Passing Strange, a Broadway theater production also immortalized in film by Spike Lee, tells the story of a young African American man, a single son of a single mother, from an affluent Black community in the suburbs of L.A. The play opens when Main Character is in his teens and suffering severe disgust with just about everything around him. He finds the culture he is immersed in oppressive, the conventional aspirations and expectations repellent, and most of the people around him unbearably “phony.” He launches into punk music but finds even his fellow band members disappointingly tepid. He flees the US; he plunges into Europe. Here, for some years, he shifts from one country, community, and relationship to the next. The satisfaction he is looking for proves elusive. Until, not without tragedy, he at last realizes that what he has been seeking in the world out there can, in fact, only be found within.
It is an excellent play: funny; emotionally precise; trenchantly observant of nuances in behavior and contradictions in culture. It seems impossible that one could watch it without gaining greater understanding – and perhaps compassion, and perhaps gentleness – for certain sorts of human suffering.
And, it is a story built entirely of nostalgia. It is told as an autobiography. Main Character in grown-up form (played by the artist known as Stew, also the performance’s creator) is the minstrel and narrates the story as we see it unfold on stage. It is essentially a series of highlight moments in his life – moments that felt significant to him then and the ones that, in hindsight, have become imbued with meaning. In light of his eventual revelations about self-acceptance and unconditional love, Main Character sees how he failed to appreciate the potential in various relationships and people he abandoned to the past. His story is particularly rich in women of exceptional beauty and generosity who, he now recognizes, had offered him exactly the love and validation he sought, but at the time could not see. If only he had known then what he knows now, if only, if only…
Except, that’s not actually what’s going on at all.
What struck me about this play is that the nostalgia it is full of is of a different nature entirely than the nostalgia I have encountered most frequently in these past several weeks of conversation and sharing with people on this topic. What I have learned is that although some trappings of nostalgia have a pleasant whiff, for many people the feeling is an uncomfortable one. It correlates often with a feeling of unease in the present and seems by nature a futile yearning. But if looked at closely, that which we are nostalgic for is not impossible to obtain. It is not facts and events that we long for from the past, but emotions. We remember people and places in the way that we do because they are distilled representations of feeling. And, as it is our feelings of the present that determine our interpretation of the memories, I would venture to say that we don’t feel what we feel because of what we remember, but rather we remember what we remember because of what we feel. Nostalgia is, therefore, quite often a recommendation for change: change in attitude, or behavior, or situation – such that one can feel in the present that feeling one attributes to the past.
But in this play, nostalgia is not a red flag for change. Of course I do not know Stew, but I’d say the wisdom revealed by his ability to write such a piece suggests that he now has access to the sense of peace that eluded him so long. Whether or not he acts in accordance all the time is another matter but he certainly gets it – gets what love is, gets happiness. The characters that populate his nostalgia are transparently caricatures (how else explain how such angelic women could find the Main Character-as-youth – abuzz with self justification as he is – anything more than pitiable?). The nostalgia of this play does not reveal dissatisfaction, but rather satisfaction. It is the raw material used by a complete and (at least potentially) content mind to build something that could potentially help others arrive at a greater sense of contentment, as well.
And what I take from this is that the past – the experiences and people that loom in our mind and resonate with emotion of one kind or another – can always be made into something of beauty, worth, and utility in the present, and for the future.
** Emma **
My name is Emma. I am in St. Paul, Minnesota, going to school at Macalester.
I think the feeling of nostalgia is something that tends to take up a large portion of my brainspace on a regular basis. It comes through in my writing a lot: so far I’ve taken three creative writing courses in school (intro, fiction, and poetry) and have heard at least once in each class from my peers that my writing feels nostalgic. Somehow I have this need for things to feel nostalgic or bittersweet in order for them to feel meaningful, which I think is sort of detrimental in that it prevents me from focusing clearheadedly on what’s happening right now and causes me instead to give more credibility to the way I feel after an event takes place. If I feel nostalgic, it means that whatever happened was important or significant. If I don’t, it lessens the importance of that event in my mind.
The things I feel most nostalgic about are my junior and senior years of high school, when I met the people who will be my best friends forever; and a certain 18-month portion of my life, right up until this past July, when a really big relationship I’d been in came to an end.
