Leaving nostalgia behind

by Kristin on November 26, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by SeedKeeper

It never fails: When I visit my childhood home—especially for a holiday—waves of nostalgia wash over me at every turn. Sights and smells trigger memories, rooms activate long-buried feelings, and suddenly I have access to another time, and a person I used to be.

I’ve always sort of loved the feeling of nostalgia, the way you love some overly-sweet, gooey candy and can’t stop indulging in it, even though you know very well it will leave you feeling slightly sick. The word “nostalgia,” which dates back to the mid-seventeenth century, comes from combining two Greek words: “nostos,” which means “returning home,” and “algos,” which is a “pain or longing.” While it was originally used to describe a longing for someone’s native land, today most of us would describe it as a deep ache—a yearning for a lost time and place.

When you think of it, nostalgia is a strange emotion for a child to be so drawn to, like I was. What was there for me to long for, really, as a child of seven or eight, living a stable, middle class life in middle America? What had been lost? No place or person had been violently taken from me. My life had been filled with memorable experiences, cozy evenings, nourishing food, and rich traditions. Even now, when I think of my childhood I think first of family camping trips out West, sitting around a camp fire singing songs (yes, we actually did that) before crawling into our blue tent and green sleeping bags to sleep. I also think of cross country skiing through the northern Michigan woods, the quiet swooshing of the skis on the snow, the tingling of cold toes that I knew would soon be warmed back at the cottage, where my grandpa kept the wood stove roaring, and we would drink tea and play Yahtzee. Even my memories of more mundane days involve my mom’s Molasses Crinkles and a glass of milk as I sorted through a big box of collage supplies, preparing to make a birthday card for my grandma.

All these happy scenes did in fact happen, but they weren’t the whole picture. I was simply a romantic, an optimist, framing each scene, filtering the memories through the best light, and crafting each story in ways that highlighted the beauty, the bliss.

My dad is an optimist, too. Maybe it’s optimism that fuels his love for photography—his ability to recognize an ideal scene, a perfect moment, and capture it forever, to later point to as proof that life is good. His thousands of photographs, of course, only fed my romantic view of life. Because who takes pictures of tears, of thirst, of disappointment? No, his photographs looked just like my memories, or maybe my memories were based on his photographs. Either way, there was plenty of fodder for my nostalgia, and I entered adulthood thinking the true keys to happiness were good editing skills, a good eye, and a good camera.

* * * * *

What is true, really? It’s a question every writer—and every teller—of a true story must ask. Because people will ask, you know. Even if you have no intention of writing a memoir, when something significant happens in a life, people will be there, asking, “What happened?”

So what did happen? How do you tell the truth?

If the truth is made up of facts, proven and indisputable, can “true” even be a word that is paired with “story?” Or can truth only be a list, cold and dry, complete with footnotes and references?

And where does that leave perception? Stories come with a point of view, and with feelings that hardly be articulated, let alone proven. But still, my feelings are not lies—even when they change over time.

If the truth is found in what’s included, what do you call everything that’s been left out? What about the negative spaces created by all the truths that don’t get told?

If the truth is captured in a moment, how true is it years later, after it’s been warped and faded by the rain and sun of time? Or does time make it more true?

When I write about my life I want, more than anything, to tell the Truth, but the harder I try, the more impossible it seems.

* * * * *

I have felt myself, these past few years, letting go of nostalgia, of my longing for that longing. Because that’s what it is, really—not a longing for something real that might return and stand right there in front of me, but a longing for a feeling, for something I’ve felt before and want to feel again, even if the feeling is manufactured, artificial. I think it was when I began to tune out nostalgia’s siren call that I was able to begin moving forward, in truth.

Sometimes I wonder if my nostalgia, all along, was rooted in that crux, between the worlds of what is possible and what is. If feeling nostalgic requires a sense of loss as a key ingredient, maybe what was lost—what I was longing for—were just those glimpses of pure happiness and perfection, those moments that came and left in a flash, when everything was right with the world. Those moments are important, for sure, but we don’t need to hang on to the old ones. New ones will come, as long as we make room and keep moving forward.

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  • http://www.jenx67.com/ Jennifer

    A lot of great thoughts here, Kristin. I take a lot of pictures these days, and I appreciate what you said about your dad. It’s true of me. I see all the perfect things through the lens of my Nikon. And, I capture them so later I can show them to everyone and say, see life is good. I wonder what this says about me…Thank you for this today. I struggle to tell the truth, too. It’s a very hard thing to do b/c the consequences can be so awful.

