The summer before I came to college, my dad and I visited Yellowstone National Park. It was a good trip: we tried hiking up Mount Washburn and decided against it a few hundred feet along the trail; we tried Elephant Back mountain instead, and ate lunch at the top looking out over the lake; we drove through the park and remarked sarcastically at the Asian tourists parked on the side of the road taking pictures like they had never seen a buffalo before; we peered out my truck’s windows at giant rocks with snow hidden in the cracks (snow in the summertime—we were from Florida, after all); we waited for half an hour outside Old Faithful, but didn’t have the patience to wait for it to go off. We were good tourists.
I don’t remember Yellowstone that well, though: it’s not the things that postcards say are “experience of a lifetime” that I remember with special fondness or nostalgia.
I remember driving for two and a half hours through the rain—through the twisting, convoluted vortices of the Montana rockies, down an unmarked two lane road which the map called Chief Joseph Scenic Highway—because a rockslide had blocked the east entrance of the park. I remember huddling at night in the blue light of my laptop in the motel with my dad, watching pirated copies of the Harry Potter films with Polish subtitles in somewhat less than standard definition, knowing that I would forever associate the soundtrack of those films with that summer. It was my dad’s first trip through the world of Harry Potter, and I remember mumbling about the death of Dumbledore, in the dark going to sleep, far more than I do the brilliant sunlight and shining lake and deep gorges.
Nostalgia seems to be inextricably connected to a feeling of loss. Nostalgia is a memory of something I want back but don’t have. So looking back on the past, I don’t remember my struggles and immaturities with much nostalgia. I look back on the past, feel nostalgic for what I love and don’t have, measure myself by what I’ve lost, come up short.
I remember when I first read the Rule of St. Benedict. I was a junior in high school, sitting curled up beneath a lamp early on a summer morning, inspired. The next day—no, later on that afternoon, in fact—I began working out the sequence of Psalms that St. Benedict prescribed in the Rule, and how to get through them once a week, along with the other prayers that he said made up the monks’ service. I think I began to pray seriously for the first time in my life.
I remember the first time I watched The Island, a strange and wonderful Russian independent film about a Russian sailor in WWII, forced by the Germans to shoot his captain, rescued from the wreck of his ship by the monks of a monastery in the North Sea, who spends his life trying to find redemption for his sins. I don’t remember any specific element in the film that stood out to me—a film critic would be disappointed—but I do remember the way the couch felt, leather cold and smooth. I remember the way the room smelled, and the sound of the sprinklers outside through the open windows. I remember going outside afterwards, and sitting on the fence beside the hayfield, looking up at the stars, and thinking of how bad I was at praying.
I’m sure I’m very different now than I was then. Hopefully I’ve improved. It’s been three years. But looking back I don’t think how I’ve grown, how I’ve improved; I only think of how I wish I could feel that excitement and joy again. Like I said, I often feel like I fall short of the past. Maybe it’s just lack of faith.
After all, I know that one day I will look back on my life now, on my thirty hour work weeks on top of school, on long nights sitting at desk scribbling away by candlelight, on going for weeks without seeming to grasp the basic principles of Latin poetry, on roommates pouring foul smelling perfume all over my pillow as a prank, on learning to drive in the snow, on failing a history abstract because I forgot to double space it, on coming home for Christmas to my mom’s cooking, on long summer days sitting at my computer working, on the love and joy that comes from friends, and be filled with nostalgia. I’ll look back on my life now, and think of these as some of the best times of my life.
Tomorrow will be born a new day, with new aspirations, new memories, but with the past in its soul. What I am doing now will be a subject of memory, introversion, recollection, and judgement.
One school of thought says that life is short, too short to worry about the past and seek forgiveness for our sins. But the great saints have always said life is too short to focus on the present: the present only lasts for a moment, but the consequences of our pasts and our repentance last forever.
At the top of Elephant Back mountain, trees rolled into trees below, until the green of the forest turned into the blue of the lake. Sitting on a rock, my dad and I ate our lunches and watched the boats creeping like tiny white insects on the lake. After forty-five minutes or so we started to come back down, down between the trees, to a future I would one day live, to memories I would one day remember. Our knees hurt by the time we got to the bottom.