But deeper woundings are harder from which to rebound, and certainly to manage well with the wisdom of tact and consideration. Fairness may go out the window. It is just harder to move past differences, to forgive and forget when whatever occurred hurts greatly, whether or not another can understand the why or wherefore of it. But a lack of understanding or a respect of one’s viewpoint makes the dig even deeper.
I am first and last a student here, learning new skills to deal with my and others’ most human hurts. It is trickier when a conflict and resulting skirmish seem avoidable. How to soothe the scratches and gouges well, help them heal up right? Isn’t it in part connected to an initial reaction to those first irritating words, boundary crossings, oversights? The greater surprise and harder the fight, the harder and faster the fall.
I should know this by now. I learned early on to protect myself. I had to be quick of mind and foot. We all find ways to take care of ourselves when we meet up with bullies or hecklers, those who practice criticism as a prime activity or seek to do any sort of injustice. (Just being a kid and a youth can seem to put one at risk, especially in these times.) For me, it was critical to learn how to be brave, to become self reliant, perceptive and quick witted.
By my twenties I was developing a diamond-hard carapace about my core being that was rarely removed. I walked and talked like a person who was carrying a sort of weather flag denoting a “watch” or a “warning”: be wary/mess with me at your own risk. I knew how to be gracious, to talk a good talk and underneath it all was a sincerity and, oddly, confidence that authenticated my behaviors. But I was always in command of myself, my jobs and surroundings, my life as much as possible–even when my life was unmanageable, I rallied and tried to commandeer strength out of sheer stubbornness. right or wrong.
I was often told that when I walked into a room and down the street, people took immediate notice…it was the surety and hardness of my footfall with confident strides, squared shoulders and head high. But these also caused folks to pause, to assess if I would be an alliance or enemy. I’ve been not always embraced, more often respected. (I wondered the same about them, truth be told.)
Back then I knew how to labor hard, to be counted upon, to fight for what I believed in. And, I think, how to love with ardor and steadiness–that is, when a serious trust was tested and proven. But as time passed I discerned better how to use armor when most needed, to relent when it was helpful, to soften responses so my presentation changed, reactions were subtler. It felt as if it came at some personal cost until I fortified myself with better counseling, deeper prayer and acceptance of God’s abiding care and presence in my living. I tinkered with this and that, tossed out more irksome, useless bits. In time I found my life a synthesis of better aligned spirit, body, feelings and intellect.
Still, there remains the conundrum that though I long to be a finer human being, I am flawed so much more than hoped. The right circumstances with the wrong statement made to me and I can strike when I should remain restrained. I snarl when I should be silent; I jump up when remaining sitting down is a better course to take. I snag and grind a resentment when releasing it could be as mere breath floating from my lips. I want to be a good human creature, expectant of joy, civilized and stalwart and caring. I just cannot seem to always succeed in the follow through. I have to pause and rethink some occasions or better yet, take a big step back and let everything be. I don’t have to have the last word in all scenarios; I need to pick times it can retain most value. In fact, it can be more useful to seek a truce. And then comes an experience more satisfying, the enlarging graciousness of deeper peace.
I try to imagine what it would be like to be more a husky than a German shepherd. Oh, I know the second breed is very clever, dauntless and fierce and loyal. But I am more and more interested in being a full team player as well as brightly independent, one who can go to utmost limits but then is rewarded with rest as adjunct to rambunctious fun. One who will never forsake those I care for but who is more than happy to meet new neighbors–all with little to no threat of biting from either side. Well, other animals might say I make too much of it; they must find life more simply defined: birth and survival, play, hunting, mating, eating and sleeping, more family, hunting and survival, aging and death. Strength and wiliness must win out.
I think I hear a distant woof and howl.
I’ve determined I would most happily be a husky (or a grey wolf in the wild), perhaps not a German shepherd…but then, how can I know for sure? Depending in the end on what works best and what would be required of me. Depending on what was offered for work and love–as well as mealtime and play. And shelter and safety. Or is all that rather too human?
“In the interest of my sanity, I must come to the conclusion that my household is in the grips of something I can no longer control. I surrender.”
“Enough is enough.”
“Yes, well then, he should be banished,” Father said, trying to downplay his amusement. “But it was only a water gun fight. They dripped mostly outdoors. They’re just big kids, themselves, I’m afraid. Soon they’ll be grown ups entirely with daunting or boring careers and flocks of their own.”
