Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be

All alone in the moonlight
I can dream of the old days
Life was beautiful then
I remember the time when I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again . . .

Andrew Lloyd Webber/Trevor Nunn, sung by Barbra Streisand

It’s amazing how longing for the past can deceive you into believing that life used to be simpler, forgetting how advances in technology have made so many things easier.   Even taking a photo in the old days required a skill that many people just didn’t have, as many old blurry photographs can attest.  Subjects squint into the camera, the photographer sacrifices a closeup view to include large groups of people who are reduced to tiny faces, the sun casts shadows across photos.  Film was expensive, and you had to wait for it to be developed before you knew how successful the pictures were.  The old photos and videos show family get-togethers, the parks and backyards teeming with children.   It took planning to get out the old Brownie camera, to bring everyone together, to coax crying toddlers to “look at the birdie!”  In the photo below, I am with my three younger sisters at Hamilton’s Royal Botanical Gardens.  We didn’t fully appreciate at the time how precious and fleeting that moment was.

Memories can be like those old photographs, misty and indistinct, but they still evoke strong emotion.  Nostalgia is a word with a Greek root, meaning to “return home,” and suggests a feeling of homelessness or homesickness.  My father once advised me “Don’t look back!” and I’m still trying to understand his meaning, because I love history and old family stories.  Perhaps he meant that we should not try to re-create the past    It’s no longer a real world, and can create a time warp that’s difficult to escape from when we should be moving on, focusing on learning and growing.  And the way forward is, paradoxically, also the way back to our true home.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, 1943

The past has its lessons and memories, and we are grateful for them.  But we live best when we live fully in the present, orienting ourselves with hope because we know that someday we will truly arrive, know that we are forever at home.


Four Sisters, Royal Botanical Gardens, 1960s