GREAT EXPECTATIONS, OR THE BABY MELANCHOLY AND NOSTALGIA MADE
As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me.
–Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
I returned from Chicago recently and was met with the following advice from my mother: you’re sad because, in this life, you’ll move on and then return to the places you’ve moved on from, and when you do, it cuts you deep and makes you sad for a while. Happens to everyone.
And dammit if she wasn’t right.
Maybe that explains why, at the airport, especially in the early morning, I’m sometimes struck with a pang of irrational fear that, down the corridor at my departure gate, the agents are paging me, paging me, and the people waiting to board are put out because the flight cannot go off without me. So I move closer to make sure this isn’t the case, confident a small mob of irritated people awaits me, hands up at their waistlines, faces like sharp bowie knives pointed right at me.
It’s never the case.
Maybe hope is a better word than fear—a kind of twisted desire to empathize with someone, anyone, about our common tribulations. That’s me in the airport for early morning flights, full of misplaced hope for something cathartic. That’s the me my mom saw, and it’s the one Mr. Jaggers saw when he looked at Pip before he left for London to become a gentleman: a mooncalf still prone to great expectations.
I’d spent a few days attending the wedding of a close friend, where I served the honorable function of groomsman. I wore a crisp tuxedo, black and white under a charcoal jacket. I escorted a verdant young bridesmaid down the aisle. I looked on as the bride and groom exchanged their vows. It was all very touching.
Generally speaking, and as I am typically inclined to do when I travel back to my hometown, I went into it expecting something like “Chameleon” by Elton John, a kind of heartfelt reminiscence with old friends and former lovers the whole weekend through. And though that’s exactly what I got, a certain pallor of nostalgia seemed to permeate my sensibility.
Not so for everyone else. No shadows for them. It was as if they threw their Dixie cups aside when the melancholy and nostalgia were ladled out. They looked always as if they were enjoying themselves, the bastards, impervious or altogether ignorant of the unbearable weight of it all. When we gathered at the rehearsal dinner, every one of them was focused only on the moment, on the friend or family member or acquaintance they were talking to, altogether unaware of any deeper implications hovering somewhere beneath the surface. Later, when the groom handed out wedding gifts to his side of the wedding party, no one seemed even to consider all the days that might pass before such an opportunity to be together should come again. And when the bride threw her bouquet, and the wine was poured, and the good music played, they were cheerful and in tune with whomever they happened on for a particular dance. They were present.
Voltaire, in Candide, gives a subtle nod to people like me. Martin, in response to one of Candide’s probing questions about the nature of humankind, says, “I can’t imagine […] what scales your Pangloss would use to weigh out the miseries of men and value their griefs. All I will venture is that earth holds millions of men who deserve our pity a hundred times more than King Charles Edward, Emperor Ivan, or Sultan Achmet.” I’d venture now, if all the cards were on the table and eyes fell to me, that Martin had it quite right.
Cheer up, young fellow. It doesn’t always have to be so tragic.
The morning after the reception, I was pulled from my benumbed dreamscapes by the three friends with whom I’d shared the hotel room. They were quietly making their way out. I was bleary from drink.
They noticed me stir and told me they’d be back to say farewell. This, of course, never happened, and the fact that I boarded my flight back to San Diego a day later having failed to exchange anymore with them only solidified my resemblance to young Pip, full of a foolish desire for something more.
It was early enough that my mind was still trying to convince my biochemistry that I’d somehow avoided a hangover—that the day would be free of headaches, nausea, and regret. A cruel and fallacious promise, I knew, so I was eager to get out ahead of my reckoning. A cool shower and two beers weren’t quite up to snuff with Hunter S. Thompson’s well-known hangover prescription (cold beer was freely available; twelve amyl nitrates, however, are hard to come by nowadays), yet well enough to take the edge off. But things were starting to feel weird when I called the lobby for late checkout, so I opened a third beer and became wistful like I always do those sad Saturdays when reunions with old friends break up. I took to the page and wrote the following:
Seeing you after all this time is
it is and that is all it can be.
Otherwise it might overstay its welcome
and burn a hole somewhere deep.
The last line was garbled, the words likely reaching the page just as my good friend Dan knocked on the door.
“You’re still here,” he said.
“Great time,” he replied. “Always is. When do you go back?”
“That quick,” he said. And the Pip in me asked, “When are you coming to visit?”
“Soon. Just need to sort a few things out.”
“Beer for the road?”
“No,” said Dan. “I should be going.”
Back in San Diego, I’m reading that wretched poem and can’t help but think of my mother’s words. When she said them, I asked why it has to be that way, and she didn’t need much time before replying.