I could hear her slam the sun room door–not too hard–in response and wondered what he would do next. Likely nothing but continue reading his book and magazines. Mother would fume a bit longer then get out the china for dessert.
She was Mrs. Judith Lightness, wife of Charles Lightness, esteemed judge. Chic, civilized manager of house and garden. Our mother. Her words had floated outdoors. Their timbre rumbled like the engine of a tugboat, smallish yet still mighty. We heard them from the porch table. We had drinks after dinner, as usual, enjoying the way the garden brought us a sweltering sweetness of florals. My brother, Teddy. said nothing; he knew she was slow to expand her views when it came to impulsive activities. It was as if she had only tolerance for order, proscribed behaviors, despite the fact that she had only a moderate talent for the first and reportedly deviated from the second when she was younger.
Paul sipped a brandy and licked his lips, eyes on the giant trees that surrounded the garden. He was used to ignoring mother’s distress.
“Is that a black walnut?” He pointed. “I’ve always wanted to gather the nuts and make ink from them. I read how that can be done. I’d enjoy writing a smart letter to Meredith in walnut ink.”
Teddy laughed and requested more information. My ear was inclined toward the french doors despite a tiny upsurge of pleasure at his comment.
I looked up. Lillian poked her head through her upstairs window. She had her ratty stuffed elephant in hand and waved it at me. Then she pointed down below and made a face meant for mother. I thought she would drop the creature on Teddy but he was ignoring her, his head bent toward Paul’s. She had a habit of making it dive when someone was passing, tossing it down the staircase as company arrived. Leaving it in a pathetic heap so when I left my room I stumbled. It–Hildy, she called it–seemed to do things for her, a daredevil by proxy. Lillian was seven and a half years old. When could I slip it into the trash without igniting her fury?
“Meredith? What do you think?”
I looked back at the boys. They smiled as if something marvelous would be happening if I just gave them the go-ahead so I nodded.
“The ink? Why not? Or did I miss something? Whatever you say.”
“Splendid!” Paul swallowed the last of his drink and stood. “It’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll get supplies and begin immediately.”
“Wait! What am I being recruited to do?”
“Too late,” Teddy said with shrug, palms turned up. “We have a plan and you will help.”
Well, that was the problem. My twin and our adopted cousin developed schemes and often I was a part of them without quite knowing how it occurred. A few times I had spearheaded them, but generally I was more cautious, nicknamed “Merry Mouse” by Paul long ago. But their plans were like rumbas clothed as minuettes, and every time Paul arrived the music played on and on. I sometimes felt like a whirling dervish within days of his yearly arrival. Mother would have said we were struck by lightning, only to survive for yet another strike.
He was an adopted cousin because he was, in fact, adopted by my Uncle Joseph Dane in Newport (as opposed to Uncle Joey in Charleston or Uncle Joseph III in St. Louis). Joseph Dane, or J.D., and my Aunt Genisse tried to organically summon children but things didn’t take. They found an adoption agency operating out of New York while on vacation. They eventually found Paul at age five and the rest is history.
Ours, as well, I must say. Teddy and I were two years younger so Paul took the lead. In another couple of years the gap started to close. He was a curiosity with his foster home tales, long gaunt face and wide dark eyes that appeared surprised or befuddled. Neither of which was the case. Paul knew more about a room and its occupants when he walked into it than those who studied it at length. But the expressions, along with his horsey good looks, served him well. We adored him. He came for up to a month each summer. The habit stuck, except for the year he was at Harvard year around.
He had done well. We all had. I studied anthropology, uncertain of what direction was needed. Mother said anything with marriage as a secondary descriptor might be best. But despite being a female of twenty-two in nineteen sixty-four and typecast as a mouse, I had a secret hunger for adventure.
Lillian was dangling Hildy by one ear from the window she’d opened in her room. Teddy and Paul stood up. As soon as Paul headed toward the garage he passed beneath her window and bombs away, Hildy smashed Paul’s coiffed black hair. Teddy grabbed it as it bounced off and tossed Hildy to me, whereupon we were engaged in a rousing game of catch that elicited shrieks of protest from Lillian.
Mother came to the dining room’s double doors at the other end of the house, popped her head out and called out in a calmer manner. But she still meant business.
“Please return Hildy to her owner before the neighbors call 911.”
