Then there was someone else I met,
whose face and voice I can’t forget,
and the memory of her
is like a jail I’m trapped inside,
or maybe she is something I just use
to hold my real life at a distance.
–Tony Hoagland, “How It Adds Up”
Lately, while Jason is at work, I’ve been sneaking episodes of The Wonder Years on Netflix, and having long, cathartic crying spells. The Wonder Years is a great show for people who find organized crying an essential part of sanity. Narrated by the gentle Daniel Stern, protagonist Kevin Arnold reflects on his childhood in some unnamed American suburb through rose-tinted glasses that see growing up as a beautiful and universal art. All the necessary pieces are there–a working class home with loving, conservative parents and obnoxious (but also loving) siblings, a best friend/dependable accomplice, a school life occasionally hampered by quests for acceptance, and, of course, a girl who can never be shaken from the heart.
Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper. Innocence incarnate. Fred Savage’s waggling eyebrows. Danica McKellar’s four feet of brunette heaven. I recently finished an episode I’d been waiting for, though I’d forgotten why until the last scene. Season 4. After first kisses and break-ups and countless awkward, vulnerable moments, Kevin and Winnie are at a crossroads during their final year of junior high. After much heartache–losing her brother in Vietnam, watching her parents grieve and fight, moving to a new neighborhood–Winnie wishes for a fresh start before high school. She begins hanging around with a group of older boys and pushing a confused Kevin away. At mid-episode, the pair have a fight at the skating rink about the changes Kevin notices in Winnie, and in a fit of absolutism, Kevin swears off his former girl-next-door crush. But then Winnie gets into a car accident with the older boys and badly breaks her leg. Kevin, terrified, bikes to her house, waits for her to return from the hospital, and then stares slack-jawed as Winne’s parents inform him that Winnie doesn’t want to see him. Dejected, Kevin starts pedaling home. But he turns back, and climbs to Winnie’s second-floor bedroom window–he just wants to glimpse her, just wants to know she’s all right. Their eyes meet through the glass, and Kevin mouths “I love you,” and Winnie mouths “I love you” back, and as the episode closes, the viewer knows that Kevin and Winne’s past–all its beauty, all its pain–has bound them forever.
Kevin and Winnie don’t end up together, as the series finale of The Wonder Years tells us. Yet, Kevin is compelled to remember Winnie, to remember all she represents for him, and in this way, he elevates their childhood to something mythic, turns the complicated story of America in the 1970s into a simple one of impermanent happiness between a boy and a girl. This is the uncomfortable part of my favorite literary emotion: the war, the draft, racial and gender and sexual and class inequities? Mere backdrop. Often absent altogether. In”What We Really Miss About the 1950s,” Stephanie Coontz explores the politics that arose from an incomplete nostalgia for America’s favorite decade, ultimately asking if our individual pining for the past could become a dangerous kind of collective whittling.
With sites like Netflix, we can even indulge our nostalgia for nostalgia. While watching The Wonder Years, I remember my father and I on opposite couches in his first apartment after my parents’ divorce. Looking at Winnie, my father would wax rosy on Jeanne Koytek, his childhood crush, while I silently compared Kevin Arnold’s liquidy eyes to Mike Poling’s, or Anthony Vitale’s, or Nick Ondrako’s. Or how my father and I would get uncomfortable with each other as soon as Kevin’s stern, stoic father temporarily lifted his ban on outward affection. How one of us would go into the kitchen to refill our orange sodas and wait for the sentimental moment to finish. And though I’m grateful for the perspective of time, to know that my father and I were not Kevin Arnold and his father, there’s something I miss about those TV-induced pangs. Maybe it’s how certain I could be while watching of what hurt inside.
