Monthly Archives: November 2016

A Second Look at Nostalgia

I live in a rural town where maple syrup production is a livelihood for some and a serious hobby for others. A highlight of town meeting every March is when one of our local producers stands up and reports on the sugar content of the current year’s run. But this is only November, and we have a long New Hampshire winter to see ourselves through before the sap begins to run again.

This time of year, it’s a different kind of sap that flows. The sap of nostalgia. Thanksgiving is the season opener and we will be sticky into it from now until Christmas. I don’t know how it went for your family yesterday, but ours was a Thanksgiving laced with nostalgia. Maybe eimg_7369ven more so than usual. We seemed, by instinct, to take extra pains with it this year. Perhaps it was the balm that made it possible for a politically divided family to gather in gratitude and peace. We shared a table with cousins we haven’t spent Thanksgiving with in many years. My sister found the red felt turkey head and pinned it to a pineapple, resurrecting a church fair-inspired centerpiece from our childhood. My mother came bearing her grandchildren’s favorite childhood sweets. She no longer drives, but has figured out how to order half-dipped mints and fruit slices on-line. She could probably find them in other venues, but we are charmed that she continues to get them from the seaside candy shop where she and her sisters purchased their own childhood treats in the 1930s.

But nostalgia does not always leverage the good and the sweet. The word itself was first coined in the 17th century to describe the debilitating homesickness of young Swiss mercenaries. Nostalgia can be tricky and take us to dangerous places. Sometimes it can paralyze us. In a recent blog post, one of my UCC colleagues described nostalgia as a response to “the narrative of decline.” Congregations and clergy alike can fall prey to a nostalgic and enervating sadness in the face of reminders of the more numerically robust days in our churches’ past.

But I’m not ready to give up on nostalgia altogether. Research coming out of the University of Southampton in the UK is illuminating. Although nostalgia is often triggered in times of sadness or loneliness, it can generate narratives of redemption. Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues are demonstrating that although regarded throughout centuries as a psychological ailment, nostalgia is now emerging as a fundamental human strength…It generates positive affect, elevates self-esteem, fosters social connectedness, and alleviates existential threat.

In difficult seasons in my own life, a dose of nostalgia has helped me find my footing again. During the ordeal of my stem cell transplant, I came into a cache of my father’s old Kodachrome slides. As I struggled to regain the strength to do even the most basic tasks of daily living, slides_013  I was surprised by how much encouragement I drew from the photographs my father had taken of me doing those tasks for the first time. I would look at a picture of that little girl drying dishes and tell myself to be that girl again, the one in scuffed saddle shoes so fiercely determined to do the job well. Nostalgia helped me recover a sense of the person I had been in a time when every accomplishment brought joy, even the simplest of victories, like learning to use a dishtowel. My father’s old slides and the wave of nostalgia they triggered helped me to rediscover that “I can do it myself” toddler within, a person I very much needed to connect with in order to recover.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we give the end of every calendar year over to a season of nostalgia. As Christmas arrives, the most memory-laden of our holidays, it is inevitable that some sadness will collect. There are people and things we miss and that we will always miss. But there is also strength and resilience in those memories.  My hope is that this seasonal flow of nostalgia will help us connect once again with our sweetest and strongest selves.

A Coffee Shop Surprise

brewbakersYesterday afternoon I was in a coffee shop in Keene, NH, doing a little reading before I met a friend for dinner. Coffee shops have always been good to me. Thirty-five years ago, my spot was The Pewter Pot in Harvard Square. The post-bicentennial-faux-Americana décor was awful, but the muffins were hot and the 50 cent coffee came with unlimited refills. I’m not sure I would have passed my comprehensive exams at Divinity School if it weren’t for the hours I logged at that circa pre-Starbucks coffee shop. I won’t say that Karl Barth and I fell in love there, but we did come to an understanding.

Yesterday’s stint at a coffee shop (one with a much cooler vibe) was also good to me. There, I checked my email and found a message from Krista Tippett’s senior producer Lily Percy. She apologized that Krista had not used my name on air, but indicated that Krista had quoted a post on this blog in an  “On Being” interview with Isabel Wilkerson. The email came out of the blue, but I took it as a word of encouragement, and yes, also as a nudge.

Some things you just have to take as a sign. I am taking yesterday’s email surprise as a sign that it’s time to revisit this blog. As many of you know, I had to let it go fallow when I got sick. It’s hard to believe, but two years ago, I was critically ill. Physically, I didn’t have the strength to hold a book for more than a few minutes and there was even a scary stretch when I couldn’t read. I don’t mean that I couldn’t read War and Peace or The New York Times. I mean I couldn’t read at all. My blood wasn’t carrying enough oxygen to my brain. Letters and words were all a jumble. One day I brushed my teeth with diaper rash cream, having studied the tube for several minutes, and determined that the letters  D-E-S-I-T-I-N spelled Colgate.

That was a low point. Needless to say, just surviving and getting from one oncology appointment to the next supplanted blogging and everything else on my To Do list. But then I got a little better. It became apparent that the drugs were working, that my blood chemistries were moving in the right direction, and that a stem cell transplant was going to be possible. As a way of staying in touch during that long spring and summer of treatment and isolation, I started to blog on a Caringbridge site. It was pretty much just medical updates, but I was writing my way back to life. One or two posts seemed to hit the mark and the last one I wrote on the gifts offered by stillness drew some notice.

“Cancer blogging” is a pretty specific genre and for me it came with an expiration date. When I started to feel better, I stopped wanting to write about being sick. I looked forward to blogging again at this site on a broader range of topics. But a year went by. During that time, I wrote sermons (and untold numbers of emails trying to straighten out the billing and insurance problems that still persist), but I didn’t start blogging again. I thought about it. I made notes. I played with a couple of ideas for a brand new blog and even made a pathetically lame “vision board.” But I didn’t write. I just couldn’t.

Up until now. So thank you, Krista and Lily. God knows how you found that old post of mine on this dormant and all-but-defunct blog, but the fact that you did seems like a sign. These last two years have been extraordinary, but now I’m ready to reclaim the ordinary. Faith in the Ordinary will be back soon.