Paul and I were at the ocean the other day, seemingly hypnotized by the relentless surf reclaiming the beach, when a thought burst into my head. How much time will pass before we start romanticizing this Strange Time we are in? I’ve already seen the memes on social media celebrating this idea of families gathered around the dinner table each night, kids playing outside and all the busyness seemingly stripped away so that relationships come first. But we who are here now, in this moment, we know it is much more complicated.
It’s natural to romanticize our memories, isn’t it? We lived in Canada for four years. I complained about the weather every single day that we lived there. I missed my family back in the States. The expat experience was one in which I didn’t know what I didn’t know and it frustrated me regularly. And yet, that experience was so good for our family. We learned to rely on each other and to enjoy each other-just the four of us- in ways we could have never learned back home in Georgia. The kids attended an amazing school. We built community and lifelong friendships. And now, I only remember the good. Sometimes I will comment, “I miss Canada so much.” My husband will smile at me indulgently and remind me that winter was a 6 month affair and I am a person that needs a blanket when the air conditioner is running. All true, but I do miss the good things.
I hear people wax nostalgic for bygone eras. Simpler times, they say. Simpler maybe, or maybe just innocent or naive to the weight of what was going on. I think of the 1970s of my childhood as “simpler” times, yet the country was polarized from racial tensions, the Vietnam War, Watergate, energy shortages, high inflation, and high unemployment. That didn’t touch me personally because I was a child, completely cared for by loving parents and not in any way directly impacted by the heaviness of the world outside my small town.
All of these ruminating thoughts ran through my head because I want so badly to process this experience in such a way that I can hold the tension that there were good things about this global pause, AND there was also restlessness, grief, fear, anger, and uncertainty. People lost jobs. Milestones went uncelebrated. We collectively held our breath for the vulnerable in our society left in tenuous situations. That has to be lamented as much as any silver lining about playing in nature and family suppers.
Later that day, I picked up a novel, The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins. It’s a wonderful book, but this exchange between the protagonist, Grace, and her foster mother, Mama G, seemed to speak right into the vacuum of my thoughts.
Grace had to laugh. “I suppose things were different back then.”
“You have no idea.” Mama G sipped her hot cocoa, a faraway look in her eyes. “It’s odd- when you look back, things seem simpler, but they weren’t.”
“When it’s a memory, you already know the outcome, so we believe it was an easier time. Looking forward is much more uncertain, and so it feels more complicated. But I don’t think it is. Not really.”
– The Book Charmer. Karen Hawkins Gallery Books 2019 page 268
I’m not a psychologist but I would imagine that retaining good memories is what keeps us going forward into the uncertain. It has to be a component of the resiliency of the human spirit. As we go into the future, unsure of the outcomes that lie before us, we rest in the confidence of our personal history that whatever happens, there will be good with the bad. We need only to look back and remember that it all, somehow, worked out ok.
In some ways it seems such a waste to set aside some of the struggles in order to hold onto a silver lining narrative. These are strange times, and there is much to be lamented. The history books will hold the facts about the science and policy. It will be up to each of us, collectively and individually, to hold the bitter and the sweet together, and allow it to shape us as we go forward.