    • kt_writes

      Part of the struggle, here, is that good memories and the lovely photos that capture them are not bad things, in and of themselves. We absolutely need them, I think. It’s a complex thing—I’ll probably be revisiting it from other angles in future posts!

  • rayhollenbach

    Kristin, your post is studded with diamonds, of which this is my favorite: “If the truth is found in what’s included, what do you call everything that’s been left out?”

    For me the power of story is to craft truth from our memories, and also from our hopes for the future. We draw on our experience in hope of connecting with others, unseen, in the future. For us as writers, perhaps we could revisit the same memory more than once, and select what we need for the story we choose to tell. Which set of memories is true? All of them.

    • kt_writes

      Thank you, Ray. So I guess it’s kind of obvious that I’m working my way through the writing of a memoir, eh? All it takes is trying to write some dialogue for the whole “what is truth” question to become larger than life. I really like how you put it into perspective: “…the power of story is to craft truth from our memories, and also from our hopes for the future.”

  • http://twitter.com/erinblueburke Erin Burke

    I love this post. I’m such a generally nostalgic person, and I think a lot of that is because, like you, I’m quite optimistic about my past. My childhood was wonderful, but I also know there were tough times. We just choose not to remember.
    This is something I think I needed to read (I always feel more nostalgic during the holidays) and thanks for reminding me that new moments will come, moments that in the future I will probably feel nostalgic about.

    • kt_writes

      It’s funny—my brother remembers the not-so-ideal moments. Often, when I’m getting all romantic about a certain vacation or holiday memory, he will bring up the bad thing that happened. Isn’t it amazing that two people with the same parents and same experiences can have different memories? I think his memories are good for me to keep in mind, and my versions are good for him. :)

  • http://www.gabbingwithgrace.com/ Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    beautifully said. It makes me think about the life, moments and memories I’m creating for my boys…really hoping I’m creating a life for them that they will want to be nostalgic about…if that makes sense. And so often, wondering, if I’m working too much, disengaging too much or otherwise just doing it all wrong. sigh. Anyway, i love all the questions and musings of your ideas.

    • kt_writes

      Oh, I totally hear you. I often catch myself “crafting” memories for my kids, hoping in the end that all the good things will outweigh the difficult things. (Since my kids went through a divorce, I feel even more pressure to make things right!) I think we have to remind ourselves that much of what we’re doing—the vacations and traditions—are indeed real and valuable experiences, but our kids will remember them in their own ways.

  • Margaret

    “Sometimes I wonder if my nostalgia, all along, was rooted in that crux, between the worlds of what is possible and what is.” –great insight!

    • kt_writes

      Thank you! It’s sort of like the now-and-not-yet state we’re in, between heaven and earth…

  • Reflecting

    Thanks for this. I’ve been living a bit too much in my past lately, relishing beautiful or romantic moments past and regretting that that’s not where I am now. I’m older, I live elsewhere, my relationships have changed. I haven’t figured out what to do with those memories (and with my tendency to dwell on them), but this post – and particularly your reflection that those true moments can come again – gives me impetus to focus on the beauties in my life now. Knowing also, I suppose, that by reveling in and living what I have now, I will be able to create that beautiful future.

    • kt_writes

      Yes! You put this so perfectly: “…by reveling in and living what I have now, I will be able to create that beautiful future.” Blessings on us as we do our best!

  • michaboyett

    Kristin, I love this: “My longing for that longing.” I’ve been thinking so much about my nostalgia as I raise my kids in a completely different environment than the one I grew up in. How much of what my ache for what they aren’t experiencing is rooted in my own longing for the simplicity of my childhood?

    I’ll be thinking on this one, friend.

    • kt_writes

      Isn’t that funny? I was sitting there, trying to figure out exactly what I was longing for, and it hit me—it was a feeling more than an experience. I’m glad you “got” it. (And yes—I completely hear you regarding how all of these thoughts impact how we parent. SO much to think about!)

  • JessicaSchafer

    You asked whether nostalgia might be a helpful or important feeling on twitter. I think there are several ways it’s useful. One is that it points to our deepest underlying values–family, optimism, beauty, whatever it happens to be. I think that recognizing those underlying values is part of what helps us see and make room for future moments. Nostalgia can also be a useful warning signal. When we find ourselves caught up in and indulging nostalgia it might be time to ask what we’re trying to avoid in our present or what we’re unfairly judging against those perfect memories. Ultimately, I think it’s a useful and important feeling for deeper self-awareness… which usually leads to growth. :)

    • kt_writes

      Thank you for responding to my wonderings, and with such great insights, too! Both of the aspects of nostalgia that you mention are very important when it comes to self-awareness and growth. I’m glad for this—I didn’t really want to block all nostalgia from my life!

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