In this first episode of 2021, licensed clinical therapist and podcast host Jackie Pack talks about the liminal space of ending and beginning. She explores memory and the role it plays in forming our mental health. She reads writings from the poet and author David Whyte about nostalgia and being close. Are we in a better space when we have accomplished our goals, or are we better off when we are close to what we set out to accomplish? Close to tears, close to success, close to leaving, or close to happiness?
What is the role we allow nostalgia to play in our lives? Does it keep us from fully feeling what our body is remembering?
TRANSCRIPT: Endings, New Beginnings, Memory, and Nostalgia in Forming Our Mental Health
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. So we are finally in 2021, and what a start we have gotten ourselves off to here in the states. That’s all I’m going to say about that. I’m not going to do a podcast episode about that, but I wanted to talk about just, you know, the beginning, the beginning of a new year, January. I have a friend who loves January. She’ll say one of the reasons that she loves January is that her birthday is in January, and she loves her birthday, which, I mean I love my birthday, too, but my birthday is in May, so it’s not at the beginning of the year.
This friend loves setting the goals, and I’ve talked with her sometimes about her goals and resolutions and plans for the new year, and I have to say it is impressive, and it makes what I do really fall short. I don’t do that kind of planning or organization. I kind of have over the last maybe decade I would say, I’ve kind of had a thought for the year or sometimes a word. If you’ve heard of people who’ve got a word that maybe comes to them, I kind of try to think about it as I’m moving, transitioning from summer into fall, kind of the closing of a chapter and knowing we’re going to start something new or return to something.
So I usually think of like a word, sometimes maybe it’s a motto that I have. Many years over the past decade I’ve also compiled a playlist of songs that go with that word or the feeling that I’m trying to hold onto and remember throughout the year. Not every year, and not always do I have the creativity or do I feel like a playlist kind of comes together with my wording and the songs that are kind of released in that year. They don’t always have to be released in that year, not all of my playlist songs are also connected to the year that it was currently and the year that the song came out, but if I was trying to be really multi-level about the year, then I would try to do that.
Other years, I was just kind of in a place where I was like last year’s playlist is good, or well last year’s word, let’s just kind of do last year’s word 2.0, but in many languages, the month of January is named after the Roman God Janus. In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus is the God of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings because if we’re going to be the God of beginnings, we also need to be the God of endings because those two things are linked.
The God Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to both the future and to the past. The ancient Romans has this specific God who held the keys, so to speak, to the metaphorical doors or gateways between what was and what is to come, this liminal space of transitioning out of one period of time and into something new, and that’s where we find ourselves in January. We’re transitioning out of one period of time into something new.
Now you may find that some Januarys, that’s not maybe you’re right in the thick of it. Maybe your transition time came in May. It doesn’t always work that we only begin things in January and we end things in December, but the Romans had this God to represent that liminal space of transitioning between what was and what is to come.
So Janus represented the middle ground between both concrete and abstract dualities. Maybe today I would talk about with clients and I would call those paradoxes, things that are both true and yet conflicting with each other. Janus was more connected to time or stages of life or events that happened, but like I said, he represented this middle ground between concrete and abstract dualities, so things such as life, which is much more concrete, and death, an ending, which is we’re coming something to a close that we know, and a beginning, which is more abstract. We don’t know what this beginning holds for us. Maybe youth and adulthood, war and peace.
Janus was known as the initiator of human life. Transformations between stages of life and shifts from one historical era to another. The ancient Romans believed Janus ruled over life events such as weddings, births, and deaths. He oversaw seasonal events as well, such as planting and harvest and seasonal changes, as well as ushering in the new year.
Now new year’s for most of us today is a ritualized and magnified representation of the courageous steps that we continually have to take through a year that the year’s full of new beginnings and first steps and often closings and closing doors and closing chapters and having to figure out how to open new ones. The year holds many coming togethers and then endings and letting go, following by another beginning.
Growing up, really well into my adult years, my mom never liked new year’s or all of the associations and the celebrations that came with it, which if you knew my mom, which most of you do not, but if you knew my mom, she was a really big planner. I was thinking the other day that I was thinking about, I was telling my kids like every year for Christmas, one of our Christmas gifts for all six kids as well as my mom was to get a calendar. Whatever the new year was, we would get a calendar for Christmas.
As I was growing up, the calendars maybe got more exciting. I remember one year my brother, I think both of my brothers actually got Beatles calendars. Sometimes I would get like puppies or pandas or different things like that when I was growing up. Scenery, things like that. I remember I was into Ansel Adams for a while during my high school years, so I would get Ansel Adams calendars.