A list of more specific things that invoke nostalgia in me: Polaroid photos, Lake Superior, most songs written by Devendra Banhart, chamomile tea, Nag Champa incense, tree-climbing, letter-writing, winter biking, and breakfast potatoes.
Is there such a condition as chronic nostalgia? I know it’s not the same as depression even though some might say otherwise. Maybe it just needs its own name.
I am realizing that nostalgia is very confusing. Everything about it contradicts everything else about it. Bittersweet is one big oxymoron.
The things I love the most are the things that make me feel nostalgic. (This is confusing to me.)
I tend to focus on the past a lot more than the future, but my basic plan for the next couple of years is to, first, finish school. Second, take at least a year off before I make any sort of dramatic move. I am torn between doing something practical but maybe unfulfilling, like going to nursing school, and doing something really difficult but most likely very fulfilling, like starting a commune or living on a farm. This is as far as I know at this point. I want to feel satisfied and purposeful. I want to love and be loved. I don’t want to feel confused or bitter or unsatisfied.
Me: What do you do?
Mitch: Same job as I had when i was 27: Professor of journalism at NYU – though I have done quite a few other things when not teaching, during summers or on sabbaticals. etc.
How old are you?
What would you like to transpire in your life in the next 3 to 10ish years?
Same as I’ve wanted since I was 17: see and do more, worry less.
Let me know if you want to discuss nostalgia — a subject upon which I do have some thoughts. (Including the thought, borrowed from Milan Kundera, that it is an indulgence of the young.)
(from an email)
I’m moving around a bit – this is the only weekend home out of five. Trying, in a kind of reverse nostalgia, to put something woodsy, untamed and unloud into my present/future, through the purchase of a weekend home in a socialist cooperative 50 miles to the north. (Reverse nostalgia should, perhaps, be the indulgence of the old.) Trying to gain purchase on a writing project or two. Drinking with a bit more enthusiasm (which makes me wonder if it isn’t substituting for other enthusiasms). Not liking, for the first time, an Edith Wharton. Wondering, as I do, whether I can still place myself in front of a room and be good at teaching.
I still succumb to nostalgia on occasion, of course: reconnecting with a college buddy recently, for example. It makes for good guy talk. Then I went out of my way a couple of weeks ago to revisit Isla Vista, CA, where I spent an important, often idyllic (cept for the identity and romantic issues with which I was struggling) 9 months when 20.
My visual memory of places is strong, and I like to lay past and future images up against each other in my head. I also have interest in this person who apparently was me (and was much more interested in the subject of what that meant) and so it’s useful, upon occasion, to follow his tracks. However, I feel, on nostalgia in general that whatever need it filled when I was young has eased. Not sure it has to do with emotion. I remain rather emotional. Perhaps it is the need for some sort of grounding. Maybe the accumulation of past and the assemblage of credentials and human connections eases that particular need. Perhaps the answer is mathematical: when the past is in short supply it gains value. Now it is the future that feels skimpy.
I want… to talk to you about nostalgia, and warm bright things from the past, and soft dark things, and cello strings, panning mountain vistas, and a dress that my mother used to wear.
Me: Tell me something about yourself, for context
Ezra: I am 23. I am external; I am reflections of what I like or dislike about others. I make images in the same way, hoping that applying some sort of filter to the things immediate to me makes them more interesting to others, and that I can frame my perspective. These images (to me) consist of primarily two things: temperature and composition. Temperature is a patina, where warmth is overexposed, and is fondness. Things that are cold are unsure, and require some optimism. “This glass of shit is half-full.” In the future, I hope that I am able to pair overwhelming extremes (fondness, insecurity, precariousness, closeness) with the more mundane of feelings. Give them some root, or datum, that allows me to actually consider them real.
Quick writing about Momma, my most nostalgic subject:
Breezes blow branches, and the spotty shade from the leaves filter through every window in the house. Most windows, anyway, besides the ones that we brag are always in the shadow of the mountains. I sit at the dining room table, eating garden vegetables and cheese that your friend’s goat provides. You are working at the wood cookstove, humming.
