I was in Sylacauga, Alabama a few weeks ago visiting my grandparents. It’s a tiny town with not much to do but it’s one of my favorite places for the company and the nostalgia. My granddaddy and I take walks when I visit. The house is too small for the whole family and it gets too noisy to talk. But walking gets us away from all that, and I get him all to myself.
He doesn’t always talk a lot but when he does it makes my heart sore. We walk around this little track by the elementary school and we talk about whatever comes up. This particular visit we talked a lot about life. And how it doesn’t give you any warning when it’s about to change and then suddenly you look back and it’s all already happened.
He didn’t seem too sad about that.
But it terrifies me.
“I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.” – Virginia Woolf
I read recently something Maria Papova wrote about essayist Meghan Daum and her thoughts on “nostalgia, aging, and why we romanticize our younger selves.” I’ve included some of my favorite passages in this post but you can read the full article HERE.
A big part of what Daum writes is an imaginary conversation between her older self and younger self, and it will pierce your soul.
“At first, Younger Self is frightened and irritated (Older Self speaks harshly to her) but a feeling of calm quickly sets in over the encounter. Younger Self sits there rapt, as though receiving the wisdom of Yoda or of some musician she idolizes, such as Joni Mitchell. But Older Self is no Yoda. Older Self is stern and sharp…Older Self begins her sentences with “Listen” and “Look.” She says, “Listen, what you’re into right now isn’t working for you.” She says, “Look, do yourself a favor and get out of this situation right now. All of it. The whole situation. Leave this college. Forget about this boy you’re sleeping with but not actually dating. Stop pretending you did the reading for your Chaucer seminar when you didn’t and never will.”
To which Younger Self will ask, “Okay, then what should I do?” And of course Older Self has no answer, because Older Self did not leave the college, did not drop the boy, did not stop pretending to have read Chaucer. And the cumulative effect of all those failures (or missed opportunities, blown chances, fuckups, whatever) is sitting right here, administering a tongue-lashing to her younger self (which is to say herself) about actions or inactions that were never going to be anything other than what they were.”
My favorite book in all of creation is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I am well acquainted with the feeling of being the vulnerable writer – I feel it every time I write anything, even an email. But never before The Bell Jar did I know the feeling of being the vulnerable reader. Reading it was like Plath slowly telling me the intricacies of my soul while being both sympathetic and ruthless as she exploited them.
There is a part about a fig tree that eats at me. It’s beautiful (and is the inspiration for my next tattoo #edgy).
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – The Bell Jar
Even retyping it makes me cry.
I can’t help but wonder if Daum was struck by that image too as her writing so closely reflects those sentiments.
Today, the best posts / articles / blogs use a lot of bullet points and bold words to try to keep the reader’s attention. Long text makes us bored now, they say. And it’s horribly sad but a little true. But in spite of that, and at the risk of losing you here, read how Daum continues. It will not bore you, I promise.
“Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.
The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage. It’s the destination that never gets any closer even as our life histories pile up behind us in the rearview mirror. It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something. It is why I hope that if I make it to eighty-something I have the good sense not to pull out those old CDs. My heart, by then, surely would not be able to keep from imploding. My heart, back then, stayed in one piece only because, as bursting with anticipation as it was, it had not yet been strained by nostalgia. It had not yet figured out that life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.”
Her reflections are piercing. And terrifying.
But the problem is that they are just that – reflections. She has passed the point of the fig tree. She is now on some limb somewhere, looking back at the starving little girl in the crook of it. So while her points are unsettling in their precision – as if she’s watched my mind and mouth and pen over the past 5 years or so – they are in many ways hollow, offering no advice for me, the girl in the tree, the girl that didn’t leave college or drop the boy soon enough or even read Chaucer in the first place.
Can we be both? Can we feel the anticipation of nothing having started and the misery of the past casting shadows over the future?
And what do we do with that? Pick a branch and accept the others as casualties? Try to convince ourselves that the tree metaphor is too binary and re-read the Garden of Forking paths to feel better? Or stay a while longer in the crook of the tree – hoping the choice becomes clearer, the metaphor more definite, or at least that not eating makes us a little skinnier?
I’m not big on rhetorical questions in writing but these are the questions that keep me up at night. And make me feel isolated and crazy. It’s like I go for a run or stay a while in a coffee shop or have dinner with friends and find myself looking around frantically like, “What are we all doing here? How can you eat bruschetta at a time like this? Do yall even know about the fig tree??”
Maybe that feeling will never go away. Or maybe it goes away when you become the reflective Older Self – walking around a tiny track in a tiny city, nostalgic and content, knowing the one sure thing is the step you’re taking right then and there on that pavement. Maybe we’re not promised direction or answers or comforting metaphors. Maybe we’re not even promised figs.
I know this is usually the part where I wrap it all up nicely and offer a hopeful, sing-songy conclusion. But I don’t have one this time. I have all of the questions and none of the answers and not much in-between.
But I have a granddaddy who loves me and takes walks with me. And I have a fresh pot of coffee brewing. And I have these words out here in the universe so maybe someone will tell me the answer. Or at least share the fear with me. I guess for now that will do.