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The Orthodoxy of Nostalgia

Veronica Toth


“Remember when our songs were just like prayers?” Gregory Alan Isakov asks quietly from my Pandora station. “Like gospel hymns that you called in the air?”

This song, more than almost any other, recalls my college years to me with a sharp, sweet, visceral tug. I do remember the songs, Gregory. But I remember with such a rosy haze that, were I to reconstruct the music of my four years on that idyllic little campus, I would only get some notes right.

Some say this tendency to romanticize is a good thing. It keeps us from dwelling too deeply in the raw, senseless weirdness of what really happened: the awkward lunches and coffees and group dates; that time existential loneliness hit me so hard that I couldn’t drag myself out of the dorm room; the stiffness of conferences and small talk and a dozen group projects I’d rather forget. But tasting only the sweet of the past makes it harder to let go, and as far as letting go is concerned, my rule is to white-knuckle those memories as if to wrest them back to myself. I resolve, stubbornly, to go down with the ship of the time that I was alive.

This kind of grief, clearly, is pathological. Right?

In a grad class called “Approaches to the Modern,” a title which means approximately nothing, we spent just a bit of one evening discussing philosophies of time. I was entranced. No one had ever told me before that there were ways of thinking about time other than an infinite, ruler-straight line drawn into the future. Walter Benjamin speaks of “messianic time,” that particular quality that time takes on when one is waiting for the arrival of something very important. Here, every happening in between becomes charged with meaning; some moments are qualitatively different than others, not just a series of 60-second segments ticking on by. I would guess that God’s philosophy of time looks more messianic than ticker-tape. Millennia compress into moments; moments linger on for millennia; he exists both wholly within and wholly without of the temporal stream.

If I seem to digress, it is only to ask: are those of us who tend toward the melancholy, toward grief, toward the life of the past, merely maladaptive? Or is this backward-looking really a forward-looking in disguise?

It is said that we long for our real home without having ever seen it before, but I am not so sure that we have never seen it before. This love for the good we have seen, this desire to see it again and again and to live in its goodness, can become a sort of idolatry. But the ability to see it at all, and to wish for it to keep going, is not at all unholy. We are called to a world in which all things are redeemed – past, present, future – a moment which collapses all temporal distinctions into one massive and complex goodness. When our rose-colored glasses nudge us toward nostalgia, what we are really missing is a day still in the future, when the past will be revisited and perfected. To long for this day, to stake one’s life on the hope of it, is to possess no small faith.

“If Superman can see forever,” my middle-school best friend asked me once, “won’t he eventually see the back of his head?” After a stunned and philosophical silence, we pondered. If Superman sees forward in an infinite line, he will only see into galaxies progressively more remote from the things he loves. But if his sight circles the earth, where the beginning matters to the ending, then yes – looking forward will lead him right back to where he started. Sight, like time, will experience a moment where what’s behind crashes into what’s ahead. In their convergence, all things are made new. It is a grace that even this backwards-looking can lead us forward.

Don’t you remember when our songs were just like prayers? Remember that drive through the cornfields, the smell of growing Indiana things, the night of puddle-jumping? Do you remember our communion over Domino’s and scoops of mint chocolate chip? Sometimes our remembrance doesn’t correspond exactly with the facts. Then again, there are things more important than facts.

Veronica Toth is a graduate of Taylor University's English program and just received her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is a huge fan of road trips, Victorian literature, and strong coffee in the early morning, and wants to spend her life rubbing shoulders with academics. Veronica’s poetry has been published in Rock & Sling and Windhover, among others. She blogs at Tasting Twice.