The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering”. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.
~Milan KunderaI’m home for the holidays in the town I grew up in…well not the exact town, as my parents have since downsized into a condo and moved from the suburbs toward the city, but the majority of the landmarks and destinations of my youth surround and remind me as I meander Seattle’s Eastside and celebrate the holidays with my family.
The familiarity is both comforting and in a strange way painful; Surreal and expected all at the same time. The explosive development in the area is tempered by the survival of those few shops and restaurants that have been around longer than I have. It is a strange mix of new and old, change and permanence, excitement about progress and longing for the way things were.
I return home often compared to many of my friends and each trip brings its own unique flavor. There is always the anticipation of running into a classmate from High School I haven’t seen (or in some cases thought about) in 15 years, the dread that I will (most likely) be unable to remember their name or worse yet remember them. There is often excitement about visiting local restaurants and old haunts where I can enjoy food, scenery and people inaccessible where I currently reside. Usually I welcome the associations that emerge when I’m driving by a familiar street but sometimes I’m caught off guard by a pang of sadness or regret; I’ll suddenly feel out-of-place, that I don’t fit here any longer, that even if I wanted to, I could not return.
I remember having a revelation (which felt profound at the time) after moving away to college in Southern California where I struggled with the intense loneliness of leaving behind family, friends, a boyfriend and a community that knew me for the unknown of a new state where I held one acquaintance. While quite a normal experience (many college freshmen walk this path) at the time it felt terrifying. I remember one night in particular, crying on the phone with my mother when she suggested the possibility of transferring home after the Fall quarter if I still felt miserable at school. While meant to comfort, a paralyzing recognition swept over me instead: I could move home but I could never go back. If I returned, most of my friends would still be gone, (off studying somewhere else) and those who still lived in the area would have moved on with school or work as well. What I missed wasn’t my home town but what we had. The memories. The relationships. The way things used to be.
Not all people experienced such idyllic high school days; Many of my friends reflect on how getting out of their home town felt like the long-awaited beginning of their life. In retrospect I see how the challenge of going away for university was a season of challenge and growth that shaped me into the woman I am today, and I would not trade that for the world. Yet there is a piece of me that longs to go back in time, especially when insomnia strikes in the guest room of my parents’ condo after a day of driving down memory lane. Maybe it’s that trips home remind me of how different my life is from what I pictured for future as a High School senior…Perhaps it is the recognition of those things that still haven’t changed (when I desperately wish they would) Maybe I drank too much wine with Emily tonight…No matter the reason, nostalgia attacks nearly every time I come home – sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter.
I suppose I’m still trying to figure out if the longing is good and helpful or destructive. There is beauty in reliving memories and remembering people who were important in our lives. I do not think it is healthy or more mature to reject memories or put away the art of reminiscing (and I believe it is an art) for more adult conversation or experience. And yet living in the past can prove toxic and dwelling on, instead of learning from mistakes or regrets keeps us stagnant. So how do we walk the fine line between sweet remembrance and painful recollection? We can neither return nor escape from our past…How do we integrate it into our present?
I have found few answers aside from journaling and sleep to counter the sweet pain of nostalgia. I recognize that the discomfort I feel is a product of missing a past that was in some way blessed and in that I can rejoice; at least I have friends and memories to miss, right?
Why is this of so little comfort?
It doesn’t bring my best friend back to living in my cul-de-sac or restore the innocence of dating in high school (when our biggest worry was what to do Friday night) to my current complicated, get a job and make a living adult existence.
And maybe that in itself is instructive.
We can never go back and if we stay fixated on this longing to return we will never be appeased, we will always feel thwarted, our expectations dashed.
We cannot return, because the place we left no longer exists.
We must go on. Always forward. Move ahead, take our history with us, and trust that our longing to return can be transformed into hope for the future.