Nostalgia. Is it one of God’s greatest gifts? Is it meant to remind us of the wondrous potential of our mortal existence? Or is it a stumbling block meant to hedge up our way; to remind us of what once was, but can never be again? Is there anything else that can bring us such bittersweet joy as the remembrance of a perfect day?
When we allow ourselves to indulge in nostalgia, we cast our minds back to those moments in our lives when the world was full; when the possibilities of our lives stretched out before us as an unbroken line on a bright horizon. The “remember when’s” can be a powerful panacea to our souls. Or, they can be a bitter cup that poisons us with the misery of unrealized dreams. The choice is ours to make. Whether it is the good, or the bad, one thing remains a constant thread that holds nostalgia together. Story.
Memories are the stories we tell ourselves about our own past.
I will recount a story of my own as it relates to this subject. Although, I will first include a disclaimer: This memory has been altered by my mind for my own psyche’s safe consumption and is almost certainly not how it “really was.”
I was in the second grade when I met the best friend I ever had. No. That’s not true. I have had many wonderful friends, and a few were almost certainly better. This friend, we will call him Zach (name changed to protect the innocent, and so he doesn’t find out that he was not my “best” friend), was new to our school. Boy was this kid charismatic! He was a tousle-haired know-it-all with big rimmed glasses and an imagination fifty skyscrapers high.
At first I didn’t like him very much. He was smarter than me, and that didn’t sit well. He also immediately sucked all my friends into his circle of influence. The girls too. In the space of a week, he went from the spectacled new kid, into the most well loved kid on the playground. I like to think that I had previously owned that title (because it sounds good for this story), but that is probably not true.
Despite my misgivings I quickly fell victim to Zach’s vortex-like charisma and competed just as hard for his attention as everyone else did. I won the battle. As soon as I got over my initial distaste and started being nice to him, we clicked immediately. We stuck together like two glue-sticks in the craft drawer with the caps left off.
He introduced me to comic books. I introduced him to fantasy novels. It was a match made in nerd heaven. Most importantly, our imaginations complimented one another in a way that I have never again been able to reproduce. When we played together, the real world dropped away. We saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched the worlds of our make-believe. The extraordinary paths we forged through our imaginations were as real to us as the peanut butter sandwiches my mom made us for lunch. We assumed new identities, often modeled after our favorite characters from novels or comic books. We had adventures with world-shattering consequences. We fought terrible beasts. We rescued our captive companions. We performed heroic deeds. Sometimes, we died performing those heroic deeds and uttered suitably epic final words to our mourning companions. When we were not living in the worlds we created, we were drawing pictures to illustrate our adventures.
These were years never to be forgotten. During that time, I had a dual citizenship. I carried a passport to a land as real as any I had ever known, where I was joint-Lord over all I saw. I attempted the same thing with my other friends when Zach was not around, but it just didn’t have the same magic. There was something about our two imaginations in the same room that caused a chemical reaction which ripped open portals to new dimensions. We had the keys to the Wardrobe. We used them often.
Just thinking about it now, fills my me with both wonder and sadness.
Imagine the most wonderful place you have ever visited. Imagine the sights, the smells, the sounds, the people, the friends you made there. Now imagine the next time you go to visit, the guard at the security gate say’s, “I’m sorry. Your passport is no longer valid. Also, they are not going to be issuing new passports…ever again.”
That’s how it felt when Zach moved.
Just like that. His Dad got a new job. One week he was there. The next week, the doors to the wardrobe shut forever. Or so it seemed at the time.
I saw him once more after that. My mom was kind enough to let me spend a week with him at his new house, a state away. But after almost a year apart, it just wasn’t the same. We were older, we were beginning to move on to other things. Playing “make-believe” was now more akin to a secret shame. Something we longed to do, but were afraid to do because it was “just for kids.”
That’s the thing about make-believe. You have to give yourself over to it. Body, heart, mind, and soul. If you hesitate, if you reserve a part of yourself, attempt to leave the tiniest part of yourself in the “real” world, the magic just doesn’t happen. The doors stay closed.
I moved on. I grew up. I recaptured shadows of those early years through the books I was constantly devouring. I read stories. I watched stories. I listened to stories. I didn’t know it at the time, but I lived stories as well. After all, the things we experience today, are next years stories.
Decades went by like this. I played in a rock band. I did a few drugs. I got off drugs. I reforged my relationship with God. I learned German. I married a wonderful and practical woman. We had four kids. I earned a degree in Ecology…I wrote a book.
Imagine my surprise, after all those years, when I started writing that book, I was allowed to once again approach the wardrobe doors! After I demonstrated my determination for a few weeks; after I gave myself fully over to the make-believe, something wondrous happened. I was given the key. I eagerly unlocked the door and went inside! Afraid that this chance would be fleeting, I frantically recorded all the things I witnessed there. When I finally left the wardrobe, full of exhausted elation, I held a completed manuscript in my hands.
It turns out, I had the key all along. I just had to remember how to use it.
Why did I write the book? Nostalgia lead me to it. So, maybe nostalgia isn’t a reminder after all. Maybe it’s a guidepost. When we indulge in nostalgia, maybe we are communing with God. He knows that we already know the recipe to our own happiness. He is using our memories to point us back to the wardrobe. He is helping us tip the dusty couches of our forgotten dreams, to rediscover the keys. He gave them to us. We have them still. God is a loving father who wants us to have all the joy in the world.
I choose to believe nostalgia is a guidepost. I choose to believe it is a gift.
So now here you are, story-tellers. You stand in front of the door. Your old friends Joy and Wonder wait on the other side. Will you turn the key?