Nostalgia’s Curse

By: Jameson Croteau

My grandparents’ living room reeked of encroaching death.

Nature, for years, had been welcomed into the cracks of the handpicked brick walls that had been layered and mortared as an act of love from my strong armed Papa. But every one of those flowers, vines, and blooms were dying, curling yellow and drying to the stem. My Papa sat amongst them in his hospice bed, looking like nothing more than a potted plant yearning to wilt away.

I sat by his cruel, cool-to-the-touch metal coffin, unable to speak or—ashamedly—even look at him. He would die two days later. And bound within him—untapped and laid to rest—were countless stories, countless lessons, and countless memories.

And until now I longed most dearly for those lost parcels.

The barn that my grandfather built. 

Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize winning author, recently gave a talk to the Jewish Book Council on March 7th. His words, said in acceptance of the organization’s Modern Literary Achievement award, would later be penned down as a New Yorker blog post and titled “The True Meaning of Nostalgia.”

Within, Chabon offers weighty insights into the ties between his own storytelling and the tales of life experiences he heard from his Uncle Jacks, Aunt Ruths, and Grandpa Stans growing up. In his hard-to-catch-a-breath sentences, Chabon—who writes primarily about Jewish nostalgia between the covers of coming-of-age tales—chains his reader through his mental grapple with what nostalgia truly means:

“Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all…. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored…”

By Chabon’s conclusion, nostalgia is not the future looking past, but a thing of the present when the past slips back around. And it’s what, looking back to the day I watched my grandfather die, kept me silent.

Until I read Chabon’s article, it wasn’t something that I could come to verbal terms with. Shame—directed from my sterile response to a suffering loved one—had guarded me from finding why I had felt that way.

I was preoccupied with the false, but weighty notion of nostalgia: missing out. I had so much to say and to learn from my Papa, that every time I went to uncover more I was stopped. I wanted to have every detail, every morsel, scrap, and story. But where to start and when to finish? I was moved to nothing.

With Chabon’s words, it’s clear now. I don’t need the stories he never told. I don’t crave the lessons I never got to learn. I have a bundle of my own already. It’s foolish to be paralyzed by the “could’ve beens…”

The main metaphor of Chabon’s piece is that nostalgia is like a well-placed phone call directly into the past that gets an answering voice: at the time I hadn’t even thought to dial.

But I still have Papa’s numbers. I’m filled with them.

And to get that fragile, yet beautiful restoration of him, every time I see a well-formed garden, a well-tuned sledgehammer, or a case of orange tic-tacs, I’ll call.

*          *          *

Nostalgia rules every college campus across the country. Casually thrown out phrases of “90’s kids will only remember” and “fear of missing out” have become an obsession. Not to mention the social media mental take over. We are so focused on having something for later we don’t live the now, we just record it.

The current generation, myself especially included, believes FOMO to be the true source of nostalgia pains. But that’s not true. Chabon’s nostalgia, a more stable remembrance, is actually the ache of being there.

What we feel as a collective is the bittersweet double-bladed sword that digs into us while we’re alone after that party, while we crash back and forth between the bar, the classroom, the extracurriculars, and while we convince ourselves to do more, to see more, to be more.

This faux-nostalgia—or perhaps it’s better labeled as the future fear of not having nostalgia—has forced my hand. I’ve become a “yes-man”, willing to do anything and everything to have lived experience to use or to fondly look back on. It’s a curse I chose willingly to hold onto.

And that “nostalgia” aches. It’s sharp. It’s poignant. It feels, at times, like a velvet-gloved hand over the heart, forcing the beats to a slow and painful, but longing murmur.

This ache comes daily now, as my undergraduate days come to an end. I’m surrounded by it. Surrounded by ends, without being able to look towards the impending beginnings. Because the only beginnings I see are in the faces of underclassman moving through their first few semesters. My nostalgia-surrogates are still a few years removed from my position. But they will feel it all the same. We all sit under the thumbprint of nostalgia.

It’s those wistful “what ifs” that have us chained. The daggerous quote: “College is the best four years of your life” has us on the run. Everyone keeps sending us up the mountain saying there’s going to be a cliff at the top. And we think: How can I honor my four years here? How could my future self’s recollections ever do these days justice? How can I make it worth it?

Well, my advice is we have to let life be and do for the sake of doing.

True nostalgia doesn’t come from longing. It comes from the beautiful recollection. Nostalgia, despite what we feel, is not an observation of emptiness, but a restoration of that space.

Experiences not fully lived will just create an empty longing. Remembering, too, is not enough. Restoration speaks to a continuation. Go back to your college bar, go back to your old home, go back to Papa’s barn in the backyard and breath it all in. You have to reconnect and continue to do so to feel true nostalgia, because it’s not a feeling from the past, but a notion that staples present to the past.

So, you just have to be prepared to be a Chabon. Pick up that phone and make a connect-call. Lift the curse and the feelings of inadequacy, and do it often. Because true nostalgia is fleeting and fragile, but it can fill the gaps you believe you have.

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