Nostalgia is Deadly

Ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It’s been a very long time since I read 100 Years of Solitude but many things from this novel have followed me throughout my life, one of them is Marquez’ warning against nostalgia. Of course I underlined it in my copy of the book which, like many of the artifacts in Marquez’ novel has vanished in time. So trying to find it for this post is pretty impossible unless I want to go buy a new copy and read it over.

I don’t. But it might be this:

“Dazed by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his wonderful sense of unreality, until he ended up recommending everyone to leave Macondo, to forget how much he had taught them about the world and the human heart, to shit on Horacio and that wherever they were they would always remember that the past was a lie, that memory had no way back, that every ancient spring was irretrievable, and that the most foolish and tenacious love was in any case an ephemeral truth.

I don’t remember everything about Marquez’ story — it would be impossible since I read it in the late 1970s at the recommendation of one of my high school English teachers, Miss Cohen, who became my friend. But I remembered the moral of the story. There is no looking back. Putting an antimacassar on my easy chair (or Bear’s easy chair) will not bring back my grandmother or the childhood hours spent in Billings, Montana, or the world as I believed it to be.

It really WASN’T better back then. People were not happier back then. The prosperity that we look back on was not the same thing to people living in those times. A case in point from my own life was my mother. My dad died of MS in 1972 and my mother never moved beyond that moment. As time passed, the time she had with my dad became this sacred relic. His shirt hung in her closet with the pens in the pocket even though that shirt had not been to work since sometime in the 1960s. My mom was a kind of performance artist with clothes, as it turned out. When I cleaned out her dresser after she died all that was in it was the jewelry left to me in her will and, in a bottom drawer, a black, baby-doll negligee. Nostalgia drove my mother into an insane bitterness. Imagine a mother saying to her only daughter who’s sitting with her in the hospital, “He was MY husband. I slept with him.”

I was there for most of their marriage and my dad talked freely and openly to me — which he probably shouldn’t have, but he did. I viewed my mother’s nostalgia as guilt. Her wish she had done many things differently turned into a conviction that she’s been cheated by life. She grew to see herself as a victim. Not a victim of the bad luck of having a husband who died young but as a victim of an unjust fate that stole from her a great love with whom she’d been happy while all of her OTHER sisters still had their husbands. She believed she’d been singled out by malicious forces to suffer in loneliness. In real life my parents fought all the time.

As a nation, many Americans have been hornswoggled by nostalgia. MAGA is political nostalgia that has captured the aggrieved imaginations of people who remember a past that never existed. The echoes and consequences of that past — as it really was — are all around us in the form of climate change and lingering racism. Our past is like my parents’ marriage in many ways. Yeah, there was the good stuff but there was also a lot of bad stuff, enough bad stuff that, as a people, we continued to move forward, almost in spite of ourselves.

One day, as I was opening my garage door in San Diego, I had flash of insight. I was, at the time, worried about my brother who was then in the hospital with complications from alcoholism. I had been thinking, “How did this happen? How did he get so broken? How could that have not happened?” suddenly my brain said, “Our eyes are in front of our face for a reason. And, if we turn around to go the other way, we still go forward. Think about it.”

I believe I actually said, “Whoa…”

By now it’s late (Ormai é Tardi)
Vasco Rossi

By now it’s late!
Look at time…“fly away”! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!
And what a nostalgia…
What a nostalgia! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!
And life
Goes on running away! 
And what a nostalgia…
And what a nostalgia!
And what a nostalgia!
And what a nostalgia! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!

Featured photo: My grandmother and my brother at my grandma’s house in Billings, MT, probably 1959 or so…

18 thoughts on “Nostalgia is Deadly

  1. “turned into a conviction that she’s been cheated by life”

    Your mother and my mother-in-law both. The older she got the more spiteful and bitter she got. I cannot begin to say how much was reliving the past and resenting it over and over, and how much was just the natural decay of a brain as rationality weakened and emotionality dominated.

    One should not be surprised that many older people tend to live in the past. There’s a lot more past than there is future and the future ain’t terribly bright. I think the key is to realize that the past and the future don’t matter. What matters is what one does right now to make life better or worse. Doubly true when you get old.

    A bitter person is usually one who lives in the past. Old resentments stay fresh and evergreen. They can’t let go of them because resentment has become a part of their ego. In their mind, letting go would mean those experiences weren’t valid. Of course, the experience was perfectly valid. What is problematic is one’s reaction to them.

    To understand, accept, forgive, and move on, are the only ways to improve your life.

  2. Reliving the past and nostalgia are two different things. I would never relive the past–nothing nostalgic about it, from my perspective.

