For over 40 years, I have been asked to justify the arts, to explain why stories are important and useful, to argue for the time and money writers and musicians and dancers need to get good at what they do and realize their dreams. Despite the miracle of stardust making music, dance, and poems, the notion persists that the arts are fun but not essential, an enjoyable luxury but not part of the core curriculum for our continued existence in the universe. And although I have been championing the dispossessed my entire life, speaking for microbial life forms as the subjects of their universe is a more recent engagement.
At this symposium, as I argued for the significance of sacred/mundane play, I had the good fortune to be reading “Because of the Bone Man,” the final novella in Kiini Ibura Salaam’s When the World Wounds, a collection of speculative short fictions. I thanked Salaam for the Bone Man’s inspired response to a wounded child in New Orleans who quit engaging in make-believe at seven. Standing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and facing the selective neglect of black and poor communities, Bone Man tells the young cynic: “Make believe is the only reason I’m here right now.”
Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
I have a love-hate relationship with writing. First the hate. It’s difficult. Finding language for ideas, then finding better language. During my years as a probation officer I occasionally heard colleagues joke (sort of) that the job would be great if it weren’t for the clients. I sometimes feel the same way about writing and language. Some writers swoon over language: “It’s my muse, my lover”, and so on. Well, it’s my enemy, and I seem to spend all my life arguing and battling with it. Also, sitting down at a desk aggravates my sacroiliac joint, so by the end of a week of solid writing I’m pretty much bed-bound or crawling around on all fours.
If it’s a small marvel that a stamp, a spot of paper backed with adhesive, can send a parcel around the world, it’s incredible that a person might spend $9.5 million to own a single one.