“Experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happened to you.”
Like many of us geriatrics, I get a lot of email or Facebook posts that draw me back to my youth: photos of Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe, cars with fins, unfiltered Camel cigarettes… Or lists of phrases: “Don’t touch that dial,” “Carbon copy,” “You sound like a broken record”; hairstyles: beehives, pageboys and the D.A.; clothing: rolled tee-shirts and jeans, thin neckties, fedoras, poodle skirts, saddle shoes and pedal pushers. I belong to a Facebook group dedicated to sharing memories of my old hometown. Posts begin: “Does anyone remember (insert teacher or local character, restaurant or dance hall), to which anywhere from 5 to 50 people will share reminiscences.
All of which often evoke in me the emotion psychologists call “nostalgia,” usually defined as the warm feeling we have when we recall fond memories from our pasts. (The word comes from the Latin, meaning “a return home.”)
As with most of my emotions, nostalgia can help me or hinder me, depending on how I handle it.
Nostalgia is a common emotion. According to an online article in the Huffington Post, the average person engages in some kind of nostalgia once a week. People tend to become more nostalgic, the article continues, not only as, like me, they age, but also during times of transition, when one way of life is ending and the next hasn’t begun. I can see that. I used to teach high school seniors and invariably, during the last weeks of May, as their high school years were ending, I would hear them reminiscing, not as I had expected, about their high school years, but about their elementary and middle school years. They often talked about eighth grade, which, again, is a transition year for many students.
So, I wonder if nostalgia isn’t a form of grieving, sort of like the way people talk about someone at their funeral. Both nostalgia and grief show love, keep us connected, not only with the person or place we’ve lost, but with each other. And that’s healthy.
Nostalgia, however, can also be a form of resentment. Something, we feel, is wrong in our lives so we long for the days when whatever that something wrong is simply wasn’t there. This can lead to a nostalgia looks back to a particular time as some golden age, when, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, “all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children were above average.” In Bill Bryson’s book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he notes that in a survey, Americans picked 1957 as the best time in history to be alive, ignoring the fear that swept this country when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, or the racial unrest that resulted in President Eisenhower’s ordering federal troops to enforce integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, or the air raid drills as schools “prepared” for the nuclear attack we kids thought could happen at any time. If you were black, gay, or even female, I can think of far better times to be alive than 1957.
Like today, for example.
I find what I call Golden Age Nostalgia irritating, I think because for years, I saw my 1950’s childhood the same way, filled with the smells of home baked bread and the sounds of laughter. Then, after a divorce and struggles to overcome the emotional effects of the death of my daughter led me to several 12-step programs, I started to see how much of my childhood I had repressed, even denied, which led me to repress or deny any kind of nostalgia.
Lately, though, having gained insights into why shame has been the driving force in my life, why I react as I do to confrontation, authority, and strong women, I can also see that as a child I was loved, I was protected, and I was more often than not happy. And It’s okay to feel nostalgic for those times.
Actually, it’s better than okay. I’m coming to see that nostalgia—usually thought of as being concerned with the past—can provide strength for the future. Nostalgia for my childhood gives me hope that not only my grandchildren, but all the children of this country will overcome this turbulent time’s challenges. While I’m certainly not nostalgic about my daughter’s death, the warm memories I have of her eighteen years of life—her compassion, her creativity, her joy—continue to inspire me. And if I can live happily for the most part after her death, I can live for the most part happily in this time of turmoil and uncertainty. If I can face her death, I can face my own.
Shut up at home, aging, I find myself growing more nostalgic about my past pilgrimages. This, too, I think is helpful. One of the main reasons—perhaps the main reason—for making a pilgrimage is to return home with new awareness and then share it. As Phillip Cousineau, whom I’ve been quoting now for almost five years in this blog, writes, “…you must share whatever wisdom you have been blessed with on your journey with those who are about to set out on their own journey.” And for me, that includes reminding myself what I’ve learned on my pilgrimages about living in liminal space, asking for help, facing the unknown, adapting to the situation, and living in the moment.
But I still need to be careful, especially during these days of Coronic uncertainty. My temptation—and I’m not alone; I hear it a lot—is to want things to get back to “normal.” Everything I know about history tells me that this isn’t going to happen. No matter what transpires with this disease or other “dis-eases” such as climate change, violations of human rights, and gun violence, there will be no return to “normal,” as we once knew it. And nostalgia won’t change that. All it can do is make us angry and resentful.
Or it can help us change.
The key for me, as one of my 12-step daily readings puts it, is to be able “to look back without staring.” Going back, for example, to 1957 to enjoy a time when, if the times weren’t actually better, I was young and healthy and full of plans for the future—to be able to look at that, take what I can, and leave the rest behind along with tailfins and DA haircuts, violence and bigotry.
Those are “normals” I can live without.