Paul had Hildy in his hands when Lillian buzzed him with her balsam wood glider. He ran inside to harass her, which she required.
It never ended. At this point one might think so. We were adults by objective criteria but Paul continued to find ways to subvert that reality. Teddy and I followed him at a leisurely pace. Mother’s head disappeared. I yelled back in passing.
“We’re coming, mother. I’ll have a small Dutch apple slice.”
Upstairs, Lillian’s pallid face was scrunched into her persimmon expression. Paul had squirted her once more with his water gun and dampened her bed. Teddy intervened, whereupon Paul hugged her and she squeezed back.
After they left she patted the bed for me to sit down. “Are you all going to do anything good this summer?”
“You mean, with you or in general?”
She shrugged but I felt the longing in that action.
“We usually do, with and without you. Expect nothing less this year.”
“Cousin Paul will be here awhile? Remember? I’m going to New York tomorrow. I hate seeing the doctor. The pokes and stuff.” She thrust out her lower lip but didn’t sniffle.
“Yes, unless mother marches him out the door, he’ll be here when you return. We have to be ready to defend him tonight when she fusses.”
Lillian tossed wispy blond hair from her eyes. “It’s all in or all out!”
I grabbed her hand and we went down for pie. That heralding cry had come from Paul–either do something full-on or don’t bother joining in.
The next day parents and Lillian had already left for New York when I awakened. Another check up. Lillian had energy-sapping anemia that curtailed her activities. They had tried a new medicine; every three months she had tests and an exam.
“What? Up way before noon? Did you have an attack of industriousness?” Teddy inquired of my presence.
Paul chortled and poured himself a cup of coffee. They were dressed in shorts, faded polo shirts and sneakers.
“How could I help myself? I have to see what you two are scheming.”
“Include yourself, Merry Mouse, in the undercover work. After breakfast meet us in the driveway. Tell no one you may see on the way.”
They left. I soon followed with my own cup of cream and sugar with strong coffee added to it. Breakfast could wait.
There was a small stack of lumber in front of the three car garage. Nearby sat four bags that looked heavy. A paint can and brushes waited in the shade. A large bench wrapped in plastic stood apart. They walked around the supplies as if they were as puzzled as I, then disappeared into the garage. It dawned on me what it might be when I found them searching through tools on the workbench and wall.
“I know you can hammer so grab one and come along,” Paul said and linked his arm through mine.
We worked well together. Over the years we had created forts, games and toys, sometimes poorly, other times with great success.
It took us longer than planned, nearly until dinnertime, and after showering off sweat and grime we re-convened for a meal.
“I hope it gets the right response,” Teddy said to me when Paul had left for a walk. “Otherwise it will have to be donated somewhere. We could have done better, I think.”
“How can it not? It turned out beautifully.”
“It’s reasonable to us but you know Mother might forbid it.”
“Please! Mother will have little to say when she sees how much fun it is.” I punched Teddy. “And don’t put it all on Paul. Anyway, Father will help. I hope.”
Paul suggested we go out for dinner to celebrate. When he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around my waist I thought he must be anxious. The night was balmy so we ate at an outdoor cafe, pleased in every way. Sloppy and a little rowdy, we walked arm in arm. It gave me pause to think how long we had been together, and scared me to think it might one day end.
When they returned our parents and sister were in improved spirits–the anemia seemed to be abating little by little. Her doctor was cautious but optimistic that Lillian would become more robust in time.
“But what’s going on in the back yard? Has someone constructed something? I saw several nails, which I narrowly missed and returned to the nail jar. Who to blame for that near-miss?”
That was Father. I thought we had placed our project far enough behind bushes and flowers groupings that it wouldn’t readily show, way in a back corner. There was no street view of the yard, so it was hidden from public probing–Mother would be relieved of that. Teddy and I stepped forward in concert. I made a sweeping gesture with my arm, pointing to porch and yard.
“I think we should go out and see the new addition to our yard.”
Mother made a clucking sound as she withheld questions. Paul led the way in the end but seemed slow-footed.
“Oh, you really did it! You made my wish come true!”
Lillian clapped her hands, then ran to the cheery orange sand box and nearly sat right down in it, floral dress be hanged, white shoes tossed onto the grass. But Paul hadn’t yet taken off the plastic from the bench or sand box in order to p[protect both. He did so, then suggested the parents sit down and relax. Lillian sat down with a sound plop. I had found a drapey coverlet to use as a canopy and Teddy and Paul had painted it. We had hung a string of colorful plastic flags on the bushes behind the bench.
