Dear Donagh,

I was reading your reply last month to a girl from Galway who couldn’t settle in Dublin.  It struck a chord with me, even though I live in my own home.  My nostalgia is not for any place, but for the past.  I miss all the simple things we took for granted when we were children in the 60s, and I even miss the world of 20 or 30 years ago.  It all looks so simple and innocent compared to the world of today….! Can you help me to cast off this useless nostalgia – I know it’s a negative feeling and a waste, but it seems to have a grip on me….  Maureen

Dear Maureen,

I wish that you and the Galway girl would happen to meet and have a conversation.  In this small country, that is far from impossible.  One of you feels stuck in place, the other in time.  These are not so different.  Change uproots us from both. 

Constant change is here to stay, as someone said.  Our life is impermanent in all its aspects.  This is bound to cut us to the quick, when we allow ourselves to think about it, and especially when we experience it. 

It may be of some comfort to recall that our age is not the first to experience constant change.  About five centuries before Christ there was a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus who saw nothing else.  So riveted was he by this awareness that he said fire was the fundamental element of all reality – fire, the most dramatic agent of change that we know.  His sayings are very obscure (he was even nicknamed ‘The Obscure’), but there is one that is always recalled when his name is mentioned: “Everything changes, and nothing remains the same; you cannot step twice into the same river."  When you come back to step into it again, you are stepping into different water.  Time flows like a river.  Our life flows. 

This is a constant challenge to us human beings.  The other animals don’t appear to be bothered by it at all.  They don’t live in the past and the future, as we do; they live quite contentedly, as far as we know, in the present.  The irony is that we, while living everywhere except in the present, want to hold onto it with a drowning man’s grip.  That contradiction is a hard one to fathom. 

It is harder still, it seems, if you are a philosopher.  A German philosopher concluded that Heraclitus’s real intention was to say that there is a fixed constancy about the world.  A river, this philosopher said, is “a particular river bed, a source, and an estuary, etc., and these remain identical…. This is the concept of a river."  That river, you notice, has everything you would expect in a river – except water.  How could a riverbed be a river-bed if not because of water?  Besides, you could easily step twice into the same riverbed.  And without water, could a river be said to have a source?   Sometimes, the more intelligent people are, the greater their difficulty in grasping simple things.  

The simple thing – and it takes our breath away (quite literally in the end) – is that we are immersed in constant change.  It is futile to resist this.  Your husband’s hairline recedes like the tide, he can no longer touch his toes without assuming the foetal position; wrinkles appear in your mirror…. That's life, that's the way we are. 

But what to do about the way we were?  Why not sing about it, like Barbra Streisand!  That's the best way, I think.  Hers is a beautiful song, with a satisfying blend of nostalgia and gratitude:
….What's too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget;
So it's the laughter
We will remember
Whenever we remember...
The way we were....

Singing is itself a kind of laughter.  When you sing about something, you feel the same as when you laugh about it: you have the same kind of uplift, the same sense of freedom.  Strange to say, memory is not in the past; it is in the present; when you laugh or sing about things that are past, you are celebrating them in the present.  

So, Maureen, what I would suggest is this: think of a song that matches your mood, and sing it at the top of your voice (making sure there’s no one within earshot – if that's the way you sing).  You can find the lyrics of any song in the world on the internet.  It would be even better, I'm sure, if you were to write one yourself. 

Peace, Maureen.  ‘Sing the changes!’


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