Nostalgizing is a new word for me. I discovered it in a New York Times article: Tierney, John. What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows. The New York Times, 8 July, 2013.
I needed to re-read the essay for reassurance that feelings of nostalgia I’ve been experiencing with some frequency could very well be positive. (The Oxford dictionary defines nostalgia as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.)
Just the other day, I made the trip from my new home in Raleigh to Chapel Hill where we used to live, about half an hour away, to meet a friend for lunch. We moved three months ago, yet as I walked up the steps to the restaurant, memories flooded my mind. I recalled that I had sat at one of the outside wooden benches with a writer consultant that helped me put together a proposal for a grant I didn’t get. How enthusiastic I had been. And once an acquaintance stopped me in front of the counter with coffee carafes to tell me she enjoyed an essay I had published in the local newspaper—the closest I ever came to having a fan club.
When I left the restaurant, I felt a pull to return to my old home, to be back where the grandkids visited us in that tree-lined cul-de-sac. They graduated from babbling in strollers to riding tricycles, to skate boards and on to bicycles. They made friends with the neighbors’ children. Of course, I see them more often after our move since we live a lot closer but those remembrances doggedly follow me.
Tierney’s essay describes the work of Constantine Sedikides’, Professor of Social and Personality Psychology, a pioneer in the study of nostalgia. Sedikides’ findings show that nostalgia is a way of thinking about the past. “ . . . topics are universal—reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.”
“Nostalgic stories aren’t simple exercises in cheeriness, though. The memories aren’t all happy, and even the joys are mixed with a wistful sense of loss. But on the whole, the positive elements greatly outnumber the negative elements . . .”
Some positive outcomes of nostalgizing include feeling less lonely or depressed, “having stronger feelings of belonging and affiliation,” and becoming “more generous toward others.”
I was reassured when I read that nostalgizing increases with age and “helps us deal with transitions.”
An old friend is coming to visit. Our first houseguest. She is especially flexible, thank goodness, since our new home is in a state of disruption. I look forward to showing her around the neighborhood and the city. But what I am really looking forward to is our trips down memory lane covering 40 years of friendship. We will be nostalgizing together.
Afterthought: I have kept a short essay by Robert Oren Butler since 1994 that moves me every time I read it.
Nostalgia by Robert Olen Butler
“A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some real or romanticized period or irrecoverable condition in the past . . .”
When the word came into common usage in America in the early nineteenth century, nostalgia, a sickness for home, was considered a form of insanity. This is not a surprising attitude for a new country driven to explore, to expand, to push on to a far sea—even at times conquering and dispossessing others in search of a new place. Now, after nearly two centuries have passed, we have settled into a sort of national middle age and nostalgia has become a cultural virtue. Golden-oldies radio stations and movie remakes, Elvis stamps and classic cars, the moral certitudes of the Gulf War and of Family Values: We have now institutionalized the backward look, the moist eye for where we’ve been.
But for me, nostalgia is this: When I was studying the Vietnamese language in an Army school in Arlington, Virginia, my teacher was a young Vietnamese woman who had come to America for the love of an American soldier. It was 1970 and she had grown up near the ancient city of Hue with the sounds of war thumping and chattering through most of her childhood like the angry ghosts of the tales her mother told. She was happy with her man here, happy with her job, happy with the televisions and the rock ‘n’ roll and the frozen foods and with her Ford Mustang convertible and with the night sky that would flare only with lightning. But when the sunset came and they fired the ceremonial cannon over at Fort Myer, she would weep. The sound of cannon fire made her think about Hue, and she would grow sick with yearning for home.
Self, January 1994.