“A sand box? Lillian, out of there at once. You have the wrong clothes on, in fact the whole thing is in unreservedly poor taste, the bugs, the mess, the possibilities of animals creeping into it and–”
“My darling Judith, hush for once! Let it be. They have done a very good thing here. A tiny play area right in our back yard. Her little friends will enjoy this, too.”
Mother turned to her husband, mouth agape, and then did as suggested. They watched their late-in-life child, their great surprise whom they adored piling up sand on her lap, digging with a toy spade and filling up plastic glasses and bucket we’d placed there, her toes seeking coolness below the surface.
“It was Paul’s idea,” Teddy started.
“Yes,” Lillian concurred, “he has the best ideas. Every time you guys do things, it’s good.”
Mother moaned. “Ridiculous, unnecessary things. My lovely yard…! Of course it has to be Paul. Why, dear nephew, must you always shake the boat? Visit every summer and give us such a time of it?”
He went to her side and took her hand. “It’s rock the boat, Auntie Judith, and it’s because I love you all so much,” he said, then kissed her cheek.
And that was that. Mother patted his arm and sat back. Lillian demanded I get Hildy and a few others to join her. Teddy brought out a tray of iced teas. Mother and father sat back on the attractive wood and wrought iron bench to watch Lillian play with Hildy and new sand tools.
Paul stretched his legs out and tapped my sandal with his shoe under the table. His eyes traced my face. “Well, gang, what next?”
“More fine madness, I expect,” Teddy answered. “Maybe we should build a swing set? Add another fountain? I saw a big one at the hardware yesterday.”
I was so pleased our Lillian could be given such simple fun; she had a challenging time of it. But I knew what Paul meant. I gazed at the summer sky as if nothing at all had occurred to me. But as a budding anthropologist I clearly had more real life research to do.
This life as we imagine it draws breath,
expands and shrinks as is required, while
a universe births and thrives in a water drop.
It is a signal of more, a homily for humility.
Yet the scramble of cogitation thrills us and
we are diverted into mazes, veering off course.
Angst-ridden inquiry tends toward dead ends.
Try instead a pilgrimage of quietude.
Be chased and adorned by salty tang of sea,
let spontaneous wind usurp the worry, fear.
It matters less that you win a solution
and more that a stream of tawny or aqua sky
slips over the aching slope of your shoulders.
Any thoughts you hold close will captivate you.
This cave brought you here to lead you from
yourself, mend cracks and knots you’ve sustained
as has this earth with its eons of wisdom, power, beauty.
Why do you hope to find an enduring answer
within ego’s declarative restraints, its petty smallness?
Sit awhile with volcanic sand and agate, crab and whale,
wave and wing, the headland a bulwark against storms.
Visions and knowledge arise and find you here;
your compass trembles, horizon shines, skin sighs.
The soul does not need to solve one single thing,
nor travel fast or far to find its truth and be at home.
It feels familiar because it has made a place here, in you.
It was a brisk, golden autumn in 1971. Our apartment was on the top floor of a weathered four-plex, a sure upgrade from the barely renovated chicken coop we’d called home, with sharply slanting roof and tiny spaces allotted for bed, couch, bathroom and kitchenette. It was a very primitive version of popular “tiny houses” that ecologically minded persons now herald as a radical solution to land hogging and indulgent square footage. But since we’d been married 6 months and were still university students Ned and I went bigger and better–out of the country, into a “student ghetto.”
The floors were real (scarred, creaky) wood. The ceilings were high (a few cobwebs, bubbling paint in spots) and the ample openness captured echoes of footsteps and even whispers. There was a large living and separate dining room, bedroom, a full kitchen and a back porch with attendant steps to the yard and alley. And a small alcove, nearly a cubbyhole, right off the dining room.
I claimed it for my own–not to write, but to paint ever larger canvasses that I made with my own hands. I had intended on majoring only in English and creative writing; somehow an art major crept into the mix. Perhaps it was part of my intent: I had left behind a provincial (read: stodgy, to my hippie sensibilities) hometown and high familial expectations as well as a complicated emotional legacy. I married a man with piercing blue eyes, a deep well of vibrant silence, and a talent for sculpting abstract forms from wood, brass, plastics cement–whatever felt and worked right. He had left behind a factory life, the life his father, a supervisor, lived, thought most reasonable. We were rebels of a sort in a time when “the personal is political” was just gearing up.
