Future (and Past) Nostalgia

Searching for a Home We Haven’t Yet Seen

I miss many things from my past: Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, taking off pointe shoes to reveal bloody feet, and the smell of urine in the New York subway.

Except … not really? I miss, rather, the times of life that these images represent, the familiarity evoked by the memories. Never mind that when my children were young enough to still enjoy Mickey, I was even more sleepless and addlebrained than I am now. Or that I battled constant insecurity as a dancer in junior high  — an era of life I hated. Or that I spent much of my time in New York City feeling lovelorn and lost. But those times, those years, they are part of who I am, and as I now wash lunchboxes and wonder when my children will stop screaming “MOOOOOOM!” across the house, it’s easy to look back at them and feel a pang for the known instead of the constant onslaught of unknowns brought by each new day.

In his novel Anxious People, Fredrik Backman writes, “Anyone can nurture a myth about their life if they have enough manure, so if the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, that’s probably because it’s full of shit.” I guess I’ve been gardening lately, and also jumping the line that divides the Now and Then of my life.

Last month, upon the year anniversary of our lockdown, I realized I was aching for that housebound time. Not for the homeschooling part of it, mind you, or the panic attacks that it brought on. But there was something about the simplicity of having nowhere to go and virtually nothing to do (except pretend to teach my children). The days here in Australia were shortening and life felt like it should slow down anyway. I remember pouring a glass of wine at 4 pm, turning on some jazz, reading a chapter of a novel, and then watching some ballet on my computer  while handing the boys over to my husband. I remember walks as a family and unsuccessful bike-riding lessons. I even remember one trip to the park that ended in a spider bite for me, which in Australia can be a death sentence. Awww! Good times!

I was talking to a friend recently about the beauty of social distancing and relaxed schedules, and she looked off into the distance and murmured wistfully, “I miss COVID.” Granted, we live in Australia where three cases was considered an outbreak and the loss of life was next to nothing, so one could be forgiven for focusing on the positives here. (Not sitting next to a stranger at the theater? Hand sanitizer everywhere? Yes please!) But we often do miss painful periods in our lives once enough time has gone by to drench their memories with sepia-toned magic. Time has a way of making the past feel like an escape from the present. 

Upon that one-year anniversary (and the voluminous content provided by streaming services during the pandemic), I spent some time diving into my own past via material that reminded me of it. On Disney+, I binged On Pointe, a multi-episode documentary about students at the School of American Ballet auditioning for roles in The Nutcracker. I was in that ballet myself as a teen (overgrown ginger snap, anyone?), and I bought countless nosebleed tickets to New York City Ballet performances during my half-decade in the city. Watching the Sugar Plum Fairy brought me back to two periods of my life at once, both of them filled with good and terrible times.

Next up was Cobra Kai, which I had laughed at the idea of until I heeded the advice of several friends and watched it, transfixed at this genius retelling of the story through the former villain’s eyes. The story sent me straight back to my own childhood in the 80s, a time when I struggled through painful shyness and constant awkwardness —  yet somehow remember fondly in flashbacks.

Then there was Felicity, which aired at the end of college and the beginning of dental school for me. It so captured the awkwardness I felt that I often used to watch through my fingers. A friend at the time walked out of the room during one viewing, proclaiming, “I can’t watch it any more. She’s too EMBARRASSING!” Meanwhile, I could only be thankful for a girl whose own social clumsiness mirrored mine and whose story made me feel less alone.

Maybe there’s an aspect of going back to these times that is about telling my inner child she’s going to be okay. God knows she needed to hear that — and believe it. But I think, on a grander scale, that there is always a part of each of us that is seeking a homecoming.

God has built into us all a longing for a place we’ve never been but were made for; a home we haven’t seen but are headed toward. We can fixate this longing — existential and bottomless as it is — on smaller things to ease our angst. We ache for the familiar because it helps satisfy part of our need to be at home, to be finally settled, to ultimately belong. Nostalgia validates our past experience while feeding the part of us that longs for a settledness this world doesn’t give.

In her novel Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason writes:

Nostos … returning home. Algos, pain. Nostalgia is the suffering caused by our unappeased yearning to return. Whether or not … the home we long for ever existed.

Akin to déjà vu, but packing more of an emotional punch, nostalgia recognizes the places we’ve been, acknowledges their familiarity, then adds a healthy dose of yearning to the mix. Yearning is painful but, I believe, is also one of the notably human characteristics this side of eternity, and points us to the God who sees all of time at once and whose plan it is to eventually get us to the part of it where we are, each, truly at home. Our yearning mirrors God’s joyful anticipation, and entering into this very real form of grief paradoxically brings us closer to his joy. 

For what is nostalgia if not abreaction persevering?

I grew up praying the Lord’s Prayer without thinking deeply about what it meant. Now, when I utter the words “thy kingdom come,” I consider the nostalgia inherent in acknowledging something that was, and is, and is to come, even while it remains conspicuously absent. I consider the grief that is part of the now-and-not-yet. And I grow a bit less afraid of deep-dives into old material that dredge up endless emotions and, somehow, point to a time when all will be new.

Image credit: Andre Benz on Unsplash.