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Blog

Notstalgia

Jayne English

21 nostalgia-for-the-light-1920

You count all your heartaches.  ~ Terry Scott Taylor

You know the experience: hearing a song takes you back to where you were the first time you heard it. Suddenly, I’m not just hearing the song in the car, I’m on a crowded beach with my high school friend, and we’re listening to the song on a transistor radio. Just as quickly, my eyes refocus on the road and the way the trees make a V toward the horizon.

As the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, Janus presides over time. He sees both past and future, which is why the Romans named the first month of the year in his honor. Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking back and one looking forward. I like to think of Janus in terms of nostalgia; he would be the god of the time-travel gateway we enter through nostalgic reverie.

Music transports us back in time but, ironically, sometimes it cautions us against nostalgia. That’s because nostalgia, like Janus, has two faces: it can take us to cheerful reverie, or to the darker side of regret. Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” cautions against dwelling on past mistakes: “Why not think about times to come/And not about the things that you've done.” On their 1983 album Doppelgänger, Daniel Amos in “Memory Lane” chides:

You have gotten much thinner You're lookin' like a shadow It's from dwelling on the might-have-beens Living in a time-warp.

Researchers who have studied nostalgia see its brighter face as they discover it can yield a sense of safe harbor in difficult times. This is why many of our fondest nostalgic moments predate loss: we go back in time to better memories before the death of a loved one; to times of greater independence and less responsibility; before the fire, the hurricane, the accident.

Job time-travelled in this way. Deep in nostalgic reverie, he makes a long list of what was better before his excruciating loss of loved ones, health, and property. We can almost feel the bitter-sweet aspect of his memories, full of love and loss, as we read. We know from context that this reverie has a double benefit for Job. It helps him hold on to memories of those dear to him, and assures him that God is faithful by remembering times when it was easier to see it in external realities.

Sometimes loss accumulates in our lives and becomes what paradoxically holds our life together as W.S. Merwin says in his 3-line poem “Separation.”

Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Here the nostalgic past carries into the speaker’s present and we can assume, since it’s now part of the fabric of his being, that it will continue to mark his future. Job longs for the old days but even though he sits in the ashes and scrapes boils with shards, he keeps an eye toward God’s promised good (“I know my Redeemer lives…”).

The dual Janus nature of nostalgia shows us looking to the past, but also, like Job, to a future hope. This is best seen in the word’s origin which meant not just “wistful yearning for the past,” but “severe homesickness.” In its backwards glance, nostalgia can make us long for those times and people dear to us. But nostalgia as homesickness looks forward. It’s the expression of our yearning for our true home.