Summers feel so different now than when I was a little kid. Fresh-picked strawberries and snap peas, bare feet, and the meadow tea Mom magically drew from the mint that grew behind the garage– and none of it laced with the bitterness of things I’ve since come to know. It was just sweet.
Now, bittersweet is the best I can hope for. This world’s brutality crests every horizon, and is visible on the periphery (if not in full view) in every moment of joy.
The day of the massacre in Uvalde, I had taken my children, 5, 9, and 12, to one of our favorite green spaces here in Philadelphia. I was handing my five year old some snacks while she perched above me in the tree. I picked up my phone to snap her photo and saw the breaking news alert.
The next day, we ventured back to that same place. I laid a blanket under a maple bough and it was only after we’d flopped onto our backs that I noticed a mama robin feeding her chicks in a nest directly overhead. We watched her bring them a muddy morsel and then fly away again. Left alone in the nest, the fluffy babies waited for her return. I had the thought: They have no idea how far they could fall, or that their nest is anything but secure.
Years ago, while visiting the abandoned Traverse City State Hospital in Michigan, I picked up a book in the gift shop and scanned a roster of names, admission dates, and diagnoses. They had been written in old cursive, during the immigration wave of the late 19th century.
One line really struck me: Diagnosis Nostalgia
I don’t know what that doctor meant by nostalgia, but his entry had me thinking of the psychic pain of displacement, separation, and erasure of her past that woman must have known.
In my own life, nostalgia has played a hand not only in keeping my head busy with thoughts of what was, but keeping my heart wistful with ideals of what “should be.” This got worse once I became a parent. Internalized ideals of what childhood should look like set me up to miss the goodness in the midst of a messy and surprising here and now.
Memory is one way we bring along the joy and meaning from our past. Nostalgia is complicated, though. It often distorts our perspective. When I talk to my older friends, I sometimes hear comments like “times were simpler then”, or “we are living in dangerous times” and think– no time was good for everyone, everywhere.
In his memoir, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle, Dante Stewart writes: “…nostalgia, white nostalgia, erases people like my grandmother, who was sitting in front of me, holding on to what memories she had, what memories she wanted to forget, what memories she wanted to tell.”
Our nostalgia for the world of our childhood says less about the wider world at that point in time and more about the simplistic way we saw things back then. If we were lucky, as children, we were spared the cognitive dissonance and countless adaptations a mature adult must handle.
But always, always, there have been, since the beginning, truths about the world that adults have hidden from children. It must be said, though, that many children are not afforded that privilege.
Brene Brown writes, “Think about how often we compare our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed.” Sacralizing our own past is unhelpful, especially if nostalgia drives a refusal to integrate new and troubling information. The queasy feeling that comes from having our fondest myths and childhood heroes knocked off their pedestals is something we will pay good money to avoid. I think this explains the rampant monetization (and weaponization) of nostalgia.
“When we’re faced with information that challenges what we believe, our first instinct is to make the discomfort, irritation, and vulnerability go away by resolving the dissonance. We do this by rejecting the new information, decreasing its importance, or avoiding it altogether. It’s brave to invite new information to the table, to sit with it and hear it out. But it’s also so rare these days.” –Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart
In childhood, my imagination of the world was simplistic. I dropped my pennies into the offering plate for Jesus, believing that my giving would somehow make life better for other little boys and girls. I knew nothing of the millions of vulnerable people offered as human sacrifices on the alter of power and self-interest. I didn’t know then, that some pastors rape children, or that self-proclaimed “good Christian people” sang hymns in their churches one day and showed up to watch, even participate, as their neighbor was lynched the next.
That little girl sitting on her front porch watching the fireflies flicker over the alfalfa field believed in her bones that Jesus loves everyone, including her. When she was afraid at night, after lights out, she knew she could call out and be heard in the darkness. I still believe that. But unlike me, that child was on the front side of knowing the complexity of human evil, of the innumerable acts that crush a human soul into meat. And it never would have crossed my mind that any of these things had been done, were being done, and would continue to be done, in the Name of my beloved Jesus.
At bedtime, as my mother turned out the light and walked out of my room, she would sing:
The angels are watching o’er you.
I wonder what painful knowing my mother carried for me– then, so I didn’t have to bear that stress inside my little body. Like she did for me, the way the mama robin does for her chicks, I try to carry the heavy so the most vulnerable in my life don’t have to.
To be real, though, some days, it feels like the bough is about to break.