What? Nostalgia is a good thing? All right!

Published 4:39 pm Saturday, July 13, 2013

Column: Pass the Hot Dish, by Alexandra Kloster

I’ve always considered, “Live in the moment” to be bad advice. Not because the right now isn’t worth our attention, but because that popular, self-help catchphrase implicitly excludes all other moments.

It’s no secret that I’m a nostalgia freak. With all the seizing of the moment going on, I’ve come to think of myself as somewhat emotionally decrepit for not being fully formed and informed by the present, for wanting the past to be part of my moment.

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But, wait! God bless The New York Times. It ran an article this week about a bunch of big brains in England who have discovered that my one vice is a virtue. Nostalgia, by golly, as they said in the old days, is good for us!

I was shocked to learn that in 1688 the Swiss doctor, Johannes Hoffer, described nostalgia as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.”

That’s pretty harsh. For me, nostalgia floats in on angel’s wings. Far from reducing the moment at hand to a mere vehicle for memory, it enhances it and layers experience with a multitude of feelings created by all times: comfort of the past, exhilaration of the present and anticipation for the future.

Of course recollections of our personal history are selective. I feel good in the throes of nostalgia, but I don’t feel fooled.

I know that when I hear “Silent Night” and remember my dad scooping me up from the floor of my room one Christmas morning to carry me to the living room where my mom and grandma waited by the tree with gifts for me, I’m choosing to forget that the reason I was sitting in my room in the first place was because there was a big family argument the night before and I assumed Christmas was canceled.

I know that when I remember my mom waiting at home for me every day after school, I’m choosing to forget that she did that at the expense of many other things she might have wanted to do with her life.

We take a seed of truth and grow gardens of “remember when” in memories protected by distance and perspective, and that’s OK as long as we are grateful for the blooms.

But don’t take my word for it. No less than the crown prince of nostalgia, Marcel Proust, wrote that, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who created nostalgia for the 1920s even as they burned bright and fresh knew that, “It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.”

What sadness there is in the idea that people, places and events that brought joy to us are gone simply because the arbitrary construct of a calendar tells us so. If we don’t think of our lives in terms of linear time we can be in all times at once.

Friends, I know what you’re thinking. This all sounds like new age hoo-doo. But why? Our minds are capable and might benefit from living in more than one moment no matter what the self-help gurus tell us.

We do it all the time. Every time my dad tells me a story about his childhood we are enjoying the past in the present. The music from my youth sends me back to lazy summer days even while I stand here happily writing this column. When I bite into an ice cream sandwich I’m at Sea World with my dad and also on the floor letting the babies lick cool vanilla off my finger.

Nostalgia fills us with longing that doesn’t have to mean loneliness. It allows us to appreciate a former way of life without diminishing our current one.

William Faulkner said, quite succinctly, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The guy could be a little grim, but I choose to believe there’s a positive spin in that sentiment. There is no use in denying that we all look back and look forward occasionally; some of us more than others, so why not embrace it?

Perhaps I want to have my cake and eat it in every dimension. Oh well. You know what they say, there’s never a bad time for cake, past, present or future.


Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at alikloster@yahoo.com, and her blog is at alexandrakloster.com.