In Which a Historian Learns to Embrace Nostalgia…

God, according to the Bible, “has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecc 3:11). I try to keep this wisdom in mind, as a scholar who is too prone to assume that his discipline has a monopoly on human understanding about the past. Even PhD-holding historians “cannot find out” everything about the past — not even close. And we’re not the only people to have a “sense of past” in our minds. In fact, all humans make meaning of what went before, albeit rarely with the tools and methods of modern Western historiography.

This weekend I received a powerful reminder that one common way of thinking (or feeling) about the past may not be so irredeemably awful as historians have tended to assume. It happened Sunday afternoon at my mom’s family farm in western Wisconsin, where my 94-year old grandfather continues to decline in health.

My grandparents' farm house

Having spent his entire life at a farm that’s been in the family well over a century, Grandpa is not going to end things in a hospital. So my mom arrived six weeks ago to help her older sister take care of him.

I’ve been out to see them five or six times in the last two months, retracing a journey I made often while growing up. (Besides holiday visits, my brother and I often spent a week or two there in the summer.) But now that the relative warmth of Upper Midwestern spring has finally dried out the ground and brought the first floral blooms of the year, I walked around the entire farm for the first time in ages.

As I roamed the acreage, memory after childhood memory resurfaced. Flinging horseshoes beneath the apple trees. Learning the angles to shoot hoops off the roof of the dairy. Sipping impossibly cold water from the windmill pump. Turning a fallen tree into a land bridge. Learning to drive on Grandpa’s tractor. Digging in the creek bed where he once found Native American arrowheads…

As my feet sank into the soil, I felt something I rarely feel and often criticize: nostalgia.

“My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia,” admitted novelist Michael Chabon recently, in accepting an award from the Jewish Book Council. “That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable.”

Living as we do under a president who uses nostalgia to fuse economic grievances to white nationalism, we certainly need to recognize how nostalgia can “foment violence.” But cynical promises to “Make America Great Again” are not what Chabon had in mind:

The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection….

Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios.

Chabon reflected on his “sense of having missed something,” of having grown up in a world more lonely and disconnected than the Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia where his uncle came of age: “a kind of community within the community, connected not merely by blood or ties of affection but also by the everyday commitments, debts, responsibilities, disputes, tensions, and small pleasures that make up the daily life of a family.” So he came to recognize nostalgia as

the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.

Lena and Isaiah in a tire swing on the family farm
Our kids making pre-nostalgic memories at the farm earlier this spring

The historian in me stubbornly insisted on disenchanting such memories. But even as part of my mind wondered what had happened to the makers of those arrowheads, displaced to make way for Europeans like my great-great-grandfather, I think there was something trustworthy in what I felt.

Like Chabon, my experience of nostalgia calls me back to an immigrant past; however fleetingly, it lets me feel a genuine connection with a kind of community and way of life that continues to shape my beliefs and behavior long after it disappeared. Whatever doubts I had on that count disappeared Sunday evening, as my mom and I attended a hymn sing at the Covenant church where she grew up. Singing the Swedish first verse of “Children of the Heavenly Father,” I could almost hear the voices of my ancestors entrusting to God hopes and fears that were both like and unlike my own.

And since we all remain God’s children, perhaps it’s okay — once in a while — to think like a child and temporarily put away adult-ish ways. Indeed, even as my grandfather loses his ability to remember the recent past, his recollection of being a child has only sharpened. Like me, he looks out over that farm and is brought back to the age when the future, like the rolling fields, seems to stretch on beyond the horizon.

Like the discipline of history, nostalgia can only glimpse “what God has done from the beginning.” Such remembering cannot fully, permanently summon the past back into existence. Nor should it. But if the passage of time mostly brings decay and death, then I’m convinced that anything that can restore “some minor vanished beauty” to our lives must be a mercy.