In All Visible Things. . .

Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

One holiday evening this year, I watched the Sound of Music. It’s one of my favorite movies. I love the music, but mostly it makes me recall a four-month mini-sabbatical I had in Salzburg where the movie was filmed. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I viewed the nuns walking through the Nonnberg Abbey, and the children and their nanny, Julie Andrews, cavorting in the Mirabell Gardens, all set against the Austrian Alps, places I remember from my time there.

I recalled my zimmer with chickens beneath my window, whose eggs I ate for breakfast, and the shop down the street where I could buy a takeout Austrian dinner. I was doing research on school lunch in Europe, and I had access to Salzburg schools because my son, his wife, and my new grandson were living there and through their work had met local educators.

I could go on about the many memories, but what struck me as I watched the moviewas that I was remembering this time as happy when, in truth, it was not. My husband had died three years before, and I was in a prolonged grief, crying easily at almost everything, feeling like a role player in a meaningless life, while struggling to build an authentic one.  The only joy I felt was spending time with my grandson, Peter, a toddler with unlimited wonder at his unfolding world. Otherwise, I spent way too much time in my room, forcing myself to revise field notes of my research observations and to read about cultural learning—with the goal of delaying going to bed and crying myself to sleep. 

It wasn’t a happy time at all! And yet, today I remember it fondly. What is going on, I asked myself, as I reflected on my faulty memory? Was I rewriting the experience to make a bleak time look rosier?  Or was nostalgia for Salzburg and my grandson overriding my memory of unremitting grief. Perhaps my process was a part of a subconscious life review, consolidating my memories into something that would eventually make the whole of my life hang together? Regardless, if I was honest with myself, accurate memory had given way to nostalgia.

I’ve written about nostalgia before in Nostalgia 101, noting that it is healthy and tends towards positive memories. Its highest occurrence is when we are young and old with the middle years of life less given to nostalgia. Experts believe it’s helpful during life transitions when we’re unsure of where we’re going. We can look back and see the past as happy, thus the future feels safer. My time in Austria was part of a long transition to reestablishing my life without my husband. Though I was incredibly sad, deep within me, I believed I’d find my way. That said, I was still troubled by my disparate memories. How could I allow what I knew as truth be glossed over with nostalgia?

I walked around for several days asking myself what does it mean to have conflicted memories. Which one is really true?  Then I started reading Pauline Boss’s The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. One of her central ideas is that  in adapting to losses, we should not think either/or—which was exactly what I was doing by seeking one truth about my perceptions of my time in Salzburg. She says we need both/and thinking. In terms of the pandemic, she writes: “I am both hungry for alone time and for social contacts; I both disagree with my neighbor and continue talking with him. . . “

After reading this, I revised my thinking.  I was both happy in Salzburg experiencing a beautiful city, and I was deeply sad about losing my husband. I was making progress with finding my way as a researcher and feeling up-ended by the loss of my marriage-infused dreams. I was happy to spend time with my family there, especially my new grandson, and sad that I couldn’t share this with my husband. It feels so right to be able to say all these things, there’s a clarity and truth to the statements that either/or doesn’t provide.

In the days following this insight, I found myself infatuated with both/and thinking, ready to chuck dualism as obsolete.  And like any good revelation, I kept seeing both/and everywhere.  Even the New York Times was onboard, running an op ed about both hating one’s husband and loving him. Then I asked myself if both/and adds up to a whole, and that stopped me in my tracks.  It was too simplistic.

I turned to my fellow blogger, Karen Rose, who assured me that there’s more going on than simple addition, and she pointed me to a passage in Parker Palmer’s new book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old. The passage isn’t from Palmer, however, rather Thomas Merton in Hagia Sophia. It begins: There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity. . . Suddenly I saw it, the fecundity immanent in all human experience. In Salzburg, I was healing and in pain, and at the same time laying the groundwork for things to come, like my deepening relationship with my grandson, Peter; like insights about the culture of school lunches; even like the relationship with Karen Rose, such that we now write a blog together. 

Two insights—both/and and the fecundity in human experience. Wow, what a way to start a new year!

I floated only a short time on the excitement of these new ideas, mainly because we are living in a pandemic that’s always with us. I cannot help but think about our present situation as a country and planet. Omicron, political dissent, and climate change are among the issues. I am getting towards the end of my life, while others, including my loved ones, are at the beginning and middle. We are all living in uncertainty. My hope is that Merton has it right, beneath the travails of this troubled time are seeds to a new and better world.

