For me, my happy memories are too sacred and precious to dilute into some watered-down shadow of what mattered most. So I choose to keep them all. The sorrow and the silliness, the sunshine and the suffering, all of it has formed me.
“Memories light the corners of my mind / Misty water-colored memories/ of the way we were”
Barbara Streisand sang those words in the movie “The Way We Were” and it has remained one of her biggest hits to this day. While the movie may have come out before I was born, there is an ache that exists in those lyrics and the ones that follow.
They fit with today’s musings because I happened to spend last weekend saturated in nostalgia. For my Christmas present, my dad planned a weekend for us to get away to northern Arizona and spend some time writing about the power of nostalgia. As two people who are often sucked up and whisked away by the hasty effect nostalgia bestows upon our hearts, it seemed like the perfect way to spend some intentional time together.
The night before our departure, we both discussed bringing tangible things that would stir up those nostalgic feelings and would provide inspiration for this writing project. I packed books from my childhood like The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs by Phoebe Gilman and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, movies like The Lion King and The Wizard of Oz, tv shows like The Magic School Bus and I Love Lucy. I felt joy and excitement even just by touching the book covers and plastic cases that felt like they contained those precious memories.
Obviously I was bringing more than what’s mentioned here, so even more obviously, I needed to have a separate bag dedicated just to nostalgic items. Conveniently I just happened to still have my backpack from high school, so in the items went to a two-tone pink Jansport that I took a permanent marker to and wrote all the names of my friends on. As I packed and the hour grew later, I had to stop myself from spending hours in photo albums digging up old pictures to bring with us. I had to keep myself from spending more hours in Itunes creating another nostalgia playlist, because the truth is that I already had one…… but actually more than one.
As I tried to start packing the “practical” things, even that turned into a walk down memory lane. I picked flannel shirts and jeans to wear in the brisk mountain weather, but with each one I had a different t-shirt that captured a different piece of my childhood. A teal shirt with Disney characters like Belle, Jasmine, and Mulan. A red Cincinnati Reds shirt since they are my dad’s favorite team and has taken us back to his home a handful of times over the years. A black t-shirt with a white image of the Eiffel tour and the words “Je t’aime”, taking me back to our trip to Paris when I graduated from high school and the 4 years I spent taking French. I even slept in the black & red t-shirt that my senior class created for graduation, which is more than a decade ago now.
And I wasn’t the only one ready to immerse myself in the power of nostalgia. My dad brought our favorite Cincinnati chili for dinner and a bottle of red wine from one of our favorite wineries in Temecula, CA (a new set of memories we’ve created in the last 5 years as I’m now his adult child). He brought a list I had written him on his 45th birthday of 45 Reasons that I loved him, also now a decade old. Movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Going My Way, TV shows like Saturday Night Live, and books like the newest release by one of his long-time favorite authors John Eldredge. As I got into the car, he already had the mix CDs I had made for him some number of Father’s Days ago that are full of music that has connected us as father and daughter.
Now depending on who you are, this may sound like a sensational way to spend a weekend or a sensationally dull way to spend a weekend. Why dedicate 2 days to unlocking truths about nostalgia? Why sit together and share music that moves us to tears? Why laugh at old episodes of I Love Lucy and Saturday Night Live? Why let my dad read me the bedtime stories that he did 20 years earlier? Why choose to indulge the past?
It certainly is a danger to get stuck there and it can put one at risk for missing out on the present moment. However, the past holds incredible importance and can positively transform us if we let it. There is something magical about nostalgia. It transcends time and space to bring us back to the past. My dad says that revisiting important places reminds us that we are known and loved, that the life we have lived is worthwhile. He believes that our memories unlock the richness of God’s love for us as they come through the people we know and the experiences we’ve had.
For me, returning to things and places I love, recreating memories, etc. bring me back to a place of safety and joy. I want that for me, but I often want to share that with others in the hope that they might find it in those same places as well. Those memories, that nostalgia, is a refuge from the chaos of the world constantly provides. Both my father and I are fairly goal-oriented people and we agreed that nostalgia gives us the gift of reflecting and enjoying without striving for accomplishment. It’s like coming home.
That led my dad to his next question, his next writing prompt, when he asked me to describe my childhood home and who I was there. My smile washed over my face as an automatic reflex, and tears instantly appeared in the corners of my eyes. I described it as an anchor, my foundation and the place where I started to become myself. I have driven back to that old house several times since we moved across town 12 years ago and my heart aches for who I was back then. I felt joyful and safe; there was a simplicity to life. I was innocent, and it didn’t occur to me to try to be anything else. I was full of eagerness and curiosity. While I am aware that many people may not feel like the home they grew up in was safe or that they would describe the kid they were with those adjectives, I know that the home we come from will always be significant. It will always be formational. Even if our nuclear families or the places we grew up in didn’t feel safe and nurturing, we continue to look for friends who are family, family we choose to trust with who we are and the stories that we hold. We want a home where we are known and loved for just being ourselves, for just existing. Somewhere we can be present without striving.
