Tag Archives: nostalgia

Nostalgia in the Bible

“I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. But to the land to which they will long to return, there they shall not return.”

Jeremiah 22:26-27

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Smelling Magnolias

When I worked at a high school in Richmond last spring, I drove the bus in the morning before going in to teach. Each day, I dropped my students off at the front of the building then drove around the corner to park. Several times on my way back to the entrance, I walked past a small magnolia tree covered in blooms:

Walking by that tree, I would stop and lean in for a minute or two to smell an old, familiar smell. It’s completely cliche, but magnolias will always make this southern boy think of home. For that brief moment, I was there: climbing in the magnolia in front of the house where I grew up.

Memory is, of course, powerfully connected to smells and I have noticed this more intensely in the past few years. Maybe I’m more aware of the smells or perhaps I’m becoming more aware of the memories. Either way, smelling magnolia was a comfort on those mornings before walking into school and trying/failing to teach.

In recent months I’ve begun to move toward “nostalgia” as a topic of interest. During this time, I’ve remembered moments of nostalgia in my own life as I’ve also found it referenced in books and articles. Nostalgia is intimately related to the themes of this blog. As we propel ourselves forward we’re also liable to make an occasional backward glance. Also, nostalgia reminds me that “leaving” is not always as complete as we wish. We are all building on the past and it surely composes much our future.

I can’t always predict when I’ll come across a magnolia to remind me of another place or another time, but I hope I’ll stop to smell and remember. As my brain visits old synapses and makes new connections, I will be content to rest in the moment. And then, to take a step back and be thankful for the past and the present.

Magnolias grow in the most unexpected places.

Selling Memory

A few months ago, I wrote a post on my generation: many of us living, working, and studying far from the places of our birth. This post is a semi-related follow-up to answer questions related to memory of the place you’ve left.

Today, I want to write about how and why we think about the past. In particular, I want to write about nostalgia. Nostalgia is longing for what has been lost and holding onto memories of a place and a people from the past.

It’s also a comic book store in Willow Lawn:

Nostalgia Plus

As a cities guy, I first started thinking about nostalgia the summer after my second year while working in Richmond and reading Twentieth-Century Richmond by Christopher Silver. Driving through the region’s sprawl, I lamented the loss of what I believed was once a dense and invested place. I longed to return to the Richmond of the early 1900s with its streetcars and city festivals. I was amazed at how dense Richmond was and how much people cared about this place and cities in general. I wondered if I’d been born in the wrong century. In a previous post, “Longing for a Heyday,” I wondered that many American cities like Richmond are stuck in an unhealthy, backward gaze toward something they once were: places that people loved. Even cities that are actually old are sometimes forced to appear old in a certain, scripted way that flattens their experience.

By the end of the summer, I realized that I had made a mistake: holding onto nostalgia for the past involves denying the difficult realities of life at the time. I began to integrate my knowledge that the early 1900s was also a time when the KKK was experiencing a rebirth, segregation was increasing, and dirt roads were the norm. I also remembered that public health at the time was a nightmare. In my final presentation on the research, I called for an attitude of “thoughtful nostalgia” that learned from certain aspects of the past, while accepting their context in the overall reality of life at the time. It was an important shift for me and one that I have carried to this day.

A year later, I read Greg Dickinson‘s article “Memories for Sale: Nostalgia and the construction of identity in Old Pasadena.” It’s a fascinating piece about memory and place: Memory place. He writes that Old Pasadena has been crafted into a shopping center where people can visit and consume nostalgia in the form of architecture, period-themed restaurants, and walkable city streets. Most Americans live in places that were built since the 50s, but we like to visit places where we can feel like we’re connecting with the past. He writes:

“Old Pasadena’s new, old style is more a set change than a revival of the ‘real’ past. This nostalgic recollection formed as a movie articulates with the nostalgic films that Fredric Jameson suggests are typical of postmodern culture…For Jameson, nostalgia is a dialectal response that attempts to overcome, consciously or unconsciously, the emptiness left by the postmodern loss of the past.

This loss of the past, for Jameson, includes the very elements lamented by authors such as Robert Bellah–loss of communities of memory, loss of the extended or nuclear family and loss of concrete relations caused by the abstractions of post-fordist economic structures. Old Pasadena becomes one of the dramatic sites that responds with simulacra of the past to the contradictions of the present.”

The last four generations have, in essence, left historical places behind and replaced them with lesser representations, simulacra, that assuage the loneliness of our displaced souls. We consciously and unconsciously seek lives within historical context, or, as James Kunstler called it, “a hopeful present.” Kunstler states that the “public realm” needs to tell us where we are geographically and where we are as a society.

