I have been ruminating for some years on the notion of homesickness, nostalgia and a sentimentality for the past. More to the point, I have been considering the implications of middle age and a burgeoning sense of mortality, all compounded by being an expat.
It was timely to read Stephanie Coontz’s New York Times article, Beware Social Nostalgia, in which Coontz notes that, “according to physicians of the nineteenth-century, acute nostalgia [their term for homesickness] led to “mental dejection,” “cerebral derangement” and sometimes even death.” Coontz notes that, while that good and bad can be found in our past, memory is fickle and unreliable. As such, we must cross-examine our recollections. To make our past work for us, we must endeavor to place it in context and “learn to view the past in three dimensions before we can move into the fourth dimension of the future.”
My recent sojourns back to my home country of England have allowed for numerous metaphorical and literal trips down memory lane. Since I was a child, I have clambered around the castle walls of Dover Castle, smelled the heady scents of herbs and flowers at Hever Castle’s gardens, trodden the stone slabs of steps worn down by millions of feet within Canterbury Cathedral, and reverently dreamed of the luxuriant drama of royalty within the social rooms of Leeds Castle. The past was ever present for me, and constantly stirred my imagination. English Heritage, an institution charged with the management of many of England’s finest places talks of living history, a phrase I find compelling because it suggests the dynamism of our relationship with the past.
Our engagement with the past is organic, and I have found myself in a perpetual conversation with the past in ways that shape what I think of my future. To some degree I frame my identity in correlation with the past around me. More significantly, I also frame my future. This is not just a personal phenomenon, but also a community one. In Community, The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block talks about building a restorative community versus a retributive community. The former looks forward and is aspirational, whereas the latter looks back and finds fault. As we build community, Block says that, “The future of a community then becomes a choice between retributive conversation (a problem to be solved) and a restorative conversation (a possibility to be lived into).”
My summer Squishtalks programs are due to be hosted at Joslyn Castle, one of Omaha’s most storied, historic places. As Coontz might agree, it seems a fitting context in which to interrogate the content of our conversations. It seems to be exactly the right place to form a conversational community.