Nostalgia

My dad had a stock response whenever someone said they wished they had been born in 1450 or 1850: “If I was born then, I’d be dead by now.”

I always interpreted his response in two ways: one, a reference to the short life expectancy of those time, so that, at 55, he would in all probability have exceeded his time on earth; two, pointing out that it is only by living in the present time that we are able to nostalgically long for a different time–he’d be dead and unable to long for times gone by.

Ever notice that no one ever idealizes the present moment?

Plenty of people today will say that the fifties were a wonderful, simpler time, when everything made sense and things were just taken care of. But have you realized that most of the people who say those things were children in the 1950s? When you are a child, everything is wonderful, simple, and gets done for you. It reminds me of Sylvester Graham, one of America’s first health-nuts and professional nostalgists. In the 1850s, the first full-fledged phase of the Industrial Revolution, he advocated a return to the ways of the turn of the century, when the woman was the center of the home and bread was baked in the hearth (not purchased at a bakery). Of course, this was also the time when Graham was a child, and his idealized worldview could be said to reflect his displeasure over the fact that his vision of the world from his childhood days was gone.

I find that in a lot of the “homemade” “homestead” “back-to-the-land” rhetoric, there is a notion that there was once a time in America when everything was right, and we just have to get back to it. But I’ll wager that, if you were able to go back to any point in history, you wouldn’t find anyone who said that this is the right time. No, they’ll point you towards a still-earlier time. This is a theme propounded by Woody Allen’s recent, surprisingly popular Midnight in Paris. I believe we are, by nature, a forward-thinking and backwards-looking people. I won’t deny that I often succumb to the mentality that new is probably bad. If it was good enough for the elders, it was good enough for me. But we have to remember that just because people used to do it that way, doesn’t make it the best way. Maybe it’s wasteful, inefficient, illogical. I remember by grandfather in the mountains used to burn all the paper garbage in a steel drum in a stand of birch trees uphill from the house. I can still see him in my mind, thick yellow kid leather gloves pushing the magazines and paper bags into the roaring flames, then covering them with a sheet of steel and watching the smoke billow out among the branches. It was truly magical. Of course, now I know that this is a terrible way of disposing of your recyclables.

So this ramble was just a reminder to myself and others–to really change the world, we need to be mindful of the present, not dismissive of it. All our great historical figures were innovators–reversionist people like Sylvester Graham are remembered, when they are, as kooks reluctant to advance or anachronistic extremists (and as inventor of the graham cracker–ironically, intended to be produced in the home). It is fine to take lessons from the past, but realize we’re bringing them into the present, with all the things that entails.

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