In that apartment I was industrious, set up my easel and oils and acrylics. I jumped into my new art classes and did well, learning as I took a chance with design, color, form. Sometimes we revved up the Bultaco motorcycle for street and wooded trails to let off steam. Ned also worked on his art and on “chopping” his second hand Harley Davidson. There were poetry readings to attend and participate in, music to make with my voice and guitar as well as share with other student musicians, art events to co-create and view.
I was happy in that apartment with its narrow windows that stuck and overhead fans that only swirled the last of Indian summer heat, a bed that sagged to bring us even closer, the sound of his booted feet clomping up worn steps. I made tuna curry and brown rice, salads and eggs, cheap food that filled us along with tea and coffee. They were days and nights made of adventures and love.
Alright now, step back–hold on a minute! Bring those stage lights back up, take another look. Was that the life I led at 21? Or am I indulging in…sigh… a pastel drippy scenes of nostalgia?
Or was it richer, still?
Let me regroup as I think this over, before I am in danger of drowning in a syrupy pit of nostalgia.
That oft-repeated phrase “oh, those were the days” lands on my ear like the annoying buzz of a gang of mosquitoes. That’s what I’ve always thought and tend to still think: out of the mouths of the very aged or the bows and ribbons type–that is, the inordinately sentimental. Likely both. A belief in greater attributes of the past rather than the present or future seemed like sheer hyperbole, undue adoration of what was quite finished. Who can enjoy this thinking? It seems shortsighted at the least to imply that what has gone before is better than the current moment and beyond.
My motto for years was “don’t let the past steal the present.” It remains stuck on my bedroom mirror in case there is a lapse of lucidity and I hearken back to said “good ole days or the bad.” They were, in truth, often peppered with miseries, roughed up by heartache but why dwell on the either the fabulous or dismal? Much of life has seemed accidental; it can leave us limping, with hidden scars. The good ole days? Is that viewpoint sold with rose-colored glasses? The hard-bitten part of me begs to differ. What price is paid for wistfulness for the past, the longing for it? Others surely led a life different from mine.
I believe there is a wealth of matters to attend to, here and now. We have power to see it as we want; then it, as well, becomes memorable. Sentimentality strikes me as the most superficial form of nostalgia, a surfeit of displayable emotion that glosses over rather than enables the deeper self to reflect on what may have been delightful or bittersweet. May I assiduously avoid the first.
Yet. There are moments when I heed that call to longing. How to avoid the lure? It’s magnetic, the past as we can recall it, truthfully or not (for we know memory can trick us, as well). It is, I imagine, an essential feeling we return to and feel a need to bring closer. Poignancy of tenderness, joy or passion has great pull. A sense of security pervades recollection, even if loss occurred. It settles about us, familiar, a comfort even as it flees us again. Like any pleasant feeling, it pumps up serotonin, the “happiness hormone.”
It may be good news that there is increasing evidence nostalgia is good for us, according to the esteemed Scientific American magazine. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-nostalgia-is-good-for-you/) Nostalgic recall bestirs warm emotions, reaffirms life was (and may be once more better) good and special in a certain time or place or with that person. It creates a bridge from one period of life to another, gives us a sense of firmer footing within the morass of human endeavor.
Unbidden, scenes from the past revisit so easily. I don’t go in search of the past without an automatic and real resistance. The last half of my life I’ve preferred to exist in the present moment; there are enough treasures and puzzles to note, pursue, mull over. But I am writer. Much glides and rushes from past to present to future. It overlaps levels of consciousness amid the process of creation/recreation. We are constantly storing up scenes from life, adding them to that vast kaleidoscope of memory. And we forget, too, then recall once more.
As I awaken or fall sleep or as I gaze upon a certain landscape, hear a measure of music, smell a potent fragrance–all those trigger another memory. We are captivated. Time disappears. Recollection is a conduit to experiences etched in our cores. They have parlayed time lived into an essence, slipped it right into present states. Such texture and heft, such reverberation, all those intrinsic meanings.
When the past carries with it the promise of pleasure or peace, our hearts open further. We find room once more for what we thought was boxed up, tucked away. Perhaps feeling nostalgia provides ready access to a long afterglow of distant happiness. We get it in our sights, zero in, then net it with our minds. Ah, the way it was back then.
