Monday, May 19, 2014

When, in Memory, a Little Rain Falls

Nostalgia can be a curious thing.

Reminiscing about times past usually doesn't take place when one is enjoying life in the present.  So when we get nostalgic, it can be an indication that our current circumstances merit particular enthusiasm.  We look back, and however accurately we may remember things, and however happy or sad those olden times may have been, we rarely cheer ourselves up with nostalgia.

Some people engage in it far more than others do, and I suspect that, the more successful people are in the present, the less they look back on their past.  The less, maybe, they feel they need to look back on their past.  Maybe we don't appreciate what we have in the present, or we haven't bothered to evaluate whatever progress we might have achieved between then and now, but the less successful, content, and confident we are, the more we ten to let memories be recycled as contemporary amusement.

I'm not sure how Biblical nostalgia is.  When the Israelites did it in the desert, God became frustrated with them.  Here He'd saved them from enslavement in Egypt, and His people were nevertheless grumbling about how good life seemed to be in captivity, compared with their temporary reality of homelessness and wandering.  They were not just nostalgic, but ungrateful as well.

The dynamic Apostle Paul encourages the church at Philippi to forget what is behind them, and to press on ahead for the cause of Christ.  Indeed, Paul was all about progress and focusing forward.

Yet the Psalmist almost constantly rhapsodizes over the faithfulness of God, proven time and time again, and remembered as proofs for why continuing to trust in our Lord is not a fruitless endeavor.

Undoubtedly, what we hope to get out of nostalgia likely determines whether it can be beneficial to us or not.  Wallowing in a nostalgia for days we can no way recreate in our present reality likely dishonors God, Who desires that we mature in our faith.  However, fond memories in and of themselves can be healthy, can't they?  They can serve as a form of encouragement, and even help to put our present reality in context.

Maybe it's my chronic clinical depression, or maybe it's my age as a late-forties guy about to embark on his midlife crisis, but I find that I'm exploring my past with a greater interest than I think I probably lived it.

When I was a child growing up in upstate New York, for example, I didn't think those days were all that special.  I realize that many kids don't appreciate their growing-up years, no matter how good or privileged they may have been.  My brother is a year younger than me, and he's never been a nostalgic person.  And a few years ago, I wouldn't have described myself as one, either.  But lately, I'm surprised at how often I'm on nostalgic trips down memory lane.

Well, actually, nostalgic trips down Beach Road, the rural country lane bisecting our old farm.  And that century-old farmhouse in which we lived for the first twelve years of my life.

Sometimes, I worry that reliving memories from the past is unhelpful for a person in my condition, and an unhealthy waste of time, recollection, and emotions.  However, I also wonder if the stories I relive, and the experiences I unearth from my mind's dusty archives - particularly memories of benign or positive events - aren't still on deposit in my memory for some beneficial purpose.  I've had psychotherapists over the years warn me not to blame my depression on my past, or my parents, or try to derive profound meanings out of them.  Our past can help explain how we've gotten to where we are today, but even if somebody is on trial in a court of law, blame based on memory is tricky to prove.

I've wondered if traveling back and spending mental time on the north shore of Oneida Lake, where I grew up, might help me make sense of why I am where I am today.  I can't afford to travel back there physically, even for a visit, and hardly anybody's left up there that would remember me, or my family; we've no relatives there.  Besides, that area's economy has pretty much evaporated over the decades we've been away.  Whereas here in Arlington, Texas, where I currently live, when we'd go away for a month or so to Maine, returning was always an adventure in discovery, as some new restaurant would have opened while we were away, or some new housing development begun.  But when my parents and I drove through central New York and visited our old house back in the early 2000's, it was like we'd stepped into a time warp, when the towns and villages of my childhood appeared to have seen no progressive economic activity of any kind since we left.

In fact, the narrow main street in our old little village, Cleveland, perched right on the lake, had been razed of virtually every commercial building.  They were ancient, rickety structures even when we left.  It was never a wildly prosperous town; what fortunes it had enjoyed came early, as a glass-making center after the Civil War.  By the time my parents moved there, transferred by my father's company from New York City, it was mostly a bedroom community for Syracuse, with a few hundred hardy souls, and some light industry, including lumber companies and a family-owned wire making firm.

Today, even the lumber companies are gone, despite all of the forests surrounding the village.  The glass works were long gone before we ever arrived.  What was once merely a dumpy community when we lived there has become a downright impoverished one.  So many people have moved away because of the area's miserable economy, the little elementary school I attended, from Kindergarten through the Sixth Grade, is closing permanently after this current school year ends.

