Oct 122016
My Great-great grandfather

My great-great grandfather VanBuren Field Clark

I can only think of my great-great grandfather, VanBuren Field Clark, the way my grandmother described him. Longish dark blonde hair blowing in the wind, an irregular gait and blazing blue eyes. A vibrant, brave man with a gentle heart.

I wish I could go back in time and get to know him better. I say “better,” because I feel like I know him a little already, since my grandmother wrote stories about him. Continue reading »

Oct 052016

 Is nostalgia good for you? Or is it unhealthy to spend too much time looking backwards?

A few days before my last birthday, I watched myself learn to walk.

I had just received my digital transfers of VHS tapes and 8mm film from Legacy Republic (part of becoming an affiliate). I was excited to view the past. Memories I could no longer access were there for me to watch—including trying to blow out my first birthday cake candles under the watchful eye of my sister.  Until she took over.Nostalgia brings back happy memories

I couldn’t wait to show my 22-year old snippets of his first bath and a tape from my parents.  Just three weeks before their deaths in an auto accident, they made a tape for their then 2- and 4-year-old grandsons, which ended in a cheerful “bye-bye.”

My son wanted nothing to do with my home movies.  “I don’t want to get all nostalgic,” he said.  I was shocked. He said “nostalgic” like it was a bad thing. Who raised this kid?

His words gave me pause. As I try to convince people to preserve their memories—to write them down and to digitize their media—am I asking them to let yesteryear take up too much of their now?

I decided to look into it.

No longer a dirty word

My son wasn’t the first person to think of nostalgia in negative terms. Back in 1688, Johannes Hofer equated the word nostalgia with home-sickness. According to Clay Routledge’s  The Rehabilitation of an Old Emotion: A New Science of Nostalgia,” the Swiss physician considered battlefront sadness to be a cerebral disease caused “by continuous vibrations of animal spirits through fibers in the middle brain.”

Others, Routledge notes, theorized that nostalgia “resulted from damage… caused by the nonstop clanging of cowbells in the Alps.” Clearly, it was time to take a fresh look.

Twenty-first century research suggests that even when it evokes bittersweet emotions, thinking about the past can heal. (Whew!)

Why Nostalgia is Good

Doctors Wing-Yee Cheung, Constantine Sedikides, and Tim Wildschut published their study of nostalgia in the November 2103 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They found that nostalgia can combat loneliness and “raises self-esteem, which in turn heightens optimism.”  Dr. Wildschut explains:

Memories of the past can help to maintain current feelings of self-worth and can contribute to a brighter outlook on the future. Our findings do imply that nostalgia, by promoting optimism, could help individuals cope with psychological adversity. [1]

Chris Weller equates this with clicking a Viewmaster in our mind’s eye, reliving the feelings we had when it first happened.

Those good feelings multiply when we tell stories (or look at pictures) in a social or family setting. Our memories beget other memories. Storytelling one-upmanship ensues. As do laughter and feelings of love. So yes, I am helping people by persuading them to preserve their memories and family stories.

Most of the time.

Memories Don’t Always Feel Good

Several articles about the positivity of nostalgia end with wording that makes me cringe.  Three weekly doses should be positive for all—except “neurotics” and “avoidants.”[2]

Having a self-diagnosed neurotic moment, I read between the lines. If nostalgia isn’t making you happier, there must be something wrong with you. Right?

Not necessarily. The anti-nostalgic may not need to rush to the nearest shrink. In fact, maybe he’s doing well to know himself. When the memory we’re confronted with reminds us of a traumatic loss, it might be salt to the wound

Today, for example, would have been my friend’s birthday. Her funeral was just last week.  It’s too early for memories to feel fond.

But there’s more to it than the linear progress of time. It has to do with the magnitude and circumstances of the loss as well as our personalities. For instance, in my son’s case, it might be a self-defense mechanism. If he doesn’t dwell on what could have been, he won’t feel sad.  Besides, he was so young he has few of his own memories to relive. Perhaps the Viewmaster effect is lost on him.

Making Nostalgia Positive

In How to Use Nostalgia to Your Advantage (Instead of Getting Stuck), Thorin Klosowski points out that the research by Cheung, Sedikides, and Wildschut doesn’t recommend basking only in the past.

The glitch with nostalgia comes when we stop creating new memories because we’re too busy thinking about the past. That creates a cycle where you’re not doing new things, making new memories, enjoying time with new people, or learning new lessons… If nostalgia acts as a store of positive memories to call back on when you’re feeling down, you have to create new ones before that storage runs out.

