Nostalgia, Part 1: Diaries and Heroes
October 30, 2010
After Marcy Casterline O’Rourke posted a rave review of my novel The Shame of What We Are on Amazon, I wondered who she was and why she liked the book so much. Exploring her own blog entries, I realized that we’ve both been pondering the past lately, and maybe that’s what first attracted her to Shame, which is set in the 1950s and 1960s. (Though this doesn’t explain her lofty rating of the novel; for that, we’d need to know what she was smoking.)
One of Marcy’s blogs focuses on her late husband, the actor Tom O’Rourke, and she talks about reading a diary he left behind, using it to fill in details of his life before she met him and puzzle out facets of his character that, after decades of marriage, she still didn’t understand. “The Great Mystery of Tom,” she titles one post. Her musings are both pointed and poignant.
Oddly (or perhaps not) I’ve just finished the first draft of a short story about a man who rediscovers his own adolescent diary. This proved difficult to write, because for me nostalgia is often painful. Beyond the poignancy and bittersweet pang, it leads to a deep sense of embarrassment about my younger self, and that happens in this new story, in which the character becomes ashamed of the young man he unearths.
Here’s another—not fictional but all-too-real—case in point: Last night I reconnected with a major icon from my youth. Our niece Anna, for no reason that we can fathom, has become a fan of folk music, and her greatest star, higher in the pantheon even than Pete Seeger, is Joan Baez. Hence we went with Anna and her family to Joanie’s concert last night in Philadelphia. Anna wore a handmade T-shirt with a 1960s image of our favorite folk diva; it must have taken her hours to draw with permanent markers.
So, there was the bittersweet sensation of remembering when Joanie (who looked a bit stiff and sore) was a young barefoot maid, and we too were young, and the music meant that the times they were a-changin’, that the deep achy yearning that swelled in our souls could find its place in the world and we would somehow connect not only with the zeitgeist but with the oversoul, the mystery at the heart of things.
It’s bad enough remembering inchoate hopes like that. But here’s where it gets really rough for me. The first time I saw Joan Baez in concert, she was indeed in her barefoot-maid stage, and a heckler yelled at her from the audience, “Why don’t you wear shoes?” She shot back, “That would spoil my image.” Today that seems a perfectly apt, funny reply. To my idealistic younger self, however, it was like a slap in the face. I wanted to believe, I guess, that she chose to go barefoot in the simple, honest, pure way in which I might grab a jacket out of the closet: “Hmm, it’s over 65 degrees and I’ll be on stage most of the night, so I won’t need shoes.” To realize that she might consider something as crass and commercial as her “image,” even with an ironic twist, shocked my entire belief system.
It’s painful to remember being that naive, that stupid. And to make matters worse, Joan sang the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne.” Not only was that once my favorite song, but I considered it truly poetic, profound, inspirational. A woman who dresses in rags and feathers and leads you to a mysterious river/harbor where you meditate upon Jesus walking on the water—heavy stuff, man! But today when I hear lines like “you know that you can trust her / For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” I feel the opposite of trust. Sloppy, simple-minded, juvenile, semi-fake spiritualism, I call it now.
So, picture me at the concert in a balcony cheap seat, uncomfortable with memories of idealizing Joanie, growing more restive as Cohen’s pseudo-poetry wafts in ethereal waves over the rapt audience. … My wife reaches over and lays her hand on mind. I squeeze back in reluctant acknowledgment. Then she leans in and whispers, “Remember when you used to sing ‘Suzanne’ to me? Will you sing it to me tonight?”
I want to hide under my chair.
Luckily, though, we’re old enough that, after the long concert, a bus ride to our neighborhood, a short hike to our door in the brisk fall air, we fall harmlessly asleep.