I am halfway through a two-week-and-change long Christmas at home in the States, and probably predictably, I’ve been thinking about familiarity and nostalgia a lot.
Nostalgia has been a part of me all of my life. When we were little girls, my sister and I would lie awake in bed remembering details of trips and Christmases and classmates and cousins, so I was well-versed in this sort of wistfulness even before I was a teenager. Then in college, when I started this blog, I began to use nostalgia consciously and regularly in my writing, opening it reverently like a map, searching through the criss-crossed veins of my life for the little arrow that announced, “YOU ARE HERE.” And now I realize more and more that everywhere, but especially in my writing, nostalgia is simply part of the air I breathe. I approach all of my doings and beings as things I do remember, will remember, want to remember.
But even with all this careful remembering, things fall off the edge of consciousness at times, and when they are brought back to the center of my vision, I jump just a little. Even just over a week in, this visit has been full of familiarities I did not expect, things I did not realize I was homesick and starving for till I was in their midst. There’s the way my otherwise well-mannered family confidently talks over one another, sometimes all five of us at once (I wonder who we think is listening?), and there’s the bright sunshine-gold of the upstairs hallway in my childhood home, and then there’s simply the neighborhood I grew up in with all its sweet, porched houses and their thoughtful brickwork, bright, paned windows, and occasionally peeling trim. These houses look like they are loved or at least were loved once as opposed to many of the homes on the west side of Vancouver some of which look like the people who built them never even considered loving them at all.
But the thing which hit me with the largest, most pungent wave of nostalgia was the day after my cousin’s wedding in Houston when nearly thirty of my family crowded into the living room of my uncle’s AirBnB and sang Christmas carols out of the old books from my grandma’s house. As we always used to, we sat all over couches and the floor, leaning against arms of chairs and one another’s knees, and worked our way from the youngest person in the room to the oldest, each of us choosing a carol in turn. I think we nearly ran through the whole book. We sounded good, especially at the beginning before our voices got tired. No experience has ever felt as well-worn and comprehendable to me as that one, despite the fact that, with the exception of gentle teasings and confusions as we made our way through the age line-up, all our words were laced through with the mystery of the incarnation.
A few weeks ago, during a class discussion, a professor gloomily announced to us that nostalgia was “a hell of a drug.” I know what he was getting at, that it can act as an excuse for unhelpful or even destructive patterns, but it will come as no surprise that I’m sitting here now fully prepared to gently push back at some of the assumptions lying perhaps unexamined beneath that statement.
To believe that nostalgia is inherently dangerous because it lulls us asleep misses the point of nostalgia. The only nostalgia which does this is a nostalgia which idealizes its object, but the purpose of nostalgia, the reason I cling to it, the reason it fills so many songs and poems and Christmas ornaments, the reason it sticks to our ribs like it does, is that if we’re willing to look right through the beloved familiar with eyes wide open, nostalgia can wake us right up to what’s on the other side.
The reason I love the color of the upstairs hallway in my parents’ house is not only because it is bright, but because I chose it. One summer when I was in my late teens, I was left home alone for a week, and with high hopes for my productivity, my parents left me with the request that I would repaint the hallway. So I went to Home Depot, chose paint the color of sunshine, and spent three days rolling it onto textured puce walls that hadn’t been touched since the seventies. It took four coats, partly because of the vomitous color I was covering, but also because I kept painting secret messages for myself in large letters and then needing to cover them up fully. I giggled a lot. I remember feeling happy and independent and capable and full of promise. I am nostalgic about those walls not because I want to numb myself to adult life or be seventeen again (God forbid!) but because to me, they sing, they shout with hope and fresh life. And that’s a lesson I can stand to remember again and again.
Oh, give me the chance to do my very best.