This sweet tang of Indian summer,
how it turns me over with its
strewn luxury, all that brass
and fire, coral and sapphire.
The air is laden with promise;
sun hitches a ride on my back
as if tagging along for the thrill.
And then a small vortex of wind
calls out, careens, an edge of ice
secreted in its wild timbre.
A taint of sootiness threads
this sheerness, such rose of sunsets.
Clouds gather in fists, then dance.
I know well what lies ahead,
heavy velvet days that merge
with chilled silence of night.
All will be safeguarded,
blankets flung about and the
wood stove will be radiant with heat.
This heady flare will dim, one verve
becoming another as great trees
surrender their raiment and rest.
How far am I now from beds of snow
for angels, peals of laughter to scoop
and fill up hollows with winter?
So far that, when I step off the plane,
the Oregon rain with its fineness
and ferocity, even somber romance,
cannot rival the dangerous splendor
of ice strung from northern eaves,
mystic swords winking, startled by light.
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.
With such action the day became
what it was only meant to be,
careless of strife and competing,
far gone from remove,
crash landings of happiness
splayed across the white canvas.
Father with sons created a pact,
unearthed and sealed it in good snow.
It was all of this once for us and ours,
five with their ten legs and ten arms,
voices warbling, wrapping up air.
Soon, petty border disputes forgotten,
jealousies waylaid, hurts vanished,
that madcap gang spilled into
cold sweet banks and each other.
Laughter was life heat, grasping
the game with each other.
This was the way it was. I was there.
That was what we meant it to be,
love masquerading as riotous fun.
Their overlapping echoes boomerang
through thinness of memory,
fluid and crisp as a five part harmony,
those feathery humming arrows
that fly to target
in the center of me.
I positioned myself on the worn brocade sofa and propped up on a pillow a heavy book bigger than my lap. A catalog to be specific, Spiegel, Sears or JC Penney, but it seemed a cousin to a genuine book with light, satiny smooth pages and bright, orderly pictures. The words, of course, were minimal but they had to be read to get the whole story. The entire enchanting tome was greatly valued in my youth. It provided not only indulgence in wishfulness, it educated. Within its flimsy, welcoming pages were all manner of tools, entertainment devices, machines for anything from cleaning to tilling, a variety of food preparation and serving options, clothing for all ages and shapes, toys made for infancy through adulthood, objects for every home space inside and out. It took my breath away any season it arrived.
It captivated attention from the opening moments with fresh scent of paper and soft crinkly sound of pages turned, each one rife with possibilities I’d not very often, sometimes never, considered. It meant a half hour of leisure if all chores, studying, and practicing cello were done. Sometimes it was hauled out when a friend was over. We huddled over the pages. It became an opportunity to compare likes and dislikes, to offer opinions about what was useful or interesting or not, and might evolve into a guessing game as well as a conversation extender. This could go on a very long time.
“I bet you’d like these shoes, they look like you.”
“No, I need boots and these look fuzzy-warm, neat.”
“Those are just…ugly!”
“They need to be cozy for winter!”
“You can get cozy and good-looking, can’t you? But wait, which dress-up shoes do you like?”
“This pair. They’re fancy but you wouldn’t break your ankles walking.”
“Not me–the high heels right here! Look at the pretty toes, leather bows on them.”
“Let’s check out the sleds and skates and stuff.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait to skate again on Currie pond and Central rink!”
“Wow, will you look at that great Radio Flyer? Ours is so banged up it steers kinda wrong.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you go crashing down City Forest hills.”
“Yeah…maybe by Thanksgiving we’ll get decent snow.”
“I hope so. We’ll all go tobogganing!”
But a few of our favorite pages were those we were sneaky about if my mother or siblings weren’t close by. The lingerie section. It was amazing to see what you wore when you grew up. Boys undergarments were so boring and silly to look at; I had two brothers so this was not news. We girls would one day get to use things that were both practical and pretty. I couldn’t imagine being that old, having those body shapes, needing to cover so much up. It was more than underwear– it was under clothing of mystery–a whole different life out there somehow. It all baffled and drew us. My older sisters seemed out of reach by then, busy managing expectations at home and school, moving through adolescence with bumps but lots of victory. But there were various intrigues– and they kept them to themselves. I was called a pest often enough with my endless questions and poking about, glimpsing their worlds. I knew very little about much except for what I could see, hear, read and imagine. Sleuthing with the aid of a Sears catalog made it easier.
That was a wonderful clarification of life–all by catalog. Everything had its purpose. The hundreds, even thousands of choices were pictured well and labeled, smartly described. Objects came with a guarantee, a warranty, meaning that if they stopped working right or fell apart you got a replacement–I loved that idea even though my father usually just fixed broken things.
