I have been thinking this week about what we leave behind and what we try to bring with us. I scribbled notes on a number of things that have been running through my mind during the week, and I realized that although they are different kinds of things, there was a theme running through them
I picked up Homesickness: An American History by Susan Matt in the library because of the title. Did you ever think about homesickness having a history? This is an American history, so it goes back to those colonists in Jamestown who were homesick for England. All those immigrants who came to America – probably your ancestors as well as mine – were homesick for some things from their homeland.Soldiers away at war. College students way from home.
Is it nostalgia? Is it a factor of time? Is it true that “you can’t go home again?”
Even if you took every “thing” with you, what is it that you leave behind that causes homesickness?
The term homesick is in origin a loan translation of nostalgia, a learned term coined in Baroque period medicine. The Oxford English Dictionary describes homesickness as a feeling one has when missing home. Feelings of longing are often accompanied by anxiety and depression.
I tried not to leave my mother’s flowers behind when she moved out of my childhood home. I dug up irises, peonies, mountain pinks, roses, mints and herbs, lilies of the valley and others and took them to my own home.
As the perennials come back and bloom each year they carry me briefly back home. They remind me of my mother. My mom died last September, so when her flowers came back this past spring, it was a nice reminder.
But sometimes I look at those plants and what I feel is more of a sadness. Can I call the melancholy I felt “homesickness?”
Here’s a poem by Debra Wierenga that I read this past week that reminded me of those flowers.
Your pansies died again today.
All June I’ve watched them scorch and fall
by noon, their faces folding down
to tissue-paper triangles.
I bring them back with water, words,
a pinch, but they are sick to death
of resurrection. You planted them
last fall, these “Chillers” guaranteed
to come again in spring. They returned
in April—you did not. You who said
pick all you want, it just makes more!
one day in 1963,
and I, a daughter raised on love
and miracles, believed it.
The title for this post makes me think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book that has become a modern classic. It is about war and also about memory. It is about the physical objects a group of American soldiers in Vietnam carried with them and also the memories that the soldiers carried during the war. Are they homesick? Yes. Was it what they left behind? Yes. Does what they took along with them help? Yes, but it doesn’t eliminate the longing. It might even make it more so.
Take the story of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who tried to carry his love for Martha with him. That girl from his college in New Jersey isn’t really his girlfriend. They had one date and it went nowhere. Jimmy carries her letters in his pack and her good-luck pebble in his mouth. She is an English major who writes letters full of poetry quotes that are far away from the war. Like many of us, his memories are connected to photographs, which do bring something, but we leave more behind.
Photographs are the focus of another book that I read about this past week is The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen which will be published in September. Paglen thinks that the communications satellites that circle Earth and carry TV signals, our phone calls and our card transactions experience are also going to drift around Earth carrying things from our time, and they will outlast anything humans have made.
Paglen put together a collection of 100 images that will be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc that will be sent into orbit on the Echostar XVI satellite in September 2012, as both a time capsule and a message to the future. It’s a case of leaving things behind for future generations.
The book is not just the images but also “questions of the human experience, provoking discourse about communication, deep time, and the economic, environmental, and social uncertainties that define our historical moment.” Pretty ambitious.
And then we have our own photo albums, journals, diaries and such. We have blogs. I put words down online in order to carry them forward. Most of my experiences, thoughts and memories are left behind. Many of them will disappear. Some were not good memories, so I don’t mind losing them. Still, the picture is incomplete.
My sons, now in the late 20s, always tell me that their “memories” of most of their early childhood are strongly tied to photographs and especially to video I took at the time. They maintain that they are not even sure they actually remember some events; they only remember the images and what we have told them about that event.
Nostalgia means a sentimental longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. It is a Greek compound word, consisting of nóstos, meaning “homecoming”, a Homeric word, and álgos, meaning “pain or ache”.
It was one seen as a medical condition, a form of melancholy, and figured importantly in Romanticism. In common usage nostalgia seems to be the interest we have in past eras and their personalities and events.
Time has a way of turning the past into the “good old days” and it may take only an image, sound, or connection to our childhood to fire that part of our brain.