Today, while some seek architectural authenticity, others are left with historical references to old times on new buildings. The result is absurd on the verge of caricature, but we don’t even notice it anymore:

Old brick road

This is a photo from a development in Richmond that Ed Slipek playfully called “the future.” At West Broad Village, the future looks strangely like the past. With references to French, American Colonial, Italianate (?) and modern strip mall styles, the development doesn’t tell you much about our society in a coherent way, but instead calls upon a whole host of references to look like “something.” This is the veneer of nostalgia Americans have used to cloak the cinderblock and steel of our daily lives.

Once you start to see it, you will notice it everywhere.

I hope that as we begin to see this commodified nostalgia for what it is the market will respond with more thoughtful developments. I realize most real estate developers weren’t assigned Dickinson in college and I don’t expect everyone to think the way I think. I’m mostly just concerned with the nation America will be in 50 or 100 years.

I hope we’re building places that will still have worth for what they represent on their ownnot for the past civilizations that they reference.

The end of an era

Just about anyone who loves Richmond has heard a story about streetcars: Did you know Richmond invented streetcars? Did you know that Ginter Park was a streetcar suburb? Did you know they piled them up and burned them all in the 50s?

And so the stories go, a hint of nostalgia here and a tinge of sadness there.

If you don’t love cars and highways, odds are good that part of you longs for streetcars. You also might have loved Richmond in the early 1900s when the city was denser (16,000 residents per square mile), connected (more than 80 passenger trains arrived in Richmond daily) and dynamic (real estate values doubled on Grace St. in the 20s.) Yes, this was the time of crowded streets, industrial haze, and grand plans to make our cities beautiful. In many ways, streetcars have come to represent this era as a symbol of the public good and a physical commitment to the life of the city.

From 1888 to 1949, the streetcar reigned as the liberator of urban life. No more stench of horse manure! No more flies! No more walking for miles in the rain! Streetcars filled a need for transportation with incredible efficiency and in a matter of years became an integral part of this growing city. But just as streetcars have come to represent the dense, thriving city, their removal has become a symbol of mid-century American planning and desire for change. As streetcars were ascending to power, the wealthiest of Americans were already turning their attention to the unbounded freedom of the automobile. The military also took note during WWI and afterwards paraded trucks through cities across the entire nation. Compared to cars, streetcars were standing still. You know the rest of the story: highways, suburban sprawl, urban decay/destruction, new neighborhoods, new churches, new malls.

But that’s not really how I want this story to end. Rather than chase cars through the next 60 years of history, I want to remain in the moment that the streetcar era ended and the very memory of streetcars began to fade. The moment when the Richmond City Council passed ordinance No. 51-45 and decided to remove every last piece of streetcar infrastructure from Richmond’s “streets, alleys, bridges and public places therein.” When I found this page in the city council records, I was struck by the wording of the ordinance:

Everything removed

The process just seemed so easy and the change so vast. I pictured a huge eraser passing over the city, wiping away all of that clumsy streetcar infrastructure. The people of Richmond were changing, the city itself was changing, and transportation would never be the same. The streetcar, it seems, couldn’t leave fast enough.

For more artifacts from my research, check out my Archives page.

Therapy and Trauma

I have recently come to the conclusion that life is a combination of therapy and trauma. There are moments in between, of course, but these are often forgotten.

I’m not really thinking of therapy in the strictly medical sense. I think of therapy more as an overcoming of the past. Two months ago I wrote a similar post from a slightly different perspective. At the time, I saw our selves as haunted houses full of fear and stigma. The ghosts, I thought, were the memories of trauma. And the therapy for trauma I described in this way:

“We need to painfully return to embrace ourselves: chaos and all.
We need to walk the halls of this haunted house, to run our hands over dusty railings, to notice what has been broken, and perhaps to even find that our fears were unfounded.”

At the time, I don’t think I really respected the difficulty of therapy. That is, I don’t think I understood how difficult it can be to work through and overcome the past. I also had a shallow understanding of the memories of trauma I carry within myself. Now, I see that embracing ourselves “chaos and all” is a much more difficult and long road, but no less worthwhile.

My next thought is also related to how we form memory and how events in retrospect can become therapeutic while others later seem traumatic. The former are the stories we tell ourselves from the past that help us to understand the kind of person that we are and want to be. The other stories, the stories of trauma, are the stories that we usually ignore or try and laugh about and forget. These are the stories that remind us of who we don’t want to be.

These are the stories we ignore … as well as the people and places with which they are associated.