It was the village's last major employer.

I have never liked school, and I hated my time at Cleveland Elementary.  When I talk about nostalgia, I have absolutely none regarding that brick prison on the hill with views of the lake.  I liked recess, when we got to run around the playground that had been situated under a couple of huge old trees - something most modern school administrations would probably prohibit for the liability factor.  I thought gym class was organized torture, and the one big shower room that all of us boys shared communally haunted me like some sort of twisted, perverted punishment.  I'm scrupulously adamant about my personal cleanliness, but I only showered after gym class once or twice - I could tolerate my sticky clothes and smelly skin better than the misery of that shower.

Can you remember all of your elementary teachers?  I can, from Mrs. Arnold in Kindergarten, to Miss Wells in First Grade, Mrs. Parker in second, Miss Marzinski in third, Mrs. Marsh in fourth, Mr. Archambeau in fifth, and Mrs. Wolfe in sixth.

Summers in Cleveland, New York, were frustratingly short, yet blissfully carefree.  Our vintage, overgrown farm featured a wonderfully broad yard, plus forests with old lumber trails offering plenty of ways for my brother and me to run around and use our imaginations.

Some friends gave us a pure-bred collie named Felice, and I don't think she ever wore a collar during her life with us.  She certainly never was on a leash.  She ran around with my brother and me, even out into the sparsely-trafficked road when we learned how to ride bicycles.  She'd spring alongside of us, playfully barking at us, or huffing and panting, with her long tongue flapping from her open mouth.

Dad built her a modern doghouse, complete with a little entry room, a wall, and then another back room for her to escape the howling winds of winter.  It was on our back porch, so it was protected from the rain and snow, and she never seemed to get too cold out there.

Summers, though, were a bit different, since upstate New York can get suffocatingly steamy and humid.  One summer, when Dad's sister and mother were visiting from Brooklyn, we were having a good old summer thunderstorm, replete with blinding lightening and crashing thunder, and buckets and buckets of rain.  Like many dogs, Felice was petrified by thunder, and she refused to stay in her doggie house while it sounded like the entire planet was crashing down around her.  Despite the pouring rain, she'd run in circles around our big old farmhouse, faster and faster at each clap of thunder.  It was sad and funny at the same time to see her so spooked, yet so swift and agile around the turns.

My aunt, Helena, took pity on poor Felice during that particular storm, and convinced Mom to let her inside to calm down.  My brother and I were already upstairs in bed, and I can't remember if Dad was away on business or not, but he wasn't home at that hour of the evening.  My grandmother, whom we called "Mummo," which is "grandmother" in Finnish, had gone to bed as well, in a guest bedroom on the first floor, that had a big bed.

As the storm raged louder and louder, although we rarely let Felice into the house, Mom caved and let her inside at Helena's insistence, into our laundry room.  It had tile floors where she could dry the dog, and doors to the rest of the house to keep her confined after everybody went to bed.

If the storm lasted that long.

But Felice wasn't going to wait and find out.

After she'd been closed up in the laundry room, at the next huge clap of thunder, Felice burst open a door to the rest of the house - she charged through the living room, and into the bedroom where Mummo had just settled in for the night!  Panicked, wet, smelly, and whimpering, Felice dove under the bed, initially frightening Mummo, who had no idea what had just happened, or what was now very much under her bed.

So Mummo began hollering for Helena, and Mom was trying to figure out where Felice had gone - it was pandemonium!  It woke up my brother and me, and we raced downstairs to find Mummo sitting up in her bed - having figured out herself by then what had happened - and she was laughing so hard, she was crying!  Here she was, a hardened city dweller from Brooklyn, having come to the country for some peace and quiet, and her son's wet, stinking, freaked-out dog was cowering under her bed!

Helena and Mom were on their hands and knees, on either side of the bed, trying to coax Felice out from underneath it.  I looked under the bed myself, and Felice was definitely NOT about to leave her little cave!

Poor dog.  I can still remember that evening like it was yesterday.  But it didn't happen yesterday.  It happened decades ago.

Why is it that some of our memories can remain so vivid, especially memories that don't seem to have a moral, or a life lesson, or even any particularly searing emotion attached to them?

In the oddest times, however, I find myself nostalgic for those days when an ordinary summer thunderstorm could invigorate an otherwise soggy, ordinary evening.  Those summer evenings in upstate New York when the sweet smells of pine trees, grass, flowers, tree bark, and rain coalesced.  And only during three precious months out of otherwise chilly and crisp northern years.

I don't want to go back and re-live my childhood.  But at least I think I'm appreciating its good times more.

And what is that worth?

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