“I’m sad, exactly like you are now, each time I go back to Bratislava. I go and see my old friends and I’m still frozen in that place I shared with them before immigrating,” she said. “The intimacy, the budding love, all of it. I’m still right there. I want it back, but all of it has changed. Everyone’s moved on, grown, in an entirely different place than 1976. Further on, I would say.”
“Yes. Not stuck and better off for it.”
“And that makes you sad.”
“A certain kind of sad, yes. I usually take a beating from the things I’m incapable of.”
Before Dan left my room, I allowed myself another moment Pip might have had before he left for London—a moment of naked romanticism better suited, perhaps, for a long look into the mirror and nothing more.
“How do you deal with it?” I asked Dan, feeling all the introspection of the previous two days washing over me now, helped along by alcohol’s singular cunning. “I mean seeing everyone for so brief a time, and having it be so good, almost the same as it was?”
It’s better not to romanticize this way, I know. I romanticized Hemingway and ended up writing and drinking like him. I romanticized certain men and women and they almost always fell short of the image I’d created for them. My fault, not theirs. Romanticizing myself has yielded similar results.
“You just roll with it,” said my friend. He said it with a certain ease that seemed the thing I’d been missing the entire weekend—the thing I’ve never been possessed of but perhaps always sought to possess. Caring and remembering and yearning, yet never too much—never at the expense of my own well-being and the opportunity to look the beautiful person before me in the eye and be present in the moment, that most enjoyable presence I’ve spent so much time overlooking.
At work, especially during periods of gross inactivity and associated ennui, I pick up a dead artist. Jim Morrison. Janis Joplin. Bradley Nowell. Truman Capote. I read about their lives, their work, their eventual demise. I watch archival footage and long lost interviews.
This time it’s Syd Barret, founding member of The Pink Floyd. Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright say Syd went crazy from the heaviness of too much lysergic acid, and that he couldn’t perform or even be a part of it afterward. He became a recluse. He reached for the secret too soon. The band had no choice but to move on, and it soared to its greatest artistic heights without him as a result.
I sometimes think, even though that brilliant man is dead, I will see a shadow of Syd up in the nosebleeds at a hockey game, alone and smiling and taking it all in. In my visions of him, the man has come full circle, and even though it all kept spinning on without his touch, he’s content in a way that comes with understanding the error of one’s ways.
I think of these things at work now, back in my current life, and know that scenes of old are carrying on without me, yet I’m no longer sad. I take comfort in knowing it’s all as it should be, much like Pip did after he returned from London. Like him, I know that I’m not the only one who gets to play the part of Syd in the Great Gig in the Sky—that each person I saw at the wedding is sitting in offices and rooms and parks somewhere, thinking from time to time about what the rest of the band is up to and not always without some implacable longing. I know now what they all seemed to already know back in Chicago, and I think of these things not with a heavy heart, but with the piece of my heart they all occupy safe and sheltered, put away, the rest of it open to all that might come next.
Voltaire also writes, in Candide, that “to know the world, one must travel.” Travel can mean many things. Taking the bus. Living alone in a foreign country and never using your native tongue. Moving away from the place you call home—away from the streets and neighborhoods in which you earned your very first stripes. Anything. And like any good author, Voltaire once again has me convinced that he’s giving a nod to people like me, and so I read travel to mean going to that sad place where melancholy and nostalgia meet, whatever form the road might take. To leave, like Pip, filled with great expectations and not a small amount of trepidation for the things left behind.
And that because you have to.
But Voltaire, in the same work, also writes that only “fools admire everything in a well-known author,” which gives me pause. Pause, because Chicago still felt the way it felt, and whatever space I have since wrested from the clutches of melancholy and nostalgia, those complicated progenitors, will be challenged again—I will have to walk the road back from London and, as I walk, find a way to always be working toward higher ground.
For me, this has meant not only saying goodbye to friends and family and familiar places for a time, but coming back after spending time away, touching melancholy and nostalgia on the shoulder, catching up with them, and searching for words to explain where I’ve been as I hold the baby they made since the last time I saw them.[*]
[*] All references to Voltaire’s Candide are from the second Norton Critical Edition (translated and edited by Robert M. Adams), to Dickens’s Great Expectations from a tattered Rinehart Edition; all conclusions I happened upon thereafter are my own.
Anthony Martin (@pen_tight) is a mutt mixed with a little Timber Journal, Cheap Pop, The Conium Review, WhiskeyPaper, Pea River Journal, and Lunch Ticket, among other wicked things.