How sad and bad and mad it was – how I define nostalgia


Often when I write about a topic, I begin by looking for a definition. This time, my trusty friend Wikepedia was a great resource to set me off on the trail with this: “A sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations”. Yes, that rings a bell with me.. but… surely my “happy associations” are often tinged with a sadness that I would refer to as “sweet sorrow”. I read on a bit further to find that the word nostalgia has Greek origins, which refer to ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain, ache’. At one time, the nostalgic state was thought of as a kind of melancholy. Ah, yes, that is more like it! To me, it has a yearning quality for people, places, times that have gone or greatly changed. It is often cloaked in a desire to recapture experiences.

So, dear SAS readers, are you like me – do you often get triggered into those memories from the distant past – and sometimes more recent times – that take you off into memories that stir up a mix of pain and pleasure? On the one hand, there might be such delightful memories of people, some of whom might be long departed, some who were much younger back then, or who just caused you to laugh – or cry – or enjoy, that one loves to delve back and experience them all over again. On the other, there may be such sadness evoked for what no longer exists, that the memory may be made up of more pain than pleasure.

I am sure that most of us remember our childhoods with varying degrees of happiness or distress. But, for me to think back to those days is to remember my Mum and Dad, their voices, their presence, their good and their not so good. I remember my very first day at school with an uncanny clarity, from the smell of the chalk, the face of my first teacher and the excitement of the rocking horse in the corner of the room to the wonder of making a new friend. As soon as I had my own grandchildren, memories of my own grandparents came back and I am sure that my (favourite) gran came right into my being to remind me what legacy I wanted to leave behind. But, not all the childhood memories are of a “carefree” nature – indeed, some are painful in extreme, being an anxious child with a few challenges – are those memories part of nostalgia too?

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The teenage years are probably where my most vivid nostalgia resides. Recently, on our SAS site, there were pictures of the full skirted dresses I once wore. That is triggering enough for a hundred memories, and a few giggles. Music is perhaps the most constant and effective of ‘nostalgia buttons’. I was at an exercise class for over 55s not long ago – and ‘Do You Want To Dance?’ was playing. I was cast straight back to the Cliff Richard and The Shadows version – and the Sunday School Social.  Well, let me tell you, I started doing the Twist – right there and then. Much amusement and a little consternation all round! To quote Robert Browning: “How sad and bad and mad it was – but then how sweet”. Yes, that says it all about the teenage memories.

Because I was born and brought up in a small island at the other end of the world, I have very nostalgic feelings for the concept of my first “home”. I think of the beauty of the ocean and the cliffs; I smell the freesias in the fields; imagine the bluebells in Spring; the seagulls screeching and the cuckoos calling. In my heart, this place contains all the sweet and sad memories of my formative years. I dream often about the streets and the people from long ago. Fortunately, I am still in touch with people I went to school with, so can at least share some of these memories still. But when I return, I do “nostalgia walks” and it is the most exquisitely agonising feeling to be cast back then, but in such very different times.

As always, once I get started, I could go on and on. But this is not the time or place for long rambling self-centred exploration. Instead, I ask you – dear readers – to share what nostalgia means to you. As we are often told, the past is a wonderful place to visit some times, but we can’t go and live there, can we? And as the future gets ever shorter and never certain, living in the present IS indeed ‘the gift’. To live in the now with as little regret and as much appreciation as we can muster is our challenge and our joy.

What does nostalgia mean to you? What are some of your most fond memories? And what memories do you look forward to creating as you get older?