When you hum, it’s almost recognizable, but you are off of the tune somewhat. Off, but you understand music, so you correct your forgetting in a pleasant way, so that I hear comforting tunes that are unknown although familiar. After all, they’re the same songs that I hear you play on your turntable every day. Flour filters up from the bread that you’re baking, and I see every particle in the afternoon light; the first time that I recognize luminance as something tangible, and something that I care for. But, really, I just care for being there while you do this cooking thing.
Your dress literally swishes, and it is the only thing that I can hear as you motion to me for silence, and point out the fox outside the kitchen’s picture window. A fly lazily buzzes past, because all windows are open here, and all things are welcome. You point at me and laugh because I can’t see over the counter, but hand me a wooden spoon as consolation.
This is real life, what you do to keep your children fed.
Really, you love it all, but you love your shop as well. Scores of wood-fired pieces of pottery line the walls, drying from creation or drying from glazing. These are given to myself, and to my friends, upon any occasion that can be found for a gift (dozens of friends still mention having them, decades later). You mention that violins are beauty created from tension: Wood dried and shaped from its natural form, screamed across by tense, removed horse-hair. I try, even at that young age, to think of this as what “art” may be (both parents are artists). But then I watch you at the potter’s wheel, turning a slab of wet earth. Literally turning, with a fascination set into every rotation, fingers playing across its surface as it cycles around again, each time with a small success or new attempt. Your hand draws away from the pot, pulling a lip with it as if it were a utilitarian gestural drawing.
There is no tension in this art, there is only use of what the ground provides. You do not disagree with the clay, or the flour, sunlight, the tune you hum, or the fox. You only notice what you love there, and coax it out, carefully and patiently. While you alter everything you touch, you don’t distort anything; you only provide your view. You alter nothing, you only change its shape and use.
You are my mother, your voice is always even, your laugh is always ready, and your hand is always warm. And I am your favorite clay.
I am an out-of-work college-prep history teacher. I was laid off due to budgetary belt-tightening not performance. This hit me kind of hard because I was well-liked by both admin and students when I was let go. I always thought that were I to prove myself a competent and valuable member of the faculty, I would be safe. I did not realize something as arbitrary as “seniority” was going to be the winnowing artifact used in situations like this. It has caused me great distress and has been the catalyst for some serious soul-searching as to whether or not teaching at prep-schools is, in fact, the occupation for me. It has also caused me to take stock in my life and ask “am I truly happy” where I am and as the person I am.
Me: What changes would you like to see in next 3-5 years
Dominic: I would like to see myself happy. Whatever that means. If it means having a family – then I’d like to have one. If it means starting my own business – then I’d like to do that. If it means leaving my wife and embracing bachelorhood – then it appears it’s time to do so. I really don’t know what I want the trappings of my life to be at this point, so much of it is up in the air. I just know that whatever I am doing I want to be true to my ethos of what a meaningful life is and then live it.
…It has been my observation that for those of us with a predilection for this condition, the pull of nostalgia grows stronger the older we get. And yet, there are people wholly devoid of this feeling. I married a woman unencumbered by the same pangs of nostalgia to which I am increasingly subjected. She has no idea the envy I feel, for I have come to regard nostalgia as an indicator that all is not well in one’s psyche. It is a veil we throw over our eyes that obstructs our ability to perceive, it is a shackle that renders us immobile in our own body.
I first remember feeling true nostalgia in 8th grade – apparently I was doomed from an early age to live my life in rewind. I was a relay runner and long-jumper on our middle school track team. We were undefeated and about to have the last meet of the season against another undefeated team, which also happened to be our long-term league rival. This match-up between our two schools was mythical in its scope. It permeated our middle school’s culture whenever our two teams were in opposition, regardless of the sport. I recall thinking, on the cusp of the competition’s start, that this experience was similar to an episode of my favorite TV show from my youth. In that episode, it was the final showdown between the story’s two opposing forces; and only one could emerge victorious and supreme. The show was a cartoon called Star Blazers; a show imported from Japan and translated into English. I watched it religiously in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, from the ages of about 5-7. Star Blazers eventually went off the air and was replaced in the warehouse of my childhood’s imagination by other toys and serialized cartoons. I hadn’t given the show a moment’s thought from that point until that time when I was 13 and about to go off to “battle.” I remember thinking it was odd that I remembered that show at that moment before the meet. I also remember thinking about how foreign it felt to experience two seemingly oppositional emotions at the same time; which I later learned are – for me, at least – integral to this sentiment. On one hand I relived the sweet and wonderful excitement I felt whenever the show was on or when I was pretending to be one of the main characters, and on the other hand, I felt real sadness knowing it was no longer in my life.