So nostalgia is inextricably linked to our pasts. In some ways, it descends and replicates through the generations. On our drive out of Phoenix, we listened to Jerry Jeff Walker and how it was my dad’s contribution to the music that his dad started listening to when they moved away from Ohio and out to Texas. That reminded me of how I created my own mix CD as a teenager of Jimmy Buffet songs, because he was my dad’s favorite, so I wanted to connect to my favorite songs of the bunch. There are things that I love because my mom or my dad loved them. My dad introduced me to the movie The Sound of Music when I was a kid, which his mom introduced him to when he was a kid, and we later got to go on the actual Sound of Music tour in Austria back in 2007. There are 3 albums that my mom listened to nonstop as I was growing up (by Amy Grant, Jennifer Knapp, and Eve Selis) that I still treasure and have made my own. I grew up in a Methodist church with a traditional service and singing hymns feels sacred to me on so many levels. Though I personally have never considered myself a human who cares about sports in any significant capacity, I still own a few shirts that represent the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cincinnati Reds (the latter of which I brought with me this weekend). It connects me to my dad, to time we’ve spent together. The Reds connect him back to his dad, to his home back in Cincinnati that he had to leave as a child when they moved away. My stepmom is a diehard Denver Broncos fan, and the same goes for her. It connects her to her home, to her dad, to something bigger than herself.
I personally am so grateful to have been taught early on the value of what has come before me. I have always felt like an old soul. I like classical music and am swept away by the compositions of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Mozart, and Beethoven. I love classic actresses like Audrey Hepburn, classic movies like Casablanca. Early on in my life and in my family, I learned to place value on things and people that came before me. I knew then and still do that wisdom exists in those spaces, that beauty exists in those spaces, that solace for my soul can be found there. Creativity and brilliance doesn’t always come with innovation. I know that there is glory and majesty in creations that are linked to the past.
So often, these movies, books, songs, etc. go beyond a deep fondness, but bring about a tenderness of heart and a vulnerability of spirit. For those special things, those cherished memories, they have the ability to quickly strip us of the layers of protection we have built around our hearts and leave us exposed and undone. Whether the memories are happy or sad, the ones that hold the most power leave us vulnerable just the same.
However, we all are painfully aware that not all memories are sweet. So many moments are laced with melancholy. Many dismiss it as dark and consider it an unwanted emotion. For those of us who are nostalgic, there is something bittersweet about melancholy. We see it as necessary, a part of the human experience. Necessary for remembering. We feel the yearning and the longing in melancholy. Those bittersweet memories are a safe space place to sit in the ache of what was if you allow your heart to be tender enough to be tuned into what’s occurring. Unfortunately, that’s no guarantee. Sometimes it does feel too vulnerable to visit the feelings on their own, to wade into the barrage of waves that can knock you over. So by being able to mix those feelings with memories, or even mix the feelings and memories with a dash of positive nostalgia, we can find a small bit of comfort that makes the ache more bearable.
Dr. Brene Brown talks about how we cannot selectively dull the unpleasant feelings and only keep the happy ones. When we start to consistently numb away the negative feelings, we are diluting the happy ones. For me, my happy memories are too sacred and precious to dilute into some watered-down shadow of what mattered most. So I choose to keep them all. The sorrow and the silliness, the sunshine and the suffering, all of it has formed me. All of it has formed you. We cannot live in the past, but we cannot erase it either.
My dad asked me the question: What is the point of remembering?
I paused for a moment, but I knew the answer for myself almost immediately. There is power in remembering. One of my favorite authors Glennon Doyle often reminds her readers that there are 2 things that God most frequently reminds us in the Bible: “Do not be afraid” and “Remember.” He wouldn’t weave remembering and creating ways of remembering throughout His Word if it wasn’t significant. All of Scripture is a testament to remembering what has been and how transformational those stories can be. So in my own life and choosing to engage deeply with memories, the glorious and the wretched ones, I realize how precious the good moments are but how fleeting this life is…. and maybe the good moments are meant to be fleeting in the here and now, in this world we live in. They’re gifts from Abba that remind us that He loves us and wants to bring us joy, but that they cannot ultimately fulfill us. Even more importantly than that, I think remembering teaches me of who I have been and who God is, which directs and transforms who I can become. I have lived through it all, the joy and the sorrow. Last weekend my dad taught me that in the book of Genesis, Joseph named his second son “Ephraim” which means “double fruit”; in context, it is a reminder that God tells us that we can be fruitful even in the midst of suffering. Memories of all kinds can provide direction for our lives. So even in the memories that have been the most painful, the most catastrophic, He reminds me that He can produce fruit in us and through us even then. That is worth remembering.