There’s a compelling nature to a person’s experience with the phenomenon of nostalgia, one that tugs at the vulnerable heartstrings of memory to, at times, elicit an almost poignant ache in the chest in certain instances. From the Greek word nostos, or homecoming, a desire for which Homer’s Odysseus felt so strongly after the Trojan War, it speaks to a yearning for things we have known in the past – especially those things, circumstances and persons we associate with our sociability and happiness in bygone days.
AND THE OLDER WE GET, THE MORE SUSCEPTIBLE WE BECOME
TO THAT WISTFUL AND SENTIMENTAL LONGING FOR
WHAT ONCE WAS…OR MIGHT HAVE BEEN.
THUS THE QUESTION BECOMES, IS THAT BYGONE CONTINGENCY
BETTER, MORE DESIRABLE THAN THE WAY WE ARE TODAY?
Our thoughts, activated by the power of our senses to sometimes override reason, might lead us to think, from time to time, that the past was better by far as we view “the long ago and far away” through the prism of our emotions.
And, of course, all of us are receptive to some degree, so that any collective indulgence (such as a reunion) into reminiscences with old friends and acquaintances might often seem bound to “prove” that our truly good times are behind us. Baby Boomers may be particularly prone to this indulgence because they are aging, but they are by no means exclusively the only generation vulnerable to group sentimentality. In fact, each and every generation enjoys the sentient act of harkening back to a time when all the opportunities of life were spread out ahead of us, and the world seemed to be, perhaps, our “oyster.”
But were things really as we remember them? It is, of course, a pleasure to recall the past, especially with longtime friends from the yesterdays we shared. But is what we remember simply the product of those collective memories or is it Homer’s nostos – a desire for a “homecoming” in the tradition of Odysseus?
The author Thomas Mann, in his novel entitled You Can’t Go Home Again, iterates the impossibility of returning to that which has changed with the passage of time, and that “home” is not the same as when we left it or as we remember it to be. It has vanished into the mist of time, just like the Scottish village did in the old musical Brigadoon. Consequently, today, as our here-and-now offers the concrete comeuppance to our wistful musings of what used to be, it would seem that succumbing to the siren song of nostalgia is something we should temper, so that we don’t make it a substitute for life in the present, in real time. For we must remember that there’s room for each vision in our lives and that we are all products of the past, as well as the relentless crucible of our lives in current times.
Our five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste and even, in a way, touch – can sometimes provide a trigger for unleashing a wave of nostalgia in particular circumstances. For instance, sight can evoke the sentimental past when we visit places where we were born or grew up, although it’s always jarring to see how much a locality has changed…despite the vision that we may treasure stored in our memory banks. Visiting an old high school, college or university from which we graduated can produce this same juxtaposed and even jaundiced experience.
And what is true of places is even more so when we run into people we knew in the distant past, especially when the meeting occurs at a reunion. And speaking of reunions, there’s a reason why songs are endlessly spun out during these gatherings…because our sense of sound can transport us quite effectively to a specific time or era, enhancing that nostalgia we sometimes feel for what might have been – and with whom. Music, representative of a particular time and loved to whatever degree, allows us as listeners to indulge in the pleasant rendition of our shared experiences, thereby transporting us back in time, because we tend to idealize the good and virtuous memories we retain from the past. The trenchant power of a particular song from a particular decade can produce an almost visceral yearning for some element or event out of our past, just as the sound waves lapping a shore might call forth some burnished, golden moment frozen in memory and encapsulated in time.
But the two most powerful senses, our sense of smell and of taste, can whisper to us like a Pied Piper playing his flute, conjuring up that which we used to know so well. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, we have these two senses bombarded with scents from candles, greens and baked goods, for instance, just as the sweet smell of cherry blossoms and lilacs can signal the coming of spring for us. Similarly, summer offers up the smell of newly-mown lawns as well as the taste of homegrown fruits and vegetables available, until, finally, autumn creeps in with the scent of burning leaves, stimulating our taste for apples, cider and the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte, all awakening our vivid visions of years past. But for a spontaneous and immediate reaction to the provocation of scent that can give rise to a wave of nostalgia, we may only need to catch a whiff of a familiar perfume or cologne to experience a full-blown image of some wearer of it from our long ago, including all the circumstances of our relationship with that person… romantic or otherwise.
These intended (or unintended) trips down memory lane may recreate in us an emotional response fraught with longing even if only for a moment, for bygone days – a longing that often increases our experience of it as we age, a perpetual looking back for some people. For like the “days of wine and roses,” we sometimes yearn for our youth, when life and all the fascination it held–the hope, the promise and those mesmerizing possibilities it offered–were there within our grasp.
And finally, the sense of touch metaphorically arises, for it might create in us a pining for what we once perceived as sitting right in the palms of our hands…a world untarnished by the passage of the years, and one that we could almost embrace were it not so very far behind us. Tinged with pathos and, perhaps, even a kind of grief, we may wonder if what we feel is more real than the world to which we are tethered now. Would we go back in time and relive certain days if we could, even at the expense of altering the course of our own personal history?
