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That Was Then ...

One of my favorite ways to start the day is a slow run down the greenbelt, the sun still new and cool, with Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison singing through my headphones. And it never fails—one verse into a Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," or Steely Dan singing “Deacon Blues,” and a little movie starts in my head. Sometimes it’s the highlight reel of that summer I bought my first house; other times it’s the bloopers from those painful years in my early 30s when I desperately wanted something—anything. The music takes me to these scenes, presented as they were, but in shorter, softer segments. This is nostalgia, my companion of the last decade, visiting more frequently the older I get.

It strikes me as funny, in a way, that I remember these times with a kind of longing, almost a welcoming in their familiarity. At the time, I didn’t feel as if anything particularly meaningful was happening, even when I know it was. Instead, I frequently felt bored, insecure, unsure of what I was doing and where I was headed. In those days, from my late 20s until I was nearly 40, I imagined a better life somewhere in the distance, but I had no road map for getting there and no confidence that I could navigate the path if I had one. Of course I moved forward, in spite of pitfalls along the way, and now live a mostly blessed life—the result of lots of hard work, some very good fortune, and just the natural flow of things. And still, it is so easy to get carried back to those early days. Music, streets I used to live on, sappy movies, and conversations with old friends can all transport me to those times, but not without a vague ache riding alongside.

I touch the pages with care and wonder, and store the volume carefully on the shelf where I can look at it again whenever I want to.

I know I didn’t truly value then what I see today when I watch these scenes in my head. I wasn’t old enough or firmly in myself enough to fully appreciate that first serious relationship. Back then, I didn’t relish much of anything about that little apartment on 38th Street that now seems so fun and clever as the backdrop of remembering living by myself for the first time. Then, when I was in my late 30s, I bought my first house. I would stare at the wild, deep backyard and long for enough money to turn it into something other than the tract house plot that it was. And yet, when I’m running in the morning these days, and I listen to Anita Baker singing “Giving You the Best that I Got,” my images of that little house are practically the loveliest thing I can conjure.

I don’t remember being nostalgic before I turned 60. Of course, I thought about earlier times of my life occasionally, but nothing like now. It makes sense, I guess, that when we enter the last third of our lives there is just so much more to look back on—and so much less ahead. For me, there is also regret, I think, that I didn’t appreciate every minute more than I did. That I was bored in my 20s kills me now when I would pay money to still have all that time in front of me. It’s also logical that when we are in times of transition—like from long careers to retirement—we would look back. It’s like returning to a favorite book or photo album. I touch the pages with care and wonder, and store the volume carefully on the shelf where I can look at it again whenever I want to.

What an amazing thing, I think, to have lived a life that is rich enough to appreciate it as much as I feel it now, even though I agree with NPR critic Ken Tucker when he says, “The mists of nostalgia color memory.” I have no doubt of that and, at this point, I have no desire to erase that color. I love the feeling of being moved back to some earlier time and to not feel the angst I carried with me then. I still have some of that rattling around in my head, but I also have many vivid reasons to memorize this scenery and this time and to appreciate it as much as I find myself valuing my early days. I’m still me and these are my experiences. Sometimes, I think, it takes nostalgia to just remind us where we’ve been.


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