Usually that week between Christmas and new year’s, my mom was a school teacher, so she was off during that week, so when we were young, eventually as we got older, she would have us do it ourselves and she wasn’t necessarily watching or monitoring us do it, but when we were younger, she would sit down with us and have us write in every month, we would write in birthdays, whether that was our aunt or uncle or a friend of ours, we would write that on the calendar, any special days during the year or holidays or things like that, and she would just get really excited.
My mom had a way of talking about things especially that she liked and convincing me that this was going to be really cool or this was going to be really fun, and it never quite lived up to the hype. I think it did for her, I will say I think she thoroughly enjoyed writing in her calendar every year, and she saved her calendars. When she passed away and we were going through the house and getting it ready to sell and put on the market, we were cleaning everything out, I don’t even know how many calendars she saved because she did write so much in her calendar as the year progressed and as things happened.
She was also a big avid journal keeper, and so she would sometimes make notations or things on her calendar she wanted to remember to journal, and I understand why she would keep calendars because it was this kind of documentation of the year and what happened. Of course more positive things. She didn’t write down like really bad fights that she and my dad had or anything like that.
So she was really big into planning. She loved to document things, and she also loved to organize things. So it always kind of puzzled me how she wasn’t a big new year’s eve and new year’s day celebration and didn’t really say much about those. In fact, I have memories of her saying, “Oh this is just hype and the only reason we celebrate new year’s is because all of the movies make new year’s out to be this really big deal, and it’s really not a big deal.”
Now as I got older, I think one of the things that I realized is new year’s eve for most people, apart from celebration, apart from having maybe somebody to kiss at the new year, which a lot of people don’t have or don’t do anyway, I think that was a pain for my mom that she didn’t necessarily have somebody to plan and share the new year with besides her children, but I think also that time of reflection, the closing of one year and the beginning of a new year, I would think with some reflection is probably painful for my mom. I don’t know that she was really happy with her circumstances or content. She was not content with her circumstances or didn’t have a lot of inner peace about how things had turned out for her. So I’m sure that this ritualized, magnified representation where we are reflecting on something closing and we’re anticipating or planning or wondering about what begins, that was hard for her.
I remember when the brother right after me started to get older, and he could tell my mom things and set a boundary, and she would listen to him in ways that she wouldn’t listen to me or my older sister, and so he was very firm from the time he was probably 14 years old that new year’s is not a family holiday. It is a friend holiday. So he would just let her know I’m planning to do things with my friends, so don’t count on me for whatever family things that you are planning.
I’m sure that that was also a reminder for my mom that here’s her 14-year-old son who has plans. and I was always kind of trying to jump on board with whatever boundary he set with mom. I was like, “Me too!” And she couldn’t have a separate rule for me. I mean, she could have, but she usually knew she couldn’t have a separate rule for me if she didn’t have that rule for him. So for me, I was like, I’m all about letting it be for friends.
Again, the holidays, I had a client asking me in our first session after the new year started, she was just asking me, do you still think about some of the difficult things about the holidays? Both of my parents are deceased, and things for the most part in the family that my husband and I have created, we don’t have the stress and the tension and the conflict around holidays that the family I grew up in did. So she said, “Do you ever think about that, or is that just kind of far from your mind?”
I said, “No, it’s not far from my mind. I don’t know what I would say in July if you asked me that question or in June if you asked me that question, but having just gone through the holidays, there are times when I get pretty somber I would say is the correct word remembering some pretty dark things about the holidays or things that happened, fights that happened around the holidays and were connected maybe with the pressure and stress of the holiday.”
I don’t… there was nothing necessarily different about this year, although 2020 hasn’t been like in a year in my lifetime, but I think I always remember that. I think I always think of that. I am in a duality of what it was back then and what it is today, and I think sometimes reflecting on the past can cause feelings of sadness or contemplation, somberness like I was saying, frustration, or like a sadness or mourning a loss, and whether it’s a loss of somebody or something, life has a way of continually changing and as time progresses and we move on, we lose things.
Last year at the holidays, my extended family, so my siblings and I were together and we were playing a game on Christmas Eve at my sister’s house, and I think I’ve talked about that game on the podcast before, and it’s a game really designed to kind of get people talking and opening up and connecting. The way we played it, there wasn’t like winners or losers. It wasn’t really a competition, but the whole thing was really to kind of get to know each other and open up and talk about things.
One of the questions for the group, some of the questions were for individuals and everybody had their own different individual question, and others had group questions, and one of the group questions was, if you could change places for a day with anybody in the room, who would it be and why? The person that I chose was my youngest sibling, Jeremy, and I just said, you know, Jer, I would change places for you with a day because your kids are at this age, last year they would have been like 8, 5, and 2, and I said your kids are at this age where Christmas is so magical and so fun in a way that can only be that way when you have really young kids. My kids are all much older, and there’s things I like about Christmas with my kids being older, but I said just for a day I’d go back to Christmas Eve with my kids at those ages.
