Paying Nostalgia Forward
Jerry and I celebrated our eighteenth wedding anniversary last Friday. We watched the inauguration (moving right along here), and then drove through the rain to a Hindu temple in New Jersey that the wonderful lady who runs the salon I patronize (I call her Maharahnee) recommended as a sight to see.
It’s really a sight like no other. We saw nothing to rival it in India. It’s a very large building whose walls and ceiling are covered in white marble, hand carved in high relief by sculptors in Italy and assembled here. It’s been put together with meticulous care and unmistakable reverence by an expatriate Indian community.
To stand inside the fascinating intricacy of the carved figures is to discover that one’s mind has quieted all by itself, without trying. In the West, art has a linear direction. It’s striving to arrive somewhere. The aesthetic of the Hindu temple is not trying to take you elsewhere. It has no reference to history. The mind settles down in the present in a way that years of training in meditation might not be able to achieve.
Our final stop was for dinner at a French Provincial restaurant closer to home. The rain had tapered off. We talked about our marriage – the thing we were celebrating that started eighteen years ago.
We don’t feel to ourselves like respectable married people yet. That may never come. The whole thing still seems new and mind-blowing.
For me, entering into the married state seemed terribly risky. To be irresistibly in love seemed to me off the charts, not on the agenda. For most of my grownup life, the dominant mood had been nostalgia, a looking to the past, a looking homeward.
My parents home, 1245 Madison Avenue at 90th Street — a nineteenth-century building long since leveled — had held a defining sense of origins. Except for a few early years at 86th and Park, the history of my life had started there. Everything else fanned out from there and one of the problems of my life had been to wrest sufficiently free of its orbit to be able to stake out claims and projects of my own.
I never met better people than my parents; no one more original, new and truthful than my father; no one more cultivated, realistic and loving than my mother.
Our culture insists that we grow up and cut the umbilical cords but my idea of emotional health is somewhat different. Emotion that is authentic, profound and long-lasting should not be repressed. (Of course, one doesn’t need to surrender to every feeling. If you get a yen to gamble your life savings away or jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, well, repress that.) But I’m against repression of desire that is deep and defining. That sort of repression leaves scars.
So I didn’t cut the cord. It provided a metric for my grownup life while they were alive. And I longed for them once they were gone. It was nostalgia for home. It was absolutely sincere. If you’ve outgrown your childhood, good for you. I never did. And I stopped trying.
Then came my early love in Paris. He was not a suitable life partner – unworthy in many ways – but we don’t love people because they are worthy! That nostalgia too would haunt my womanly years.
When I met Jerry and we fell in love, I recognized the real thing and knew I had to reshape my life to give it breathing and growing room. We found a place to live as a couple – not his Washington DC and not my New York – because love is serious. You can’t kid around. You have to give it its place.
All the while, I sure hoped I wasn’t driving off a cliff. My city, my professional, institution-based identity, my private space and time to spend as I had done — longing for all that was gone – all were at risk. Who will I be? Even though I was prepared to risk it, I was aware that this could be a woman-sized mistake in lifemanship. In the worst case, I wouldn’t be the first woman to have risked all for love and lost all.
Over the French Provincial dinner, we talked about how the risk had in fact played out for me. From the first, there was a wholeness bestowed by being truly understood. I don’t know how he does it, but Jerry understands me. He was born in the Texas panhandle. We don’t look alike. Our backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Go figure.
From the vantage point of this newly-bestowed wholeness, fragments from the past, whose fit in the larger scheme of my life I had never found, came together. Articles I’d never seen how to complete or publish got done and saw daylight. New projects suddenly showed themselves, as if the covering of sand had blown away, revealing the green landscape underneath. With Jerry’s help, I found the courage to fight and overcome old tyrannies. Uncured small wounds repaired themselves. Uncomprehended incidents showed their significance.
Gradually, but with gathering momentum, I began to notice that something had happened to nostalgia. The unfolding of events in the present was shedding light on the past, much more light than my longing for the past had ever shed.
It’s very odd. Nostalgia itself has pivoted. The yearning to retrieve and do right by the past has been recast as a nostalgia for the future, which now seems to hold the secrets of the past and of the present.
The only way to satisfy nostalgia is
to pay it forward.