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.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson
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