So again, there’s a loss in that. There’s something that I lost as time has continued to march on and the years have passed and my kids are older. So reflecting can bring up those feelings of sadness and contemplation and just noticing what isn’t anymore and what was.
Around Thanksgiving time, I was reading. I follow on social media the author and poet David Whyte, and I have several of his books, and he had posted something about nostalgia, and so I was reading it. I read most of his things because they make me think, and he has such a great way of wording things and saying things. This caught my eye at first because he said, “We are all almost afraid of nostalgia.” So his writing was going to be about nostalgia, but he said, “We are all almost afraid of nostalgia, and we’ve been told all our lives not to trust it.”
I read that and I was like, wait, what? I’ve never been told that. I didn’t know I’m not supposed to trust nostalgia, and then I started thinking to myself, why would we be told not to trust nostalgia? I read on, I read what he had posted, and I’m going to share it in this podcast episode, but it’s taken me some time to kind of sort through and think about what he was saying because at least I think the people in my life, the message that I’ve gotten is nostalgia is great, and it’s a good thing, and I’ve never been told not to trust it.
Now I can totally get what he’s saying, and sometimes with clients, I haven’t said like you can’t trust nostalgia, but I said to clients our memory of things isn’t always accurate. We make okay things better, and sometimes we make not-okay things worse. Or we have a way of kind of omitting the bad things from the good memories, and so maybe that’s what he was saying when he talks about that we’ve been told not to trust nostalgia.
As I was thinking about it, I was thinking about President Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again,” there’s nostalgia in that, and it doesn’t match history. This idea… And again, if you question my patriotism, go back. I’ve talked about this before. I love the country that I was raised in. I love the country that I was born in, and I feel grateful to be and American. I also feel like we have a lot of issues that get in the way of us living up to the ideals that we espouse as a country, and I think nostalgia gets in the way of that. If I’m remembering things better than they are or I’m omitting or leaving out or whitewashing or diminishing parts of history, which we’re all prone to do, then I can’t trust nostalgia.
So let me tell you what he says again. He says, “We have been told all our lives not to trust it, which in a way, is once again, being told not to trust our own bodies and the many expressions of that body, living through the thresholds of time and tide as it does.”
This following part that I’m going to read, he says, “This was my attempt to rehabilitate not only the word, but the felt experience.” When I re-read this for like the third time, I was like, okay, so he’s not saying nostalgia is completely bad. We just need to throw it out the window.
He says, “Nostalgia fully felt always flowers into something merciful– forgiveness for a former partner, heartfelt gratitude for having had the gift of a good father, forgiveness for a difficult one. The difficulty lies in allowing ourselves to fully experience the absolute physicality of what is emerging. Nostalgia is imminent revelation arriving from deep below our horizon of understanding, from the center of the body, rather than from the heavens above.” That’s interesting. So this is what he wrote. He said:
“Nostalgia is the arriving wave form of what we thought was a lost physical memory, the re-emergence of a past we thought was gone, now newly remembered and about to be re-imagined by a mind and a body at last ready to come to terms with what actually occurred.
Nostalgia subverts the present by its overwhelming physical connection to a place, to a time in which we lived or to a person or people with whom we lived, making us wonder, in the meeting of past and present, if the intervening years ever occurred. Nostalgia can feel like an indulgence, a sickness, an inundation by forces beyond us, but strangely, forces that have also lived with us and within us all along.
Nostalgia is not indulgence. Nostalgia tells us we are in the presence of imminent revelation, about to break through the present structures held together only by the way we not have remembered deeply enough, something we thought we understood but that we are now about to understand more fully, something already lived but not fully lived, something that was important, but something to which we did not grant importance enough, issuing not from our future but from something already experienced, something now wanting to be lived again, at the depth to which it first invited us, but which we originally refused. Nostalgia is not an immersion in the past. Nostalgia is the first annunciation that the past as we have known it is coming to an end.”
There’s so much to think about. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this for at least two months now, and I keep reading it, and I wanted to share it with you because there’s just so much that he wrote in there and that he’s understanding there, and he’s a little more than a decade older than me, and I find myself as I’m getting older thinking back to these times.
These holidays, my kids, because I’m second in my family and one of the oldest of the grandkids, I’m second-oldest of the grandkids as well, as second-oldest of my sibling group, my kids had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my grandparents, and I think I’ve shared before that my grandfather was the only grandfather my kids knew, and for a lot of time, they never connected that my father, their actual grandfather, or my husband’s father, who had passed away before our kids were born, that that was missing, there was a generation that was missing there. It took them a long time to realize that.