But they are as intimately “us” as are the stories we enjoy hearing about ourselves. They shape the way we approach every situation. These stories affect the way we interact with other people, perceive authority figures, the opposite sex, peers, coworkers. And since each of us carries different traumatic experiences, each of us will see vastly different activities as therapeutic. For me, baseball was a sport that I was never good at. Struck out in T-ball, put away the bat, gave the pants to a friend’s little brother, and never looked back. So when I threw a baseball with one of my friends the other day, for the first time in about a decade, it was actually a strange sort of therapy.

For someone else, public speaking might be a therapy. For another, going back home is either therapy or trauma depending on how productive we think that it is vs. how much we revert to the person we are trying to forget. We all fear different things in order to protect ourselves, but these fears are usually more internal than we realize: hanging out with the old traumatic stories we love to hate.

As we interact with the past we don’t get rid of it, but, rather we grow to understand it and appreciate it. We also learn more about our negative cycles and can catch ourselves before they set in. Unfortunately, this process never ends, but I imagine it develops over time. I suppose that’s really the goal of these sorts of processes anyways: longevity. The more we’re willing to submit ourselves to life, to therapy, the more we’ll develop and mature. So here’s to long, healthy lives. Here’s to the good and the bad and the perfectly normal in between.

 @Spozbo and the semi-controversial David Deida for leading me to consider the benefits of therapy not as something to fear, but as something integral to healthy human development: life as therapy.
 

Haunted Houses

Yesterday, I published a post titled, “The Memories That Haunt the Mind,” and today all I can think about is “haunted houses.” I see now that in many ways we are vessels of the past, old houses carrying memories of ghosts into the future. We are haunted houses.

I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I am, after all, a spatial thinker. It usually helps me to understand concepts if I can map them out in three dimensions. So when I encounter descriptions of places, I often read them as metaphors for life. Perhaps that is even the foundational process of this blog, but I digress. This morning as I read through Isaiah 64, I was struck by the language of lament for lost places. Babylon has invaded and destroyed all that was loved in Jerusalem and her people are mourning the loss. Verses 10 and 11 read,

“Your holy cities have become a wilderness; Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.”
 

I feel in these verses such a nostalgia for places as they once were: the idealized past. This nostalgia also points to the attitude of the refuge struggling to find meaning in a foreign land. Of course, there is certainly the desperation of a prophet in exile: crying out to a God to which he has committed his life’s work. But most of all, as I moved through this passage, I sensed the sadness and defeat of desecration. At the time, the Jewish people believed that God actually dwelled in these places that were endowed with a holy purpose. The tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem. This place was everything. Losing the city and the temple was likely more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

I was most profoundly struck by one phrase:

Our holy and beautiful house.”

Just stop for a moment and think about the attitude of these words. “There was once a perfect place,” they seem to say, “and we have lost it.”

Then my mind began to wander through some old thoughts about Christianity. I began to think about how the death and resurrection of Christ was supposed to have replaced the need for physical places of worship. When Jesus died on the cross, it is said that the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. The centralized era of this faith had come to an end.

Now, we believe that the human body itself is indwelled by the spirit of the Lord.  In I Corinthians 6:19-20 it states, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body.” Additionally, Matthew 19:20 reads, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Thus, we collectively constitute the holy places of worship in this decentralized era of the Christian faith. Forget the buildings, we are the church.

And then it hit me: everything in this passage in Isaiah can be read as a description of people’s lives on earth. I am the temple. Human civilization is the city. We are the “holy and beautiful house.” And we have been defiled. Created with a purpose, we have been invaded and torn down.

We have lost our dignity, hope, joy, confidence, heritage, tradition. Foundations have cracked. Collectively, we are Zion: struggling, wandering people far from each other, far from home.

And I immediately began to embrace this idea of desecration in myself, my family, my friends, my students, my community, my country. Every day I see people engaging the weight of life. They fight, they embrace, they give up. Every day. We may not fully comprehend our personal shame. Perhaps we don’t think that we were created for any sort of higher purpose. Perhaps we don’t think we have been desecrated. But as I continue to engage the darker side of life I see that we have a deep need to be restored to each other.

We need to painfully return and embrace ourselves: chaos and all.

We need to walk the halls of this haunted house, to run our hands over dusty railings, to notice what has been broken, and perhaps to even find that our fears were unfounded. Haunted houses, after all, are just houses with a stigma. But as the stigma pervades, the house deteriorates. The structure fulfills the prophecy of the stigma … and the cycle continues.

