My Thoughts

The Past Is Beautiful Right Where It Is

Tennessee is beautiful. My family and I moved here to be closer to my mother-in-law who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Thankfully, we got news last night that the tumors are shrinking! I was skeptical about the move at first but quickly warmed to the prospect once I saw how green and lush the state is. It reminded me of where I grew up, in a small community in the backwoods of Napa County, CA, called Circle Oaks. I’d lived a rather carefree, Huck Finn childhood, full adventures through woods, ponds, and creeks. It was something that I’ve yearned to return to for a long time; a sentiment that most adults share, especially after confronting major life challenges. Mine really hit me when I was home on R&R from combat, visiting my family. Unfortunately, returning to those sentimental places and activities of our youth often feels hollow, devoid of the youthful magic that has held such a fond place in our memories. The result can be very disheartening, sometimes going so far as to shatter the magic.

Mostly I remember being happy, and that happiness is inexorably linked to the type of childhood I was afforded. We lived in a remote community situated on the other side of the small mountain range that cupped Napa. As a result, there were no street lights, no cable tv, the closest store was a 15 min drive, and the city was a 30 min drive. For me, it was perfect. My dad brought me home all the wood I needed to build forts, of which I built five. My friend and I used to catch blue-belly lizards and sell them during the annual Capell Valley Lizard Race, then turn around and buy candies, soda, and snacks. I played whiffle ball and basketball with my neighbor, my entire elementary school fit in a single classroom, 35 students (grades 1–6) instructed by a single teacher with no teaching credentials; she was simply the only person in the area that stepped up to the plate. Nighttime in Circle Oaks was the best. The Milky Way was a bright streak across the sky, and the air was filled with the symphony of life. My friend and I used to sit on lawn chairs in the middle of the court and watch for shooting stars or throw rocks in the air and watch the bats spiral around them. I never wanted to leave.

Fast forward a few decades and here I am, almost 43 and Circle Oaks still holds that same magic. I haven’t been back in a long time, and even then it was just a drive through. But I have no doubt that if I was to return, that magic would be shattered.

One of the most comment sentiments I hear when people return to places/activities they haven’t visited in a long time is, “It’s just not the same”. The phrase is almost always accompanied by feelings of regret and disenchantment. It plagues veterans when they return from combat or leave the service. The trauma and stress they experienced ignites a longing for simpler, happier times/activities. In my platoon, we’d often fill the evenings with tales of what we were going to do when we got out—fishing, hiking, partying, grilling, etc. My buddy had dreams of starting a carwash company and building his own house, and had asked me to design some floor plans. When I got out, Circle Oaks kept calling my heart. Fortunately, I was too poor to even entertain the thought of buying a house in Napa, CA.

For many people, there is a direct correlation between the severity of trauma and the desire for nostalgia. The more traumatic an event, the stronger the desire to engage in a nostalgic activity or be in a nostalgic place. This is probably due, at least in part, to the association of not wanting to be miserable and the happiness linked to that event/place. However, we are wrong to assume that those things will hold such values of happiness for the simple fact that we aren’t the same person that we were when those activities made us happy. When my father returned to the place of his youth, he was very much disheartened, disenchanted, and disappointed. I imagine he was hoping for a bit of that spark to return, the bubbly ghost of youth and innocence, and when it didn’t come a part of him shattered. I see it in his eyes when he talks about how it was when he was a kid, just like I see it on veterans’ faces when they talk about the activities they’d enjoyed before the military and war.

But how can something that once made us so happy, now bring us such frustration and sorrow? Because we’ve changed. We’ve seen things, even if that thing is as simple as having to pay bills. I no longer see the house I’d once lived in as a hub from which to launch adventures. I see lots of dead leaves that might spark a fire; I see the long drive into town to buy a loaf of bread; I no longer see the playful frogs and lizards, but diseases from ticks, poisonous snake bites, and hungry mountain lions; I see no internet, no emergency vehicles responding in a life-saving amount of time, and my hips, back, and knees ache at the thought of hiking those trails. This cycle of eschewing old activities is prevalent throughout life; it simply doesn’t get noticed until we’ve experienced the pain of adulthood. We had our favorite toys as babies and as we aged we put those toys down for more entertaining toys. The thought of a 15 yo, playing with a baby rattle seems absurd, just as it might seem absurd for a responsible 43 yo with three kids to live a carefree Huck Finn life.

It’s difficult to not feel disappointed when we return to our youth and lose that magic; however, it helps when we understand that we aren’t that little kid anymore. We’ve seen and done things that little kid never experienced, and what we’ve seen can never be unseen. However, gaining that perspective in life and understanding the nature of change can ameliorate the loss.

The past is a beautiful thing, especially when left in place. It’s the only place the magic of our youth can survive.

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