  3. I read this earlier today and it is still blowing my mind. Your mom and my mom must have been separated at birth. Or something. Holding on to the past and getting more bitter by the day, the victim mentality – all of it. Exactly what it was like. But then – even weeks after a particular awful family event, she would act nostalgic for the “good times” we had. I have no warm fuzzy nostalgia for my past, so I totally agree it can be deadly to go there. However the more “recent” past (since college) – I’d take a day here or there. Nostalgia is overrated. But in the meantime, although it might be pointless, maybe I should write her story as I saw it and lived it. Has that been hard for you?

    • It’s been hard for readers to see it, but my mom is a kind of symbol for Trump followers and the MAGA people who have latched onto and clung to their imagined mistreatment and are now defined by rage and victim hood. That said…

      Nostalgia is deadly because it is an illusion — which is Marquez’ point. It’s about a past that never really existed any more than my mom and dad’s marriage was happy. It wasn’t.

      There are days or hours in my past that I would relive happily, but generally, no.

      It’s not difficult for me to write about my mother. It’s been a journey that started in the late 90s/early 00’s but I’m far away from it now an I won. I’m alive. 🙂 Survival is a kind of victory and I’m not a fucked up person or an unhappy person. I have acknowledged the good things I got from her (some of them in spite of her) and the rest? I don’t think she could have done differently. I am sure she was a very messed up human being, and I will never know why. I don’t know what she fought against before my dad died; I don’t know everything what she hoped for in life; I don’t know that much about her. I know that she wanted to be accepted on a social level, was very conventional, and she was intensely jealous. Ultimately , I can only evaluate her based on her actions, and at the end of her life she was out of her mind. I believe she suffered from depression and fought it in the way of her generation. She had a fine education and fine mind and threw away her life.

      It’s OK with me now to write about it and think about it because I don’t care any more on the emotional level. She was a monster and I was a kid. One thing I learned is that humans can be far more secretive and complex than I will ever fathom. That’s a good lesson. Overall, I think writing about it has been good for me. Sometimes I don’t see what I see and feel very clearly and writing about it helps get it in front of me.

      I don’t know if this helps or not, but no. It hasn’t been hard for me to write about her. It’s more difficult for me to write about the people who were nice to me back then. Probably because I miss them and they are the people I would like to have an hour or two with now. ❤

      • Thanks for being so candid. Yes it does help. I saw the similarity of Trump and his followers to people like my mother. The craziness almost sounded familiar.

        I’ll give myself credit for survival – hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re so right. One of my 4 siblings almost didn’t. I knew way more about my mother than I ever should have been burdened with. Perhaps it made me stronger. Writing about it would get it in front, as you say, and perhaps bring some clarity. “She was a monster and I was a kid.” Yup.

        On the other hand, I do enjoy writing about the loving people from my past. Those stories have made it onto my blog. I miss them, but perhaps the writing brings them back in a way that is a comfort. That and the photographs. I would love a few hours with them now too. ❤️

  4. Oh Martha – this is not only a thought provoking post but one that is like a dance! I see the spinning and then the steps weave a pattern from one thing to the other! I’ve always said that the difference between a victim and a survivor is that the survivor accepts that the past cannot be changed and moves forward where the victim continually tries to change history. I can see where the grasping for that nostalgia is very apropos when talking about the Trump movement. It isn’t a sonnet but I can hear the faint echo of a prose poem….

  5. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject. The past itself is a very complex thing, made up of sunshine and shadows.
    There MY past — and I do have many regrets. And there’s THE past. I think how much simpler things were when I was a kid in the 50s — the multiplicity of decisions we now face, 109 shades of white paint for example. (And hearing that some folks need therapy from the stress of choosing colors of paint for rooms!) This complexity didn’t exist to stress us back then.
    I’ve seen and been thankful for advances in the medical world. If I’d had my bout with leukemia back in the 50s, what would my chances of survival have been? I appreciate getting away from wringer washers. And my Dad’s explosive fury. So my nostalgia is limited.

    • People have a great fear of doing something wrong and making the wrong decision. Who knows what their private hell is, but… One of my foreign students said the only freedom he saw in the US was freedom of choice as we might exercise at Subway Sandwiches. 😀

      Yeah – I agree with you. If I’d shown up with osteoarthritis in my hip back in the 50s I would be in a. wheelchair now even though they DID hip replacements, they didn’t last long.

      I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for those times, I do miss people who are dead. When the virus hit the point where people could begin seeing their families again, I thought, “I can’t see mine.” it was a strange thought to come wafting through my consciousness.

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