No matter how sensible we might think ourselves, isn’t it true that we are, in fact all susceptible, to some degree, to this incipient pleasure of turning back time, just for awhile, in its inevitable flight? Our class reunions represent the organized pursuit of this venture to turn back the clock, it seems. Whether the gathering is held only a short 10 years after graduation, or whether it marks the 25th year since that time… or even when it commemorates the longevity of those who make it to their 50th anniversary, the consequential trip down memory lane can be palpable. Familiar and unfamiliar faces abound, and we may find we judge ourselves in terms of how others appear in comparison with us, from the past up to today, with ourselves coming out on top in the assessment, naturally.
And then there is a certain satisfaction derived in reminiscing about incidents from our collective past with those who shared our experiences – almost like being there all over again. But this presumed pleasure is fleeting, lasting only a bit longer than the gathering itself. For reality returns with Monday morning, along with our routine and natural pursuits, so that our trip to “yesterday” becomes merely a pleasant blip on the landscape of our real lives.
Similarly, we can be thrust back in time when contemplating how things have changed as we look at Flint’s downtown, confronted as we are by memories of old vistas in apposition with the way things have altered with the passing years. These changes we see can be daunting – and the older we are, the more we may look for signs of the town we once knew. A visit can become a bit like an archaeological dig to identify elements of the past in building artifacts buried in the components of the new revival of the restored buildings and new businesses burgeoning on the same streets we once trod when GM was king and this was a company town.
We view the newly-restored Capitol Theatre where some of us once watched all the latest film releases, and we see that its revival has been faithful to the original architecture, circa 1928, with the familiar arches at the top of the façade, and a cloistered arrangement in its auditorium on the inside, so suited to the Vaudeville performances once held there. And outside, the sign is, of course, still the same as we remember. Down the street, on the corner of Second Street and Saginaw Street, the Dryden Building also looks much the same on the outside as in the past, while inside it sports a sleek, shiny and eclectically modern décor, thanks to the reclaiming of the building, as does its neighbor, Ferris Bros Furs (now called The Ferris Wheel) by Phil Hagerman’s Skypoint Ventures. Both represent showplaces replete with bits of their histories intact, testaments to the entrepreneurial creativity, imagination and industriousness of the past that created them, as well as to that of the investors and innovators rebuilding the Flint of today.
On the opposite corner, the old Woolworth’s has been replaced by the Mott Culinary Arts Institute, while on the southwestern corner, ELGA Credit Union sits where the old Baker’s Drug Store used to be. And in the middle of the block, on the east side between First and Second streets, is a place called Blackstone’s, but it no long sells men’s clothes as some might recall. It is now known as Blackstone’s Smokehouse and serves as a convenient place for employees, employers and visitors alike to gather. And during Back to the Bricks, the Chamber of Commerce holds a tent party and cookout on Thursday night on the corner lot where, as some of us remember, a women’s clothing store called The Vogue used to be. The event was a great success this year, despite the rain.
So the changes are legion, these representing only the ones on one square corner. But the old original bricks still make up the pavement on Saginaw Street, and we can almost envision shopping at the stores up and down that roadway, especially during the holidays when, as young kids, we might have thought the lights, decorations on the “tall” buildings and snow on walks seemed magical. Or we might see our teenage selves as we once were, hanging out by Hatfield’s Record Shop, eating French fries in Smith-Bridgman’s Carriage Room, or ending up either at Kewpee’s or Uncle Bob’s on a Saturday afternoon.
Nostalgia – it’s an organic kinda thing.
In fact, the very condition of aging itself means that, in the end, we will all ourselves be but a memory to someone, somewhere – a piquant signpost on a byway of life. So it’s not unusual, in our poignant yearning, to feel some regret for “the road not taken,” the path not trod, even, perhaps, the mark not made, so that the phrase “if only” might come to the minds of some.
But that, of course, is dealing in fantasy, not part of the real world in which we reside. We might sense this and question whether or not we would really return to the lost world of yesteryear if given the chance to do so. Quite probably not, for we have most certainly glamorized the past in all its impressionistic, water-colored haze. So we must cease longing too much for that enchantment of our salad days, or we risk the danger of ignoring our vibrant and real present – with all its intense immediacy. After all, living life to its fullest is no mean feat, for it is but today, not yesterday or tomorrow, that truly matters, and we must all sign up for the long haul. We can learn from the past and work to prepare for the future, but it is today in which we must live and work and love and give our all…no matter our ages.
This notion may in itself provide a solid and practical philosophy by which to live: Take the best from what we have learned from our past, and fuse it with what we experience in the present in order to ensure a future worth looking forward to. In fact, we can create a synthesis of T. S. Eliot’s “permanent things” from bygone days, blending them with the imperative of the here-and-now to make our lives the grand bargain they ought to be…and our futures all we could possibly hope for. For in the end, today–this moment in time–is all any of us really have.