My youngest daughter has discovered a trove of photos at her grandmother’s house, and she has been going through them, scanning them onto a disk and putting them up on our family web site. Most of the ones she likes are photos of me, and so far most of those are of me as a child of five or less.

I have loved looking at these photos again and talking about them with my children and grandchildren. I have felt closer to them by doing so. However, seeing those pictures reminds me of times I had forgotten. And sometimes seeing them makes me sad, within range of crying. “Nostalgic” might be the right word for me except we speak of nostalgia as the desire for a previous time, an idealized time that never existed, and I don’t think that is what I’m feeling.

Part of what makes me sad is seeing the faces of all these people whom I knew and loved and who are no longer part of my world, most because they have passed on, some because they have moved on. Part of what makes me sad is the disconnect between the little boy I see and the adult that I am. He was the child of poor parents in a Border State, descendants of long lines of sharecroppers and dirt farmers. I am a bourgeois professor of philosophy. At least I am passing as one.

I don’t want to return to the days of bathing in a wash tub or pumping water from a well, but I need there to be more unity between me and that boy. I feel the need for my life to be a whole, but I cannot find one. Though the boy I see in the pictures is not alien to me, I am alien to him.

For me the sadness of nostalgia isn’t longing for something lost, but need for something that has never been

26 comments for “Nostalgia

  1. January 18, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    Beautiful, Jim! As it happens, I just assigned my students to write a nostalgic poem. May I copy that beautiful post and give it to them?
    I’ve had similar senses as I’ve walked down our stairs and looked at the photos of my children–so innocent and happy. I wonder if my parents have like sensations looking at my childhood photos.
    But in another way, I am quite opposite from you, because I was born and raised in Provo. Daughter of a BYU professor, now wife of a BYU professor. I went to Provo High; my children went to Provo High. There’s not much disconnect, except that BYU keeps getting bigger and the Provo Temple steeple is now white instead of gold. And I now know more about the inner workings of the various committees Dad once sat on. I work in the temple I toured as a teenager before its dedication. I teach 2007 versions of the young people I was in awe of back in the 60’s.
    Of course my sensibilities are much different as a fifty-one year old woman. I look at my past and wonder how I missed seeing some of what I now see. I have no regrets, but I want to see better.
    The big changes are in my sense of the future–Dad’s worsening health, Mom’s broken hip, and the inevitability of death; my children’s struggles and joys, my struggles and joys, my husband’s struggles and joys. All of it is happening in the expanded world I have inhabited for most of my life, but somehow my heart has grown beyond what I immediately see.

  2. January 18, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Margaret, feel free to use this however you wish.

  3. Jack
    January 18, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    I read in one of Arthur Henry King’s essays (can’t remember which one) where he tells of how reading Dickens would take him right back to childhood—not in a nostalgic way, but in a way that caused him to reasonate with the six year old he was when he first read the entire Dickens canon. I’m envious of his (late) ability to find that kind of unity within himself.

  4. Jack
    January 18, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    …let alone his ability to read the entire Dickens collection at the age of six!

  5. January 18, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    Your post has me humming Dan Fogelberg: “Falling tears, memories’ mirrors, where are the summers, oh, where are the years? Carried far to a wandering star that only the heart may know. Friends we knew follow us through all of the days of our lives …” The little boy in your pictures may not understand your world, but I’ll bet there’s something in you that he still recognizes and loves.

  6. MLU
    January 18, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    Doing oral history work with my father just before he died near the age of 80, we spent a lot of time looking at photos from his childhood. I had the strongest feeling that those moments weren’t really past in the irrevocable way we sometimes imagine the past and that they were getting stronger rather than weaker as his mind shifted into a somewhat more eternal mode. I felt that those people and the way they were related in the memories evoked by those photos were a part of his future more powerfully than they were of his past, and that what was important wasn’t gone forever. I rather thought none of it is really lost, though we wander on feeling that it it for quite a distance.

  7. Jack
    January 18, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    MLU: “I rather thought none of it is really lost, though we wander on feeling that it is for quite a distance.”

