Nostalgia for the Present

nos·tal·gia
näˈstaljə,nəˈstaljə
noun
  1. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

The word nostalgia is learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος(nóstos), meaning “homecoming” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain” or “ache”, and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home.

 

So-this-is-my-life.-And-I-want-you-to-know-that-I-am-both-happy-and-sad-and-Im-still-trying-to-figure-out-how-that-could-be.

 

Today is the last day of elementary school for my oldest daughter.  My social media feeds are swamped with “look back” photos.  The teachers sent out an album and video last night.  I looked at the pictures;  a bunch were of the gang from Kindergarten.  I went back to Facebook.  People are doing the “first day of Kindergarten / last day of sixth grade” thing.  I’m a mess.  I’m afraid to even OPEN the teachers’ video, because I know what it will be.  A series of charming pictures that might push me over the edge in the static form.  But set them to music and gently dissolve between shots?  I will be rendered a hopeless mass.

Some of this is clearly plain old nostalgia for the past.  The platitudes are so universal at this point that they are almost meaningless:  blink and they’re 16!  slow down, time!  boom, they’re graduating!  I wonder if the ease and ubiquitous nature of photos these days makes these comparisons almost too easy.  It only took me about 30 seconds to locate the picture of her starting Kindergarten.  Slap it next to this morning’s picture and I have a recipe for parental nostalgia.

Does everyone suffer this way?  I really don’t deal well with the passage of time.  I’ve written about it before, and practically every days affords me an opportunity to be ripped from the moment and reminded that this, too, is fleeting.  As I attempted to recover from my Facebook reading this morning, I settled on a phrase that I think captures this particular affliction well:  nostalgia for the present.

Lo and behold, a simple search of this phrase reveals I’m not alone in my pathology.  Sia’s first tour was named “Nostalgia for the Present.”  It’s been used as a title for a book on postmodernism and a Berber village.  It is the subject of thoughtful essays on digital media and modern life.  Apparently this is even a field of study in the social sciences where it is termed “anticipatory nostalgia.”

In an attempt to wrench myself from a sobbing fetal position, I read a review article by Krystine I. Bacho, PhD,   It’s titled “Missing the Present Before It’s Gone,” and it did a good job helping me to unpack my feelings this morning.  She talks about work on people, apparently there are more like me, who suffer this affliction.

Recent research suggests that people who have a greater need to belong and less assurance of social acceptance are more prone to anticipatory nostalgia.  It isn’t clear whether a tendency to consider the future can mentally distance a person from ongoing social interactions or whether feeling less integrated encourages one to consider the future.  According to current research, anticipatory nostalgia is neither dissatisfaction with the present nor a gloomy view of the future, but a reluctance to let go of the present.  -Bacho, Psych. Today, 2016

 

Check, check, and….check.  “A reluctance to let go of the present.”  I clutch fiercely to those moments that, as I experience them, I know they will be the snapshots that comprise the flipbook of my life.  The CliffsNotes version of the full story.  The only bits of the constant thrum of daily life that I’ll even be able to recall at the end of it all.  How can I not miss them before they are finished?  Who doesn’t mourn a good book when you arrive at the last chapter?  The last morning of vacation?  The first day of summer?  The good stuff is still happening, but the shutter is clicking.

The writer of this article touches on whether this nostalgia for the present is, essentially, a good thing or a bad thing.  Does it help one in the present, or prevent one from truly experiencing it at all?  All I know is my own experience.  If it weren’t for this heartbreaking affliction, there’s no way I would be able to write.  It stinks to always be a little bit melancholy, but I suppose it’s the trade off for whatever bit of an artist’s eye that I have.

Thank God for poetry.  My searches also led me to a poem by Jorge Luis Borge, a fully fledged, similarly afflicted soul.  It’s so comforting when someone can disassemble your current state, identify its constituent parts, polish them and render them precious, and assemble them into something greater and more universal.  Perhaps you fellow parents suffering from both nostalgia for the past and nostalgia for the present can find solace in his words as well:

Nostalgia for the present

At that very instant:
Oh, what I would not give for the joy
of being at your side in Iceland
inside the great unmoving daytime
and of sharing this now
the way one shares music
or the taste of fruit.
At that very instant
the man was at her side in Iceland.