So they had a lot of time to spend with my grandparents, and yet there’s memories that I have as they’re gone, both sets of my grandparents have passed on, and as I think about holidays particularly with them or just memories that I had with them, sometimes I don’t even know how to put them in words. It’s a feeling. Oftentimes there is an image for me when I think of my grandparents. So there’s a concrete image, but then there’s also kind of an abstract feeling or an abstract image that comes to mind, and like I said, I don’t even know if I were to share these memories with my kids, I don’t even know that I could formulate them into words.
This part stood out to me that David Whyte wrote: “Nostalgia tells us we are in the presence of imminent revelation, about to break through the present structures held together only by the way we not have remembered deeply enough, something we thought we understood but that we are now about to understand more fully, something already lived but not fully lived, something that was important, but something to which we did not grant importance enough.”
I like that. I like that, and that’s not a bad way to live, and that doesn’t mean that nostalgia is bad, but if we use nostalgia to not fully take us into what was and to experience all of it and to allow ourselves to feel it to the intensity that we need to, then yeah, nostalgia takes us in the wrong direction.
The other thing that he wrote as we’re talking about the beginning of a new year and moving from one era of time or one year into the new, he talks about this, which I think, I hear so many people, clients included, clients some who have a lot of new year’s goals and a lot of resolutions, and I’m a little bit more hesitant I think to set some of those. I think sometimes when clients are sharing it, I don’t want to say this. I don’t want to pop their bubble, but sometimes I think to myself, wow, that’s a lot of optimism at the beginning of a very long year. I don’t know what the year’s going to entail, but what I know for myself personally is it’s pretty easy to get off course and to not have planned for that.
So I think maybe sometimes I’m too cautiously optimistic about a year or too cautious to plan much because there can feel like, and this is part of my trauma response, it can feel like I don’t really have control over this, so what’s the point in planning and being disappointed?
Now I’ve learned, and most of my kids played competitive sports of different types, so I’ve sat in enough parent meetings with coaches to hear over and over again the importance of goals and how we don’t achieve things without goals, and I know how to set goals, and I do set goals, and I do accomplish goals. I just have that cautiously optimistic relationship with goals, but I think it’s also good, we know by the time February hits, most people have stopped doing what they planned to do for the new year, and what felt like achievable sometimes didn’t even last the whole month.
So he also talks about this. He says, this is from his book “Consolations.” He says:
“Close is what we almost always are. Close to happiness, close to one another, close to leaving, close to tears, close to God, close to losing faith, close to being done, close to saying something, or close to success, and even, with the greatest sense of satisfaction, close to giving the whole thing up.
Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there. We are creatures who are on the way, our journey a series of impending anticipated arrivals. We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity, an intimacy calibrated by the vulnerability we feel in giving up our sense of separation.
To go beyond our normal identities and become closer than close is to lose our sense of self in temporary joy, a form of arrival that only opens us to deeper forms of intimacy that blur our fixed, controlling, surface identity. To consciously become close is a courageous form of unilateral disarmament, a chancing of our arm and our love, a willingness to hazard our affections and an unconscious declaration that we might be equal to the inevitable loss that the vulnerability of being close will bring.
Human beings do not find their essence through fulfillment or eventual arrival but by staying close to the way they like to travel, to the way they hold the conversation between the ground on which they stand and the horizon to which they go. We are in effect, always, close; always close to the ultimate secret: that we are more real in our simple wish to find a way than any destination we could reach: the step between not understanding that and understanding that is as close as we get to happiness.”
I do believe that because events like seasonal changes or a new year or month or birthdays or births or deaths, marriages, or even starting a new job are doorways between the past and the future. I think it’s beneficial to honor them, to reflect on what we’ve experienced, what we’ve planned. I think it’s important to set goals for the future and to celebrate change and transformation.
Sometimes the change that we didn’t intend or plan or hope for is especially deserving of celebration. It’s easy to celebrate when we succeed or when our friend or our loved one or our family member or colleague succeeds. We all know that those are times for celebration, and it’s easy to be happy at those celebrations, but when it didn’t go the way that we hoped and we didn’t get the job that we wanted or the relationship that we thought was just the one turns out was not, it’s not so easy to celebrate, and yet those are times that we need to celebrate because we put ourselves out there, and in putting ourselves out there, we got close to something, something that we said was important to us, something that we wanted, something that we desired and moved towards, and whether or not it happens, the moving towards something, the declaration, the wish, the goal, that is worth celebrating.
The beginning of this new year, as we’re all kind of cautiously optimistic about 2021 and moving much slower than we have in years past into the new year, I give my best wishes to everyone who listens to my podcast for the new year in these times of trouble, uncertainty, and trepidation. Until next time, Jackie.