    You’ve expressed my hopes. For some of us the “disconnect” between childhood and adulthood can feel like the death of a loved one at times. I find hope in believing that there’s some sort of internal “Jungian” intergration on the horizon for those who are striving to intergrate with God.

  8. Jack
    January 18, 2007 at 10:47 pm

    Oops. One too many “Rs” in inte[r]grate.

  9. Peter
    January 19, 2007 at 8:34 am

    My wife did the same thing when we were at my parents for Christmas (digging through photos and scanning them). She put one of my elementary school photos on her night stand. Now that I see my younger self everyday, I think I sort of understand the “disconnect between the little boy I see and the adult that I am.” Seeing me in my pre draft-dodging, tax-evading, digging-a-pit-for-my-neighbor days makes me kind of wish I had more in common with my prior self.

  10. Wilfried
    January 19, 2007 at 9:07 am

    Thank you, Jim. Beautiful. I can relate. A few years ago my daughter too discovered old family photos, back to several generations, and it fascinated her. I guess the spirit of Elijah is somewhere part of it. In that sense nostalgia, from the Green nostos (return), is probably also part of our longing for the ultimate return. Take the boy a few more years back, and the Plan of Salvation tells us where he was.

  11. Nehringk
    January 19, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Beautiful post, Jim. Part of the fascination with old photographs is the “it was real, but it is not real, but yet it was real, or maybe it never was” kind of ambiguity we feel as we look at them. Kant talked about the sublime — those overwhelming experiences we cannot quite wrap our minds around, as hard as we might try. Nostalgia is something like that, only not as uplifing — much more unsettling. But then we look at an old photo of ourselves and suddenly realize we are also seeing what looks for all the world to be one our grandchildren, displaced in time. Not quite sublime, but more uplifting than plain nostalgia. Or we look at an old photo of ourselves where we were looking straight at the camera. We wonder whether that was really us — whether we ever dreamed we would be looking at ourselves as we looked into the camera. The world in black and white, and not quite in three dimensions even as we realize there are four. Or maybe none. Sorry to babble — thinking nostalgically about nostalgia tends to do that to me… Once again, what a wonderful post! You may have just saved my weekend, Jim. Thank you1

  12. greenfrog
    January 19, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    I feel the need for my life to be a whole, but I cannot find one. Though the boy I see in the pictures is not alien to me, I am alien to him.

    I am reminded of a statement a wise friend once made to me. If I can recall it correctly, it was something along these lines: “The me of ten years ago would hate the me of today. The me of today thinks of the me of ten years ago with sympathy and compassion.”

    It seems to me that there is no single identity intact over the course of a life — only (mostly) traceable linkages from moment to moment between an identity yesterday, an identity today, and an identity tomorrow.

    Pictures of the past —
    Fading petals on the ground,
    While the red plum swells.

  13. random me
    January 19, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    there’s a reason i don’t look. at old pictures of myself. there’s a huge disconnect between who i am and who i was and i don’t feel like there’s much i can do about it now. i love my life, but i long for some of those attributes i used to possess. my hope is that they’re buried not too deep and can be resurrected at some point.

    something i admire about my husband is his lack of disconnect. he’s every bit the renegade he once was. sure, he’s taken on familial responsibilities and the likes, but has done so with an air of “cowboy” that makes me wish i were as true to my real self as he is able to be.

  14. Austin F.
    January 19, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    I’ve experienced something like this, but not as it applies to old photos of myself. However, when I look at old family pictures, I feel a complete disconnect from who my family is today and what we were like prior to my parents divorce. Of course, my youth and naivety prevented me from knowing just why my parents were divorcing, but even still, when I look at old family photos, it hurts, and I long for the way things were. Of course, this is different from Jim’s response to his old photos, but it is related nonetheless. Good post Jim.

  15. January 19, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    It may be related to the fact that I grew up in an abusive family, but I don’t seem to get nostalgic as you describe. I loved my childhood. I had what I think of as an idyllic childhood, between the episodes of abuse. But the future seems far and away the brighter view. Though my father is dead and I’ll never hear him play piano again in this life, and dance around the room to Rachmaninoff’s waltz, yet in the past I had not yet met several people who mean the world to me now. In the past I didn’t yet know that I had a divine nature, and feel it lifting me. Also, I do feel a complete continuity of myself from childhood, rather than a disconnect, possibly because I never grew up. =) One day, possibly thousands of years from now, I will and then I’ll understand what you mean. I loved your post. Thank you for it!

