It's all about yearning
Photo by Martin Kallur
Nostalgia is a cheap street drug. When you first inhale it, you get a fierce rush—Lenny Bruce at the Fillmore East! Dylan at Gerde's Folk City! Then comes the inevitable crash, and you are left weak in the knees. You find yourself in the graying present, digging deep in drawers full of loose photos, some snapshots, some formally posed. An overgrown English garden of images not at all like the manicured files of the digital now. Everything so long ago.
You look back through a reverse crystal ball at all the hoopla, sometimes not even believing you were there in that time when both you and the world around you were so raw and unfiltered. Adolescent anguish, art, and sex flying in all directions, rocking and rolling off the wall like so many billiard balls. No time to sleep. No idea that you would someday grow old and no longer be the headline.
Yet here you are, Dustin Hoffman's eightieth birthday come and gone, in a world constipated by plastics, still alive despite your various transgressions. You and the world both.
At a recent reunion lunch with a dear old friend, you find yourself asking, as each name from the past is wondrously conjured up, Is she alive? Is he still with us? Remarkably, all the people you ask about have survived. They are out there in Brooklyn and Boston and Berkeley, a whole generation of clocks winding down. All you can think about is the two of you and a third friend, in life an anthropologist, waiting for a bus one night in Sunnyside, Queens. The other guy said something so hysterical that the three of you laughed right up to the borderline of wetting your pants. You actually remember the joke, but you can't repeat it. Not because it's tacky or sophomoric, but because it makes no sense. It's embalmed back there in 1963.
Your friend says that seventysomethings hit the jackpot, growing up in the Howdy Doody fifties and coming of age in the hallucinogenic sixties. It's a kind of demographic exceptionalism that may or may not be true, but is probably not possible to evaluate from the inside. You only know what you know, but you're fairly sure there was more to it than tie-dye.
The problem with nostalgia is that it's all about yearning. It wants what it can't have. It wants to stay up until the early hours carousing, even though sleep is now its bestest friend. It draws its oxygen from the maudlin belief that there is such a thing as the good old days, leaving out the inconvenient Freedom Summer murders and the massacre at My Lai. It is vulnerable to commercial exploitation. Don’t miss out on the Woodstock golden-anniversary celebration! Nostalgia wants to be reassured that nothing has really changed, even though your mother and father are no longer here to advise and cajole you. Even though you are now the crone.
To really cash in on the jackpot, you would need to consider its impact on the present to recognize the cellular imprint of the raucous times you lived through on who you are now. To your simmering genetic stock, your ancestral and family history, you would need to add the peppery spice of those improbable times of your becoming, back then before you knew anything about anything, anything about life. There was no cookbook to explain the process, no freeze-dried ingredients to reconstitute. Everything was made from scratch. Everything was improvisatory. You made it up as you went along, which made you deeply foolish but also somewhat brave. You accumulated experience and squirreled it away for possible use at a later date, going to college in 1962 barely able to find Vietnam on the map, ending up marching on the Pentagon five years later. You graduated into a vast blankness, having no idea what to do with your life, but hitchhiked into adulthood carrying on your back a fragmented, out-of-focus understanding that life itself was precious, and finding yourself thirty-five years later providing pastoral care at the deathbeds of hospice patients.
You came of age in a time of expansion, of dissolving boundaries, of greater permission; and this permission to wander without a plan, without a map, has made of your life one big seminar — Lenny Bruce and Dylan two of your many teachers. Learning has been the hidden paradigm, the holy book, and this gospel, this Torah, has sustained you and lifted you out of a conventional girlhood. It has carried you through loss and disbelief and will deliver you wherever it is you're going.
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