Klosowski says that it’s all about how we frame reminiscences.  He recommends focusing on reliving the past, not comparing it to the present. Especially if we’re not fond of the present.

Your Turn:

So…. back to those memories you need to preserve …

[1] “Back to the future: nostalgia increases optimism,” University of Southampton, 13 November 2013, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2013/11/13-nostalgia-increases-optimism.page.

[2] Chris Weller, “Nostalgia is Good for You: When We Reminisce, Life Feels More Meaningful and Death Less Frightening,” Medical Daily (blog), July 12, 2013, http://www.medicaldaily.com/nostalgia-good-you-when-we-reminisce-life-feels-more-meaningful-and-death-less-frightening-247627.


Sep 152016
Beauty and family Stories--like painting a mask

Often when we tell our stories, beauty and family stories go together. But should they?

Do beauty and family stories go together? Should they? When we leave a photographic record for prosperity, we’re all smiles. Why not do the same for our legacy of family stories?

Most of us want to present ourselves in a positive light. Maybe not quite perfect, but normal. We want to cover the blemishes. We may not be the Cleaver family, but we keep mute about the family disfigurements, the bad times. Continue reading »

Sep 072016
Teachers who made a difference picture of teacher

Do you remember a few names of teachers who made a difference in your life?

Remember the excitement of back-to-school? Getting your teacher assignments, supplies, figuring out if your best buddies were in the same class as you? Wondering if you’d like the teacher? Years (decades) later, we remember a few of those teachers who made a difference. For good or for bad.

That’s a universal experience. It bonds us—just like the memory of the smell of mimeograph paper and the feel of the paper-bag book covers for those of us that went to school in the 60s and 70s. Continue reading »

Aug 252016

Culture Clashes and generation gaps through photos Culture Clashes. They happen among nations, ethnic groups, and generations. Sadly, culture clashes also occur among families. Heritages or upbringings collide. Differing values splinter relationships.

Personal memory collectors, memoirists, and family storytellers all struggle with whether or not to tell the unhappy, unflattering, or  embarrassing tales. Continue reading »

Aug 112016
Things I never wanted to know

What are some of the things you never wanted to know? How did you learn them? How would you write about them for loved ones?

We all have lessons that we want to pass on. However, we have also learned things that we never wanted to know. In the midst of a family tragedy, a friend texted me today with details on why some autopsies are done in the state capital rather than in her city. It’s a fact she never wanted to know. A heart-rending reminder of the surreal quality of shock and grief.

How poignant a method of storytelling to let loved ones and future generations know the things you hope they’ll never have to know. Continue reading »

Jul 292016
Fears our Ancestors faced in the Dance of Death

The “Dance of Death” stained glass windows in the Bern, Switzerland Munster give a graphic illustration of the fears our ancestors faced.

Understanding the fears our ancestors faced can help us understand their lives. That, in turn, can help us tell their stories. Although it’s hard to know from the meager records we unearth whether an ancestor was an introvert or adventurer, we can form some theories based on historical context. We can also get a better grasp on their everyday lives. Continue reading »

Jul 212016
Reunions are stories of family

Relatives, In-laws, or friends, reunions are a great place to restore relationships and recover faded memories.

Until last weekend, I had forgotten how poignant reunions can be. Whether it’s family, school, or something else, reunions allow you to reconnect with the past. Not only are they great places to re-color some of those faded memories, they refresh the soul. Continue reading »

Jul 082016
Invisible illnesses and daily pills

Chronic and invisible illnesses can separate from family members that need to hear our stories

If you’re like me, chronic and invisible illnesses come towards the bottom of the list of things you’d like to write about yourself. It’s not just immersing yourself in the negativity. Although the term “invisible illness” applies “to any medical condition that is not outwardly visible to others,” according to Social Work Today, some illnesses (heart disease, cancer) seem to generate support from loved ones, while others leave sufferers socially isolated.

Many with invisible illnesses frequently encounter people who, although they’ve never had a license to practice medicine feel beholden to second guess other people’s health status or dispense dismissive medical advice. Continue reading »

Jun 272016
Silver linings behind broken hearts

Are there silver linings behind the heart-break in your family stories?

Last week, however, a friend showed me how to look for silver linings.

The news is often disturbing, but in the last couple of weeks the horrors that some people will inflict on others makes me want to run and hide. Only I don’t know where I’d go. Continue reading »