Wistfulness: notes (for Shannon)

by Jeff Oaks

“A sad, pensive longing,” says the FreeDictionary. All right, I say, and move on, because on the internet I get only the page on wistful and no more. In the old days, my eye would wander onto the next few words, or across the page where I’d get lost in another set of words altogether.

In the old days, I write, which must be the prelude for most experiences of wistfulness. The “old” implies it will never come again. “In” implies it was likely an encompassing experience, unlike the present moment in which the a thousand distractions are at work, fracturing and battering any attempt at depth of thought or feeling.

Beside me right now in the cafe, two young women are having a conversation about something which I can’t actually hear as content. What I do hear is that one woman is over-responding to the other woman, constantly interrupting the latter’s story with “Yeah, yeah,” and “right” and often complete sentences which she says as the other woman is still talking. Very few things irritate me more than one person talking over another person. The interrupting woman is White, the woman trying to tell a story is African-American, and for a moment I consider whether there’s a race-based version of “mansplaining” that might be called “whitesplaining,” because the interrupting woman frequently interrupts to tell her own story rather than listen to the young African-American woman’s story. I’ve overheard men do this to women a hundred times in the cafe. It occurs to me there must be other versions of “–splaining” based on other privileged cultural “hierarchies.” Is there an “oldsplaining,” a “richsplaining,” a “straights planning”? I myself have found myself in front of younger friends launching into needless explanations of how something works only to be told that they already know.

There is a wistfulness in many places for an old form of unconsciousness, before such hierarchies were articulated–when the teacher and the taught knew their places, where the rich and poor, when men and women. Wistfulness wants an old simplicity, I would say. At least if I base it on my own wistful moments. Wistfulness is then something to be shaken off, in general, because almost always that old simplicity, that old “peace of mind” was at the expense of someone else’s silence or silencing.

Honestly, to hear my parents and grandparents talk about “the good old days,” they missed walking up hill both ways for twenty miles in snowstorms without shoes to get to school. They wished we could experience that so we could develop an appreciation for how tough they’d had it growing up, surviving the Depression. Their wistfulness had the naive writer’s curse in it: they had to simplify everything in order to heighten their point, which was the true pleasure of their texts. In his last years, when I’d asked what his childhood was like, my father said it was “wonderful,” even though he’d also told me about his mother’s depression, even though I knew his father had been cruel. His eyes would glisten and get a far away look. His was a real wistfulness. As we all know, all too well, even dictators, torturers, and idiots can be smoothed by time and missed for their ability to make trains run on time or mean well. Wistfulness makes victims and blood disappear as surely as any secret agency.

It’s not that one can’t look back and be grateful, of course. Sometimes I wish for “simpler days” when I was a kid and felt free to run into the woods and disappear. But so much of my freedom was built on my parents’ work–paying bills, keeping the house, the car, etc. All that work of theirs, much of it unpleasant and/or simply necessary, allowed me to built the imaginative foundation upon which my life exists. I am deeply grateful for all that labor.

Wistfulness is trying to get back into the mind of that young boy I was, it seems to me. It’s wanting to get back into a state of unknowing, which for adults is dangerous, is an attempt to unburden one’s self of responsibility.
It might be better to think of wistfulness then as a signal the mind and body gives off, or send out to say it’s getting overwhelmed. There are so many places and organizations that need help. We know so much more these days about the pain of the world. Corporations manipulate that pain we feel for their own ends.

I wish they didn’t. But that doesn’t make the complicated truth of it go away.