Today I awakened remembering that above mentioned college apartment Ned and I inhabited. The bottom of a dark wood staircase on the first floor as I closed the heavy front door with its frosty glass, then racing to top of the steps and bursting into a brilliant expanse of open rooms: I was there. And he was just out of sight but waiting.
What brought me to this?
It may have been the grey, heavily textured ceramic jug I saw on my son’s fireplace mantel recently. He said he was going to put some of his father’s–Ned’s– ashes into it after he found a suitable stopper. I recognized the ceramic piece; it was made by Ned. Though not the most finessed of potters he was, however, a remarkable maker of many objects, of houses and furniture. A fine sculptor with calloused hands, broad-palmed and long-fingered. Exacting, capable hands.
It may have been the watercolors I was studying the other day in American Art Review. How I often glance at my art toolbox on a book shelf, with its paints and brushes, pencils and erasers and pastels and so on–thinking this is the day I will paint a small rendering of something. This day I will buy an easel. This year I will find a watercolor class and register and attend and learn.
I remember all my paintings carried from place to place for ten years. Some had a place on changing walls. I finally removed them from their frames, rolled them up for easier moving and storage. Eventually they were all lost in the flooding of a renovated carriage house where my children and I lived. I opened the first floor door and water poured out, and with it most of the saved past. This was after Ned and I had separated. I did not paint again for decades unless it was with the children. Finally, as I entered middle age I made a few private, terribly small attempts. Each year passes; the barest of strokes crisscross sketchbooks along with various writings and collages, much like the ratty scrapbooks I kept as a kid. I keep thinking I am ready to work at it harder or, rather, enjoy it more.
It may also have been a recent solitary walk in the woods. There was something about that August breeze, how it carried the scent of warmed pine needles and ruffled my hair. I gathered the tranquility. When I opened my eyes there came to me in intense fullness the soughing wind and whispering trees, the greens of leafiness, the blues of sky between branches: I ached so for the beauty. I recalled my first times living deep in countryside. Walks along the marsh marigold-framed creek, twilit deer snorting softly and eating our corn, two tow headed children we adored running about as their father split a cord of wood and I made batches of fresh-herbed tomato sauce for winter pasta meals.
I felt Ned’s presence; I felt what had begun earlier on in my life, it’s long ranging impact.
Yes. It was a brisk, golden autumn, 1971. The apartment pulsed in streaming light that slipped though tall, narrow windows. The rich fragrance of oil paints prickled my nose as I uncapped small tubes, smeared a few hues on a palette, readied the turpentine, linseed oil. I stood before a stretched, primed white canvas and began. He called my name then came to survey the first strokes, kissed the top of my head. I answered with a laugh. Happy. Welcoming of life, ready for everything, grateful for what I had. This was so despite rough times already lived and a vague sense of those to come. It was a brief sheltering time that made me stronger, broadened my capacity of love, filled me to overflowing. We made art.We acted foolish. We were brave, brash and tender, wise enough to know we knew little though we pretended to know more. And maybe we did know a few, after all.
Ned, father of my first two children, is no longer in this gravity-dominated world. But many moments shared live on for those who knew him.
So, I ask you as well as myself: is nostalgia to be sought out or avoided? I think we cannot avoid it. Nor should we. Sometimes it may be what saves us from a difficult present. Or inspires us to retrieve what mattered most but what was lost or to rediscover the common threads that make us lively and ready to move forward. It is true I used to think it a waste of time and effort to revisit what was done and gone, much mine the richness amid rubble. I strove to keep hidden the past within a more successful and contented present. But it was only when I gave myself free reign to explore all scenarios that I salvaged the beauty attached to the wreckage. Rebirth begins in the midst of endings and failures. From a rotting log arises abundance. Not everything is light and loveliness but we might welcome it, anyway, then appreciate the entirety. And in memory preserve it for further viewing.
As a writer of fiction, poetry and memoir, I find myself going internal (and external) places I’d not intended to go. But I follow that tug more often than not and hope it is not a superficial reflection but one that reveals finer things. It is a human thing, this nostalgia for the linking moments that best uphold our continuity. And from time to time we long for whatever the heart taught us well.
Remember with good regard, then have at those fine moments. It turns out it’s even healthy for you. May nostalgia not obscure your view but broaden it. And bless you and those with whom you share those times.