A Meditation on Nostalgia
Amidst the politics and red-meat issues that I and others write about at Blue State Conservative, it is sometimes good to just take a breath and think about life in general. The living of it, the valuing of it, the meaning of it. Hence this meditation on nostalgia.
nos.tal.gia 1: homesickness. 2: a wistful or excessively sentimental or sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary).
Quick note: so as not to embarrass the living or the dead, I will be using a “*” to indicate an unnamed last name. At this point in my life, I don’t need anyone leaping at me from the past.
Why is it that I can rattle off the names Pete Runnels, Eddie Yost, Clint Courtney, Jim Lemon, Roy Sievers, Pedro Ramos, Camillo Pasqual and Jose Valdevioso – all members of baseball’s Washington Senators as I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area in the 1950s – and today can’t name a single current member of the team?
Why is it that to this day I have warm memories of Carol *, who I loved from afar in ninth grade, though as I now look back, I realize she had all the sex appeal of a dill pickle sandwich?
Why is it that when asked who my best friend is I will still likely respond with the name Rick *, though I haven’t seen or heard from him since the late 1960s?
Why is it that when asked about my favorite books I will bring up those written mostly in the 1960s and early ’70s from writers like John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Ray Bradbury and Albert Camus?
Check out this list of personal bests and worsts:
Best date: In 1965 with Valerie * to see the jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd.
Worst date: same as above; as we parked on the side of a very dark road she willingly wanted to be my guitar, but unlike Charlie Byrd I never quite knew what to do with my hands.
Best car: my 1967 Firebird 400, canary yellow with black interior, able to squeal rubber on demand. Sadly, had to sell it to pay for college when I decided that was the way forward for me.
Best basketball game: in overtime, North Carolina State with David Thompson, who was Air Jordan before there was an Air Jordan, defeats my beloved Maryland Terps in 1974 for the ACC championship, thus qualifying for the NCAA tournament back when only one team from a conference could go.
Worst athletic season: 1965 high school soccer team which I co-captained. We were 1-10 and our practices usually ended with some of us sneaking into the Home Economics classes to swipe student-made cookies and pies, which may help explain why we were 1-10. I couldn’t play the one game we won because of injury. Hmmm!
Best dance: slow dancing at a 1965 teen club with Susan * – our blood pressures commingled.
Best kiss: Susan * – I was still thinking about the dance.
Worst kiss: It was in high school, but blessedly I have forgotten her name. She wore braces and opened her mouth wide to get them out of the way. It was like kissing an empty aquarium.
Best teacher: Bob Wetzel (I don’t think he’ll mind his last name being used), my philosophy professor in college from 1969-72.
Worst teacher: Miss Bentley (I don’t care enough about her to avoid her last name), a high school math teacher who thought you bought a car by the pound. I swear to God!
Nastiest, meanest, most bigoted, plants-die-around-her-grave teacher: Mrs. Jewel McHugh (and I really don’t care if she were to get mad), a high school history teacher who refused to allow me into her class because “I’m not going to have any trouble with your kind this year.” I have no doubt that ships downwind of her perish at sea.
What all these people, events and episodes have in common is that they each reflect a time more than 50 years ago.
I find myself more and more thinking about my high school and college days, as well as those in between when I simply “bummed” around the country. those years, generally from 1965-75, more and more have become a source of nostalgic reflection, for good or ill.
As someone who is now within shouting distance of his 75th year on earth, I wonder what it is that will have me staring at a high school yearbook for hours. When I realize how much time has passed, I ask myself whether it has been time well spent or a sort of psychological aberration.
It seems to me there is something to be said for nostalgia, though as with all good things it can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Nostalgia, it would appear, is part and parcel of human wisdom, a recognition of the passing of time and of the changes that occur in the living of a life.
Reflecting on those earlier times I remember a feeling of extraordinary freedom and power. We were the best and the brightest, as David Halberstam wrote, and the world was ours for the taking. Our idealism and energy would bend the world to our will. But still, there were important decisions to be made – what school, what major, what career – decisions that would set us on a path from which it later would be difficult to divert.
It is no accident that the root word of “decide” means “to kill,” hence words like homicide, fratricide, suicide, etc. To decide on a path is, in effect, to kill other options that one has as a youth. Like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” to choose a certain path where “way leads on to way” is a luminous moment in one’s life, a moment which “has made all the difference.”
In my twilight years poets come to the fore in their wisdom and understanding. Frost has another poem, “Stopping by Woods On A Snowy Evening,” which captures a late night mood that it is easy for me to fall into as I stare out across a valley from my mountain cabin.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” the poem intones. “But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.”
Some argue it is a poem about a desire to just give in to that deep darkness – death – that ultimately envelops each of us. But the narrator is pulled up when he thinks of the duties and promises that still remain in this life. Still a long way to go, he thinks in that repeated “miles to go before I sleep.”
Frost insists, by the way, that “death” was the last thing on his mind when he wrote it.
According to Lawrance Thompson’s out-of-print, three-volume biography of Frost, he had been up all night writing another poem when he wrote “Stopping By Woods” after a brief walk outside. He, literally, was wanting to go to sleep.
I’ll leave the critics to argue the point.
The poetry of William Wordsworth also speaks with incisive wisdom at this time of life, as when he writes in “Intimations of Immortality”:
Then sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
So in our troubling times, it seems “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Thus, we look for, hope for, pray for, philosophic and spiritual solidity.
Wordsworth can help us here as well, as when he writes in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
As a youth, life is an unwritten book left open and blank. Approaching 75, life seems more a well-plotted book in which the ending is well-nigh anticipated. Instead of standing open, the Book of Life is beginning to be shut. Over time, one begins to feel the weight of the pages on one’s life. And as the book of one’s life more and more begins to close in, one reflects with a sigh on a time of unbridled freedom and opportunity. Nostalgia.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.