-Jorge Luis Borges (from the Spanish)

 

Oh well.  If that doesn’t work, I’m pretty sure that’s also why they invented wine.

 

 

 

 

Sixth Grade

Natalie started sixth grade this year.  That feels weird.  Sixth grade is one of the first grades that I can remember with any narrative certainty.  Oh, I have memories before that, but they’re more like snapshots, or maybe little repeating GIF’s.  Sixth grade though, that’s where the narrative arc that continued for some time began.  Or should I say narrative arcs.  I could start any of a number of painful young adult novels with events that occurred in and around sixth grade.

St. Mary's School

St. Mary’s School, on the hill, Janesville, WI

It was the year of Mrs. Neumiller at St. Mary’s K-8 parochial school.  My class had a reputation for being “lively:”  fun for the teachers that still had the energy, hopelessly exhausting for those that didn’t.  Mrs. Neumiller fell into the latter camp, and if memory serves, she quickly retired after our sixth grade year.

st Mary 6th_1

1987, St. Mary’s 6th Grade

She wore a collection of chunky turquoise rings that hung loose on her fingers as she wrote on the board, held in place only by knuckles grown arthritic with age.  She wore a pen on a string around her neck that dangled forward as she distributed communion wine at weekly mass.  And she wore a look of harried concern most of the time.

 

Here’s a sampling of some of my story arcs that got their roots in sixth grade . . .

…Once, while demonstrating how one can perform the Heimlich Maneuver on oneself using the back of a chair, Mrs. Neumiller lost her footing, slipped, landed across the back of the chair and had the wind knocked out of her.  It probably hurt a lot.  I’m pretty sure that most of us either stared or laughed.  Theme:  kids are mean, and it takes awhile to have the human decency knocked into them.

…In sixth grade I started trying to look like other people.  Prior to this, I thought that looking unique was most important.  I sewed some clothes, made some interesting choices at the store for others.  I wore a sweater with sheep on it.  I had my mom put my damp hair in braids so that it would be wavy in the morning.  Then someone called me Tina Turner, and that was the end of that.  Conformity it was.  I tried to figure out how to make my bangs big.  I had a curling iron, but not any of the correct products or a mentor to teach me.  My mother had styled her hair by letting it air dry short for as long as I can remember.  My bangs never achieved the lofty heights of my classmates who had older sisters and ready access to mousse.  Theme:  even a desire to conform isn’t necessarily enough. 

 

Sixth Grade_1

Sixth Grade, before I started to experiment with big bangs.

…I got my period in sixth grade.  Shortly thereafter I was at a pool party at a classmate’s house and, newly menstruating girls being what they are, unpredictably had it arrive.  I had to use feminine hygiene products from her mom’s cupboard.  It was not OK.  Theme:  puberty sucks and I should really have been keeping track of things on a calendar.

…A classmate’s father died that year after a brief battle with brain cancer.  I remember her standing up to offer an intention during morning prayers one day.  She used the word “chemo” in such a familiar way that it still gives me chills.  It was the first funeral that I ever attended.  It rained.  I started to realize that life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.  Theme:  life doesn’t come with any money back guarantees.  This is hard to learn.

…That year, we participated in a goal-planning activity.  It came with a green, shiny booklet that I’m sure was sponsored by a bank or something. It was the first time I had to answer the question “where do you want to be in 10 years?”  (I still hate that question).  The program also attempted to teach us basic financial skills and boiled money down to understandable facts.  I began to get the idea that maybe finances were a topic that could be discussed rationally and and without all sorts of emotion hanging onto them.   Theme:  there are ways to approach life other than your parents’ way;  this can feel like betrayal at first. 

…I longed to be noticed by boys, but I had absolutely no idea how best to go about it.  Apparently, showing off in class, dressing like a middle aged woman, and laughing painfully loudly was not the correct way.  Theme:  they’re really pretty easy to figure out once you stop trying so hard.

 

I wonder what narrative arcs Natalie will start this year?

I hope that her memories of me are of the patient moments.  I hope that she can avoid some of the embarrassments and that those that are inevitable are quickly blurred by memory.