It is embarrassing, really, to admit what makes me nostalgic…
…Anime and sci-fi stories in which I wholly subsumed my waking existence… switches and dials on console panels… sounds and lights the buttons made when they were “engaged,” the arcing paths of contrails left from missiles and jets scattering through space, the battle scars on the bodies of Y-wings, and the blocky polygons that made up space suits, robots, fighter planes, and laser guns. When I see the SDF-1, or the Reliant, or the Autobot insignia, or the wild eyes and hair of characters like Lufy, Yuri and Kei, or Max Sterling, or watch the gleam of reflected light off Priss’s motorcycle and Wildstar’s Cosmo Zero fighter, I feel an intense longing to travel back in time and reinhabit myself at a time when I’m busy daydreaming about the worlds in which those things inhabit…
…Girls. And the travails that were inexorably linked to currying their favor. Though I am never nostalgic about the “good times” (with one important exception). I’m usually remembering when things were going horribly awry. Not the arguments, but the moments when cues were missed, opportunities were missed, courage was not sufficiently summoned, or courage was summoned and interest demonstrated but not returned.
My first car, “The Babe Magnet.”
…It was around nineteen when I waded into the deep-end of the musical pool and began to swim around.
Stereolab is my year in Japan. Lake Trout is an extended visit to DC with my good friend from Australia. 10,000 Maniacs is my first, failed attempt to earn a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Death Ships is my frustration in the final year of teaching at a boarding school in West Virginia, while Lefty’s Deceiver is the sadness I felt at being away from my home and friends in Philly during that time. But it is The Church, first heard at sixteen, that makes me most nostalgic…
I feel happy and pleasant when recollecting such memories… The most powerful of each serves as the “bridge moment,” the one experience that leaps me forward into the next stage of my development… So if these eras are the emotional frontiers of my development and are filled with events that represent my life’s watershed moments, why do I eventually feel sadness when I dwell on them for too long?
Once you do something, you cannot do it “for the first time,” again. Eating from the tree of knowledge means you gain worldliness but lose your innocence. To have knowledge and familiarity of a thing is to no longer be surprised by it. What this universe and all the experiences in it “could be” becomes replaced by what it actually “is.” As a kid I so desperately wanted to see far away worlds while flying around in my veritech fighter. However, the reality of my adult existence is there are no Zentradi, I’m scared when I fly as a passenger on commercial craft, and I lack the financial resources to actually own and maintain a plane of my own. While marriage is a wonderful, healthy state, I doubt I will be able to fall in love again “for the first time” with my wife. In the coming years our love will change and take on new dimensions; which sounds wonderful and I expectorantly look forward to it. But that “first time” excitement of finding a new love is now in the past. Music genres are blending together and are more and more familiar the more I listen to them. It is becoming less and less frequent that I find a sound that isn’t completely surprising in its newness, yet is still appealing. When I find new music I like, it more often than not is evocative of something else I heard years ago.
So it appears that, for me, nostalgia is the recognition of the loss of innocence and the lack of frontiers in my life. The pleasantness of those old memories is really just the lingering afterglow of the excitement I felt when I existed in a razor-thin sliver of consciousness; located between being wholly aware that I was living something new and permanent, yet unaware of how I would experience it. The world was fresh, new and unpredictable. It was open for exploration by me alone.
Cormac McCarthy wrote how there is violence in nostalgia. Paraphrasing his sentiment, he believes people are nostalgic because a nostalgic person has unattended business left in their past…I think for Cormac, the violence he speaks of is just an umbrella emotion that really shields the emotion that exists a level below. The violence he speaks of is really just sadness. Sadness at the fact that we are often unaware of our life’s happiest moments until they have passed us by… Sadness that most of our childhood dreams are unable to survive in the hostile atmosphere and harsh light of this physical plane of existence… Sadness that we were once vital, enthusiastic creatures and that our present day-to-day routine, which we may have slid into so effortlessly and unwillingly, is boring the shit out of us…