The big family of models was smiling and healthy. Anything you needed could be had in those pages. Everything you wanted might be gotten for a price. In fact, you could get a lot of stuff you never even thought you wanted. That part shook me up, the sheer volume. How was it so many things were actually made somewhere before appearing on page 120 of a catalog? Where did that happen? Who came up with the ideas and created them? All those little pieces and parts, it was stupefying. I could barely envision a world that immense, the production of possessions so complicated, the workers that skilled. It was awesome to wonder about and a little disconcerting.
What was the actual need for a shiny red riding lawn mower, a big boxy television, unusual gadgets for kitchen and workshop, fancy bathroom products? A cashmere coat that cost a fortune?
Our house had plenty of unique and mundane items occupying surfaces, shelves, cabinets and corners; it didn’t need more from what I could see. I rarely wanted for a thing, but there wasn’t much extra cash enabling me to just point to this and that and my parents would get it. Besides, my father believed in thriftiness. He never paid for what he could manage and fix, himself. He didn’t take out loans except for a house, perhaps an occasional car though I believe he paid outright for those–he had to have a car or motorbike he could tinker with. He found bargains, and used his cash; he also saved and saved. He did not take financial risks. My mother, on the other hand, was one who might study a catalog, too, at a quiet end of day. She had a natural instinct plus good eye for design and quality, and owned a few fine things rather than a surplus of cheaper stuff. But she often browsed, and said it gave her ideas for sewing or decorating as much as for gifts or replacements of worn items.
To be absorbed in a good catalog was (and still can be) respite from troubles and demands. Recently my spouse, sister, then brother have had health challenges and I’ve tried more often to take mental or physical breaks. The past two weeks my mailbox has been stuffed with all sorts of catalogs since Christmas and other holidays are coming, ready or not. I receive them from clothing and outdoor/lifestyle companies; The Smithsonian; National Geographic; the Audubon Society; World Wildlife Federation; Writer’s Digest; Heifer International; The Vermont Country Store and more. Some of these induce me to I take a break from my daily agenda.
It might not be the old Sears Wishbook, (first published in the 1930s), which I once wore out gawking at, long before Christmas. But there is still page after page to peruse. I find a few intriguing things: two ivory Belleek claddagh mugs, weirdly cute Black Forest mini cuckoo clocks–and what about that retro classic flashlight based on a 1919 patent? Marc would like that. And in the country goods catalog, odder ideas : family matched sets of cartoon flannel pajamas, sock monkey mugs, cheese studded with blueberries or cranberries. Well, if I could happily indulge in dairy, I might try the last though I don’t think of cheese arriving with fruit installed.
I thumb through the others quickly, if at all, and toss, recycle. Wait, haven’t I gotten this one a few times already? What possibly could be of interest again? Very little. That nostalgic childish delight can also wear thin as I pile up paper wasted in an effort to try to part money from me.
The truth is, I won’t buy many gifts via mail order though it’s enjoyable at times to linger over peculiar and beautiful things, say, when listening to the radio or trying to not watch the news. Sometimes I purchase famously juicy pears or other treats from Harry& David; they please the giftees and us. I might order a dependable cotton sweater from Land’s End. But I tend to search locally for presents as we have a myriad of small businesses here to support, tucked away shops to explore. Though I may not buy much at all this year. It might be homemade candy, gift cards or a couple small things for this large family. I am trying to simplify traditions, save money rather than toss it about, worry less and enjoy more. Focus on what matters: people, my faith, my home, writing, creating, enjoying the fabulous outdoors. Oh, a few meals, which I help Marc whip up for gatherings.
But those days when there seemed fewer things to snare our attention or stoke covetousness–how sweet are those memories as I write. How soothing it was to do nothing on a rainy/sleety/snowy Saturday evening, stereo lulling me with a Dvorak symphony or–a couple of my father’s rare musical diversions from classical fare–a Benny Goodman tune or Rogers and Hammerstein song. Stretch out against that sofa with a fat catalog of nonsense and cheap dreams. It was an avenue of exit from our sort of life and somehow encouraged my curiosity to question the known and consider the lesser knowns. A way of creating a different emotional state, as well, one of superficial ease. I needed that as a kid–an experience without pressure to achieve; time when I didn’t have to be on guard for the predator who repeatedly tracked me down; activity that required nothing of me but releasing of cares, dreaming of nothing relevant. I found a small relief in the common world of neutral objects. But mostly, it was simple fun. Thinking of essentially nothing as well as making no notable gains acquire an attraction and value all their own when practiced. If you’ve forgotten how to waste a little time, see for yourself what’s to be discovered in your own pile of miscellaneous–now likely holiday–catalogs. You might find yourself comfier, even content a moment, readied for a catnap.
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