Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. ~ Barbara Kingsolver
Nostalgia. The word, translated from the literal Greek, means “the pain of returning home”. Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student, originally coined the term in the 1600s to describe a type of obsession among mercenary soldiers – this sentimental yearning for home during military operations was considered a disorder of the brain, and symptoms ranged from despondency and malnourishment to hallucinations and brain fever. Today the word carries a less severe interpretation, instead referring to a longing for how things were, or a desire to return to former times or places.
Films and music often trigger this sentiment for me. One of my favourite movies features a lead character who’s secret dream is to open a “nostalgia shop”… a place where you can browse and buy things that remind you of “the good old days”. Charlotte’s Web (1973) and Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977) were films my sister and I would watch on Saturdays in 1981 in a school classroom while our Dad would work on marking and lesson plans. This was the year that my dad was single following my mom’s death, and the opportunity to watch these movies (on a device we – and many others – didn’t have at home) represented an escape from the day-to-day adjustments we were facing.
There are many songs in the bottomless catalogue of music that speak to nostalgia. For me, just about any tune by Ben Rector (but especially the album “Magic”) will bring me back – to my childhood friendships, high school heartbreaks, finding that “Steady Love”, and those early days of tiny toes and baby giggles. Some days, a soundtrack of emotive movie scores and a stray thought about the bittersweet tension of loving the people your kids are becoming while mourning the childhood they are leaving is enough to bring me to tears – there is without doubt an emotional risk in delving too deeply into these waters.
I’ve heard it said that scents are particularly good at evoking nostalgic affections as well. When I smell autumn decay – that pungent fall odour, where the fallen leaves are crispy on top but sticky and clumped underneath, it awakens memories of elementary school… specifically nature walks on science field trips, Canada Fitness Test endurance runs (which I loathed), and back-alley walks to a friend’s house over lunch hour for microwaved Alphagetti and an episode of The Flintstones. Oh, and those puffball mushrooms we’d step on to release their spores like a smoke bomb…
All of these things can bring about a sense of longing but nothing makes me pine for the past like a well-timed photo memory. The cinema of exhausting interrupted nights, days full of diapers, negotiated nap times, and managing meal messes dissolves into still frames of little fingers wrapped inside loving hands, a figure kneeling at the side of the tub to wash a tousled head of curls, and a fevered body seeking comfort in a soft lap. How I long to return there, just for a time. Like Tim in “About Time”, I want to relive those days, not to remove any of the hard stuff, but to relish those moments for the little joys they contained – the joys I missed in the tiredness and frustration and hurry.
Maybe that’s what it really comes down to. Nostalgia is the desire to have appreciated fully a moment in that moment. An acknowledgement that we have somehow wasted the opportunity to be completely present and grateful for the ordinary miracles and tiny blessings we are gifted every day. How sad, then, that nostalgia is an incurable disease – for we are incapable of seeing daily gifts for what they are, until they are in our rear view mirror.