Leave it to Don Draper, the main character and tour-de-force of AMC’s critically-acclaimed series Mad Men–an absolute monument of America’s obsession with its own past–to define nostalgia. One of my favorite scenes is the Kodak Carousel pitch from Season 1. An anguished but illustrious Draper spins his own family photographs through the latest in slide projectors. In reality, the distance between Draper and his wife is growing, despite the evidence of a happy family captured in the slides. To his clients, Draper explains that, “Nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone…It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”
Interestingly, though many of the interviews in Coontz’s essay second-guess their 1950s nostalgia with just a modicum of closer analysis–Coontz says her subject often had “Come to think of it” turns in the conversation as the notorious injustices of the decade were tallied–the ache for those years persists. What is it about these old wounds that hurt so good?
Not long ago, I thought I’d finally escaped nostalgia’s grip. My first book, Close Quarters, is what I’ve been calling a narrative study of nostalgia, and what I’d hoped was my last study of it, a way to understand and move beyond my parents’ divorce. But then again, it’s their nostalgia with which the book concerns itself. The ten collected essays tell the story of their marriage, divorce, and lifelong friendship in a town also rife with nostalgic tendencies. As Rochester will chronicle the golden years of Kodak, my hometown of Endicott still lives in the reflected glow of the IBM corporation. In the book, the characters, including the collective consciousness of my hometown, excavate the past, holding chipped and soiled treasures up to the light, but finding them flawless. No infidelity, no boozy nights, no layoffs, no pollution from leached chemicals, no cancer. To recreate those scenes–say, the one where my father drives through an upstate NY blizzard to ask my mother to marry him–is to charge them with the knowledge of loss, and yet to preserve all we wanted to happen, almost happened, to arrange the fragments of our memories and still see how it might have happened. All the possibilities frozen like diamond dust in January air.
Jason thinks Kevin Arnold is a punk and, at times, disliked my book, or really, disliked me when I was writing it. When was I going to stop subjecting him to memories from my suburban childhood, the one he has no claim to? I get his frustration. Jason and I met in our twenties, and though I seek to plant the flag of myself in all his pre-Amy memories, I viciously guard my own pre-Jason past. At my worst, and most often when I’m writing first drafts, I let a permanently sullen part of myself take over (the part that remembers no day in seventh grade when Kelly Bradley called me fat), a part of me whose sole job is to implicitly wish it all turns out differently this time. Regardless of how honest the memories when I’m clearer in reflection, I imagine this unsaid wish of working in the past would be insulting to the man who said yes to a future with me, a future that depends on the past having worked out exactly as it did.
Big questions about where in time, space, and reality we choose to live seem to be everywhere as we hurtle forth in the age of the Internet. Slate wonders if Facebook is skewing our perception of happiness because its culture promotes positive statuses and pictures of smiling loved ones. And last month, Salon ran an interview with Shimon Edelman, a cognitive expert, professor of psychology at Cornell University, and author of The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life. According to Edelman’s research, human beings are happiest when engaged in activities that are “challenging, but not frustratingly so,” supporting the old adage that the journey is, in fact, more important than the destination. For me, the underlying implication may be that our purest happiness can only be found when we’re immersed in activity, living in a real-time moment of productivity.
Sounds pretty innocuous, but things get tricky about halfway through the interview. Correspondent Lucy McKeon refers to a passage in which Edelman describes the “default human mind as constantly wandering in order to avoid the present moment,” something Edelman calls “the tyranny of the here and now.” McKeon asks Edelman to discuss this through the lens of Buddhist meditation, which McKeon says “aims to quiet the mind into a state of contentment.” While a friend points out that Edelman may misunderstand Buddhism in his response to McKeon’s question, I still find his perspective interesting:
I set out to write the book because I wanted to find out why I was restless in situations where I supposedly should have been perfectly content. You know, literally sitting on a mountaintop, seeing the countryside, I would still feel restless. And I think I found a kind of answer. To put it very bluntly, if you are successful in following the Buddhist precepts, you cease to be human. In fact, I think one can find support for this view in the Buddhist sources themselves. If you succeed to cease desiring, you’re no longer human. Of course, the Buddha himself supposedly remained enmeshed with humanity to teach others. But if you do succeed in obtaining the state that you’re supposed to obtain, then you’re no longer human. And that kind of invalidates the questions because a psychology would need to be developed for understanding those kinds of minds – they are not regular human minds.
