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.