Teachers get the summer “off” which typically means taking classes or raising their families or working odd jobs to supplement their salaries. Off might be the wrong word but that’s a topic for another entry. I happen to be taking a class on Ancient Greece and to start the class they asked me to read the ambitiously titled, “The Complete World of Greek Mythology.” About halfway through there is a section on the Trojan War and of course the journey home of Odysseus. The author starts the section with a brief discussion of the etymology of the word “nostalgia.” In the typically flowery language of a lifelong academic he explains,
“The English word ‘nostalgia’ has acquired a romantic patina, but its Greek semantic roots have, in combination, a harsher edge: nostos means ‘return journey’, and algos means ‘pain.'”
Needless to say the book has been a bit of a slog. But that breakdown of the word nostalgia has stuck with me the past couple weeks. I have been in many ways nostalgic as I have thought back to memories and experiences from my life and childhood. I’ll just highlight a couple.
When I was a kid my family spent a week at what is today typically called ‘family camp.’ I do not think camp is a super accurate term because we stayed in hotel style rooms and had all our meals made for us but branding is not something I have dedicated my life to. In any case I loved my week there each summer. There was always good food, good activities, and as I got older a great place to make friends. I went back there as an adult a number of years ago and just the smell of the hallways brought me back, in a wave of nostalgia, to the fun I had had as a kid.
This family camp actually ran an actual summer camp where my sisters and I started attending as kids. I later went through their training program and became a counselor and eventually leadership staff for 6+ summers. I have always thought of this camp as ‘old-school’ in the best possible way. No gimmicks or expensive nonsense here. Just plenty of food, awesome activities and games, and great staff. The camp worship songs we sung were always better sung at camp. This morning at church we sang an updated adaption of a song we sang at camp and the nostalgia nearly knocked me over. I was right back in the camp gym with 200 sweaty campers and staff, reverent and exhausted.
My last example is my families summer house in small town New Hampshire. My great-grandfather bought it in the 1950s as a place to spend his summers in retirement. He enjoyed 18 summers there but four more generations of his family have continued to return there, summer after summer. It’s very old now and it’s not in amazing shape. There is however a photograph of the house in the dining room from what is probably mid-century and it is glorious. The garden is filled with flowers, there’s a stylish car in the driveway. Everything, even in back and white, appears pristine. In moments of nostalgia I long to see the house as it once was, decades ago. I visited it last weekend, however, and sat on the porch on a beautiful afternoon and took a few pictures. The view has not changed much and for that I am incredibly grateful.
I love how the origins of the word nostalgia brought me back the last few weeks. I kind of hate it too. So many images and experiences are indelibly stamped into my consciousness and a smell, a song, a view can bring me right back to remember and experiences those things again with gratitude. But there is undeniably pain there too. A pain at realizing childhood is over, the glory days of that time and place are gone, that things can never quite be what they once were. I think ultimately the tension of the word nostalgia gives it its power. The joy of the memories increases the pain at not being able to go back. But I also think there is maturity in accepting nostalgia for what is it, for being thankful for the good things that have occurred in one’s life. Many have little to be nostalgic about. I hope that whatever we may or may not have nostalgia about we would be motivated to create such moments in the lives of others that they, one day, would have the same mix of feelings I am having this summer.