I have a philosophically strenuous time with the human-not human designations Edelman makes here, but his ideas cut right to the heart of why I literally hyperventilate while trying to concentrate on the breath in a Vinyasa class, why anxiety constantly punctures what another friend calls “the quiet place within.” The present, for me, is an unceasing barrage of anticipated disappointment–the cobbled paychecks, the rental unit, the empty uterus, the inability to change this or that habit, the phone ringing at an odd hour with bad news. And if not I’m looking right through these daily failings to future worries, I’m retreating from them by checking up on an ex-friend or -boyfriend on Facebook, or writing about them in all-consuming projects that take year after emotional year to complete, me white-knuckling the pages, refusing to let them go. With the exception of my hour at the gym (if I leave my phone in the locker room, that is), and most of the time while teaching, my present is largely unoccupied. Jason, therefore, is only granted snippets of me, even as we share approximately twenty hours a day in the same room. The rest of me belongs to those who populate my sculpted memories and, if we’re lucky and we work hard at our marriage, to the man Jason will become.
I treat the present, then, as a kind of purgatory, a place I roam like a ghost putting her affairs in order. But other young writers’ nostalgia is informative, insofar as it makes me feel less like a husk of a person, and more like Edelman’s description of humankind doing all it can to avoid living in a straight line.
One of my favorite pieces from Amy Benson’s The Sparkling-Eyed Boy–the book that influenced much of my writing in Close Quarters–is Benson’s account of a barn fire in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where her family summered during her childhood, and where Benson’s own boy without a name lived year-round. “I have told stories that made you the mute and muddy hero of that night,” she writes to the sparkling-eyed boy in a letter never sent, one of several unsent letters in the book. But later in the epistle, Benson reveals that her memory cannot be trusted. “Every time I’ve described this night before,” she writes, “I’ve had to invent something more dramatic to try to convey the experience–efforts to save the barn, love among the fireman, a trapped cow–god help me.” And in the end, Benson must admit the most heartbreaking thing of all: that she doesn’t remember seeing the sparkling-eyed boy there at the fire. That she has written him into the moment as she wants to remember it:
I must have looked around me, though. The faces in the small crowd must be my own memory and not a movie scene. They were beatific, orange, raised to the highest tongue of flame, as if it were a sign of the beginning of the end. Their backs were turned black with night. It was as if our lives in time-lapse photography were playing at high speed in front of us, as if our own skins were rippling with heat, as if the sun had actually set into the field and was reducing itself to ashes. In our pulse points we felt the tap of our meltable hearts. There is nothing more thrilling than looking at your own demise and finding it beautiful. Weren’t you there? Wasn’t it a gorgeous night?
Was Mike Poling the boy who chased me on a Big Wheels firetruck in preschool, threatening to kiss me? Was he the boy who first taught me how it felt to be desired, as I’ve attributed to him all these years? The truth is, he doesn’t remember even being in preschool with me. The boy I remember may or may not have been him.
These are fairly inconsequential lapses and lies. For a nonfiction writer, the debate about facts continues hotly. Issues of Truth vs. truth have become career issues. But what about life? What about my husband, who misses me when I disappear into the writing of false memories? Does the truth about barn fires and preschool really matter in writing? Probably not. But what Truth–the one all around me, right fucking now–do I not see when I’m creating my own story of desire?
Come to think of it.
Here’s the other thing I can’t shake, though, the thing that shadows me when I’m between past obsessing and future worrying, moments when I’m walking to my car and before I’ve reached for my Nirvana-R.E.M. mixed CD: Embedded in the impulse to dress up in our past like mourning clothes is the faint and persistent knowledge that there is yet real loss to be had (even the language of loss fascinates me, that it’s something we possess)–the kind that, according to people who’ve experienced it, shifts all focus on the tremendous and sharply-detailed present.
Try reading about Emily Rapp’s tyrannical here and now. I can’t stop.
