Nostalgia: a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time or place in one's life; a sentimental yearning for the happiness or fulfillment of that place or time. It’s a moment when you smile and say to yourself, “How lucky I was to have had that experience.”
While my morning tea was brewing on Sunday I tuned in to On Being (the program of religion, meaning, ethics and ideas that used to be called Speaking of Faith). I wanted to find out who Krista Tippett’s guest was before I decided whether to walk first or eat first. The program had started and I immediately recognized the unusual voice and accent of Bishop Desmond Tutu. The walk could wait.
My mind immediately transported me to a small meeting room in the national headquarters of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) where I had the immense pleasure of meeting the legendary South African bishop. He had come to Philadelphia to deliver an address, and this was a courtesy meeting with the senior administrative staff. He was charismatic and jolly in addition to being forthright and spiritual.
After my dishes were cleared away and the program ended, I bundled up against what I knew would be a chilly wind and headed out for my morning walk, thinking deeply and wistfully about my years with AFSC. As an administrator, I wasn’t on the frontlines of the struggles for civil and women’s rights and the efforts to end the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. However, my work supported the people who were. It was my privilege to meet—and sometimes work on committees with—heroes of various struggles for justice or leading thinkers in the peace movements. I wasn’t more than a block from my Tybee front door when I was awash in nostalgia for those years of intense activism. They were times of emotional pain, struggle against unbelievable odds, awareness of possible danger, and sometimes the sadness of loss. But they were also times of fellowship, hope, clear objectives, and moments of success that ultimately led to change. I have no wish to relive them, but I must confess that as I walked back toward my winter home some twenty minutes later, I felt a yearning for that kind of fulfillment.
Whenever I am surprised by nostalgia, I think of sitting in an unusual garden in Panajachel in 1982. Bill and I were visiting our German friend Doña Edith who had immigrated to Guatemala with her parents when she was 19 shortly after the First World War. She soon married another German immigrant and together they did very well in large-scale farming. He died soon after they retired to Lake Atitlan, and she had worked very hard to create a garden based on her childhood memories of Germany. “I believe,” she told us, “that when you get old everyone wants to go back home–back to your roots. I knew I couldn’t do that, so I created my roots here.”
At that time I could not imagine ever wanting to go back to Glenside where I grew up. I was still making regular visits there to see my Mother, and I felt no particular emotional tie to that place. Bill’s family farm had been sold to a quarry, and he emphatically did not want to go home. However, near the end of his life he developed a strong desire to return to his hometown for one last trip, which we did. Coming to Tybee has always had elements of nostalgia for me because the times my family spent at the Jersey shore are among my happiest childhood memories. But this year I had an epiphany one warm Sunday afternoon as I walked all round my little community on the south end of Tybee. Children were playing ball in the street while teenagers whizzed by on scooters and bikes. The air was redolent with the appetizing smell of mesquite and hamburgers cooking on grills. Everyone had carried chairs into the yards and neighbors out walking stopped by to chat. Without warning, I was flooded with sensory memories of neighborhoods in Glenside. The sounds, smells, and sights of childhood were awakened by the ordinary weekend activities of a neighborhood about a thousand miles to the south. I heard Doña Edith saying in my ear, “Look, you found your roots here.”
I believe that nostalgia is an important aspect of aging. We grow up knowing we will die some day, a reality underscored by every loss we suffer as the years go by. But when you cross the threshold of 80, you know without a doubt that your own death could come at any time. I’ve only known a few people in my life who were truly morbid about that knowledge. For me, it’s what makes each day precious and has fueled my desire to live in the present moment as much as I can. In addition to the AFSC years, I lived many lives after childhood as a college student, theater wife, mother, volunteer, caregiver, and the unexpected bonus of the decade I spent working at Penland School of Crafts. I also had an intermittent life in Guatemala, spread out over twenty years. All of these lives bring the potential for both the poignancy and the pleasure of remembrance.
It seems to me the concept of nostalgia, even the word itself, is often viewed as lightweight, sentimental, indulgent or immature. When it’s considered as a part of aging, however, nostalgia brings moments of grace, which are nurturing, healing, and happy. If, instead of past joys, I’m visited by memories of deep sadness, regret for something I said or did, or moments of suffering, I try to let it go. Sometimes I say to myself, “I already suffered that pain; I don’t have to suffer it again.” But I welcome the times I am reminded of what I cherished in my life, what gave me joy, what taught me about living, what brought me the satisfaction of work well done, plus all the amazing people who crossed my path. It doesn’t mean I‘m living in the past, it means I’ve brought the richness of my life experience into my present, often while I’m writing.
I don’t dwell on my death and, in fact, expect to live a very long time as I explore yet another role, that of a single woman trying to live expansively. Part of that is letting my thoughts and feelings travel back to my many lives while in the present I sit in a comfortable chair, stare out the window and daydream.