On Yearning — A Partial Reckoning
When I was eighteen years old, I took a small school trip — a junket, really — to Italy. I remember the last night. We were in a coastal village, south of Rome, and it was near sunset. Cliffs fell sharply down from an overlook above the sea, and we stood out there eating last cones of gelato. Someone threw a half-finished cone over the lip of the wall. Not quite twenty years later, I remember seeing it flash rotating into the night. And I remember thinking: We will never be this young again.
Wherever did I come by this self-conscious, stagy thought? We were hardly characters out of Hemingway: We were the moneyed children of the northern suburbs of Chicago, on a trip with a wry, rather indulgent older teacher, after graduation. Although my life was marked by the same sorts of petty discontents that only the luckiest adolescents get to focus on (social woes, bad skin, a sense of alienation from my wealthy little suburb), it contained no real tragedies. And what I had to look forward to, after this maudlin moment — could it be more stage-managed? It is right out of a bad college essay (The ice cream cone? The dusk?) — was not an uncertain future but a full scholarship to a very good school, after a bit of family travel.
My sensibility then, in other words, embarrasses me. It seems utterly unearned. At most, it seems characteristic of my habit of mind then, as a rather socially lonely, bookish boy, moved by landscapes and history, and with an exaggerated sense of personal self-importance. Here — I think I must have unconsciously thought — was a great moment in my personal history: The Evening on the Cliffs at the End of School. I imagine passing residents wondering just who these doughy Americans were, tossing ice cream cones down at the beach.
And yet: More embarrassing still, I cannot quite shake that habit of mind.
There was a time I lived in California for graduate school. During that time, living just below the Santa Cruz Range — a redwood covered ridge over which the fog poured at sunset — I spent an unconscionable moment of time missing, really fiercely missing, a particular block of 57th St, on the south side of Chicago. That block had gas lamps, and they flared beautifully in the snow. I thought of them often, ruefully, as the sun set over the ridges in California.
Later, predictably, I lived in Washington, DC, and thought fondly of Palo Alto and the arches of the sycamores over its streets and the way they parted, sometimes, to allow for glimpses of the Santa Cruz. I have also missed, at various times:
- The park blocks of Portland, Oregon, amidst the flaring beauty of their trees in a rainy autumn. (In fact, during that autumn, I missed the way they had been in the summer before, when I was in evanescent love and the trees were green).
- A deep and sometimes muddy ravine, opening unexpectedly to the bruised blue skies over Lake Michigan, in the very same suburb north of Chicago I was ruing returning to that evening in Italy.
- The scent of jasmine that one can sometime smell not far off College Avenue in Oakland, California. Also, the low golden light that you sometimes see in the same place, when the sun is shining below the fog over the Bay.
- A hill on Ontario Rd NW, near Adams-Morgan, in DC, down which I biked every day for a year or two in a sudden burst of speed before plunging into the early morning heart of the city. I also miss the warm, collegial, house I lived in then — a place where the morning often smelled of pancakes.
This is a an incomplete list, I regret to report. I am entirely capable of missing the morning in the afternoon of the same day. I will spare you detailing the effect this habit of mind has tended to have on, say, my relationships. How tiresome. How very much the attitude of what I am — a well-educated, well-off, white man, with a surfeit of choices.
I am aware that the best explanation for my ongoing chronic nostalgia is persistent narcissism, coupled with an equally lamentable, and related, tendency to self-mythologize. I am not inclined to mount much of a defense. What a nice problem to have, really.
(Well, one partial defense: Do not think, please, that I am quite the child I was back on that overlook. There have been real tragedies since, and times on the other side of them I might more legitimately claim to miss. But still, too, this yearning for the quotidian past, despite the fact that the incidents of my current life are, really, in no way truly unpleasant. Are, in fact, in many ways wonderful and safe in ways available to few, so few, people. What a rare gift it is to have even the opportunity to rue any felt spiritual loss in a life of such safety and peace. How criminal it seems to be nostalgic, at all, when I can close and lock my door and have dinner with people I care for.)
And yet: I find myself at least a bit skeptical — suspicious, perhaps, though that is not really the right word — of those unafflicted with my own unfortunate habit of mind. How, I find myself wondering, can they be so seemingly unaffected by the constant way time replaces the furniture of our lucky lives? Do they not miss the paradise before lunch, think, as the poet Billy Collins wrote, that “even this morning would be an improvement over the present”?
Well: good for them, really. They get to enjoy the evening.
And perhaps that is the only real cure that I have been able to work haltingly towards. Because how cloying all this precious memory is— what possible present can stand up to the refined memory of a supposedly better past one? Still, there is something underneath this preciousness, I think: An acute awareness that it is all passing, so swiftly. There is no going back to walk under that low golden light from the Bay in Oakland now — or, rather, I will not walk there as the same person I was then, even if the light persists. It is the recurring, unmanageable, basic truth that we are always being carried forward into time, away from everything our lives have been so far. And even if the destination is pleasant, we still do not choose it wholly.
But if that is true perhaps the best choice is, in fact, to experience the days aware already that I will miss them in days to come. Each moment can be sharpened, made acute, by its pending absence. They fall, one by one, into the past and are unrecoverable. The best I can do, caught in my romantic mindset, may be to savor sooner — to bring forward the leading edge of my nostalgia until it almost catches the present.
All this is the realm of cliche, I know: live each day to the fullest, and remember that you, and everyone you know, will die. Some things become cliches because they are true, but painful to know. We wear them down into truisms that become easy to dismiss. They fit on t-shirts and calendars.
But they are still true. And I still hope, when once again I settle into the sickly sweet haze of nostalgia — missing, once again, some particular street, the quality of light in the top of a tree, the way the air was at the end of a season or just before lunch — to instead keep telling myself: You will die, and you are small, and you are here. Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.
Today, there were big rain clouds over the fields. I ran down a farm road and resting waterbirds, startled, beat noisy paths across the ponds on either side. The sky was reflected in the thin skim of mud on the road, so blue. Far away, over the ponds, I could hear shooting. The flocks rose, wheeled, and turned.