Hagia Sophia

Nostalgia 101

Image result for nostalgia

(https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NostalgiaFilter)

Sometimes I think I could teach a course in nostalgia, that longing for a past perceived as perfect. I seem to nostalgize (who knew it’s also a verb) often.  A couple of weeks ago nostalgia for school hit me full force as I watched the neighborhood children, on the first day of school, weighed down by enormous back packs filled with new pencils, notebooks, glue, rulers, etc., waiting for the school bus. I was immediately back in school smelling that gummy stuff they used, in my day, to sweep the floors; remembering how the smell of cinnamon rolls baking used to fill the school where I taught; and recalling those Bunsen burners in junior high that we loved to mess with when the teacher wasn’t looking.

 We all have our own memories of favorite places.  Having spent most of my life in schools, as a student, a parent with children, a teacher, a college professor, and now a tutor, mine are about schools—my geomagnetic field is probably over the nearest school. In fact, just to indulge my nostalgia, here are some pictures of favorite school-related places—my elementary school, junior high, and the Danish bakery we’d frequent on our way home from school (I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin).

Although I suspect nostalgia has been part of being human forever, it was first coined to be a condition in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hoffer, who called it a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” In the 19th and 20th centuries it was still considered to be a pathological condition, but when Dr. Sedikides, Tim Wildschut and other psychologists in Southampton, England began studying it in 1999, they found it to be just the opposite, a rewarding positive experience. They also found that it’s universal and not just an adult pastime, occurring even in children as young as seven. Both the features of nostalgia, pleasant reminiscing, and also its focus, holidays, weddings, songs, and places, are found worldwide, with most people reporting that they experience it at least once a week and almost half saying they feel it as much as three to four times a week. I guess I’m not alone.

Research has challenged the belief that nostalgia is unhealthy, finding, among other things, that feeling nostalgic helps with loneliness, boredom, and anxiety, makes people more generous to strangers, and makes couples closer and happier when they share nostalgic memories.

That said, I’m convinced that nostalgia can be a little addictive as we grow older and have memories upon memories, all the while—at least in my case—slacking off on creating new memories. Research seems to confirm this, finding that nostalgia is high in young adults, goes down in middle age, and gets high again during old age.  The reason is that nostalgia helps deal with transition. So maybe that’s why I find myself waxing nostalgic whenever I am reminded of schools; I’m in transition from a life in education.

Cover to the first edition of "You Can't Go Home Again" by Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again, meaning that If you try to return to a place you remember from the past, it won’t be the same as you remember it. I test that claim every time I walk into Lake Harriet Upper School to tutor (I couldn’t get back in schools fast enough when I retired so I signed up as a volunteer tutor) or when I stop by Burton Hall on the U of MN campus or revisit the classrooms of my undergraduate days. On the surface, these buildings and their classrooms remain the same, and almost like an addiction, trigger some sort of feel-good chemicals in my brain. 

Recently, however, my addiction to schools was tested. I was finishing up with my tutoring group, when the principal, whom I could see through the open door standing in front of a class, walked out and asked me if I wanted to take the class for the rest of the day, the sub had not shown up. (I need to explain that this principal happens to be my son, who thinks his mom might be more at his bidding than other tutors in the building). How tempted I was to say “yes!” To get back into the fray, get those kids, who were taking advantage of having no teacher, back to work. But then something clicked in me.  I didn’t want to go into that classroom. From a lifetime of teaching, I remembered clearly what I’d be taking on, and I realized that my freedom to do what I want is awfully sweet. Mother or not, I told the principal, “No thanks.” I didn’t want to go home again.

Freedom. It is a sweet thing. Loads of time all to myself, no obligations. And my new-found freedom in retirement clearly moderates my desire to actually work again full time in schools. But the memories are also associated with the sense of being involved in something bigger than myself, something with the potential to make the world a better place. And . . . taking classes, traveling, having lunch with old friends, getting lots of exercise, and volunteering—even tutoring—don’t quite satisfy the need to have my life count, even now, in retirement.

So where am I then? I can’t go home again and I don’t want to, but my new “place,” retirement, leaves me searching. As I noted before, I am in transition, and my happy memories about schools, while addictive, will not suffice for a meaningful retirement. So I go forward, I can’t really replace my bond to education, but nevertheless I’m ready to commit to something equally meaningful, something that in what I hope is a distant future will live up to all the virtues of nostalgia. 

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.

From Billy Collins "Nostalgia" in Questions About Angels 1991