For some reason my quirky mind has been pondering the similarity between the words “nostalgia” and “neuralgia.” Both have an ending referring to pain, right? Neuralgia, obviously, is nerve pain of a particular sort, although one would think that any kind of physical pain would involve nerves. Never mind that now. With some riffling through online dictionaries (not as pleasing to the senses as riffling through the pages of physical books, but faster) I discovered that “nostalgia” originally meant “home pain,” better known as homesickness. It was in fact, considered at one time a medical condition, a type of illness among soldiers far from home.
Nostalgia still can have an underlying note of melancholy, but generally we think of it these days more positively as a fond remembrance of things past, with perhaps just a slight regret that those times are past, and a fleeting wish that we could return to them. Given the choice, which is of course impossible, I think most of us would have more sense than to choose to relive our past, even though it might be interesting to see how accurate our memories are.
In thinking nostalgic thoughts I do tend toward the melancholy—going through box upon box of old family photographs saved by my mother is certainly a trigger in many ways, including seeing myself at different ages. But I have my share, probably more than my share, of pleasant memories. The older we get, the more we have to be nostalgic about.
Judging by recurrent dreams, which may or may not be a reasonable measure, I’m most nostalgic for the three years I spent in northern California and the thirty-nine years I spent as a retail store owner in western Massachusetts. Quite a spread, certainly the majority of my so-called adult life, but both now firmly enough in the past to qualify as nostalgia generators.
Ah, California in the late 60s. San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Sausalito! Golden Gate Park, Redwood Park, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods! Plus Mendocino, Point Reyes, Sonoma, and for adventures father afield, the Sierras and Yosemite! I loved them all, even though I was homesick then for New England. Now, once in a while, I’m homesick—nostalgic in its original sense—for those places, at that time. Time. There’s the rub. I’ve been back to the Bay area on visits a few times, but of course things have changed. You can’t go home again, because the place that was home has changed, and the you that felt at home there isn’t there any more.
I could go to, say, Yosemite again, and I would if I had the chance, but these days you have to tour the valley by bus, not your own car. The campground I knew has been washed away by the Merced River. And the two-year-old who built his very first snowman not far from Ansel Adams’s gallery isn’t there, and in fact has just turned 51, with a daughter of his own.
I could go to Sausalito, but the hippie handcrafter vibe of the late 60s is long gone from there. Muir Woods may very well be the pretty much the same, though—Sequoias are about as close to forever as complex living organisms get. I suppose some other places haven’t changed all that much, either. The wild mushrooms mycologist friends taught me to harvest may still grow in Redwood Park above Oakland and Berkeley, and the Mendocino coast to Point Reyes may still be as wild, though by its nature ever-changing, but the root of the matter is that I would be seeing all those things through older eyes than I did way back then, and the very act of observation would be colored by nostalgia.
Nostalgia for my former business is a somewhat different matter. It’s only been six years since it was sold to former employees, and one year since they closed it. But it was a huge part of my life for a very long time, as much home in a way as the house I live in, and I’m nostalgic for myself, for who I was then, the identity it gave me, the interaction with generations of people. It wasn’t uncommon for me to come across people when I went to trade shows in New York who remembered my store from when they were at UMass or Amherst College, and a few in recent years who told me that their own kids were now at UMass. In Northampton and Amherst these days, where my two stores were, I feel as much like a ghost as I do when I visit the campus of Mt. Holyoke College where I went to school.
Well. I meet people in the supermarkets or the libraries or even on trails in the woods who recognize me and ask how retirement feels, and I tell them truthfully that I’m as busy as ever with various things. I was offered the chance to buy back the business four years after selling it, and I turned it down, for many good reasons. But I’m still intensely nostalgic for it.
I suppose some people are more susceptible to nostalgia than others, and maybe age has something to do with it. As I said above, the older you get the more you have to be nostalgic about. It surprised me not long ago (and makes me wonder a bit about myself) when I realized, going down the stairs to my basement, that I felt nostalgia for all my younger selves going down those same stairs through the years, whether just on my way to get food from the freezer, or to go out to my garden, or, quite a few years ago, to make candles in a corner I’d outfitted for the process of melting the wax, coloring it in various original ways I’d worked out, pouring it into molds, sometimes using a propane torch on cooled candles to reveal colored chunks inside. I sold candles in my own stores and some others, fairly successfully (except that some stores that sold that kind of thing would suddenly disappear without paying you on consignment.) Before I had my own stores, in fact, I worked with a group called the People’s Craft Co-op, which tells you something about those times. Ah, more nostalgia, although the frictions and stresses that eventually developed in the organization didn’t make for particularly happy memories.
As writers, though, what would we do without those memories? Without those times in our pasts that made enough impression on us to inspire nostalgia now? In Thornton Wilder’s famous play Our Town one character, Emily, who has died in childbirth, is given a chance to return to just one day in her past, and chooses her twelfth birthday. This return to her past, nostalgia fulfilled, turns out to be painful, but shows her that every single moment of life should be treasured. She asks the character of the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it, and his answer is, "No. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some."
The poets. That could mean us, once in a miraculous while. We do some. Without the capacity for nostalgia, we couldn’t do as much.