Sometimes I read something and know instantly, in some wretchedly primal way, that it’s capital-T True. Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” which narrates the initial years after Strayed’s mother’s death, contains one of those Truths, and no matter how hard I run towards the shelter of my past, I can’t get away from Strayed’s very present hypothetical: “We love and care for oodles of people, but only a few of them, if they died, would make us believe we could not continue to live. Imagine if there were a boat upon which you could put only four people, and everyone else known and beloved to you would then cease to exist. Who would you put on that boat? It would be painful, but how quickly you would decide: You and you and you and you, get in. The rest of you, goodbye.“
I can’t ignore that my father and I have been planning his funeral ever since his heart attack in 2009. At this point, we have most of it settled. I know he wants to be cremated and doesn’t want a wake (“Don’t let people stand in any lines,” he says). I know where the spare keys to the bar are kept, and I know the parts of his will he fears won’t properly be enforced. I know he wants certain stories told about him, and others not to be told. These are all things I would rather not know, yet cannot help knowing, and once known, cannot help opening further. What else, I ask him almost feverishly. Tell me, Dad. Say everything.
And the death of another of my father’s friends (whose youngest child is my age) prompted me to bring my mother into this conversation of post-mortem plans.
“Just don’t play ‘On Eagles’ Wings,’” she said when we spoke on the phone last week. “I hate that fucking song.”
I asked what songs she would like, and mostly, she named songs she used to sing to me when I was a child. On the phone, we sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “You are My Sunshine” to each other in hushed, bedtime voices. Then my mother told me her final funeral request, which is Harry Chapin’s “All My Life’s a Circle.”
“That song always made me sad,” I said. I hadn’t thought of the song in over two decades, haven’t heard the melody since the days when I’d burst into tears and ask my mother to stop singing, but there it was, playing again like a sprung music box. Could I really be remembering it right?
“I know,” my mother said. “I never understood why.”
And there it was in all its not-pared-down realness. Not beautiful and clean like shell plucked from the sand, but iron-linked to a period of pain so vivid I made myself forget its details. Because remembering the song meant remembering my yellow-walled bedroom in our duplex, and the nightlight that cast moving shadows over my face, and my mother sitting on the edge of my mattress to tuck me in after my father was gone, and the sense of dread that so characterized me as a toddler and made me unable to sleep for years. I remembered the fear that everyone I loved would be taken from me, remembered how I’d shut my eyes and imagine not existing, the whole world going dark, remembered how I tried with all my might to experience the nothingness of death, and when I found I could not imagine it, that it was too terrible to imagine, how I wished I’d never been born at all.
Reader, I am pulling myself back to you now. I am not in the yellow-walled bedroom. I am breathing. I am taking in air. I am letting out air. My mother and father are still alive.
The lyrics to “All My Life’s A Circle” aren’t, I learned, arbitrary to my response, and I take some comfort in that. Here’s a video, complete with lyrics. I remember now how I interpreted the metaphor of the circle, how it implied the delayed gratification of loving only with loss, and how it hinted, if you read it religiously, at a heaven I didn’t believe in, even at that young age. It meant that I would have to endure without before I would ever truly have. It meant that I could have nothing unchanged. In the context of my parents’ divorce, the song may simply have meant too much to parse out into anything but tears.
The tyranny of the here and now, come to think of it.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and I love my husband, and I want a child to whom I can sing a sad song. I want to breathe and stop holding my breath. Amy Benson writes these final lines in The Sparkling-Eyed Boy, when the endless summers of her book finally give way to a metaphorical autumn: “But not one single thing can refurl itself. Not a bud, not a fetus, not a firecracker, a sunrise, a wave, a volcano, a sentence. So here I am, unfurled, trying to be glad that seasons collapse in on themselves and living things die.”
I, too, want to want the unfurling, want to want the not taking back.
Here is what I know: it is winter in Ithaca. Afternoon. My husband is at work and will come home in a few hours. The sun is shining and makes a mirror of the snow. But I can’t see myself. The glare is too brilliant, reflecting the day.