  16. January 20, 2007 at 11:26 am

    Nostalgia. This is something I have been dealing with and writing about for years, and somehow~ I still can\’t seem to get a grip on the thing~ it‘s too squirmy and dynamic. I identified with much of what I read here. Many of the comments are interesting in that your readers recognize nostalgia as a level of reflection and reminiscence rather than a place to actually dwell for too, too long. Not your usual Bluebird Hall discussion. Well done.

  17. Norbert
    January 20, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    About ten years ago, I came into contact with a girl with whom I gone all the way through school. She showed me a school picture album her mother had kept in the late 70s, when we were in grade school. I came across this picture of myself which I found quite shocking. I looked like one of those miserable pioneer children who can’t smile for the camera. My hair was obviously home-cut, my clothes were obviously home-made, I was six inches taller than everyone else in the photo and my pants were too short. I suddenly remembered the awkward frustration I carried because I was seemed so different from everyone else (partially because of being Mormon, but many other reasons as well). I had not remembered those feelings being strong or significant until I saw that photo, and it actually helped me understand the motivations that have guided my life, especially a streak of rebelliousness that now seems to be an attempt to escape that gawky boy standing on the edge of a smiling group of kids.

  18. DKL
    January 23, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    You mentioning that you were on the verge of tears reminds me of a recurring argument that I have with my wife. She says something about some guy crying. I say, “Real men don’t cry.” She says, “Yes, they do.” I say, “OK. Name one real man who cries.” She names someone. I ask, “Does he cry?” She says, “Yeah.” I say, “Then he’s not a real man. Name another.” (Works every time.)

    Anyway, being an adult kind of sucks in a lot of ways. Sure, salary beats allowance and it’s cool to have a car. But you lose a lot when you grow up. In exchange (if you’re lucky), you get kids. I think that’s a pretty fair trade.

  19. Craig V.
    January 24, 2007 at 1:30 am


    It seems to me that your wife can easily win this argument with two words – Jesus wept.

  20. DKL
    January 24, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Craig V, you’ve made two incorrect assumptions:

    First, you assume that Jesus was a real man — for all we know, he was bullied as badly as a child as he was by Pilot and Herod. The way that he raged impotently at the Jews seems to indicate pent-up frustration and anger (I’m referring to the “Oh ye brood of vipers…” type stuff, of which there’s quite a lot).

    Second, you assume that my wife actually thinks that she’s losing these recurring arguments. She provides several clues to indicate otherwise; e.g., the way that she rolls her eyes and exclaims, “You’re a complete moron.”

  21. skl
    January 25, 2007 at 2:06 am

    “Though the boy I see in the pictures is not alien to me, I am alien to him.” That sentence flawlessly expresses a sentiment I have felt often but never been able to put my finger on. I love this post. Thank you for writing it Jim.

  22. skl
    January 25, 2007 at 2:12 am

    DKL, I can’t believe you would bring up the “real man” argument considering you are typically the first name I mention…You really are a complete moron. :-)

  23. DKL
    January 25, 2007 at 2:13 am

    What? Who?

    That’s the problem with chicks. They’re always making things up.

  24. gst
    January 25, 2007 at 9:38 am

    This reminded me of when Moe Szyslak’s inner child asked him, “Moe, why you no speak-a with your accent no more?”

  25. January 25, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    DKL: I must confess to not be being a real man. I not only cry, I often carry a purse and I do most of the cooking.

    And you should tell your wife that she is wrong: you have not yet reached the completeness of moron-ness, else there would be nothing left at which she could roll her eyes.

    As good a trade as kids may be, grandkids are even better.

  26. DKL
    January 25, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Jim F: you have not yet reached the completeness of moron-ness, else there would be nothing left at which she could roll her eyes.

    LOL. True, but that’s small consolation. The graph is clearly moving in the wrong direction.

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