Memory, Nostalgia, and the Power of Looking Back

Driving down the road this morning, I saw a license plate from a county I’d never heard of prior to my freshman year of college.  My friend Sarah was from Dallas; not knowing there was a tiny town in northwest Georgia by that name, I assumed she had come to Berry College all the way from Texas.  At the time, I was four hours from home, and I was amazed at an eighteen-year-old’s ability to go that far from home.

A month or so after the start of school, though, I figured it out.  Her license plate was a Georgia plate…she went home on the weekends…clearly, there was another Dallas.  My awe at Sarah’s independent ability to go to a school halfway across the country dissipated but, thankfully, our friendship did not.

Remembering Sarah and those first weeks of college started a morning of nostalgia that won’t be shaken.  It happens every year around this time.  The triggers are different, but as the weather begins to turn even a tiny bit cooler, my mind always travels back to another time and place.  A crisp breeze, perhaps, or the blueness of the sky that seems unique to the beautiful, clear days of fall.  A mailing from my college inviting me to the annual reunion/homecoming celebration.  A newspaper ad for an upcoming regatta.  A group of children standing and waiting for a school bus, or the nose-tickling fragrance of cinnamon from WalMart’s garden shop.  Those things come as innocently as does one day after another, but when they do, I can close my eyes and be transported.  One minute, I am relaxing on the couch in my living room, and the next, I am curled up on a bench on my college lawn…relishing the slanting sunlight coming from between a rainbow of leaves.  I am constantly amazed by the power of a memory.

Nostalgia is a strange thing.  It is bitter and sweet, calling forth an ache of longing for a time long gone and simultaneously evoking gratitude that the memory even happened.  Two sides of the same coin – one cannot be separated from the other, and if it could, it would no longer be as it is.  Separation of the two would change the nature of them both.

As I remember the phenomenon of autumn on my alma mater’s campus (the largest and, arguably, most beautiful campus in the world), the flood of emotions is almost suffocating.  Part of me wants to let myself drown in the memories, forgetting the here and now in favor of what used to be.  So much about those memories makes me want that time in my life back.  It was hard and beautiful – brutiful, as my Momastery friends say – and something to cherish.  As wonderful as it is to close my eyes and lose myself for a few minutes in the ache of memory, though, nothing compares to the thankfulness that washes over me once I reopen my eyes.  For here…the here and now…well, it, too, can be brutiful.  The challenges of autumn (and winter and spring and summer, really) on my college campus were essential parts of my story.

That first semester of college……I never could have anticipated at the time how they would shape me.  I struggled intensely with homesickness, so intensely, in fact, that in retrospect, I think that was my first experience of depression.  Introverts (and especially depressed, anxious introverts) don’t always make deep friendships easily, so I was desperately lonely even though I had a few new friends.  Every weekend, I found myself virtually alone on that huge campus, as the suitcase college cleared out and everyone within driving distance went home.  (I myself did not have a car of my own.)  My relationship with my roommate began well, and she even drove me home on more than one occasion; before the semester was up, though, our relationship took a turn for the worst as she waged internal battles herself.  I remember clearly the daily letters that arrived in my mailbox from my mom, and my dependence on her daily reports from home.  I remember talking with my parents on their visits to see me, desperately attempting to push the growing lump in my throat down so they wouldn’t worry about me.  I remember watching their car pull away from my dorm windows, tears streaming from my eyes as I realized how long it would be until I saw them again.

Yes, that was all very, very hard.

As I remember those things, though, I still remember the beauty.  The physical beauty, certainly: golden leaves showering the lawn of the chapel as I rehearsed “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with the concert choir, the divinely appointed counselor in the college counseling center who stepped into an essential role at just the right time, the heart-to-heart talks with two or three friends as we grocery shopped on Friday nights, the anticipation of experiencing school traditions for the first time.

I’m realizing that those horrible, heart-wrenching memories cannot be separated from the beautiful ones.  The brutal parts of that semester led to the sweetest ones, in clear and distinct ways.  At the time, I was as unaware of God’s hand at work in my life as I was of the spinning of the earth.  I know now, though, that as certainly as the earth was spinning, God’s grace was going before me and surrounding me and guiding everything.  No less real.  No less powerful.

And that’s how it is, this life of ours.  The pain…the ache…the suffering…it comes in real ways.  Just as surely, though, the beauty will come, too.  As much as we may wish the pain away, the beauty would not shine nearly as brightly if it stood alone.  Thinking back on the fall of 1999, I see a picture of beauty…a picture that forms an essential part of fall of 2012…and of every fall from now until forever.  It all fits together, God’s grace being the glue that fits the scrambled pieces into a beautiful puzzle.

I don’t know what will trigger the next flash of nostalgia.  It could come anywhere at any time.  I also don’t know what brutal things may come my way today or tomorrow.  I can be certain, though, that where ugly things enter in, beautiful things are not far behind.  When life seems so painfully, wonderfully, brutiful, I will rejoice in God’s hand in it all.  I will close my eyes and drown myself in it, knowing that soon, my eyes will open to a beautiful new reality.

Looking backwards…and forward,

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