So my thought for today is this: Seek restoration or you may begin to believe the lies that you have been told about yourself. Your life may then follow the lies and become their conclusion. Restoration is not a quick process — it may take a lifetime — but I feel that it is the only proper response. As Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines, “The very substance of our bodies is shaped by our actions, as well as by grace, into pathways of good and evil.” The spiritual disciplines, Willard would say, are the daily habits which continually align our lives to our purpose.

I don’t have answers (see the Rilke quote at the end of my previous post for my opinion on answers), but as I continue to engage my questions, I continue to find that we often have more need for healing than we desire to admit. I am a prime example of this.

At this point, I am thankful for where I am in the context of where I could be. Now, I continue to hope and pray for continual restoration in myself and in others.

That is all.

C is for Cemetery

Cemeteries are memory personified.

They are the tangible outcome of the human desire to be remembered. The desire to last beyond our death. They are the pyramids of the masses; each grave a person’s last chance to make their case for God and men. Cemeteries are also a halmark of civilized society … not everyone receives the dignity of a headstone. And because not all headstones are created equal, they’re also a tangible and public investment in the future of the family name.

In his book, The Language of Towns and Cities, Dhiru Thadani writes an entry for cemeteries that includes two photos of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. “Authentic towns and cities have cemeteries,” he writes, “and space should be planned to accommodate this essential component when designing new towns.” When I read this, I appreciated Thadani’s attention to the value of cemeteries in modern life. I also considered it a bit of a coup for Richmond considering the other noteworthy cemeteries in America. Then again, it’s completely justified.

There is something so basic and yet remarkable about the time and care that was taken in the planning and development of Hollywood Cemetery. It’s no wonder Richmond’s aristocracy used to picnic on the hills of Hollywood overlooking the James River. They escaped the smoke of the city, tidied up their family plot, and caught a cool breeze on warm summer days. Since the cemetery was first planned, it has been maintained, improved, and today remains a destination in this old American city. A brick walkway was added to create “President’s Circle” where two former US presidents are buried. The cemetery stands, in part, as a testament to the longevity of power and tradition in American society.

Another remarkable cemetery in Richmond, one that is not highlighted in Thadani’s epic, is Evergreen Cemetery. I visited Evergreen four days before I visited Hollywood and, as anyone would tell you, the difference is stark. Where one has improved, the other has declined. Where one is prominently placed on the hills overlooking the James, the other is beside a highway in Church Hill. Where one is a testament to power, the Other is a testament to the longevity of systemic stigmatization and shame.

At one time, Evergreen Cemetery must have been a place of prominence in the black community. At least a generation of leaders, their family and friends were buried in this place. The most noteworthy resident is of course the famed Maggie L. Walker: the first American woman to “charter a bank in the United States.” Her grave, like many others, is now shaded in the canopy of a forest that has grown where there was once a field. Mausoleums have been raided, pathways are hidden by brush, and the lives of black Richmond are gradually being lost to time.

With cemeteries, it’s always difficult to understand who is responsible for upkeep. The children of the deceased, the businessmen who sold the plots, or the society at large. The more fascinating question to me, of course, is not who, but why? At its most fundamental level, the maintenance of graves is actually a maintenance of one’s personal identity and heritage. In the case of Hollywood, this is both American and Confederate heritage. In both cases, the members of these groups seem totally unashamed of their pride. They live boldly in their past and work tirelessly to maintain the vestiges which prove it’s legitimacy.

In contrast, the people who would have maintained a place such as Evergreen were a vastly more manipulated and displaced group in the twentieth century. The successful class of black Richmonders, once confined to the city, were proud to erect monuments and sustain traditions that defied the white power structure’s condescending narrative of black inferiority. Once segregation was overthrown, however, many left the city behind and perhaps coincidently left behind their heritage as well. Of course, this is true of nearly every American who left the city in the twentieth century. And yet, one cemetery shines and the other is being slowly eroded by time.

“Segregated at Death” was a title that I considered for this post, but I decided that  it wasn’t the message with which I wanted to lead. I decided that it would be more worthwhile to simply present these two cemeteries and hopefully develop more of a holistic understanding of both (and cemeteries in general) in the context of the other. Thadani’s omission of Evergreen is unfortunate, but not unexpected: his work is often more concerned with aesthetic than politics. For me, I believe that if if we’re going to talk about cemeteries, we ought to at least consider both sides of the American color line to get the full story.

If anyone else wants to start tearing down trees at Evergreen let me know! I still think it can be saved and I would love to be a part of clearing the brush from old Richmond graves. The task is daunting (if you’ve been there, you know), but I think would be worth it.

Perhaps the more we work the more we will know why.

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This post is a part of a series I’m putting together on my RVA page.